Considered Translations Reconsidered. A Rejoinder to Yirga Gelaw Woldeyes’s Criticisms of Our Allegedly ‘Sexualizing’ Translations in The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros (2015)

by Michael Kleiner

1. Introduction

Prof. Yirga Gelaw Woldeyes (2020) recently published a long and often harsh critique of (1) The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros (2015), an annotated English translation by myself and Wendy Laura Belcher of the seventeenth-century Gəˁəz text Gädlä Wälättä P̣eṭros [hereafter: GWP], and (2) Belcher’s related interpretive article on gender and sexuality in the GWP (2016).

The bulk of Yirga’s criticism is directed against Belcher’s interpretations as forwarded in her referenced article. To an extent, he thereby merely reiterates, albeit in ampler format and often, unfortunately, in less measured terms, previous critiques of Belcher’s explorations of sexuality in the GWP.

What is new this time around, though, is that Yirga not only attacks Belcher’s separately published interpretation, but also our GWP translation itself. He accuses us not merely of having made the occasional translation mistake, which nobody can claim to be immune to, but calls into question our overall qualification to produce translations from Gəˁəz into English that live up to scholarly standards and requirements (Yirga 150, 209). Simultaneously, Yirga also accuses us of having consciously spun the translation so as to sexualize passages allegedly free of such a dimension (pp. 152, 155, 157, 158, 168f., et passim), thereby deliberately laying the groundwork for Belcher’s later interpretations. The two accusations appear to be somewhat at odds with each other, one of incompetence, the other of cunning competence.

While one can argue about facts, it is futile to try and convince those who ascribe sinister motives to your good intentions. So, I will merely state here once and for all that Belcher and I never harbored any long-term, nefarious master plan to skew the GWP translation in any direction whatsoever. Rather, we both merely strove to produce the best and most adequate translation we were capable of, in the process going wherever the text would take us. We even went to extraordinary lengths to be transparent about what we did: We put brackets around any English words added for stylistic reasons that had no direct equivalent in the Gəˁəz text, and we provided hundreds of notes documenting original Gəˁəz wording together with its literal translation where we felt compelled to deviate from such a literal translation in the body of our text. Such transparency in and of itself undermines any claim that we intended stealthily to spin and twist the text.

I was the one mainly responsible for drafting the GWP translation, before discussing and refining it with Belcher so as to produce the final result of our collaborative effort (Belcher has described our way of proceeding in detail in her GWP introduction). Therefore, I will in the following re-examine the instances of our allegedly unwarranted sexualizations (plus one related issue: see 2.1. below) that Yirga has brought up. I will strictly limit myself to this, and not attempt to respond to every single one of the criticisms, philological or otherwise, that Yirga articulates in his article of more than eighty pages, let alone submit a comprehensive counter-critique of his text. This limitation finds its justification, beyond practical reasons, in the fact that the accusations of sexualizing translation distortions constitute the core of the philological part of Yirga’s text (on which many of his broader accusations then rest). With my remarks that follow, I sincerely hope to carry the debate forward.

2. Translation and philology issues

2.1. “Biography”

The first issue to address is the one that does, as signaled above, not concern translation, but rather a free wording choice of our own. On page 152 of his article, Yirga criticizes our title and subtitle wording. He writes: “The curious nature of The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros: A Seventeenth-Century African Biography of an Ethiopian Woman starts from the title. The use of the words ‘struggle’ and ‘biography’ both desacralizes and secularizes the spiritual subject of the book. The word ‘biography’ secularizes the text to make it responsive to non-spiritual themes.”

But Yirga soon indicates that he is, in fact, fine with translating the semantically rich and culturally specifically Ethiopian term gädl as “struggle” (p. 152f.). How could he not, given that aläqa Kidanä Wäld Kəfle’s famous Gəˁəz-Amharic dictionary Mäṣhafä säwasəw wä-gəss wä-mäzgäbä qalat ḥaddis (Addis Abäba 1948 A.M. [= 1955-56 A.D.]) lets təgəl (struggle, fight) head its list of Amharic translations for Gəˁəz gädl? As it turns out, Yirga’s initial objection to our “struggle” was merely motivated by his unhappiness with a nuance of interpretation Belcher brought to it in her 2016 article.

As to the subtitle’s “biography,” it is legitimate to wonder whether “hagiography” might have been a better choice. Yirga is right that the first term is secular and the second religious. Yet our feeling was that “hagiography” was an unfamiliar term to the general English-speaking public—an important consideration given that our book is not exclusively intended for a scholarly audience (especially the 2018 paperback edition, already envisaged in 2015). Also, “hagiography” might mislead some potential readers only superficially familiar with the term to believe that the GWP is a largely fictional text, and Wälättä P̣eṭros no historical, and historically important, character. We categorically wanted to preclude such misunderstandings from the outset, as the GWP, while definitely a spiritual text, is also a historical one. To say such is not to desacralize it.

To make his argument, Yirga unfortunately completely ignores Belcher’s detailed discussion of the term and genre of gädl on page 22 of her GWP introduction. There, Belcher indicates that she has strong sympathies for “hagiobiography” as the substantively best translation of gädl when referring to the literary genre. In the end, however, we decided that “hagiobiography” was too cumbersome and unappealing. Therefore, we opted for “biography”—but in the subtitle only, whereas in the main title “life and struggles” reflects Gəˁəz gädl. We still feel that the use of all three terms, in their respective positions, does the most justice to the complexities of the GWP.

2.2. “Companion”

In the early stages of her monastic path, shortly after leaving her husband for good but long before becoming a revered founder and leader of monastic communities, Wälättä P̣eṭros lived as a solitary nun, only attended to by a newly found maidservant (GWP, ch. 10 and 11; all chapter divisions and titles are ours). In this situation, a certain abba Ṣəge Haymanot counseled her that she should not live alone (the maidservant does not count in this context) but together with another woman of comparable social status who had also embarked on the path of spiritual life. Ultimately, that led to Wälättä P̣eṭros and ꓱḫətä Krəstos being introduced to each other (GWP, ch. 12 and 13). At their first encounter, the two women immediately took a strong liking to each other, with ꓱḫətä Krəstos in due course becoming Wälättä P̣eṭros’s closest and most trusted follower, and even succeeding her as leader of her community after Wälättä P̣eṭros’s death.

When abba Səge Haymanot first advised Wälättä P̣eṭros against the solitary life, he suggested, gently couched in question form, that she should not live ዘእንበለ ቢጽ / ˀənbälä biṣ. We translated this as “without a companion” (GWP ch. 12, p. 113). Yirga takes umbrage with this translation of ቢጽ / biṣ as “companion” (p. 154f.), categorically asserting that it “means ‘friend’ or ‘neighbor,’ not ‘companion’ ” (p. 155). He goes on to hypothesize that we opted for “companion” because in English that term can be used, he says, with reference not only to “a platonic relationship, but it also relates to a sexual or romantic partner.” Our translation was thus intended, Yirga claims, to lay the groundwork for Belcher’s later interpretations of Wälättä P̣eṭros’s and ꓱḫətä Krəstos’s relationship as having a possible romantic component (note that, concomitantly, Belcher has always insisted that the relationship was celibate) (p. 155).

Yet, the dictionaries do not restrict the meaning of ቢጽ / biṣ to ‘friend’ or ‘neighbor.’ Wolf Leslau’s authoritative Comparative Dictionary of Geˁez (1987) [hereafter: LComp], for instance, on its page 116 lists the following translation options for this lexeme: “single, individual, a certain, piece, some, friend, fellow, companion, comrade, equal, neighbor, intimate.”

Some of these options are obviously not applicable in the phrase under discussion. From among those applicable in principle—viz., some[one], friend, fellow, comrade, intimate—did we opt for the one with the greatest potential for an eroticizing interpretation, viz. “intimate”? No. Nor did we stray from the dictionary to use a term like “partner.” As for the other LComp options, “some[one]” comes across as too anodyne, while “fellow” and “comrade” seem more suited to a masculine than to a feminine context. In addition, “comrade” has strong communist jargon overtones to it.

That leaves us with “friend” and “companion,” with “friend” happening to be, in fact, Yirga’s favored option. We accept that “friend” is an arguable alternative to “companion.” But does it really signal a less intimate relationship than “companion” does, and above all one whose semantics are totally insulated against erotic(izing) undertones? No. In fact, we felt, and still feel, that “companion” is the more detached term. Also, while Yirga is not wrong that “companion” in contemporary English can be applied to a sexual or romantic partner too, “friend” can be likewise. Furthermore, consider the fact that the primary definition of “friend” according to the Oxford English Dictionary includes the word “intimacy,” while the one for “companion” does not. At the same time, for neither term are the erotic understandings the default ones.

Finally, and on top of all this, we opted for the word “companion” rather than “friend” because the primary Oxford English Dictionary definitions for “companion” include a temporal dimension: “a person who often spends time with another” or “who accompanies another … on a journey,” as well as “a person with whom one eats or drinks regularly” or “who shares in or partakes of the work of another.” In view of Wälättä P̣eṭros’s and ꓱḫətä Krəstos’s lifelong collaboration, underpinned by mutual affection, in the service of monastic goals, the term “companion” appeared to us as the best choice for translating the biṣ under discussion.

2.3. “Kiss of greeting”

Still within the same episode of Wälättä P̣eṭros’s and ꓱḫətä Krəstos’s initial encounter, Yirga raises his next objection. The GWP tells us that when the two new and hitherto solitary nuns first met each other, their mutual affection was instantaneous. The crucial Gəˁəz phrase reads: täsäwṭä fəqr wəstä ləbbä kəlˀehon fəqr aḥatti ḫabä aḥatti wä-täˀaməḫa bä-bäynatihon. We translated this as “love was infused into both their hearts, love for one another, and [approaching,] they exchanged the kiss of greeting” (GWP, ch. 12, p. 115).

Yirga takes exception, first, to our “they exchanged the kiss of greeting” for Gəˁəz täˀaməḫa bä-bäynatihon and, second, to our “was infused” for täsäwṭä (p. 157-159).

With regard to our ‘exchanging the kiss of greeting,’ Yirga opens his argument by saying that since the verb in question is täˀaməḫa—which he claims means exclusively ‘to greet by bowing the head’ (p. 157)—and not täsaˁamä (to kiss each other), there is no lexical rationale for having the noun “kiss” show up in our translation. From his premise that only täsaˁamä but not täˀaməḫa can serve to express any notion of kissing, he then infers that we, as deliberately as baselessly, inserted “kiss” so as to romanticize Wälättä P̣eṭros’s and ꓱḫətä Krəstos’s encounter from the beginning. He further points out, factually correctly, that we consistently use (contextually adapted) variants of ‘exchanging the kiss of greeting’ whenever the Gəˁəz GWP uses the verbs täˀaməḫa or täˀamməḫa with regard to interactions between Wälättä P̣eṭros and ꓱḫətä Krəstos. With this, we merely strove for consistency. Yirga though apparently regards this as a systematized effort on our part to hammer home the alleged romanticization.

Yirga might have a point if the ˀ-m-ḫ root of ˀaməḫa were really devoid of any notion of kissing. This is not the case, however. For amməḫa, the most basic verb formed from this root, LComp 23 offers the following translations: “kiss, embrace, greet, salute, worship, revere, pay respect to, offer a gift out of respect.” Not coincidentally, “[to] kiss” even appears first here. For the GWP’s täˀaməḫa, the derived verbal stem specifically under discussion, LComp 23 goes on to give the options “exchange salutations, kiss in greeting, salute, hail, show respect,” and for the noun amməḫa, “kiss, salute, salutation, greetings, gift offered out of respect, present.” As these examples show, the notion of kissing is very much present in the ˀ-m-ḫ root, as one of its primary semantic dimensions, together with ‘greeting, saluting.’ It even makes sense to assume that ‘kissing’ is the primary meaning of the ˀ-m-ḫ root, from which ‘greeting, saluting’ was then derived, as greeting was ever so often accompanied by gestural (cheek) kissing in the Mediterranean world of antiquity, a cultural sphere that strongly influenced Gəˁəz and Christian Ethiopian culture in their early phases. (Incidentally, note that Leslau regards the ˀ-m-ḫ root as originating in Cushitic, where it expresses the notion of “kissing” in various Agäw languages; also, there is the Harari cognate maḥ bāya, “to kiss” [LComp 23-24]).

Yirga argues, though, that in today’s Gəˁəz as used in the Ethiopian Orthodox Täwaḥədo Church liturgy, the deacon at some point tells the faithful: täˀaməḫu bä-bäynatikəmu (an imperative mutatis mutandis fully parallel with the GWP’s indicative täˀaməḫa bä-bäynatihon), which is commonly understood as “greet one another!”—but only by bowing the head, without any implication of physical contact, let alone kissing (even if it be only on the cheek) between the believers. In view of this testimony of current usage, is LComp 23 simply wrong when it includes, even privileges, ‘kissing’ within the range of ˀ-m-ḫ meanings? Was Leslau another one of those “unqualified white people” whom Yirga denounces as having dabbled, incompetently and perniciously, with Gəˁəz (p. 209)?

Fortunately, there is historical linguistic evidence available that allows us to discuss the semantic issue at hand beyond merely the level of competing claims. This evidence is documented in August Dillmann’s 1865 Gəˁəz-Latin dictionary Lexicon linguae aethiopicae (hereafter: DL) and ultimately takes us back to the Gəˁəz New Testament which has been translated, as decades of research have shown, from original Greek templates. Unlike LComp, which provides its English translations of Gəˁəz lexemes without furnishing proof texts, the monumental DL underpins its translations with illustrative quotes from, and even more references to, a plethora of Gəˁəz writings.

The DL deals with the ˀ-m-ḫ root and its usage in its columns 734f. For the root’s three most common verbal and nominal derivatives (see above), viz. amməḫa (verb), täˀaməḫa, and amməḫa (noun), Dillmann’s first, and therefore default, translations are osculari [Latin for “to kiss”], osculari inter se [to kiss each other], and osculatio, osculum [kissing, kiss (noun)], respectively.

For documenting and demonstrating each of those meanings, Dillmann then identifies a number of instances where the respective terms appear in Gəˁəz original texts or translations, and sometimes, going beyond that, gives direct quotations. Below, I will cite three examples taken from that material. They all involve translations from the Greek of the New Testament. In all three cases, Greek φίλημα (kiss [noun]) was translated into Gəˁəz as amməḫa, thereby demonstrating that in living Gəˁəz the ˀ-m-ḫ root incontrovertibly comprised the notion of ‘kissing.’

  1. Toward the end (verse 16:16) of his Letter to the Romans, St. Paul enjoins the Christians of the imperial capital to greet one another ἐν φιλήματι ἁγίῳ, “with the holy kiss.” Greek φίλημα became amməḫa in the Gəˁəz New Testament.
  2. A verbatim identical injunction recurs in 1. Thessalonians 5:26, and again Greek φίλημα results in Gəˁəz amməḫa.
  3. St. Peter uses slightly different wording in 1 Peter 5:14; there, he admonishes the faithful to greet each other ἐν φιλήματι ἀγάπης, “with the kiss of brotherly love.” What remains unchanged though is the Gəˁəz NT reflecting this φίλημα too with amməḫa.

In view of this evidence, it cannot be questionable any longer that ‘kissing’ was the foremost notion expressed by the root ˀ-m-ḫ in living Gəˁəz. Of course, the ˀ-m-ḫ root did not signal erotic kissing (this type of kissing is the semantic domain of the s-ˁ-m root) but social, ritualized kissing on the cheek as a part of affectionate greeting. St. Peter and St. Paul disambiguated Greek φίλημα by adding the qualifiers “holy” (ἅγιον) and “of brotherly love” (ἀγάπης). Analogously, we made it clear that the kisses exchanged between Wälättä P̣eṭros and ꓱḫətä Krəstos were specifically “kisses of greeting” and thus had no erotic dimension. Structurally, we adopted the same disambiguating strategy as the two great apostles. What was good enough for them should be good enough for us, should it not?

As to Yirga’s remark that in today’s liturgical use täˀaməḫa means “to greet each other” (i.e., by bowing the head) only, without any notion of kissing being present, in light of the evidence adduced above this must now be regarded as a narrowing modern usage (perhaps due to a more “puritan” zeitgeist holding sway) that is at odds with the original and traditional usage of the ˀ-m-ḫ root generally, and the verb täˀaməḫa specifically. Therefore, it must not be projected back to the seventeenth-century GWP.

Finally, as to the social acceptability of ritualized mutual kissing on the cheeks in affectionate greetings, even between relative strangers, in Orthodox Ethiopian culture up to the present day, at one point Yirga even unwittingly supports our argument by writing that “[t]he statement that Ethiopians do not kiss strangers in greeting is untrue” (p. 158).

With regard to our translation of täsäwṭä … wəstä as “was infused into,” Yirga claims that it “suggest[s] a sudden attraction [between Wälättä P̣eṭros and ꓱḫətä Krəstos] upon seeing each other’s bodies” (p. 158; the bracketed insertion is ours). Yirga alleges that his preferred alternative, “was poured out into,” would not suggest this because it is, according to him, not only a more default translation of täsäwṭä but also more evocative of God pouring out his Holy Spirit or other blessings into the hearts and minds of the faithful, and of similar instances from the Christian heritage.

I plainly fail to see how the use of “to infuse” can possibly “suggest a sudden attraction [between WP and EK] upon seeing each other’s bodies.” The Oxford English Dictionary definition of “to infuse” is “to introduce as by pouring,” even adding “Used spec. of the work of God in the imparting of grace.” Certainly the verb carries no erotic overtones. Tellingly, Yirga does not even try to back up this specious claim with any philological argument. We acknowledge that “to be poured out into” may be a more default translation for täsäwṭä wəstä than our—lexically fully legitimate (LComp 521)—“to be infused into.” Yet by the same token, it is a more pedestrian one. As the more elegant translation choice, “to be infused into” seemed better suited to highlight the joy and beauty of Wälättä P̣eṭros’s and ꓱḫətä Krəstos’s initial encounter.

2.4. “To Be Lustful”

The episode of the “Lustful Nuns” (GWP ch. 86, p. 106) is the one that has sparked the most controversy in previous debates about eroticism and sexuality in the GWP. Yirga too devotes many pages of his article to it (p. 162-176), in the process rehashing some points made before by others (but refining them here and there) as well as articulating fresh criticisms. Below, I will, for clarity’s sake from the outset, first state my views on the content of the pertinent scene, and then go on to discuss the underlying philology, explaining how my substantive views flow from it.

I do not believe that the episode shows əmmənä qəddəst Wälättä P̣eṭros as being sexually aroused herself. I do believe though that the actions of the dänagəl / young nuns / female novice nuns that Wälättä P̣eṭros happened to witness, and that angered her deeply, were erotically charged, and not just innocent girlish fun and horseplay.

Re Wälättä P̣eṭros herself, the text leaves us in no doubt that she reacted with intense emotion to the episode she accidentally witnessed: She was enraged by it. The text does not, however, present her as being aroused herself by what she saw. (I am aware that the Ethiopian scholar Ḫaylä Maryam, and Belcher following him, have speculated that this might be the episode’s veiled säm-ənna wärq meaning; I do not share this view.) The crucial Gəˁəz phrase here is ነደ ልብየ / näddä ləbbəyä, which we translated, quite literally, as “my heart caught fire.” While we were working on this passage, it never occurred to me, given the centrality of Wälättä P̣eṭros’s punitive anger in the episode as a whole, that this English translation might be construed in the sense of “my heart caught fire with arousal.” Therefore, I did not even think of suggesting the insertion of clarifying bracketed text—for instance expanding the translation to “my heart caught fire [with anger]”—or of suggesting different, and perhaps less easily misconstruable, wording altogether (e.g., moving the metaphor of a heart catching fire to the notes and providing “I became enraged” in the body of the text). I still believe the translation as it currently stands is clear and unequivocal enough due to the episode’s overall context. In retrospect though, and after witnessing so much unfortunate and sometimes acrimonious back and forth over this issue, I nonetheless regret not having suggested a potentially clarifying expansion or translation modification.

Concerning the dänagəl and the erotic nature of their actions, it is not only philology that militates for this view (details below), but also Wälättä P̣eṭros’s extreme reaction to the incident. Wälättä P̣eṭros was incensed by what the dänagəl did, and relieved by seeing them die and go to heaven soon thereafter. The GWP explains these sentiments as arising from her fear that the dänagəl, had they lived much longer, would have jeopardized their eternal salvation: In all probability they would have repeated the same kind of sin, she thought, thereby endangering the redemption of their immortal souls. Wälättä P̣eṭros’s reaction to what she saw that day makes certain it was a transgression of extreme gravity. It is inconceivable that mere girlish playfulness would have sufficed to stir her both to rage and desperate concern. Something far more serious must have come into play here. The sexual transgression that the relevant passage clearly speaks of (again: see below)—something that not even Yirga ultimately denies; he just advocates a metaphorical interpretation to get around this, to his mind, scandalous fact (p. 164-168)—is a much more plausible cause for Wälättä P̣eṭros’s extreme reaction than mere girlish playfulness.

The GWP’s crucial, philologically contested phrase about the dänagəl is a statement by Wälättä P̣eṭros that reads as follows in nine of our manuscripts (including the earliest ones): rəˀikəwwon anä lä-dänagəl ənzä yətgaffəˁa wä-yətmarrəˁa bä-bäynatihon aḥatti məslä aḥatti. We translated this as, “I saw some young nuns pressing against each other and being lustful with each other, each with a female companion” (GWP p.255). We complemented our translation with an extended footnote that documents both the majority reading yətmarrəˁa (thus in nine MSS) as well as the yətmarrəḥa and “zero” variants of the three other manuscripts at our disposal, with a discussion of their relative merits. We arrived at the conclusion that it made sense to follow the majority text. I regarded the minority variants as attempts to sanitize text seen as scandalous by some copyists, while Belcher speculated in her interpretive article that the variants resulted from a misunderstanding.

As others have before him, Yirga disputes several elements of our understanding and translation of this phrase. Before I react to the substance of his criticisms, let me again say that the extended note added to our translation in and of itself puts the lie to any insinuations that we intended stealthily to spin and twist the text toward sexualization. We were completely transparent about the variants and our views of them.

The central “word of contention here is ይትማርዓ,” as Yirga correctly states, which “[Belcher and Kleiner] translate […] as ‘being lustful with one another’ ” (p. 163). Yirga initially seems to dispute the lexical correctness of our translation, characterizing Belcher’s 2016 remark (p. 33) that “according to the Gəˁəz-English dictionaries, [m-r-ˁ (መርዐ)] is unequivocally sexual [in meaning]” with the dismissive comment “Unfortunately, this is a sign of a poor understanding of the Ge’ez language” (p. 164). Later, however, Yirga admits that the overt meaning is sexual (see below).

Before conceding this though, Yirga initially provides, on the basis of Täsfa Gäbrä Śəllase’s 1963 edition of the Gəˁəz-Amharic Mäṣḥafä Säwasəw dictionary, four roots-cum-lexemes for መርአ and መርዐ, with four different meanings. Independent of their substance, it must first be pointed out that formally it is striking, particularly in the context of a philological polemic like his, that Yirga fails to comment on the Amharising leveling of the alif-ˁayn distinction so important for Gəˁəz phonology and semantics. As to substance, it soon becomes apparent from Yirga’s neglect to seriously discuss three of the መርአ / መርዐ options he presents that he himself considers only one of the four to be relevant for the GWP phrase under discussion, namely: “መርአ [sic, for መርዐ] — merea [sic], ተዳራ = to behave adulterously” (Yirga p. 164, citing the ṣḥafä Säwasew, p. 150). This though is in perfect agreement with our understanding of the m-r-ˁ root at the given instance! (The three other cited options Yirga tacitly but correctly dismisses as irrelevant are: 1. “መርዓ … = wedding, or bride or bridegroom. The verb form is ተመርዐወ … = to be wedded or to be beautified like a bride or groom;” 2.  “መርአ … = to support an elderly person till he/she dies;” 3.  “መርዓ … = a compound or gathering area” [p. 164]).

It is gratifying to see Yirga thus acknowledging—first implicitly (p. 164ff.) and then semi-explicitly (p. 166)—that the overt and literal meaning of the m-r-ˁ root as used in the GWP phrase is indeed “to engage in erotic or sexual behavior.”

There is even more evidence for the erotic meaning of the m-r-ˁ root generally, and thus also of the GWP’s tämarəˁa. Once again, this evidence comes from the DL, in the form of a number of quotes from historical Gəˁəz texts that use the basic stem verb märˁa in clearly sexual contexts. Initially, DL 167 translates märˁa into Latin as “lascivire, luxuriare, libidinosum esse, in spec. venerea voluptate frui, libidinem explere” (to revel, to be excessive, to be debauched, in particular: to enjoy sexual pleasures, to satisfy one’s lust) and then goes on to illustrate the verb’s usage with four quotes, two of which even refer to same-sex activity. These two are, first, bəˀəsit əntä təmärrəˁ bä-bəˀəsit (a woman who is lustful with a[nother] woman; from the Canon ancyranum no. 18 [DL 167]) and, second, bəˀəsit əntä təmärrəˁ bä-bəˀəsit aw bəˀəsi zä-yəmärrəˁ bä-bəˀəsi (a woman who is lustful with a[nother] woman, or a man who is lustful with a[nother] man; from the Mäṣḥafä qedär [DL 167f.]). In view of this evidence, there emerges the distinct possibility that the m-r-ˁ root is not only by default sexual in meaning, but preferentially used when referring to blameworthy same-sex activity.

But back to Yirga’s article. Since he concedes that the GWP uses the root m-r-ˁ with the meaning of “to behave adulterously,” how can he still claim that our translation of ənzä … yətmarrəˁa as “being lustful with each other” is substantively incorrect? His magic wand for this is, it turns out, metaphorical interpretation. The tämarəˁa of the GWP must, Yirga insists, not be taken at face value and understood literally, as describing erotically charged behavior. It should rather be seen, in accordance with the current understanding of traditionally trained scholars, as a drastic metaphor for “showing any form of love or lust for this world” (p. 165; see also 167f.).

I find this unconvincing. Why should a text that makes perfect sense on the literal level (which Yirga concedes) as well as narratively be in need of a metaphorical interpretation? To insist that it does requires adducing compelling evidence. Yirga fails to do this; he merely appeals to contemporary local authority. With all the respect due to such authority, in the absence of new philological evidence such an appeal remains insufficient.

Obviously though, important segments within contemporary Ethiopian Orthodoxy are uncomfortable with the depiction of erotic transgression in a historical monastic context. While such bashful attitudes certainly deserve respect, not least in light of real or perceived excesses in licentiousness in the West, the resulting insistence on a metaphorical interpretation of a historical ecclesiastical text is itself suspect of being a relatively recent development, and hence one that should not uncritically be projected back in time. The demonstrably historically inaccurate (i.e., narrowed and de-physicalized) understanding of ˀaməḫa in a modern Orthodox environment, has already provided linguistic evidence for such a tendency. Gälawdewos, the GWP author, while strongly disapproving of the dänagəl’s erotically charged behavior, saw no problem in depicting their sinful acts truthfully and realistically. To some present-day pious Orthodox believers and scholars alike though, the mere thought of such a transgression occurring in a monastic environment is horrifying, and therefore in need of being explained away by way of the deus ex machina “metaphor.”

To sum up, Yirga has not brought forward compelling arguments against our non-metaphorical understanding and translation of ənzä … yətmarrəˁa as “being lustful with each other.” Our translation is lexically sound as well as contextually fitting, and therefore not in need of revision.

But tämarəˁa is not the only verb in the ənzä clause under discussion. Rather, it is preceded by a parallel tägafəˁa., with the full modal clause reading ənzä yətgaffəˁa wä-yətmarrəˁa bä-bäynatihon. We translated ənzä yətgaffəˁa … bä-bäynatihon as the dänagəl “pressing against each other.” Yirga considers this translation unduly eroticizing. Pointing to cognate Amharic gäffa (to push, to shove), he argues that “pushing one another” (viz., in innocent playfulness) would have been correct (p. 169).

Yet Yirga’s reliance on an Amharic cognate misleads him here. While “to push” is undoubtedly the primary meaning of Amharic gäffa, the same is not true for cognate Gəˁəz gäfˁa. Its primary meanings rather are “to compress, to oppress, to repress, to press; to harm s.o., to do violence to s.o.,” with “to push” only being tertiary in importance (LComp 183, DL 1212f.). Analogously, the same holds true for the GWP’s reciprocal tägafəˁa. Therefore, translating it as “pressing against each other” is lexically legitimate. At the same time, I freely admit that this translation choice of ours was informed by our well-founded erotic understanding of parallel tämarəˁa, and indeed of the depicted episode as a whole. So, while the lexical legitimacy of our translating ənzä yətgaffəˁa … bä-bäynatihon as “pressing against each other” cannot be in doubt, its situational legitimacy hinges on the legitimacy of translating ənzä … yətmarrəˁa bä-bäynatihon as “being lustful with each other.” Since, as explained above, we see compelling reasons for this translation, and no need to revise it, we likewise stand by our tägafəˁa translation.

Finally, Yirga takes umbrage with our “each with a female companion” for the phrase’s closing aḥatti məslä aḥatti, saying it represents another unjustified sexualization of the text. He states that we should have translated the phrase as “one with another” and omitted the word “companion”—which this time around, unlike with earlier ቢጽ / biṣ, does not have any one-on-one counterpart in the Gəˁəz.

I have already explained above that in our view “companion” does not have the sexualizing overtones Yirga ascribes to it. Beyond this, a look at the alternative that Yirga suggests clarifies why we translated as we did. His “one with another” is almost, but not fully literal for aḥatti məslä aḥatti; the fully literal translation would be “one with one.” This though would be highly unidiomatic and inelegant English. Yirga’s “one with another” is better, but still unconvincing stylistically—standard English would be “with one another.” In addition, it fails to reflect the gendered character of Gəˁəz aḥatti (twice spelled out and not reduced to a numeral in the GWP), which refers specifically to a female “one”; the masculine equivalent would be aḥadu. So, Yirga’s proposal goes only halfway, failing to convey some important information. With our “each with a female companion” we strove, first, to produce a fully idiomatic and stylistically acceptable translation, as well as, second, a gendered English text, thereby fully reflecting the gendered nature of the aḥatti məslä aḥatti of Gəˁəz. That was the rationale behind our introduction of “female companion” (with “female” being the more important element here, while the “companion” that Yirga focuses on was only added to provide the adjective with a noun referent), not some sinister sexualizing intention.

2.5. “To Talk and Flirt”

Yirga further takes exception to our twice translating Gəˁəz ተዛውዐ በበይነ / täzawəˁa bä-bäynä- as ‟to talk and flirt with one another” in the GWP chapter 58 (p. 204, 205). He insists that mere “to speak with one another” would have been the correct and sufficient translation (p. 176). On this basis, he regards our “flirt” to be part of a “deliberate strategy” to—no surprise any longer—maliciously and willfully sexualize the text, to “construct life in the monastery as a constant struggle with sexual desire” (ibid.). Later in the same paragraph, Yirga even claims that our täzawəˁa translation amounts to “a clear manifestation of epistemic racism. Belcher has imposed a sexualized identity on the devout spirituality of black African nuns and monks” (p. 176). This is cheap sloganeering without any philological basis, as we will show below.

The default verb for “to speak” in Gəˁəz, without any connotations as to the manner of speaking, is tänagära, not täzawəˁa. By contrast, täzawəˁa refers to (a) specific way(s) of speaking. Accordingly, LComp 645 offers the following translation options for it: “entertain oneself, enjoy oneself, confer, converse, meditate (talk to oneself), talk nonsense, talk idly, jest, be wanton, be petulant, play, be impudent.” For the associated verbal noun täzawəˁo, LComp 645 lists “idle talk, lewd talk, babbling,” and, for other derivatives from the same z-w-ˁ root, translations indicating lighthearted jesting, joking, or even lascivious talk also preponderate. Furthermore, in the comparative part of its z-w-ˁ entry, LComp 645 points to the Amharic root w-z as cognate (with z-w metathesis and the customary loss of ˁayn). This root produces such lexemes as täwazza (to joke with one another), waza (joke, mockery, banter), wazäňňa (one who talks lightheartedly, unseriously, jokingly, frivolously), etc. (Thomas Leiper Kane, Amharic-English Dictionary, Volume II [1990], p. 1554).

In light of this evidence, there can hardly be any doubt that täzawəˁa refers to exchanging lighthearted talk, on a spectrum between mere pleasantries and innocent joking all the way up to openly lascivious back-and-forth. By denying this specific semantic dimension of täzawəˁa, Yirga seems guilty of the ideological reading of the text he accuses us of—albeit, naturally, with a different thrust.

Our hendiadys translation of täzawəˁa as “to talk and flirt with each other” is lexically legitimate and lies squarely within the verb’s semantic spectrum. (In retrospect, “to speak flirtatiously with each other” might have been preferable stylistically, but of course it would not have made Yirga any happier.) Within täzawəˁa’s semantic spectrum, we did not even go for a radical choice (e.g., “to talk lewdly” or “to talk lasciviously with one another”).

However, should we have nevertheless opted for an entirely non-erotic translation, such as, for instance, “speak jokingly with one another” or “banter with one another”? Even though Yirga’s assertion that täzawəˁa means merely a bland “to talk” is demonstrably false, is he perhaps correct that the verb as used twice in our GWP chapter 58 carries no overtones of erotic tension?

When trying to answer this question, one must look at the narrative context. Upon the first occurrence of täzawəˁa in chapter 58 (p. 204), the GWP does not merely report that Wälättä P̣eṭros established a rule against täzawəˁo between her monks and nuns, but adds a justification for this prohibition: Wälättä P̣eṭros did not want to give Satan a chance to attack them by sowing weeds in their hearts that might suffocate the seeds of righteousness trying to sprout in them. The legitimacy of Wälättä P̣eṭros’s prohibition is then underscored with an alleged quote from the exceedingly prestigious Council of Nicaea (CE 325): “More than anything else, the righteous ones and the monks must stay away from women. They must not respond to them, and definitely must not actively engage them in conversation” (GWP, p. 204). The given rationale and the added corroborative quote make it clear to any unbiased observer that for the GWP author täzawəˁa clearly connotates erotically charged talk.

At the second occurrence (GWP, p. 205), Wälättä P̣eṭros expresses her desire to pierce jointly, with a (single) spear, any monk and nun pair of hers whom she finds engaged in täwazəˁo. This shows that even if täzawəˁo were not a transgression of an erotic or even sexual character, Wälättä P̣eṭros clearly considered it an extremely serious sin. Yirga’s claim that täzawəˁa refers to ordinary, unmarked talking is thereby rendered absurd.

Wälättä P̣eṭros then goes on to say that she would not be worried about such a killing of hers being considered a crime. As justification, she refers to the biblical case—which she thus sees as a precedent and parallel—of the Israelite High Priest Phinehas killing his fellow-countryman Zimri and the Midianite woman Cozbi, Zimri’s concubine, for entertaining a sexual relationship in defiance of Moses’ orders and with disrespect for the holiness of the nearby Tent of the Testimony (Numbers 25:6-8, 14). In view of this analogy, it becomes unambiguously clear that täzawəˁo in this passage is an erotically, perhaps even sexually, charged term.

To sum up, our translation of täzawəˁa as “to talk and flirt with each other” in the two discussed instances is not only lexically legitimate but contextually compelling. At the second instance, one could even argue that it would have been justified to translate it as “to talk lasciviously with each other.”

Contrary to Yirga’s allegations, we are far from construing “life in the monastery as a constant struggle with sexual desire” (p. 176). However, we do not subscribe to the idealized view that sexual temptation was entirely absent from Wälättä P̣eṭros’s monastic communities either. “Ought” and “Is” do not always coincide, and the adoption of lofty spiritual ideals, such as chastity, does not ipso facto guarantee that people always fully actualize them. Since its very inception, the Christian monastic tradition everywhere, inside and outside Ethiopia, has always been keenly aware of the enormous challenges posed by the flesh, by erotic and sexual temptation. Great monastic traditions and leaders have not denied this reality but have acknowledged it—while devotedly trying to master and transcend it. Wälättä P̣eṭros stands firmly in this tradition, as the GWP shows in many instances that Yirga chooses to ignore (e.g., pp. 118f., 132, 162, 212, 215, 240). Thereby, he fails to appreciate the GWP’s realistic—as opposed to idealizing—spiritualism. Also, he seems strangely forgetful of such arch-Christian concepts as temptation and sin, ever-present dangers for every human being. The Bible, as well as the entire Ethiopian hagiographic and monastic tradition, teach us they can only be confronted and overcome each day afresh; victory must never be taken for granted.

2.6. “Curviness”

Yirga also objects to our translation of gəzäf (lit., thickness, stoutness, obesity; obstinacy; see LComp 211) as “curviness” in the context of Wälättä P̣eṭros severely castigating the young and beautiful nun Amätä Krəstos for reveling in her own attractive appearance (GWP, ch. 66 = p. 219). Yirga accuses us, once again, of thereby unduly eroticizing a scene that allegedly is devoid of such a dimension. Wälättä P̣eṭros, he claims, was only scandalized by the latter’s gəzäf because it signaled Amätä Krəstos’s continuing un-monastic attachment to food and plentiful eating (p. 178).

I remember clearly that while working on this passage, Belcher and I had a spirited debate about the appropriate translation of gəzäf in the given context. We too were asking ourselves about the reason for Wälättä P̣eṭros’s ire against Amätä Krəstos. Did əmmənä qəddəst only perceive in her a lingering worldly attachment to eating one’s fill, despite being a nun now, who should willingly renounce such pleasures? Given the paramount importance of fasting in Ethiopian Orthodox spirituality generally, and in its monasteries in particular, this seemed a very real possibility. Yet was there perhaps more to it? Could Wälättä P̣eṭros have taken offense at Amätä Krəstos’s behavior because she sensed a sensual component in it, namely that the nun did not want to lose her feminine beauty and appeal through fasting and emaciation? Ultimately, we did incline to this latter understanding of the scene—hence our “curviness” for gəzäf—for reasons I will present in a moment. First, though, I would like to mention that, per our usual practice, we appended a footnote to “curviness.” In it, we documented underlying gəzäf and provided its more literal translations, thereby being fully transparent about what we were doing. In addition, we remarked in that note that Ricci had translated this gəzäf as Italian floridezza (flowering, blossoming), a term close in thrust to our “curviness.” So again, no machinations on our part so as to stealthily twist the text, but everything being done, so to speak, in the full light of day.

While we found Ricci’s similar understanding of gəzäf heartening, we did not, of course, base our translation on his authority, but on our own assessment of the episode as a whole. What indicators, then, point to gəzäf as being sensually charged here?

The episode begins by stating that Amätä Krəstos was so “beautiful” and “pretty” that “nobody in the world compared to her” (GWP, p. 219). From the outset this suggests that the episode about to unfold has a sensual dimension: Why bring up Amätä Krəstos’s beauty if it were only about a monastically inappropriate love for eating? Why, in that case, not speak directly of gluttony, or of Amätä Krəstos’s lack of restraint and monastic discipline? Further, the episode mentions Amätä Krəstos’s bragging about her appearance. This again suggests that gəzäf, even if Wälättä P̣eṭros uses the term derogatorily, refers to a quality normally seen as an important component of feminine appeal and beauty.

What finally tipped the scales for us in favor of a sensually charged understanding of the episode was the harsh culmination of Wälättä P̣eṭros’s upbraiding of Amätä Krəstos. Wälättä P̣eṭros concludes her castigation of the self-indulgent young nun with the emphatic declaration that she would like to see Amätä Krəstos pierced with a spear and killed for her behavior. While Wälättä P̣eṭros does not, of course, initiate any such physical action against Amätä Krəstos, the chapter goes on to tell us that by virtue of Wälättä P̣eṭros’s spiritual power—probably best understood as the power of her prayers—Amätä Krəstos fell ill soon afterward with “the piercing sickness” (ḥəmämä wəgˁat), thus as if pierced by spear, and became forever paralyzed (GWP, p. 219).

Wälättä P̣eṭros’s desire to see Amätä Krəstos punished by piercing with a spear parallels the punishment she had in mind for any monk and nun engaged in täzawəˁo  (see 2.5. above); this piercing punishment was itself modeled on the biblical Phinehas’s way of killing of the sexually licentious Israelite Zimri and his Midianite concubine Cozbi. The parallelism in the envisaged forms of punishment can hardly be accidental. Rather, it must be indicative of related underlying transgressions. Therefore, just as täzawəˁa in chapter 58 has an erotic dimension to it, so must gəzäf in chapter 66. Hence our decision to translate it as “curviness,” a reasoned and reasonable decision by which we stand.

3. Concluding remarks

For both Belcher and me, our Gädlä Wälättä P̣eṭros translation was a labor of love, motivated by our shared appreciation of and affection for Ethiopian Orthodox culture and its literary heritage. To any fair-minded observer, the final product is clear testimony to this, I believe, and puts the lie to any ascription of nefarious motives. For many years, both Belcher and I devoted considerable parts of our professional lives to this translation. Negative motivations do not carry one through endeavors of such scale, only profound sympathy for the material one works on.

Such sympathy does not, of course, preclude the occasional translation infelicity or even outright mistake. We acknowledge, for instance, that two translation criticisms of Yirga’s unrelated to sexuality (p. 180-182) have merit philologically. Yet with regard to those instances where Yirga alleged our unwarranted sexualization of the text, I have, on the preceding pages, demonstrated that the challenged translations are well-founded. While some may, for whatever reasons, continue to disagree with us, no one can claim that our choices are baseless, that we did not think them through, or that we stealthily attempted to distort the text with willful sexualizations.

Authors tend to have little say in the reception of their publications: habent sua fata libelli, as the Romans said. Nonetheless, I would like to express my dismay that so far at least, the reception of our Gädlä Wälättä P̣eṭros translation has focused virtually exclusively on sexual aspects of the text. Certainly, sensuality and sexuality are relevant dimensions of the narrative—since they are of human life—and as such they deserve to be debated. Yet the Gädlä Wälättä P̣eṭros also touches on many other aspects of seventeenth-century Christian Ethiopian life and history that are worthy of study. In the interest of a more comprehensive and balanced reception of our translation, I hope that they too will receive their due share of attention in the future.  


The citation for this response is:

Kleiner, Michael. 2020. “Considered Translations Reconsidered. A Rejoinder to Yirga Gelaw Woldeyes’s Criticisms of Our Allegedly ‘Sexualizing’ Translations in The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros (2015).” Posted October 14; updated October 18.

Works Cited

Belcher, Wendy Laura. 2016. “Same-Sex Intimacies in the Early African Text Gädlä Wälättä P̣eṭros (1672): Queer Reading an Ethiopian Woman Saint.” Research in African Literatures 47 (2), pp. 20-45.

Dillmann, August. 1865. Lexicon linguae aethiopice, cum indice latino. Lipsiae [= Leipzig; reprints New York 1955, Osnabrück 1970]. [Our siglum: DL]

Gälawdewos. 2015. The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros. A Seventeenth-century African Biography of an Ethiopian Woman, ed. and trans. Wendy Laura Belcher and Michael Kleiner. Princeton. [Our siglum: GWP]

Kane, Thomas Leiper. 1990. Amharic-English Dictionary. 2 volumes. Wiesbaden.

Kidanä Wäld Kəfle. 1948 A.M. [1955-56 A.D]. Mäṣhafä säwasəw wä-gəss wä-mäzgäbä qalat ḥaddis. Nəbabu bä-gəˁəz fəččəw bä-amarəñña. Addis Abäba.

Leslau, Wolf. 1987. Comparative Dictionary of Geˁez (Classical Ethiopic). Geˁez-English / English-Geˁez, with an index of Semitic roots. Wiesbaden. [Our siglum: LComp]

Yirga Gelaw Woldeyes. 2020. “Colonial Rewriting of African History: Misinterpretations and Distortions in Belcher and Kleiner’s Life and Struggles of [sic] Walatta Petros.” Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture 9, no. 2: 133-220.