Translating Back in Time: The Use of Olde English

From a volume of Labid Ibn Rabiah's poems, via Imad Moustapha

John wrote in:

I don’t know if you’re allowed to talk about Arabic literature before 1900, but the Poetry Foundation just published translations for two pre-Islamic poems. The translator makes heavy use of Anglo-Saxon words (explained in footnotes) which some bloggers heavily criticized, but which I thought was a creative technique. See here and here.

The poems in question are Labid‘s (ac 560-661) “Lament” and “Last Simile,” trans. Ange Mlinko. From the opening to “Lament”:

We wither, unlike stars;    die, unlike hills and cisterns.

Ana shadowed my protector,    esteemed Arbad, who’s left us.

But ana do not grieve;    all sparrows exit the feast hall.

Novelties don’t excite me,    nor wyrdstaef affright me.

Men are like encampments    that soon become ruins.

They come with their kin,    leave only land behind when
they go—

In her translator’s notes, Mlinko says:

The idea came to me last year when I was in Beirut, reading as much scholarship on Jahiliyya (pre-Islamic) poetry as I could find in English: aren’t there some uncanny similarities between, say, sixth-century qasidas and tenth-century Anglo-Saxon poems like “The Wanderer” or “The Seafarer” or even parts of Beowulf?

And the criticism on Language Hat:

I dunno—that seems like the sort of idea that seems great when it pops into your head in a bar, or when you find yourself awake at three in the morning, but that when you actually start trying to make it work… doesn’t. I mean, Classical Arabic has (I imagine) its pitfalls for modern readers, but they are surely not at all like those of encountering these “semantic indigestibles” in the midst of modern English. But far be it from me to tell anyone how to translate; experimentation is a good thing, and I don’t want to give in prematurely to cranky get-off-my-lawn responses to the New.

For myself: There is a lot I like about these poems. The action of talons overtaking, the terseness of the language, the short phrasings, the spare beauties (such as “hoar-glittered feathers” and “Men are like encampments    that soon become ruins”).

I agree with John that the strategy is intriguing, although I think Mlinko perhaps goes a little over the top with it (and was too charmed by the similarity of ana/أنا). The poems are thus heavy with italics. And the italics have the effect of a drumroll, making the “foreign” words stand out unnecessarily, creating anticipation, expectation for these special words. The italics could’ve gone out the window.

Some places, I think the strange terms work very well, when the sound of the word does evoke something, albeit something not-quite-familiar:

Novelties don’t excite me,    nor wyrdstaef affright me.

Labid requires work for the contemporary Arabic reader; these translations require effort for the contemporary English reader. Nonetheless, I don’t think this works:

Ana shadowed my protector,    esteemed Arbad, who’s left us.

But ana do not grieve;    all sparrows exit the feast hall.

While similar to أنا, yes, it has too much overlap with the proper name Anna (or Ana).

Still: innovation! Much to be liked.

If you haven’t yet, read the poems:

Last Simile



  1. bibi is seriously unconvinced. sorry.

  2. So unconvinced that she referred to herself in the third person!

    That’s pretty unconvinced.

  3. it’s the old style 😉

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