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The Challenges and Joys of Translating from Classical Ethiopic: The Curious Case of the Kəbra Nagaśt, A Northeast African Retelling of the Solomon and Sheba Story

Dr. Michael Kleiner, University of Göttingen
Monday, March 11, 2019 -
12:00pm to 1:30pm
144 Louis A. Simpson International Building
Monday, March 11, 2019 -
12:00pm to 1:30pm

The fourteenth-century Kəbra Nagaśt (‘The Glory of the Kings’) is the most renowned work of pre-modern Ethiopian literature, the only one with some name recognition outside its home country. Codified in Ethiopia’s ancient literary language of Gəˁəz—also known as Old Ethiopic or Classical Ethiopic—its narrative core consists of a lavishly expanded retelling of the biblical episode in 1 Kings 10 about the encounter between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, who is assumed to have been an Ethiopian monarch. According to the Kəbra Nagaśt, the meeting of the two rulers culminated in Solomon tricking the queen into having intercourse with him. From this union then sprang a son, born in Ethiopia after the queen’s return there, who became the ancestor of all subsequent Ethiopian monarchs. The Kəbra Nagaśt’s story of the royal erotic encounter, captivating enough in and of itself, thus is also fraught with religio-political overtones and implications. Against this background, it can hardly surprise that in Christian Ethiopia the Kəbra Nagaśt over time acquired the status of a national saga, whose basic storyline is known by virtually every Ethiopian. Close inspection of its text reveals that the Kəbra Nagaśt had a long genesis, taking shape among various cultural, religious, and linguistic influences. The lecture discusses how the linguistic influences on the Kəbra Nagaśt, neglected or ignored by its earlier translators, must systematically be taken into account if one wants to produce an adequate translation of this seminal text of Ethiopian culture, and fully appreciate its place in a wider regional context.

Dr. Michael Kleiner is a German Africanist and Arabist who specializes in Northeast Africa, with a particular focus on the history, literatures, and languages of Ethiopia and Eritrea. After acquiring his Africanist Ph.D. from Hamburg University in 1998, he held positions at various German universities as well as at Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia. Now an independent scholar, he continues to teach on Africa, and Ethiopia in particular, at the German universities of Göttingen and Marburg. In recent years he has also intensively collaborated with Wendy L. Belcher of Princeton, working on the translation of historical Ethiopian texts into English. In 2015 Princeton University Press published their The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros: A Seventeenth-Century African Biography of an Ethiopian Woman, a volume that was recently awarded the African Studies Association’s “Paul Hair Prize.” Currently Kleiner and Belcher are preparing an annotated translation of the Kəbra Nagaśt (The Glory of the Kings), a grand medieval text that has often been called Ethiopia’s national romance.

Sponsored by
Program in Translation & Intercultural Communication, Program in African Studies and the Humantities Council