Reading ‘Antarah in the 21st Century

Last Friday, at Poet’s House in New York City, James Montgomery and Richard Sieburth launched a new translation of ‘Antarah ibn Shaddad’s sixth-century poetry, titled War SongsThe collection includes both poems attributed to the pre-Islamic Arab warrior-poet, as well as poems from the “Epic of ‘Antar” that came later:

James Montgomery (at microphone) and Richard Sieburth at the launch.

The launch marked the first poetry collection to join the Library of Arabic Literature’s five-year-old series, and also a translational shift. It was the product of seven years of work: first collaboratively by the LAL board, with workshops led by Richard Sieburth and Peter Cole; then by James Montgomery; then again in correspondence with Sieburth and Cole in what Sieburth called “an extraordinary intense email back and forth” and what Montgomery wrote culminated in “the most exhilarating (and possibly the most taxing) fortnight I have ever experienced as an academic[.]”

Library of Arabic Literature General Editor Phil Kennedy had said at a Monday event that the biggest difficulty LAL was having was in getting their editor-translators to understand the sort of English they were aiming at. At the event, Richard Sieburth spoke for a different sort of translation from classical Arabic to English, with a different sort of reverences — for the poem, not the language, speaking up for “the idea that translation is not a question of moving from language into language but above all from moving from poem into poem.”

In speaking of ‘Antarah’s mu’allaqa, his signature and best-known work, Montgomery said Friday night, “I have tried to translate this at least 10 times before this particular version. I did one of these in the style of Beowulf, I did one of these in a sort of minimalist Ted Hughes… You have to let the words work on you rather than you working on the words. … It’s not so much what I want to impose on the material, but it’s about what I want the material to impose on me.”

For instance: Montgomery’s translation of the first line of ‘Antarah’s mu’allaqa, (هلْ غادرَ الشُّعراءُ منْ متردَّم) departs markedly from how it is traditionally read. British Orientalist AJ Arberry, whose 1957 translation is often cited, rendered the line as “Have the poets left a single spot for a patch to be sewn?” Other translations have been similar; for instance, “Have the poets left in the garment a place for a patch to be patched by me[.]”

“Arberry was following standard procedure,” Montgomery said Friday night. “That’s what all the commentaries say the word means.”

Yet Montgomery argued that, while this has become the solid and accepted meaning of the line, he collected 25 different manuscripts of ‘Antarah before it became canonized, noting “the word mutaraddami was causing people a lot of problems.”

His reading leans heavier on the meaning of ghadara, and he writes in the first footnote, “If the sense of the hapax mutaraddami is that of being patched up or sewn together, then in the context of the verb ghadara, it could mean ‘a piece of cloth that requires patching up as a result of the thrust of my spear and slash of my sword.'”

In a lengthy footnote, Montgomery goes on to explain his reading: “Did the poets leave <poetry>, which had persisted so long <like a conflict or hostility or fever>, dead and unburied on the battlefield?” This, he says, is much more in keeping “with similar instances of the grotesque I hear in the rest of this magnificent poem.”

Thus, rather than a quotidian image of tent-patching, Montgomery lands on a much more forceful opening gambit: “Did poetry die in its war with the poets?”

During the Friday-evening event, Sieburth also talked a good deal about how they achieved the pacing of the poem, saying, “The issue I most wanted to raise with James was the question of pace, i.e. the question of tempo. … The rhythm of representation, the speed at which things in the poem come to be perceived.”

Ultimately, Sieburth said, they wanted to render the poems “without the Victorian fustion of late nineteenth or early twentieth century Arabists, but without falling into facile modernization.”

Kareem James Abu-Zeid is also recently won a $25,000 grant to support the retranslation of all the mu‘allaqāt; it will be interesting to read the versions together.

Hear Montgomery read the opening stanzas of the poem in Arabic and his English translation:

An interview with Montgomery, on the translation process and more, is forthcoming on ArabLit. Library of Arabic Literature paid for travel to attend the launch.