James Montgomery on Translation, ‘The Vehicle I’ve Been Looking For All Along’

Today, a new installment of journalist and translator AJ Naddaff’s occasional series of talks with translators of premodern Arabic literature, which he tongue-in-cheek calls “Untranslateable”:

This series will appear here and at his substack, where you can subscribe.

By AJ Naddaff

Today I’m excited to share parts of an interview with James Montgomery, a Library of Arabic Literature (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.

Montgomery is an eminent scholar and translator of classical Arabic who has been involved in a number of projects. Most recently and notably, he translated 15 of Al-Khansa’s elegiac poems in his long essay Loss Sings (2019) and a collection of ‘Antarah ibn Shaddād’s work in War Songs (2018), as well as a co-translation of Ibn al-Muqaffa‘’s Kalila and Dimah: Fables of Virtue and Vicewith Michael Fishbein.

I spoke to him about these much-discussed works and his love and deep respect for pre-modern Arabic poetry. 

It was 1982 when you first tried to read an Arabic poem after a few months of studying the language. You understood only three words, but the text excited you. Can you talk about this and your coming to Arabic?

James Montgomery: It was May 1982. I was in my second year at the University of Glasgow. I had studied Arabic for one year alongside Latin and Ancient Greek; I was required to have a third subject to make up the sufficient number of credits, so I took Arabic. 

There was no native speaker in the class. There was one professor. The class started with six and by the end of it, there were two. He had a method: from October to December, we went through as much Arabic grammar as he could manage. By the beginning of the Christmas holidays, we had reached the derived forms of the verb. The idea was that as a student you should take the Arabic book away and then come back in January and begin to try and read pieces of Arabic. 

I had always intended to maybe pursue a Ph.D. in Greek, but by the time I got to the end of the Imru’ al-Qays poem, I thought ‘no, this is for me, the universe that I’ve entered is unlike any universe that I have entered before.’ The poetic attention to detail in the form of the similes seems to match what I know from Homer. The sense of real intellectual discovery and excitement—‘of here was this language that sounded so amazing when read out loud.’ There was never a moment in which I had the impression in which the poets were not choosing their words very carefully. And I wanted to try and enter this new universe, and this is basically what stuck with me. 

AJN: Your more recent publications include works on Ibn Fadlan, Abu Nuwas, and Jahiz. In other words, it seems you took a long break from working on pre-Islamic poetry after your very important 1997 book The Vagaries of the Qasidah. Why? 

JM: When my 1997 book The Vagaries of the Qasidah appeared, I had a real feeling of deflation. I looked at the book and I thought I have taken something that I loved—pre-Islamic Arabic poetry—and I have dissected it and torn it apart and paralyzed it. I felt in the end, I had somehow either silenced the poetry or turned it into a mummy. I didn’t quite know what to do next. At this point, I had been working on the pre-Islamic poetry for 12-13 years. And so I thought, I’ll turn to some other things that I am interested in. I was also on the job market and it’s not easy to get a job if your only specialization is classical Arabic poetry. Most other scholars of Arabic and Islamic studies were afraid of it, because it’s so difficult and they had never been taught to read it. And there were not many courses who are looking to teach this. On the one hand, I took an emotional decision about my disappointment with the book; on the other, I took a pragmatic decision about employability. And so I developed some other subjects that I was interested in.

AJN: It is clear that despite the hiatus, pre-Islamic Arabic poetry followed you, which led you to translating​ Antarah Ibn Shaddad, the Black pariah knight-poet, in a volume titled War Songs.  I am interested to hear how you have shifted from academic work on pre-Islamic poetry with Vagaries of the Qasidah to translating for a wider audience? 

JM: When the Library of Arabic Literature started in 2010, I didn’t have much intention of working again on Arabic poetry in the same way.

But the more we started to build the project up, the more I started to think about translating and the more experience I gained of professional translators critiquing my translations. There was a point at which I thought: ‘translation is the vehicle I have been looking for all along for me to try and bring the poetry to life without suffocating or crushing it under this enormously academic super structure.’  Of course, you need all the academic stuff to get inside the poem.

AJN: So the academic work you had been doing all these years was actually very helpful in turning you into a literary translator who tries to reach a wide audience?

JM: All along, I have been translating as interpretation. It is an implicit interpretation. Now, I am still giving you my reading of the poem; it just doesn’t come in 40 pages of footnotes. It comes in the words I choose to capture the poem on the page. In some ways, I still see it as the same thing I was trying to do all those years ago—yet the skills I had then, the experience I had, and the methods of my disposal were not sufficient to allow me to achieve it. And so translating Arabic poetry into English or any language as a form of reading and interpretation is what most of my work has been about recently. When I look back at Dropbox on the different versions of War Songs  from the group translation to the final product, it has been a consistent stripping away of a type of translation that requires footnotes for it to make sense to a type of translation that tries to allow the poem to breathe in English and to then be read, enjoyed, disagreed with by other people, to upset people and enchant them, but at least to engage them.

For me in a sense, it’s a kind of completing of the circle. The circle had been incomplete and remained incomplete for many, many years until I was able to realize that translation was not just one of the tools of the academic philologists, it was a means of engaging, interpreting, an activity of which I might hope that my love of this poetry could somehow manifest. 

You can admire an academic who has spent 40-50 years working on a subject and think: Look at the erudition there. But each of my pages might be as dry as dusty old bones. But there is more to poetry—it speaks to so many people in the Arabic-speaking world, it has spoken to so many people in so many different regions in so many different centuries, it shouldn’t be constrained.

AJN: I want to pivot to your experience translating ‘Antara versus al-Khansa. I am so sorry to hear about the very serious accident your son went through and I hope he is better now. I was fascinated about how you spent three decades teaching al-Khansa without any real connection and then when you went through this serious accident it unlocked the power of the poem and you came to see the clichés of Khansa poetry as “central to grief” helping you “reclaim loss by rehabilitating the commonplace.” But how, if at all, did you connect with ‘Antara? 

JM: I suppose I do not really know what the answer to this question is. In one way, I would say yes because part of this conversation has been my connection to pre-Islamic poetry and how it has lived with me as I have lived and grown old.

By personal connection, I can’t ride a horse; I have never held a sword; I don’t know how to use a spear. One of the things I worried about the most when I was doing War Songs was cultural appropriation. But what I did draw on when translating ‘Antarah’ was the fact—and this may not be apparent to you—but I grew up in Glasgow, an industrial city on the west coast of Scotland. In UK cultural terms, Glasgow was sort of what Napoli was to the rest of Italy before Maradonna went there. It was supposed to be a violent, rough city, nothing good came out of it, if you spoke with a Glaswegian accent you were ridiculed, thought to be incomprehensible, untranslatable, so you really were sort of marginalized both within Scotland and within the UK.

And so when I was translating Antarah as this outsider who is trying to navigate his way around group membership, identity, inclusion, exclusion, I sort of drew on my experiences growing up. My parents were very ordinary people. My father was a manual laborer, and my mother was a typist. My grandfather was a miner. I grew up in very simple surroundings but was clever enough to get to University of Glasgow and from there to University of Oxford and then ultimately of course to end up teaching at the University of Cambridge.

I drew on a lot of the experiences—not particular experiences, but just emotional echoes that were there for some of the poems of Antarah. 

AJN: What about when you were translating al-Khansa? The connection was more personal, right?  Is it necessary for a translator—or especially a translator of classical Arabic—to extend a personal connection in order for it to resonate with the reader and to be a good translator? 

JM: When I was translating al-Khansa, I wasn’t really aware of what I was doing or why I was spending my time doing this. I suppose I was using my 21st century experience as a vehicle for others.

But I also decided not to translate the whole diwan. I felt in the end it would then become some form of emotional vampirism. It would be like me being a vampire of my own emotions to translate this. I am delighted to see that the amazing translator Yasmine Seale has taken on the project of Khansa for LAL.

As for the bigger question, I can’t translate if I can’t get inside the poem. And if I can’t get inside the poem, it is because there is no entry point. That entry point can be as diverse as the examples I said: some of them can be very immediate and raw; some of them might be experiences that you once had in elite culture, or a feeling of inferiority that you might have felt not knowing at a dinner whether you start with a cutlery from the outside and move in or the inside and move out; or which glass the wine is going to be poured in. All these little things, they all sort of join in your head. When I was doing ‘Antarah, I was very worried about cultural appropriation. I think if I was trying to do it as a posture, then it would have been cultural appropriation, but I found something in Antarah that I was able to make it feel real for me.

AJN: You are currently also translating Mutannabi, right? 

JM: I haven’t gotten that far with Mutannabi yet. I have worked my way through about a hundred poems, just rough versions. I am waiting for the spark, and when the spark comes then I will probably throw aside all my projects and devote myself exclusively to Mutannabi. But without the spark I am not prepared to put my name to it. I have plenty of entry points to Mutannabi, but not the ‘spark’ yet that turns into a conflagration.


AJ Naddaff is a multimedia journalist and translator pursuing a MA degree at the American University of Beirut on Arabic literature & Near Eastern Studies. 


Also in this series: 

Marcel Kurpershoek on the Beauties of Nabati Poetry

Alexander Key: On Domesticating Al-Jurjani 110%

Rebuilding that Old Tower of Babel, A Talk with Michael Cooperson

Editing and Translating al-Hamadhānī, Who’s Always ‘Just One or Two Steps Ahead of You’

Huda Fakhreddine: A Translator Must Have Something To Say About the Text