Translating Al-Khansa: ‘Between the Scylla of Shrillness and Melodrama, and the Charybdis of Monotony and Cliché’

By M Lynx Qualey

JUNE 10, 2022 — Those who attended a translation symposium hosted by the International Network for the Study of Lyric on Thursday evening  had the great pleasure of listening to Yasmine Seale’s first public talk about her translation-in-progress of the work of al-Khansa (c. 575-646), which is forthcoming from the Library of Arabic Literature


This collection won’t be the Library of Arabic Literature’s first foray into translating al-Khansa’s work. One of the great elegist’s most famous poems appears in their first-ever book, an anthology of classics assembled and translated by the scholar Geert Jan Van Gelder. In Van Gelder’s translation, the poem is ultimately unsatisfying, perhaps in part because of its de-contextualization. Reading it alone among a multitude of other classic works in translation, one would be hard-pressed to understand why al-Khansa was called, as Seale reminded listeners, the greatest poet among both humans and djinn. 

Indeed, Al-Khansa is remembered not only because she was among the first women writing in Arabic whose compositions are still extant, but also because her poems have remained influential. This is particularly remarkable since she wrote in only one form: elegies. As Seale noted, “Women did not write qasidas. Women have always composed poetry in Arabic, as far back as we can see, but it was difficult for them—for reasons of custom and decorum—to excel in other genres than the elegy.”

Yet, within the constraints of the elegy, Seale said she reads attempts to address a multitude of other things, to make contributions to other genres.

Elegy, as Seale said, is a particular challenge to translate. Grief is repetitive, and “Al-Khansa’s laments circle their objects with anguished insistence. A half-blind prowl around a person and a theme.”

Library of Arabic Literature executive editor James Montgomery, in his slender cahier Loss Sings, made similar observations about al-Khansa, repetition, and grief. He translated a few of al-Khansa’s poems in and among personal essays that reflect on his own grief, as well as on the sorts of literary forms that evoke and heal grief. In so doing, Montgomery created a fresh context into which the reader could imagine, and relate to, al-Khansa. But Montgomery decided not to translate the whole diwan. In an interview from earlier this year, he told AJ Naddaff, “I felt in the end it would then become some form of emotional vampirism.”


In Seale’s description, al-Khansa’s 40 poems that mourn her brothers who died in battle are “by turns despairing and defiant, vengeful and tender.” 

She, like Montgomery, noted the difficulty of bringing the poems close to the contemporary reader, since the works live by a set of conventions that seem remote. “This is a moral universe that is interested in revenge and retribution,” Seale said, “perhaps more than justice as we might understand it.”

That said, she drew the poems close to our contemporary concerns by saying she saw “the central question in all Khansa’s poems is really what to do when someone has been unjustly killed. And, in that sense, they belong to a world which is still ours, and could not be closer.”

But, whether we relate to al-Khansa’s moral universe or not, the translation challenges of this project remain many.

“To the obvious problems of translating many poems of similar style and theme, elegies add another, one of tone,” Seale said. “Complaint is risky, exhausting at length. The challenge, as I see it, is to find a way between the Scylla of shrillness and melodrama, and the Charybdis of monotony and cliché. Between being too much and too much of the same.”

Yet, she added, her instinct was to “treat repetition not as an obstacle to be avoided, but as an aesthetic principle, a theme to which each poem brings its slender variations. Pattern is not a problem if it’s interesting to look at.”

At the symposium, Seale read from her translation of the same poem translated by Van Gelder in the LAL anthology. His translation opens somewhat bombastically: “Be generous, my eyes, with shedding copious tears / and weep a stream of tears for Sakhr!” 

Seale, meanwhile, turns this line into a stanza; as one participant noted, it thus emphasizes movement, perhaps also bringing the poem closer to orality:

The poem, as she notes, begins with the vocative and then the word for eye. Although the vocative is still in common use in Arabic, the English “O” feels both literary and antiquated, which was an effect she didn’t want, “because the Arabic is more simple and intimate, more everyday.” And then there’s the striking image of the single eye, “like a floating eyeball, being addressed.”

Many of al-Khansa’s poems begin in this way, Seale said, with these two words, or variations on them. “The poems read to me almost like diary entries, or letters addressed to the eye. ‘Dear Eye,’ they all seem to begin. I thought for a while of beginning all the translations with the phrase, ‘Dear Eye.’ In the end, I’ve gone for just the word eye. Partly because I like the homophone, that this might be the I, the letter I.”

She added: “These are poems are sleeplessness, addressed to a phantom figure who both is and isn’t the self.”

Then she shared a little of her process:

Seale noted that while here the use of “eye” may seem more free or modernist than the more conventional rendering “o my eyes,” in fact it “arises quite directly from this rather old-fashioned close reading of the text in its particularity. It’s certainly my experience that the deeper one goes into the surface of a text, the stranger it becomes, and the more likely one is to find something fresh in translation.”

She went on to discuss her choice of lavish, which “seems to contain that double edge of an open-handed showering generosity that threatens to become unbridled, even dangerous.” In this context, she said, she thought of the poem’s profusion of synonyms. “In a single line here we have five words, one of them repeated, to describe crying. It’s an excessive line about excess.”

The poem, in Seale’s translation, ends with the tender vengefulness she mentioned at the opening of her talk.

The collection does not yet have a release date.