Early African Literature Project 

The Early African Literature Project provides translation-editions of important texts written by Africans in a variety of languages before 1900.

The project works to counter stereotypes of Africa as backward and irrelevant by proving the long history of written thought in Africa and the influence of that thought on American and European history through providing accessible scholarly translations of important African texts. Written texts in a variety of African languages extend back centuries all over the continent. 


Sub-Project I: Gəˁəz Translation Series.

One of the most influential literary archives in the world is that of Ethiopia. Few know that this body of texts in the African language of Gəˁəz is the fountainhead of countless medieval and early modern European representations as well as the religion of the Rastafari and even the Indiana Jones franchise. Although this archive is being digitized at a terrific rate, very little of it is being translated or studied. Less than one percent of its over ten thousand texts is available in any European language, which has handicapped the advance of knowledge in the fields of African history, literature, and religion. This project works to translate and study some of the most important of these texts.

Book 1: The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros: A Seventeenth-Century African Biography of an Ethiopian Woman, published by Princeton University Press in November 2015. See the page about this translation, as well as the concise edition.

Book 2: Kəbrä Nägäśt, the most famous Ethiopian text, is a retelling of the biblical Solomon and Sheba story in which Sheba is an Ethiopian queen who triumphs over Solomon. Michael Kleiner and I are working on The Kebra Nagast: A New English Translation of the Ancient Book about the Ethiopian Queen of Sheba, King Solomon, and Their Son Menilek. An excerpt appeared in the Norton Anthology of World Literature and we have an anticipated publication date of 2023 with Penguin Classics and Princeton University Press. See the page about this translation.

Book 3: Some Inquiries into Reason and Equality: Two Seventeenth-Century Ethiopic Texts of Early African Philosophy (translated and edited by Ralph Lee, Wendy Laura Belcher, and Dag Herbjørnsrud; afterword by Chike Jeffers). In progress.

Book 4: A Textual History of the Ethiopic Story of “The Cannibal of Qəmər” in the Täˀammərä Maryam (Miracles of the Virgin Mary) (with Jeremy Brown and Stephen Delamarter). In progress. See the page about our book about this short story.

Article 1: The Life and Visions of Krəstos Śämra, a Fifteenth-Century Ethiopian Woman Saint, perhaps the earliest-known book-length autobiography by an African woman (ca. 1508). Three thousand years of writing in Africa has yielded perhaps ten biographies of African women written by Africans before the nineteenth century, so this Ethiopian biography is invaluable to scholarship. See the page about our translation of two portions of this book.

Article 2: The Cannibal of Qemer. See the page about our translation of this short story.

Sub-Project II: Other Languages Series.

Book 1. The Ocean of Tears: An Eighteenth-Century Tamaziɣt Book of Poetry from Morocco (translated and edited by Brahim El Guabli and Wendy Laura Belcher). 

Sub-Project II: Early African Literature Anthology.

Other African archives are also important. Early African Literature: An Anthology of Written Texts from 3000 BCE to 1900 CE is an important salvo in proving the richness of early African texts, providing overviews of early texts in every significant language and period, as well as snippets of texts. It will also provide an important teaching text for instructors of African literature. See the page about this anthology.