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Translator Kleiner addresses the challenges and joys of translating from classical Ethiopic

Michael Kleiner spoke about the challenges of translating from the classical Ethiopic as part of the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communications’ weekly lunchtime lecture series. Reproduced by courtesy of the Princeton University Rare Books and Special Collections from Princeton Ethiopic Manuscript No. 65, image 21
Monday, February 3, 2020

Michael Kleiner is a scholar and translator of African and Arabic texts at the University of Göttingen. He was a Visiting Stewart Fellow in the Department of Comparative Literature under the auspices of the Humanities Council for the spring 2019 semester.

His ongoing collaboration with Wendy Belcher, an associate professor of African literature at Princeton , has resulted in “The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros: A Seventeenth-Century African Biography of an Ethiopian Woman,” the first English translation of the earliest-known, book-length biography of an African woman. The book won the Association for the Preservation and Publication of African Historical Sources’ Paul Hair Prize in 2017. Currently, Kleiner and Belcher are preparing an annotated translation of the “Kəbra Nagaśt” (“The Glory of the Kings”), a retelling of the biblical story of Solomon and Sheba, often called Ethiopia’s national saga. “It’s a short story in the Bible, just 13 verses,” Kleiner said. “But by the very things it doesn’t say leaves open spaces to be filled with narrative imagination.”

Kleiner spoke about the challenges of translating from the classical Ethiopic as part of the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communications’ weekly lunchtime lecture series. His remarks discussed how the linguistic influences on the “Kəbra Nagaśt” were neglected or ignored by its earlier translators and now must systematically be taken into account to produce an adequate translation of this seminal text of Ethiopian culture to fully appreciate its place in a wider regional context.

“There many practical challenges [in translation],” he said. “Whom do you expect to read, and want to read, this text? How much prior knowledge can you reasonably assume? How much do you have to explain? Do you try to translate terms that refer to items of material culture that just have no counterpart, or do you circumscribe them, or do you insert an approximate counterpart?”

In translating both “The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros” and ““Kəbra Nagaśt,” Kleiner and Belcher examined manuscripts (similar in look to the image above), “It’s very painstaking work,” he said. “You have to become somewhat obsessive, focusing on very small pieces of evidence — the shape of a letter, for example.”

Translating the “Kəbra Nagaśt,” presents very unique challenges, from a temporal and cultural perspective: it’s a translated text itself, explained Kleiner, an oddity of sorts. Its underpinnings suggest that it has Arabic roots. “All previous translations are at best ambiguous and, some, actively misleading,” he said. “If you consider the Arabic dimension underlying the text, which is lost, everything falls into place and add up to a completely coherent picture; if you don’t, it’s very easy to go astray.”

“You have to reconstruct the source text,” Kleiner added. “This act of reconstruction is different from just translating. It’s speculative, hypothetical, to a certain extent. It makes the work worthwhile.”