In this second portion of a three-part interview about In Deadly Embrace, AJ Naddaff speaks with editor and translator James E. Montgomery on his approach to translating Ibn al-Muʿtazz, Abbasid-era literature, and poetry as a means for political engagement.
AJN: What made you want to work on Ibn al-Muʿtazz’s hunting poetry rather than his most well-known treatise on poetics?
JM: The reason that roughly ten years ago I went back to the hunting poem as a project was to do, as you said earlier, with the early stages of LAL; we were looking for things that were non-canonical but that also were things that people without any background in Arabic literature could read and appreciate very quickly without having to develop or apply a whole tool kit of knowledge. I hope that you can open this book and read any of these poems without knowing anything about Arabic, and you can appreciate them for the vividness of the imagery or the breathless excitement of the situations that they are describing. And although you might not know the difference between a sparrowhawk and a goshawk, you will probably have a fairly decent idea of what a hawk or a falcon is, so you can appreciate them as a form of, well I almost hesitate to describe it as such, but nature poetry.
AJN: What have you learned from translating Ibn al-Muʿtazz, and Abbasid-era literature more generally, as opposed to translating pre-Islamic poetry? How did your method change, if at all?
JM: The mighty pre-Islamic poems, no matter how hard one tries, always demand so much of the reader, whether that reader be someone fluent and well-versed in Arabic or someone who only knows English. However, what struck me when working on this collection in particular is that I don’t think you need to be familiar even with modern poetry to just get what they are about. In the course of working on the poems, I was really keen to have them stand without any footnotes; I wanted the poems themselves to explain themselves, and I didn’t want there to be any distraction from a twelve-, fifteen-, twenty-line firework display by having to flick to another part of the book and read a running commentary. I was very strict in this book, and I put all the effort into making each poem a self-contained unit that would provide all the explanation that I thought a reader would need.
AJN: In my estimation, you greatly succeeded; the translations read lucidly, like English poetry. I enjoyed them a lot, and I enjoyed hearing about your zero-footnote/endnote approach. I’m curious, though, why you did end up succumbing to a couple footnotes?
JM: Those were forced on me by my editors. I did not give in gracefully to that insistence.
AJN: Is this why you write that, if you had succeeded in producing a text with no footnotes, you would be a character created by Borges?
JM: Yes, and it seems paradoxical for me, an academic, to make such a statement. The academic’s calling card, the imprimatur, the stamp of her authority, is the footnote. For an academic to so radically dispense with the footnote seems an almost Borgesian situation. I read lots of books on poetry by poets or translations by poets. Take, for example, the English poet Simon Armitage’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. He has no footnotes whatsoever: the poetry is how he communicates his métier, his qualifications as a poet. Academics largely communicate their authority through the footnote.
But I think there is a lot to be said for experiencing an explanation of literary history without it being dragooned or marshalled by me as the authority. I like that loose, almost quasi-bricolage feeling about it. I have tried as much as possible to make discoveries achievable by the reader, just as I have come over the last decade or so to think that the real power of translation is almost as a form of poetic commentary: to try to achieve a translation that communicates not only what I see in the poem but what I understand the poem to be about.
AJN: Let’s talk about Ibn al-Muʿtazz’s biography because it’s so interesting and I think worth mentioning. How has history portrayed him?
JM: He was the direct descendent of a line of six caliphs; born in the year 861 in Samara, the caliphal palace complex that was built to house the Turkish troops that the Abbasid caliphs relied on so heavily. Despite growing up there, because his line was unsuccessful in holding onto the caliphate, I think history has tended to see him in apolitical terms.
AJN: You write that he has traditionally been portrayed as a tragic aesthete, a reluctant ruler of the Abbasid caliphate, but that is not the full story.
JM: When history is not written exclusively by the victors, it is often written in favor of them. Because his line lost the caliphate, and he only ruled for one day, his history has been written partially as a defeat. But then, even though he is an accomplished poet and wrote works on poetry such as the Kitāb al-Badīʿ (On the New Style) and al-Shuʿarāʾ al-Muḥdathīn (The Modernist Poets), there is also a reluctance to view a ruler as a talented poet at the same time. Yet I do not think that it is in the realm of the impossible to entertain the idea that not only were the caliphs and senior power brokers very invested in panegyric poetry, but that poetic praise itself acted as a rallying cry, to which their own and other factions could think: ‘we can give allegiance to this.’
AJN: Who inspired this new perspective of Ibn al-Muʿtazz as using poetry for and about politics?
JM: I am not taking credit for this for myself. It was the late Wolfhart Heinrichs and my friend Julia Bray at Oxford who both initiated this revision of Ibn al-Muʿtazz as a failed caliph who was more interested in poetry than he was in power, instead seeing him really as a failed caliph who was unsuccessful despite being able to mobilize his support through the means of poetry.
Based on their insights, when I came to consider the role of hunting poetry in constructing the cultural hero as an icon of heroic masculinity, Ibn al-Muʿtazz’s work seemed to me to be another prime inflection of this use of poetry as a way of rallying supporters to one’s cause. Of course, if one were out on a hunting expedition with supporters, then that would be in itself a bonding exercise. So, the work of Heinrichs and Bray allowed me to see aspects in the poetry that might have otherwise been hidden to me.
When I started really to grapple in detail with the poetry, I noticed that there were a couple of poems in the collection which were overtly political. That’s why I think Ibn al-Muʿtazz’s Ṭardiyyāt should be thought of not as the frivolous pastime of a pleasure-loving prince but actually as a vital form of Abbasid power-making. Every once in a while, the curtains are pulled aside, and you can see what is going on behind them.
Part three will be posted 12/15.
James Montgomery is Sir Thomas Adams’s Professor of Arabic at the University of Cambridge and Fellow of Trinity Hall. His latest publications are Fate the Hunter: Early Arabic Hunting Poems, and Kalīlah and Dimnah: Fables of Virtue and Vice, with Michael Fishbein.
AJ Naddaff is a writer and Ph.D. student in Comparative Literature at Stanford University.