Global Literature in Libraries Initiative Shines “Publisher Spotlight” on LAL

Wednesday, October 24th, 2018 11:04 am

Epistle of Forgiveness coverThe Global Literature in Libraries Initiative strives to raise the visibility of world literature for adults and children at the local, national, and international levels. Today the Library of Literature is proud to be featured on their blog as a “Publisher Spotlight.” The feature highlights three LAL books:

  • The Epistle of Forgiveness by Abu l-‘Ala al-Ma’arri, translated by Geert Jan van Gelder, “showcases the maverick writer’s wit and radical thinking in the first complete translation of the work into any language.”
  • What ‘Isa ibn Hisham Told Us by Muhammad al-Muwaylihi, translated by Roger Allen, is “an important work for a number of areas” that “take[s] a long, hard look at the changes enacted in society during the 19th and early 20th century.”
  • Classical Arabic Literature: A Library of Arabic Literature Anthology, also translated by Geert Jan van Gelder, is “a delectable selection of words that illustrate areas of the Arabic literary pantheon that are sometimes overlooked.”

Click here to read the full Publisher Spotlight on the Global Literature in Libraries Inititative’s website.

 

James Montgomery on When ‘All Poets Were Warriors’

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2018 6:00 am

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 first 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 talk about the genres inhabited by this seminal pre-Islamic poet; how his cousin ‘Ablah may not have been a symbol of Love, but of Death; and how all warriors might not have been poets, but all poets were warriors.

James Montgomery at the War Songs launch event

James Montgomery reads at the War Songs launch event. (c) Ariel Roberson

In describing the Arabian Peninsula on which the sixth-century poet we know as ‘Antarah ibn Shaddād came of age, you talk about its isolation. At one point, you call the peninsula of that time a “near-island.” Do you emphasize its isolation because of how this might allow something different to emerge, poetically, like some sort of literary Galapagos Islands?

James E. Montgomery: I think my starting point for that comment was an observation was made by Andrew Marsham, a historian of late antiquity and one of my colleagues at Cambridge. He once said to me, “What really fascinates about Arabia is that it looks as if it’s part of the late antique world, and it looks as if it’s not.” So it’s almost as if Arabia’s an idiolect, or perhaps it’s like the Galapagos: things developed in the way in which they did because of this apparent isolation.

I say apparent not because I don’t think it was isolated, but partly because we can’t really know and partly because it was in a sense isolated (it was remote), and in another sense not isolated (it was not completely cut-off). And as I said in the introduction to the book, look at the weapons Antarah fights with and where they come from, and the images he uses. Then you start to see that it’s part of a bigger world. (more…)

Arabian Romantic: Translating and ‘Cherishing the Irrational’

Friday, October 19th, 2018 6:00 am

Marcel Kurpershoek, editor-translator of ‘Abdallah ibn Sbayyil’s Arabian Romantic: Poems on Bedouin Life and Love, first became acquainted with Nabati poetry in the 1980s, while working as a diplomat in Saudi Arabia. He has also translated Hmedan al-Shweʿir’s Arabian Satire: Poetry from 18th Century Najd and is currently a senior research fellow at New York University Abu Dhabi, where he specializes in the oral traditions and poetry of Arabia. He has written the five-volume Oral Poetry and Narratives from Central Arabia (1994–2005).

In this second part of a back-and-forth that took place over email, Kurpershoek discussed what is unique about Ibn Sbayyil’s work and the translational challenges of bringing it into a contemporary English. The first part of the two-part interview can be found here.

cover of Arabian RomanticAn important part of the poetry, as with Hmedan’s, is how Ibn Sbayyil turns himself into a character (a lover, a chaser-of-women, a sometimes-desperate appreciator-of-women’s-forms, a spurned adorer). Is this one of the reasons for his popularity, his overall poetic personae, rather than the particularities of any individual work? 

MK: He is much subtler than [his predecessor] Hmedan [al-Shwe’ir]. It is basically introspective: the emotional arc of his poem’s trajectory, from despair to joy and confidence to resignation and vice versa, and so on. You might compare it to self-therapy of love sickness. This may somehow reflect a real sense of spleen or longing, though it is mostly playful and therefore ambiguous, which is the safe way in that society I guess. Indeed his extended similes on the subject of a lover’s agony are much admired. (more…)

Arabian Romantic: A “Linear Descendant” of Early Arabic Classics

Tuesday, October 16th, 2018 7:05 am

Marcel Kurpershoek, editor-translator of ‘Abdallah ibn Sbayyil’s Arabian Romantic: Poems on Bedouin Life and Love, first became acquainted with Nabati poetry in the 1980s, while working as a diplomat in Saudi Arabia. He has also translated Hmedan al-Shweʿir’s Arabian Satire: Poetry from 18th Century Najd and is currently a senior research fellow at New York University Abu Dhabi, where he specializes in the oral traditions and poetry of Arabia. He has written the five-volume Oral Poetry and Narratives from Central Arabia (1994–2005).

In a back-and-forth over email, Kurpershoek discussed why this sort of “romantic” poetry has disappeared from the landscape, why he calls it “romantic” at all, and how the survival of this type of poetry “hangs by a very thin, tenuous thread.” This is the first in a two-part series of interviews about Arabian Romantic.

The “Romantic School” of Nabati poetry, you write, came about in a particular region (the High Najd) with particular geography, cultural practices, and a particular relationship between sedentary villagers and dynamic Bedouin. You write that they represent a turn away from puzzle poems and wordplay-for-the-sake-of-wordplay, and a turn toward oral traditions. Who were the Romantic School’s predecessors?

cover of Arabian RomanticMarcel Kurpershoek: We do not know about the immediate predecessors. A lot of research for the book went into establishing context: the intellectual milieu of Ibn Sbayyil, inspired by Charles Pellat’s great book: Le milieu basrien et la formation de Jahiz; and the roots of his work and genre in the tradition of classical Arabic poetry. I read and studied whatever I could find on classical Arabic ghazal poetry. I made index cards for all aspects and themes and motifs in Ibn Sbayyil’s work. And I compared the two. The result was amazing: virtually every image, turn of phrase, motif, and theme had an exact correspondent in early Arabic poetry, up from pre-Islamic to the beginnings of the Abbasid period. The classical inventory has been made in greatest detail by Professor Thomas Bauer, in the German tradition of great precision and thoroughness, in his book Liebe und Liebesdichtung (one cannot really study Arabic literature without knowing German). Looking especially at the seventh century’s most famous ghazal poet ‘Umar ibn Abi Rabi’ah. I mapped these correspondences as well as the differences. So we can say for certain now that the Najdi (Central Arabian) ghazal, and Nabati poetry as a whole, are linear descendants of the early classical tradition.

It is, however, much harder to trace this line of descent during the intervening centuries. The early poetry was registered and published by the Arab philologists of Basra, Kufa, and Baghdad in the eighth through 11th centuries or so. The earliest manuscripts with Nabati poetry that we have date from the 19th century. There must have been much older ones, but they were lost or haven’t been found yet. It is simply unthinkable that there is no direct link and that the two arose separately. How the continuity happened, we can only surmise: I’d say a combination of oral and written traditions and their interaction, as explained in Saad Sowayan’s Nabati Poetry.

I think this book, as the previous one, was as much or more about research as about translating, because it is still very much a virgin field, whereas most of LAL’s classical texts have been part of an Orientalist canon for centuries, which translators can draw on and refer to. And here we come to a hidden objective: to get Nabati poetry accepted as part of or an adjunct to the studies of classical literature, overcome the prejudice and technical hurdles. That was the purpose of the contextualization and is mostly found in the notes to the translation, which are in fact an independent study of this subject in their own right. (more…)

Did Poetry Die?: The Unrelenting Fire of War Songs

Tuesday, October 9th, 2018 12:00 pm

In her novel The Secret History, Donna Tartt writes about learning a classical language. For her, each language has a different character, each with a different idea of “fire.”

“I can only say that an incendium is entirely different from the feu with which a Frenchman lights his cigarette, and both are very different from the stark, inhuman pur that the Greeks knew, the pur that roared from the towers of Ilion or leapt from the funeral pyre of Patroklos… How can I make you see it? This strange harsh light… inarticulable in our common tongue?”

Copies of War Songs

A similar sensation passes over the modern reader of War Songs, a new translation of poetry by the sixth-century Arab warrior-poet ʿAntarah ibn Shaddād. ʿAntarah’s world was a bleak and violent one, where man stood alone against the elements. In Arabic, the word for fire is nār (نار‎). In Antarah’s poetry, this nār is unrelenting. It bakes the earth during the “snarling days.” It springs from dawn raids and flashes on the Indian steel of the soldiers’ swords. At night, that same nār surrounds a “fortress near the stars,” crackles from “the fires of War” stoked high and shines on the armor of “troops blazing / through the darkness / like embers.”

Through his translators Montgomery and Sieburth, the power of ʿAntarah’s poetry is unchanged by time. He still transports his reader to another world, but be warned: it is a bleak landscape washed in this burning light, more recognisable to readers of post-apocalyptic fiction than of ancient poetry.

“The cosmos of the pre-Islamic qasida poets is stark,” the translators warn us in their introduction. “Everything is governed by Time (or Fate)… [but] at the heart of the cosmos stands man.”

The bleak landscape amplifies the human subject: their courage and loves, their loss and their longing. In this bare cosmology, the figure of the warrior-poet rides alone through a bleak land, through abandoned encampments and the crumbling remnants of the past, ongoing battles and raids, all of it taking place in the endless flat plain of the desert. The elements are simple, but what arises from them is a poetry of astonishing variation and color.

In Europe, ʿAntarah would have been a knight. Like the European knightly class, he was part of a society that valued manly virtue (muruwwah) and honour (ʿir) in its fighting men. His poems are everywhere infused with brass and machismo; violent poetry for a violent time. Spines are torn out, noses are cut off.

“My steeds live for War,” ʿAntarah warns in one poem. “My swords are not for show.” In another, he boasts “I felled him / that champion / amid rusty armor / and severed heads. / The vultures waited / on him like maids / attending a bride.”

By the time he died, ʿAntarah’s society, his culture, and the very definition of poetry in the Arab world had undergone sudden and turbulent change. “Like the society the warrior-poets lived in,” the translators tell us in their introduction, “poetry was in a state of turmoil.” But this turmoil had given rise to the new poetic form of the qasida, and an “an astonishing variety of experimentations, manipulations, conceptualizations, and imaginings.”

Qasr Al Kharranah

Image credit: Qasr al-Kharranah, Jordan, by Graham-H. CC0 via Pixabay.

Indeed, ʿAntarah’s poems are not only songs of war. In a landscape scoured by battle, the knight-poet also absorbs the melancholy sight of abandoned campsites, sacked towns, and ancient courts with beautiful and tender touches. The ruins of the past act as a counterpoint to the fury of battle. They are lonely places where a man confronts the passage of time and the prospect of his fate. The ruins are “tired playthings / of Time / and the thunder / and rain.” Where great houses once lived, the crumbling ruins of their halls come to represent the falling fortunes of man and the hand of Fate moving tirelessly over the world.

 

“Clan Hind lived here once.

You can’t visit them now—

Fate has spun

their thread.”

 

Ruins are places of contemplation where ʿAntarah can escape to mourn his lost love ʿAblah. They are scars on the landscape: Like Ṭarafah, another great pre-Islamic poet, ʿAntarah uses the image of the ruin as an old tattoo inscribed on the landscape, half-faded on the skin.

 

“ʿAblah’s camp at Ṭawī,

traced like tattoos

on a bride’s wrist,

engraved now

like Persian mumbled

at Kisrā’s court.”

The ruins are even places that can be spoken to, and listened to—but we don’t always know how to speak their language. “The ruins were deaf—refused to reply / then shouted out in a foreign tongue.” Ruins in the poems of War Songs are open-ended signifiers which leave open the question of causality, and which evade easy interpretation.

The motif of the aṭlāl (“ruins”) is as old as the qasida as a form, and features in the work of a great many pre-Islamic and later poets. The trope was so ubiquitous that the later poet Abū Nuwās (ca. 762–813), famous for his thirst for wine and his love affairs with men and women, openly mocked other poets’ constant pondering over ruins:

 

“The wretch paused to examine an abandoned campsite,

While I paused to inquire about the neighbourhood tavern.

May God never dry the tears of those who cry over stones,

Nor ease the love-pangs of those who cry over tent pegs.”

(Abū Nuwās, The Wretch Paused)

 

Despite an obvious fondness for the romantic evocations of ruined places, ʿAntarah can also find their melancholy solitude at odds with the manly cries to battle that fill many of the other poems. In his poem “Damn the Ruins!” this tendency reaches its utmost.

 

“Damn the ruins! Damn you!

Stop dwelling on the past again.

Damn you! Stop all this talk—you

won’t ever get the sweet times back.”

In the lines that follow, ʿAntarah exults in the force of battle, in all its noise and tumult, and juxtaposes this with the quiet and peace of the ruined sites. But where ʿAntarah differs from his peers is in viewing the ruins as non-static entities. They too are subject to the ongoing deteriorative forces of time and weather, just as the human characters in the poems.

 

“The years passed

and the East Wind blew.

Even the ruins

fell into ruin—”

 

T.S. Eliot, in his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” describes tradition as taking place within a “historical sense,” an appreciation “Not only of the pastness of the past, but its presence.” Ruins in ʿAntarah’s work convey this paradox in material form: they are timeless but also wear the passage of time; they remind man of his mortality but reassure him that many things will last long after he is gone: his victories, his courage, and his poetry.

Indeed, ʿAntarah argues for poetry as a kind of ruin, a remnant left behind that will linger long after the death of the poet. In the collection’s opening ode, he asks “Did poetry die in its war with the poets?” The fact that fourteen centuries after his death, we are able to read the work of ʿAntarah ibn Shaddād and still lose ourselves in that world, baked in the harsh desert sun and crackling with the fires of war, proves that it did not.

 

Paul Cooper is an author from the UK. He is currently studying for a PhD at the University of East Anglia (UEA), and his first novel River of Ink was published in 2016.

Future Humanities: Translating World Literatures [video]

Tuesday, September 25th, 2018 4:55 pm

On September 24th, the Library of Arabic Literature hosted a public conversation on the stakes, challenges, and rewards of editing and translating premodern texts from the world’s great literary traditions. Mellon Foundation Vice President Mariët Westermann moderated a panel featuring the general editors of six groundbreaking publishing projects that specialize in facing-page translations. Topics of discussion included the parameters and methodologies for establishing parallel-text translation series in Arabic, Chinese, Greek, Latin, Old English, and Sanskrit and other Indian languages. Watch the video recording of the event on Vimeo or below.

Panel Members
Whitney Cox, Editor, Murty Classical Library of India
James Hankins, General Editor, The I Tatti Renaissance Library
Jeffrey Henderson, General Editor, Loeb Classical Library
Philip Kennedy, General Editor, The Library of Arabic Literature
Paul W. Kroll, Senior Editor, Library of Chinese Humanities
Jan Ziolkowski, General Editor, Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library

Future Humanities: Translating World Literatures from Hagop Kevorkian Center at NYU on Vimeo.

Entirely Genuine and In No Way Conventional: Muhammad al-Tunisi’s In Darfur

Monday, July 16th, 2018 7:00 am

Humphrey Davies, editor-translator of the recently-published In Darfur: An Account of the Sultanate and Its People, by Muhammad al-Tūnisī, came to the book through another Library of Arabic Literature text: Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq’s Leg over LegDavies, an award-winning translator of some twenty works of modern and classical Arabic literature, is also editor-translator of Leg over Leg, as well as Yusuf al-Shirbini’s strange and fascinating Brains Confounded by the Ode of Abu Shaduf Expounded.

Here, in the second part of a two-part interview, Davies talks with M. Lynx Qualey about the more novelistic aspects of this text: the larger-than-life characters, the relationships between fathers and sons, and the women whose lives are both obscured and illumed by the text.

MLQ: For which audiences do you think this will be of particular interest? Certainly any scholar working on 19th-century Sudanese histories, but who else? I thought food-history scholars would be interested, those interested in the sartorial practices of the region, historians of medicine. The material also felt ripe for a Jurji Zaydan-esque historical novelist. 

HD: It’s its novelistic aspects that, in the end, appeal most to me. True, the book is a mine of information on a little-known but powerful and sophisticated country still living—though not for much longer— the “innocence” of a pre-colonial existence, but I find the account of the political wheelings and dealings, the hard-fought military campaigns, and the larger-than-life figures that dominate the historical overview given in the first half very compelling. They have the raw energy of the stories that Shakespeare took as material for many of his historical plays and tragedies. Shaykh-Father Muhammad Kurra, perhaps the most important political figure in the kingdom in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century and one whom the author met, was accused when a young man of dallying with one of the sultan’s slave girls. He went into a room, cut off his genitals, and presented them to the sultan. “Then,” the author notes, “he fainted.” What would not the Bard have done with that?!

MLQ: Well, perhaps some new bard will yet take it on…

How important is this as a historical source? What can we learn from his errors, from what he gets wrong about Darfur? (more…)

Crossing Cultures: A Nineteenth-Century Egyptian’s Story of Darfur

Monday, July 9th, 2018 7:00 am

Humphrey Davies, editor-translator of the recently-published In Darfur: An Account of the Sultanate and Its People, by Muhammad al-Tūnisī, came to the book through another Library of Arabic Literature text: Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq’s Leg over Leg. Davies, an award-winning translator of some twenty works of modern and classical Arabic literature, is also editor-translator of Leg over Leg, as well as Yusuf al-Shirbini’s strange and fascinating Brains Confounded by the Ode of Abu Shaduf Expounded.

Here, in the first part of a two-part interview, Davies talks with M. Lynx Qualey about how this text came to be—born, in 1850, of a relationship between a Frenchman and an Egyptian—the relationship between the text’s two genitors, and the difference between the Arabic edition and the French translation.

M Lynx Qualey: I assume you first heard of In Darfur from Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq. When did you first read it, and what brought you to the decision to translate it?

Humphrey Davies: Yes. Al-Shidyaq criticizes it in the addendum to his Leg Over Leg in which he goes postal against French Arabists because one of them (a Ukrainian, in fact) makes the ill-judged claim that the latter could teach the scholars of the East a thing or two about their own literatures and languages. Al-Shidyaq’s outburst is a kind of first blast of the mizmar against the monstrous regiment of orientalists, and he holds Nicolas Perron—a Frenchman who was the instigator, producer (in the most literal sense: he wrote it out in a lithographic edition) and in some sense editor of the book—responsible for the canards in its spelling and grammar, of which he cites a representative but by no means exhaustive list of twenty-seven. One can hardly blame al-Shidyaq, but he fails to recognize the special circumstances of the book’s creation (see below) and that Perron did not work in a spirit of arrogant criticism. On the contrary, he speaks of the book as though it were an act of homage to “his shaykh,” as he calls him.

My desire to translate In Darfur was probably triggered by the diversity signaled in the book’s subtitle, In the Land of the Arabs and the Blacks. Today, when many parts of the world, including the Arab countries, are undergoing a return to nativism and rejection of the other, how interesting to read of a state that was extraordinarily multicultural and that survived for 300 hundred years before falling to colonial conquest, not internal contradiction. The sultans of Darfur were Fur and Muslim, their subjects a medley of different groups with a variety of languages, religions, and self-identifications (the Fullani or Peul, for example, who don’t speak Arabic, regarded themselves as Arabs and traced their origin to an Omayyad general); the sultan held court with seven interpreters between him and the people (a bare minimum, as even today more than a hundred languages are said to be spoken in Darfur). Fur culture has a vivid presence within this Arabic text: words, phrases and song in the language of the Fur are transcribed by the author, sometimes without translation. The sheer exoticism of the state and its customs also caught my fancy: dull would s/he be of soul who could resist a country where one of the chief officers of state bore the title of the Sultan’s Buttocks (his military formation brought up the rear when the army was on the march) and where the court jester was also “the Keeper of the Sultan’s Anger,” i.e., was the executioner. Finally, this is the product of a most unusual cultural collaboration, between two savants, one Arab, one French, at a moment of convergence that preceded much of the angst that would follow with the spread of colonialism in Africa.

MLQ: How much do we know about how the work was composed (and why), about the power relationships involved, and how much is speculation? (more…)

Save the Date: Panel Discussion on Translation in NYC

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2018 10:03 am

On Monday, September 24th, in New York City, LAL will host “Future Humanities: Translating World Literatures,” a public conversation on the stakes, challenges, and rewards of editing and translating premodern texts from the world’s great literary traditions.

Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Vice President Mariët Westermann will moderate a panel of general editors from six groundbreaking publishing projects that specialize in facing-page translations. Topics of discussion will include the parameters and methodologies for establishing parallel-text translation series in Arabic, Chinese, Greek, Latin, Old English, and Sanskrit and other Indian languages.

“Future Humanities: Translating World Literatures” is free and open to the public, and is organized in collaboration with NYU Press and the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute. For more information and to register, click here.

War Songs Featured in The Paris Review and Seedings

Monday, June 4th, 2018 2:42 pm

It has been an exciting week for War Songs! Selected poems from the book recently appeared in the latest issues of both Seedings and The Paris Review

War Songs, translated by James E. Montgomery with Richard Sieburth, is a collection of poetry by the renowned pre-Islamic warrior-poet ‘Antarah ibn Shaddad. ‘Antarah’s voice resonates in War Songs, for the first time in vibrant, contemporary English, intoning its eternal truths: commitment to one’s beliefs, loyalty to kith and kin, and fidelity in love.

War Songs will be published in October 2018. Until then, we hope you enjoy the excerpts in The Paris Review and Seedings!