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Other Women's Voices: Translations of Women's Writing Before 1700

Dorothy Disse

Reviewed by:
Nora Jaffary
University of Northern Iowa
Feburary 2004

This website offers substantial excerpts and more than 120 writings from around the world. Its most valuable feature is this abundant accumulation of texts that women themselves have generated from such a wide array of times and places. The texts span from 2300 BCE to the early 18th century, with about half of them written after 1400. There is a fair amount of geographic breadth included, particularly in the earlier periods. The site includes women?s voices from the Middle East, Asia, and Europe, although European texts have virtually exclusive representation from the 1400s onward.

The majority of women whose works are reproduced were nobility, but writings from other women have survived and are also presented here. Examples include the works of Sei Shonagon, a prominent literary figure and attendant at the Japanese court in the 10th century, and Rabi’a al-’Adawiyya, of Basra, Iraq, who may have been a freed slave living in the 700s. The diverse group of women selected and their treatment of various subjects serve to broaden the site further. Available texts include drama, prose, poetry, biography, visionary literature, history, memoirs, and letters.

The website offers a brief (250- to 1000-word) biographical portrait of each writer. While these portraits could provide teachers with pertinent facts, they do not contain much information about the authors’ historical contexts. Thus readers may immediately access details about these women?s lives or the stylistic features of their works. However, a broad overview of the era in which they lived and how their texts relate to it historically will require more research. There are some links to websites with such information, but most of the writings presented are without relative context. For this reason, teachers may want to approach this website armed with a good world history textbook.

In addition to the primary sources, this site links to numerous transcriptions of texts where available. Rabi’a al-’Adawiyya, for instance, has 12 primary sources listed and four secondary sources. These are followed by select transcriptions of representative passages and annotated bibliographies for each author.

Nearly all the texts reproduced are translations, and the three English sources date from the 1300s and 1400s. For some authors, text is available in the original languages as well as in translation—and frequently in multiple translations. For example, see the three versions of the hymns of Enheduanna, a Mesopotamian priestess. Different translations could present teachers with an opportunity to cast these texts in an interesting historical light: by comparing translations of one text in different time periods, or even in different countries, they could demonstrate how interpretations vary according to the particular preoccupations of time and place.

Instructors should not be discouraged by the lack of visual appeal of the site which resists the trend of flashy presentation and privileges substance over style. There are no images on the site though many images abound in the links associated with each writer. Teachers could use these texts in a number of ways: to provide first-hand impressions of how women viewed such diverse topics as war, crime, class, sexuality and sex roles, and especially, religion in the particular contexts in which they lived. Such views immediately suggest fruitful grounds of comparison. A teacher might gain insight into particular cultures by selecting women from two vastly different times (or places) and examining how each perceived religion, men, or wealth. Alternatively, an instructor could contrast these rich representations with the brief information available in textbooks on women writers at levels from primary to graduate school.

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