Recently I was translating a medieval Syriac poem lamenting a deacon who converted to Islam, and I got stuck on a single word. Different manuscripts, as is often the case, contained different readings of that word, but the options were either nonsensical or not in the dictionaries. The only other scholar to work with the text proposed an emendation which was semantically sensible but poetically impossible. What’s a translator to do? I found a way through, turning a philological detail into a methodological point about late medieval Syriac texts.
I have always enjoyed textual criticism; it is like a series of little puzzles (and occasionally not so little). When scribes copied out long texts by hand, they inevitably made some errors. Most such errors were easily corrected by later scribes (like spelling “the” as “teh”), but a few were undetected or at least uncorrected. So when an ancient or medieval text survives in multiple manuscripts (and some modern texts), there are almost always variations among them. The goal of textual criticism is to reconstruct the the text as it was written. That is not always possible, and it is often not easy, as in the present case.
State of the Case
As is common for late medieval Eastern Syriac poetry, the poem is composed of rhyming quatrains with seven syllables per line. The quatrain in question comes in the course of a description of the components of a Christian funeral which the deacon would be denied as an apostate. It reads:
ܠܐ ܥܒܕܝܢ ܠܟ ܕܘܟܪ̈ܢܐ : ܘܠܐ ܡܩܪܒܝܢ ܠܟ ܩܘܪ̈ܒܢܐ
ܘܠܐ ܗܘܝܢ ܠܟ ܡܨ̈ܠܝܢܐ : ܐܠܐ ܓܪ̈ܝܥܐ ܘܩܪ̈ܥܢܐ
They are not making memorials for you,
Nor are they making offerings for you,
Nor are they being supplicants for you,
But shaved and _________.
The last word appears as qarʿānē in one manuscript I have examined, and qeryānē in another. The problem is that qarʿānē does not appear in any Syriac dictionary I have checked, while qeryānē does occur, but its meaning is irrelevant. It usually means “readings, lections,” and although it might mean “disputations,” it is hard to make that fit grammatically in the current quatrain.
A False Start
This text has recently been studied by Maroš Nicák (“Konversion” im Buch Wardā: Zur Bewältigung der Konversionsfrage in der Kirche des Ostens [Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2016]), who recognized the textual difficulty at this place. Although Nicák did not examine either of the manuscripts I consulted, two of the ones he used had exactly the same pair of readings. He proposed a solution to read qeryānē (ܩܪ̈ܝܢܐ) as qrāḥē (ܩܪ̈ܚܐ), which means “bald.” This fits the sense, and the Syriac letter ḥeth indeed looks very like the pair of letters yod and nun. The reading qarʿānē would be explained as a scribal slip elongating the yod into an entirely different letter. (In Syriac, vowels are often not written.)
As attractive as this suggestion is on semantic grounds, it can be excluded on the basis of the poetry. Every quatrain in the poem rhymes, and every line in this quatrain ends with –ānē. While some poets’ command of their poetic constraints is indeed faulty, a line ending with –āḥē would be extraordinarily jarring in an otherwise flawless poem, especially given that it was intended to be read aloud. (And medieval Syriac poets, to my knowledge, did not exploit deliberate lapses of form to make a point, as some modernists have.) On the basis of the poetry, then, this proposal can be eliminated.
The Other Way
It is unusual for Syriac scribes to change a letter yod into a letter ʿe; the reverse is more common when a portion of the ink of the larger letter flakes off. When scribes do erroneously elongate a yod, it tends to turn into a nun. So that suggests we ought to prefer qarʿānē as the more likely original reading, but we are confronted with a difficulty: what might it mean? The form occurs in no Syriac dictionary (which is especially surprising, since Audo’s dictionary is very good at collecting later Eastern Syriac forms). As in other Semitic languages, one might look at other words with the same triliteral root to see if any common meaning suggests itself. But J. Payne-Smith’s dictionary only lists the meaning “gourd” for qarʿā and qarʿontā as well as “blow” for the former, while R. Payne-Smith’s older dictionary includes those alongside “dishonest” for mqarʿā and mqarʿānā, and “lash” for the former. Costaz provides the meaning “skull” for qraʿtā Audo has the meaning “gourd” for qarʿā and qarʿontā, and “lash” for maqrʿā (note different vocalization from R. Payne-Smith), as well as “feed-bag for livestock” for qurʿā. The –ānā ending (pl. ānē) is usually an adjective or an agent, but it is hard to see what kind of adjective related to any of these meanings could be relevant in the description of the lack of a Christian burial.
But Audo also glossed qarʿā with the Arabic قرع. Sure enough, Arabic qarʿ means “gourd.” But the word qaraʿ (spelled the same in unvocalized Arabic script) can mean “baldness, bareness.” An adjective derived from that noun by the addition of the Syriac –ānā ending would mean “bald.” Such an adjective, unattested in any of the Syriac dictionaries, would provide a close parallel to the adjacent adjective “shaven.” Thus we would have the semantic sensibility of Nicák’s suggestion, but respecting the rhyme as well.
It is indisputable that Arabic came to exercise increasing influence on Syriac, especially after the year 1000 CE, as increasing numbers of Syriac authors were fluent or even native Arabic speakers. There are many examples of Arabic lexical input into the Syriac vocabulary, even if some examples are cognates rather than loanwords. It is thus not surprising that the root for an otherwise unattested Syriac adjective (perhaps indeed made up by the poet to complete the line) might be located in an Arabic dictionary. As a methodological point, translators of late medieval Syriac are well advised to keep an Arabic dictionary on hand.