War Songs by Antarah ibn Shaddād,
trans. James E. Montgomery and Richard Sieburth 
Library of Arabic Literature series, New York University Press, 2018. 358 pp.
Reviewed by Anthony Madrid

This is a frustrating book. I had high hopes for it when I heard Richard Sieburth was involved, but nothing doing. 

Here’s the basic situation. Some of the most famous poetry in Arabic was written before Islam; you know this. There’s a batch of between seven and ten very old poems that, I’m told, every educated Arabic-speaker knows. All introductions to all translations of these poems say this. Unfortunately, these pieces are notoriously untranslatable—which is not to say they can’t be Englished and explained. You can do that; the thing you can’t do is make the result graceful.

I have complete faith these pieces are richly satisfactory in the original. But when Anglophone academics get a hold of the stuff, the whole thing becomes a clusterfuck, not only because the academics hardly ever have any literary talent, but also because they almost always have some bad ideas about verse structure. They take these works whose whole reason for being depends on heavily strophic procedures, and turn ’em into this:

“‘Antar!” they roared—

    spears taut as well ropes 

pierced my black steed’s chest. 

    Again I battered them, and then 

again. My horse, its withers and chest 

    robed in blood, withdrew 

from the spearclash grumbling softly

    —if he could speak 

he’d have grumbled more—

    as the steeds 

and giant mares 

    scowled and sank 

in the soft soil

    and the knights shouted 

“Ho ‘Antar, Onward!” 

    How it healed my soul.

Observe: all the trancey charm of the original strophes is shot to hell. And why? I guess because the translator thinks the above is pleasing to the eye or something. And this is a very common trait of academic translators: They are all eye, no ear.

The old Arberry translation (1957) of ‘Antarah’s famous mu’allahqah is no better than the above, in terms of diction, but at least it respects the strophes. Note, though, that it is I who have installed the white spaces here:

“Antara!” they were calling, and the lances were like

well-ropes sinking into the breast of my black steed.

Continuously I charged them with his white-blazoned face

and his breast, until his body was caparisoned in blood,

and he twisted round to the spears’ impact upon his breast

and complained to me, sobbing and whimpering;

had he known the art of conversation, he would have protested,

and had he been acquainted with speech, he would have spoken to me.

The horses frowning terribly plunged into the crumbling soil,

long-bodied mare along with short-haired, long-bodied stallion,

and oh, my soul was cured, and its faint sickness was healed

by the horsemen’s cry, “Ha, Antara, on with you!”

(If Arberry were alive today, he would surely be on the LAL/NYU payroll. His wearying and inscrutable version of Mutanabbi would be graced with that handsome blue cover and calligraphy, and there would be hundreds of miles of notes, and everybody like me, who wants to know what Arabic-speakers see in that 10th-century genius would be left flat on their backs. What is needed is a translator who can really write.)

Returning to Montgomery and Sieburth, look at these colorless lines:

If anyone asks

     Jirwah is mine.

In winter

     I don’t let her roam.

I keep her foals

     close to the tribe.

In summer

     she gets camel’s milk

and fine fodder.

There’s just no warrant for presenting the above as poetry. If all you have is a plain prose trot, why not throw it down on the page as such? Might as well:

If anyone asks, Jirwah is mine. In winter I don’t let her roam. I keep her foals close 

to the tribe. In summer she gets camel’s milk and fine fodder.

In short, I didn’t find any poetic merit in this book. Or barely any. I learned things from the notes, that’s all. That’s not nuthin—but neither is it a satisfying aesthetic experience. 

(I say, above, that old Arabic poetry is “notoriously untranslatable”—I hope it's not literally true. But hope is all I got.)


ANTHONY MADRID lives in Victoria, Texas. His poems have appeared in Best American Poetry, Boston Review, Fence, Harvard Review, Lana Turner, LIT, and Poetry. His second book is called Try Never (Canarium Books, 2017). www.anthonymadrid.net