As a bonus for this year’s Women in Translation Month — which starts tomorrow — the announcement that poet-translator Yasmine Seale is under contract to translate the poems of Al-Khansa:

The poetry of Al-Khansa (~575-646) has been little-translated, although notably it appeared in the slender and beautiful chapbook of reflections Loss Sings, by author and translator James Montgomery, one of the executive editors of the Library of Arabic Literature project.

Al-Khansa is one of the outsized names of Arabic poetry, best known for the poems she wrote from about 612 onward, lamentations for the deaths of her brothers Muʿāwiyah and Ṣakhr, who apparently died from injuries sustained in battle. She was famed in her lifetime for both her poetry and her self-regard, having rejected the marriage proposal of a powerful man. She believed in the power of her poetry, and is reputed to have appeared at the Souq ’Ukaz in Makkah for the poetry contests.

According to later reports, she converted to Islam when she was in her mid-50s. Her sons fought at the battle of al-Qadisiyyah, at which, legend has it, she was present.

A story oft-repeated is that the poet Al-Nābighah al-Dhubyānī told Al-Khansāʾ she was “the greatest poet amongst those with breasts,” to which she apparently shot back: “I am the greatest poet amongst those with testicles, too.” (Translation from Arab Women Writers: A Critical Reference Guide 1873‐1999.)

Al-Khansa’s elegies were later collected by Ibn al-Sikkit (802–858 CE), a literary scholar of the early Abbasid era.

Emily Drumsta, who talked with ArabLit about her course “Women’s Writing in the Arab World,” said, “It’s impossible to talk about elegy without starting with al-Khansa’, and [Geert Jan] Van Gelder’s translation of her most famous poem (for her brother Sakhr) is really quite good. Unfortunately, there aren’t very many poetic translations of other prominent premodern women elegists[.]”

Van Gelder’s translation, in Classical Arabic Literature: A Library of Arabic Literature Anthology, opens:

James Montgomery’s writes about how he finally connected with the poems of al-Khansa in the chapbook Loss Singsreviewed by Sarah Irving for ArabLit, who writes:

“Al-Khansāʾ’s poetry is a staple in anthologies of classical Arabic literature, and as such has been exposed to English-language readerships according to changing styles and tastes in poetry. As such, many of the versions available are florid, lachrymose and wordy. Not so for Montgomery’s contributions, which are clean, spare, often simple in the choice of words:

Night is long, denies sleep.

I am crippled

by the news –

Ibn ‘Amr is dead.

Seale, for her part, is a gifted poet and translator of works both classical and contemporary, from the Arabic and French. he is the winner of the 2020 Wasafiri New Writing Prize for Poetry. Her work in progress includes a new translation of One Thousand and One Nights for WW Norton, and a selection of stories will appear in an annotated edition, forthcoming in 2021.

A collaborative project with Robin Moger, Agitated Air: Poems after Ibn Arabi, will publish with Tenement Press in 2021.

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