With a wistful smile on my face, I remember a dear friend who, struck by homesickness, recited some of his favourite poetry to us. It was beautiful... but I had no idea what it meant. Afterwards, he explained the meaning of the words to us, but his English summary wasn't quite the same as the alliterative Somali consonants and rhyming vowels that had rang melodically in my ears minutes earlier.
That experience led me to wonder: is it really possible to translate poetry, particularly poetry coming from the long and rich oratory tradition of the Somali peoples? I'm still wrestling with that question, especially since, years on, I still love poetry and yet still don't understand my friend's language.
Margaret Laurence's "A Tree for Poverty: Somali Poetry and Prose", only seems to put into stark relief the impossible task that is translation. Her introduction to the later edition is telling. In it she consciously reexamines the assumptions that she had first carried as she translated the poems and stories, assumptions that made their way into the introduction to the first edition of the book. One can't help smiling at the difference between the two introductions; it speaks of several decades of life experience and a deeper sense of humility.
I ask myself, if I were to do a translation of poetry, and then to review the book 40 years later, would I be satisfied by what I saw, or would I feel shame that I had ever thought that way? Probably the second. :D
I have a good deal of respect for people who put themselves into their writing, and then present that writing to the world, warts and all. It takes a good deal of courage to present one's own creative work to an audience.
Wow- 4 paragraphs and still nothing about the poetry in the book. Lol! I'll get to that eventually, just not today!
This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.
Please feel free to use my writing for non-commercial purposes and do credit my
name, Rose Kahendi, as the writer.