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Historic biography of African woman translated into English

A depiction of “how Christ gave Petros souls in the likeness of crystal vessels” [Photo: MS A, f. 149v c SLUB Mscr.Dresd.Eb.415.e,2 The Guardian]

THE EARLIEST known book-length biography of an African woman has been translated into English for the first time.

The book, a 17th-century text detailing the life of the Ethiopian saint Walatta Petros, has now been published in English by Princeton University Press

Walatta Petros was an Ethiopian religious leader who lived from 1592 to 1642, according to The Guardian.

A noblewoman, she left her husband to lead the struggle against the Jesuits’ mission to convert Ethiopian Christians to Roman Catholicism. It was for this that the Ethiopian Orthodox Täwaḥədo Church elevated her to sainthood.

Walatta Petros’s story was written by her disciples in the Gəˁəz language in 1672, after her death. Translator and editor Wendy Laura Belcher, an associate professor at Princeton University, came across the biography while she was studying Samuel Johnson’s translation, A Voyage to Abyssinia.

“I saw that Johnson was fascinated by the powerful noble Ethiopian women in the text,” said Belcher.

“I was speaking with an Ethiopian priest about this admiration and he told me that the women were admired in Ethiopia as well, where some of them had become saints in the Ethiopian church and had had hagiographies written about them.”

Belcher learned Gəˁəz in order to translate Walatta Petros’s biography, working first with the Ethiopian priest, and then with the translator Michael Kleiner. “As a biography, it is full of human interest, being an extraordinary account of early modern African women’s lives — full of vivid dialogue, heartbreak, and triumph. For many, it will be the first time they can learn about a pre-colonial African woman on her own terms,” she said.

The biography has now been published in English by Princeton University Press as The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros, The Guardian reported. It has only been translated into two other languages before: Amharic and Italian, the latter in the 1970s.

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