With ‘Antarah ibn Shaddād’s War Songs, the Library of Arabic Literature has launched its first-ever collection of classical Arabic poetry. The collection brings together poetic works composed by the ‘Antarah of the sixth century and poems from the ‘Antarah-inspired epic composed in the eleventh and twelfth centuries CE.
All the works are edited and translated by James E. Montgomery, an LAL executive editor, the author of Al-Jahiz: In Praise of Books, and Sir Thomas Adams’s Professor of Arabic at the University of Cambridge. To craft a vibrant and resonant translation, Montgomery worked with Richard Sieburth, an award-winning translator of works by Henri Michaux, Michel Leiris, Walter Benjamin, and Friedrich Hölderlin.
In this second of a two-part conversation, which took place in New York City just after the book’s September 21 launch, Montgomery and ArabLit editor M. Lynx Qualey talked about this seminal pre-Islamic poet and how to translate his work in a way that captures its vibrant, shape-shifting, qasida-ripping grotesquerie and in a way that brings pleasure to a twenty-first century English-language audience.
In the book Loss Sings, where you translate the sixth-century Arabian poet Al-Khansāʾ, you talk about how you came to her poetry from a particular emotional ground, at a particular point in your life. We know, from the introduction to War Songs, how ‘Antarah came to the Library of Arabic Literature: that, in early 2012, “Philip Kennedy received an invitation from a production company that was looking to make an English-language movie of the adventures of ʿAntarah, possibly to star Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson in the title role.”
But what about you? How did you meet ‘Antarah? From what associational ground?
JEM: If it hadn’t been for that conversation between Philip and the production company, if LAL had approached me independently and asked me to do a pre-Islamic poet, I wouldn’t have done ‘Antarah.
I‘ve always been fascinated by his mu’allaqa, but it wouldn’t have been ‘Antarah I’d have chosen. I think I probably would have chosen Tarafah, or maybe ‘Alqamah, because there’s a fascinating archaism, a feel of real antiquity about the latter, and there’s something so attractive and romantic about Tarafah’s doomed youth. I first read the pre-Islamic poets when I was in my early twenties, and first encounters are when you make your first emotional attachments. ‘Alqamah was as close as I could hear to Pindar, who was one of my poetic heroes at the time, and Tarafah had the glow of a life lived large and fast, like a James Dean character.
So I might either have proposed either of those poets as a volume for LAL, or I might have answered, we have to translate the mu’allaqāt as a collection in itself. But I’m more hesitant about thinking that’s an answer I would have given, as it’s quite a terrifying prospect to think about tackling all of the mu’allaqāt.
And tackling the mu‘allaqa of ‘Antarah was also…terrifying?
JEM: It’s not an exaggeration to say that the mu’allaqa of ‘Antarah almost broke me as a translator. If you have a look over the articles I’ve published in the last few years, you’ll see bits where I’m trying to work at it. I went away and re-read Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf, and I re-read Gawain and the Green Knight, especially in the version by one of my translator heroes, the poet Simon Armitage.
I immersed myself in Middle English. I translated a surah of the Qu’ran into Middle English, all as experiments. I tried a translation of the mu’allaqah in the style of Beowulf, and parts of it in the style of Ted Hughes’ translations of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
I was looking for a magic key. The Victorian and Edwardian translators of pre-Islamic verse thought of meter and rhyme as the magic key that would unlock the poetry. I was looking for assonance and alliteration, which also come naturally to me, because of where I grew up, on the west coast of Scotland with an Irish Catholic background.
But these weren’t magic keys, they were cul-de-sacs, they were red herrings.
Then, if ‘Antarah wasn’t (initially) your dream job, why you?
JEM: Because I was the only person on the LAL board who’d specialized in pre-Islamic poetry. I was the expert.
That’s why it was entrusted to me. But then I had this amazing eureka, road-to-Damascus moment. It was at one of the first workshops on translating the poetry, and we were working on poem 49, “’Ablah’s Wraith.” I had done a perfectly acceptable, ordinary, scholarly, workaday crib version of the poem for the group. And then it was projected onto the screen, and everyone had a free-for-all, a discussion in which my version of the poem was completely taken apart. I (in the form of my translation) became like the camel in ‘Antarah’s mu‘allaqa. Totally dismembered.
It was very, very liberating to have gone through that experience—to be forced to be honest with myself. I’d done an okay job. I’d done a really good job if I was going to publish an academic monograph. So I’d done an acceptable job. But as a translation it was rubbish.
Why was that…liberating?
JEM: Because I think I’d known. I’d known that I was translating as a scholar, and I wasn’t listening to what the poem might be doing in my head, or in my bones, or in my ears.
But the really liberating part was realizing that I didn’t need to have a one-to-one correspondence between the Arabic and the English. One word in an Arabic poem normally ends up being rendered as three or four words in English, but I saw that it didn’t have to be like that.
One of the things that Peter Cole did, pretty cleverly, was encouraged us all to sit down on the second day of the workshop, and take the poem, produce our own versions of it, and read it out line by line as it was projected on the screen. Having realized the day before that my wordy persiflage wasn’t going to help me at all, it was almost as if I took ‘Antarah’s sword and started hacking away at language.
I came up with a minimal version, one so minimal and sparse that Ernest Hemingway would’ve been proud of it. There were so few words on the page. And that was the point at which I thought: I can do this.
Previous to that, you didn’t have a close relationship to ‘Antarah’s work?
JEM: I published a book on pre-Islamic poetry in 1997. It was very well received, and I think it was a good book, but it had left me in a real quandary, because I felt that I had taken a tradition of poetry that I felt great enthusiasm for, that I in fact loved, and had somehow suffocated it in scholarship.
After that, I stopped working on poetry, and turned to the other things, out of a sense of disappointment.
So this translation, War Songs, was a process of un-suffocating it.
JEM: Yes. And that’s why I’ve become so interested in translating Arabic poetry over the last five or six years, because translating it has given me an access to exploring in English how I respond to the poems that academic discourse doesn’t give me.
In Loss Sings, you write that your translations of Al-Khansāʾ’s poems are a testament “to the time when they sang to me,” the voice of your personal relationship to them. With ‘Antarah, did the collaborative nature of the project change that relationship?
JEM: One of the things that was unsatisfactory about the first draft [of War Songs], the draft based upon the translations prepared communally over a number of years by the editors of LAL, was that I only really let myself loose, as a translator, in the poems that I personally translated, whereas I thought it vital and important to show great respect for my friends’ work. As an editor of other people’s work, I was like the invisible translator; I simply wanted to let their work speak.
I only really inhabited those poems that I was translating myself. I viewed the other translations more in an editorial capacity, as a facilitator for the words of others.
That, in the end, led to an uneven and disjointed body of translations, an unevenness that actually worked to the detriment of ‘Antarah in translation.
Because this is our first volume of classical Arabic poetry, it is a really big moment for LAL. It represents a moment of confidence that I think the project has been building up to—and I was absolutely thrilled by the way in which my friends and colleagues on the board welcomed the suggestion that I re-do the volume.
Why did you give the poems titles?
JEM: Many of the modern published editions of classical poetry in the Arabic-speaking world give the poems titles taken from the poems. But in my original version of War Songs, there were no titles, apart from a numerical sequence, just 1,2,3,4,5,6. Then, in conversations, we thought that it wouldn’t be a bad thing to give a little bit of rooting, or a grounding, for the reader who knows nothing about this tradition of poetry. When we made the editorial decision to move the explanatory remarks about the poems out of the endnotes to the body of the work, then we also need to tie those introductions to a title.
The tiny introductions to the poems—none more than a paragraph or two—are a very light touch.
For instance, the introduction to “Pay for My Blood,” tells us only: “A short piece threatening vengeance on a foe in return for an arrow injury, consistent with the occasional, responsive, and belligerent features of non-qasida poetry.”
JEM: In those little snapshots, I wanted to give as light, crystal clear, and as delicate an entry into the poem as possible. The whole book is driven by the desire to make it possible for the reader to have as confident an access to the poems as she wants.
Whilst there’s quite a lot of clutter and paraphernalia and information in the book, and whilst in many ways the poetry becomes a sort of hortus inclusus, or a secret garden, hidden behind a barrage of information, that wasn’t my intention. And I have to be honest, as well as being a scholar, and a translator, I’m also a teacher. I started university teaching in 1986, and after 32 years in the classroom, I have an idea of the sorts of things people struggle with in accessing this material.
Ultimately, I would love to publish a pamphlet version of the book that contained nothing but the poems, at a stage when people were confident enough to pick that pamphlet up and read it as you would any other poetry book on the market.
What was the role of punctuation in creating these poems? In some ways, this reads as a theatre text, a text that’s on the page, but with a particular relationship to being spoken aloud. How did you decide on the various ways in which to stage these poems on the page?
JEM: At one point, many of the poems were translated “linearly”—that is, into sequences of individual lines, so there was no enjambment. They were laid out in a series of lines in a paragraph on the page. And the poems struggled to come to life.
We needed the interplay, on the page, between words and space. Word processing has made this much, much easier to do, and there were often five or six different versions of the poem where the words stayed the same, but they were constellated over the page in radically different ways.
I don’t know why I decide on the version that I do. But whenever I get that feeling that this seems right, I don’t analyze it any more, I stop there.
Can you talk a bit about how you used commas in the poems?
JEM: We never really resolved the question of the use of the comma. The first version that I produced had no commas in it. But when Richard and I tried to read it aloud, we were stumbling. So we introduced strategic commas, but as sparingly as possible. Then, interestingly, when the book went out to the copyeditor, and when it has gone to copyeditors since, as when it appeared in The Paris Review, the copyeditors added commas.
I had to go through the whole document and remove the commas they’d added.
The thing I learned from Richard, and from Peter’s advice, is that the drive of the poem is what keeps the reader with it. And it’s so easy to lose that drive. You over-punctuate, and the reader’s mind will get distracted. In the end, as I said, we never fully resolved the issue of the commas. But I like the fact that there are things in the book that are unresolved, and I like the danger that a misplaced comma can trip up a translation of a whole poem, like playing a wrong note during a recital.
At the launch event at Poet’s House, you talked about how you spent eight months working on one of the maps at the front of the book. Could you talk about why the maps were important enough to take up eight months of your life?
JEM: The first map (that of tribal territories in pre-Islamic Arabic around 600 AD) was easy; the second was nigh-on impossible.
In earlier articles and in previous publications, I had been interested in the topography of pre-Islamic poetry. There’s a very good book from 1958, by Ulrich Thilo (Die Ortsnamen in der altarabischen Poesie, Wiesbaden), where he takes place-names from pre-Islamic poetry and locates them on the map. One of the things I used to like doing when I was reading the poems was to photocopy the maps and to chart the place names I’d come across. I’d sit with a map and red and blue pencils, and I’d try and work it out.
Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn’t. And it worked more often than it didn’t work, so I thought, Hey, there’s something to this.
When I was working on the project, the thing that struck me was that the place names in ‘Antarah are so resonant. Often they’re the focal point for the poem, and certainly in the opening of the mu’allaqa, there’s that list of place name after place name after place name. And it’s not just sonorics or semantics, it’s not just for aural effect. When you put it on the map, you see that there’s something very, very specific that’s going on.
I was really fortunate to work with an amazing cartographer, Martin Groesch. I started by doing what I’d done all those years ago: I sat with a map, and I plotted it and plotted it. But because Martin’s a professional cartographer, he said, No these are just guesses, you need to give me GPS coordinates.
And I thought: How can I give GPS coordinates?
So I went back to the topographical lexica and I read through the entries, and I plotted each place, often in the context of other places it was said to be next to. Then I was on the internet, typing in as many variations of the place-names as I could find. Often a website such as, say, TripAdvisor would say, “Stay at the Hotel Jiwā’.” And I would click, and look, and there was Jiwā’, and there was Jiwā’ on my map!
What’s astonishing is that a lot of these place-names are ancient. They exist in slightly different forms nowadays, but they have the same morphemic makeup as the old place-names. I’m not so much a skeptic as to think they’re not the same place.
How does the map change how we can read, enjoy, or have access to the poems?
JEM: The payback for all the effort is the inner circle of place-names (represented in bold on the map), all of them located in the Najd. And the reason I got really excited was this seemed to be a way of approaching the authenticity or inauthenticity of the tradition. Then later on, when I started working on the prefaces that the commentators give to each poem, which I published as Appendix Three in the book, I found that the tribal register compiled in Arabic by Ibn al-Kalbī (d. 204/819) (Jamharat Nasab al-‘Arab) was also astonishingly accurate—the book gave me a much better access to the tribal context that so many of ‘Antarah’s poems belong to. And, in fact, there was one line in a poem where I had translated a personal name as an adjective, and if I hadn’t done this work as I was preparing the glossary, I wouldn’t have realized this was actually an important ancestor in ‘Antarah’s own tribal lineage.
So the composite picture I was building up was that, if you want to think that these poems are inauthentic, then you have to have a kind of Orwellian Newspeak in mind. When I look at it, I think that the balance of probability suggests that there’s a core there, that there’s a long tradition that has in fact been memorized, and it’s all summed up in that circle of names in bold on the map.
And so that was why I took so long over it. It then became a heuristic.
What do you take from this six-year, multi-phase translation experience, which you so dramatically discuss in the book’s introduction? What can you borrow from this as you move to your next project?
JEM: Confidence. I still don’t have it in bucketloads. But if I can do this, then I can have a go at other poets, at other poems, be they pre-Islamic or from other classical periods.
Also the pleasure—the thrill in seeing people respond to it enthusiastically. It’s a very joyful and life-affirming thing, to communicate this poetry to new audiences.