Names of the Lion: David Larsen in conversation with Stephen Sparks
DIESEL, A Bookstore | 5433 College Avenue | Oakland, CA
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The Center for the Art of Translation and DIESEL, A Bookstore in Oakland welcomes poet and translator David Larsen to the store to discuss his translation of 10th-century Arabic lexicographer Ibn Khālawayh’s Names of the Lion. He will be in conversation with Stephen Sparks.
Names of the Lion is a thesaurus, a word list, a bestiary with only one beast. It was written as a virtuoso display of philological learning by a man who considered himself the greatest living authority on the Arabic language, and was so considered by others. At the time of Ibn Khālawayh’s life and work, the study of the Arabic language had reached a mature phase, but although the works of Ibn Khālawayh are steeped in this tradition, they depart from received models. His longest and most innovative text, The Book of “Not in the Arabic Language,” is organized aphoristically into short chapters. Each chapter begins with the phrase “In the Arabic language, there is no X, except for…” followed by all the exceptions to the stated rule. Names of the Lion is a chapter from this work, which begins: “In all the speech of the Arabs and all books of Arabic philology put together, there are no names for the lion besides what I have written for you.” Hundreds of words for lion then follow. Ibn Khālawayh produced word-lists on other subjects (names of the wind, of the sword, of honey, etc). It was a well-established genre of linguistic scholarship, and it’s not clear that lions were a particular obsession with Ibn Khālawayh. However, the Asiatic lion (Panthera leo persica) was endemic to Syria, and a real-life scourge of the pastoral economy, and no one who encounters a lion in the wild ever forgets it.
Is Names of the Lion a work of literature? If by “literature” you mean an intentional work of poetry or artistic prose, then it’s not. But that’s a narrow definition: “Pleasure reading” is a much broader category than that, at least for the seekers and dreamers and students of the world. Formally, the text will be familiar to everyone. It is a list, and there is abundant precedent for the list as a poetic form. In our day, the list poem is a standard exercise of Creative Writing because it never fails to yield interesting results. So even though Ibn Khālawayh had no conception of Names of the Lion as a work of poetry, to enjoy it as one is practically irresistable. You could call it Ibn Khālawayh’s answer to poetry, even his vengeful attack on it.