Some Thoughts on Co-Translating Gaarriye

By W N Herbert

i. Arar (Introduction

What a poet looks for in the act of translating from a language he or she doesn't understand differs slightly from what is sought by the creative translator of verse, working with a culture they know intimately, whether on a linguistic, literary or socio-political level. The difference, essentially, is that the didactic intention of the translator - their passion that others should know this poet, this form, this culture - is, for the poet, a self-directed and self-metamorphosing part of the process. That is, they wish to be changed by what they learn as technicians, as workers in the medium of verse. They want the new perspectives, the different handlings of tone and imagery, the shifts of emphasis in the metrical system, to affect and develop them as writers, not just as readers.

This learning-through-practice is, naturally, part of the translator's experience too, but poets are perhaps greedier, more selfish - a bit vampiric - and confined to fewer encounters, more prescribed contact. They can only discover what they need through interaction with an element the translator is well-versed in, which the reader encounters only by inference, and they themselves are generally ignorant of: the language. Through what they can be told about the host language, they begin to seek possibilities to address those issues - audience, symbol, metre - embedded within it.

So they are at once less than translators and more than readers. They are utterly dependent on the explications and guidance of their translator, who must function as both guide and ambassador ('dragoman' would be the Ottoman Greek term), and, where possible, the originating poet. But they are not quite as absolutely at the service of the reader as, ideally, the translator (and, presumably, that original poet) wishes to be. They, crucially, must be fed, nourished creatively by the process. This is fraught, tentative sort of work at the best of times: few who aim at mastery can leave their supposed status or their usual methods entirely at the door when entering the building, the city or the country of another's poem.

The best solution, I found, when working with Martin Orwin on the poetry of the great Somali writer, Maxamed Xaashi Dhamac 'Gaarriye', was to revert to the role of apprentice (not so far in my case). I joined the extensive band of what I learnt was Gaarriye's xer (his term plays, with self-deprecating mockery, on the idea of a band of disciples) - those students and former students I found, when visiting Somaliland, to be almost coterminous with the younger generation of writers and academics who are driving the two institutions of Hargeisa and Amoud universities, as well as gathering to exchange and perform their poetry at the huge, impromptu-seeming events that punctuated my stay. 

Confronted with Somali - the language that 'makes Arabic look like Esperanto', as Sarah Maguire introduced it to me - I felt less the apprentice and more the schoolboy. And it was as a novice that I engaged with the practically-unique structural device at the heart of Somali poetry: the deployment of a single alliterative sound per (often lengthy) poem. This was, I discovered, a device which induces either virtuosity or failure. It was practically as a literary tourist that I experienced Somali culture's obsession with poetry, its groundedness in orality, so that most verse is still composed in the head rather on paper, and lives or dies in performance rather than in print; a culture where memory, first supplemented by the cassette, has now been augmented by the mp3, practically bypassing the book altogether. And it was certainly as a student (perhaps in my first year of PPE) that I found out about a complex political background: world opinion on the Somali situation, much distracted by lurid headlines, is informed by very few of the facts.

If I graduated at all from this compressed process - which took me from complete beginner to co-translator of four substantial poems (key to understanding Gaarriye's ground-breaking early career) within two months; and in nine months from someone who only knew of Somaliland from an old stamp collection to a dazzled, smitten visitor - it was with a Gentleman's Third. If I managed that much, it was because of the more-than-generous, exemplary instruction and truly scholarly collaboration offered by Martin; and by the teasing, revelatory openness and extraordinary hospitality of Gaarriye, who welcomed me to his poetry and his home with equal zest. It was all, as he often insisted with an emphatic wave of his hand, 'the Somali way'.

ii. Dhexdhexaad (Middle Section)

How Martin and I worked on these pieces was, essentially, that I would stumble through each poem line by line, while he gave me a summation of its meaning, rhythm and role in relation to the whole poem, and the poem's place in Gaarriye's work as a whole. We would meet up each weekend and work our way intensively through the poems like this, setting his painstaking literals against Gaarriye's Somali and retranslating the latter phrase by phrase, with me taking away his and my notes, and trying to work up a fluent draft before our next meeting.

From that process (still ongoing, albeit in a less intense form, and still as challenging, as rewarding), I learnt three things which, as required, informed my own practice and may well change it. These should all have been self-evident from the outset, but, sometimes it's only by bumping your head repeatedly off a wall that you get a feel for its texture as well as its location.

In relation to the form of Somali poetry, I found that attempting a close match of single sound alliteration was crippling for the simple reason that this mode is no longer culturally dominant in English poetry in the same way that it is in Somali. The place given to alliteration in Anglo-Saxon and Middle English verse we have subsequently given to rhyme. How an alliterative poetry like that of Wales or Irish or Scottish Gaelic would handle the same problem is an interesting area for speculation. But to alliterate on one sound to this degree in English is to hark back less to Beowulf's bard than to the wail of the broadsheet, where headlines bash their message home by the same method. What in Somali is a musical note has become the clanging of an unsubtle bell.

I therefore found myself emphasising key alliterative word at key moments, but falling back on secondary alliterative groupings at other points, to honour the device but allow some degree of modulation in its execution. Thus, in 'Aabi (Arrogance),' which alliterates on the vowels (which I've narrowed down to A), most of the initial tercets have at least one significant alliterative word - 'Adam', 'awe,' 'air,' 'abyssal,' acacia' - but those which don't, usually alliterate in some other way: 'The camel's old keen for her calf,/be hushed and hear it...'.

In relation to imagery, as the previous example suggest, there is in Somali poetry a continuing emphasis on the rural and nomadic which reflects how most of the population lives at one point or another in the seasons or in their lives. It's difficult, without copious footnotes, to indicate to a predominantly urban readership the complex symbology of livestock, familial interrelations and particularities of weather which informs this poetry. Such a reader is in danger of seeing an indistinguishable mass of camels and dryness, and losing the fine gradation of perceptions which sit behind an ordinary Somali word like saxansaxo: the scent and coolness carried on the wind from a place where it is raining to a place where it is not.

Because Gaarriye's work is suffused with such distinctions, and because Martin and I knew we were preparing texts as much for performance as for the page - pieces which might have to resolve something of themselves in an instant as well as yield more upon reflection - we sought out solutions which had the ring and rhythm of proverbial utterance, but without sacrificing detail. Thus in 'Uurkubbaale (Seer),' we emphasised a proverbial feel where possible, '"A cloud in the east means rest your feet,/the rain will trek to us..."' and, where a lot of information had to be given, we did our best to keep the tone colloquial: '[a poem] is the finest matting, woven for a bride,/the one the song calls "Refuser of poor suitors".'

In relation to the genre these long, loping poems fall into, designed as they are to be heard by large audiences, I found myself describing them to friends as 'non-lyric.' By this I meant, not that they failed to be lyrical in either their thought or their musicality (actually, they succeeded, often compellingly so), but that they were manifestly not reliant, as much of our poetry is, on a device of romantic intimacy: one person deploying that musicality to 'sing' to another, with the reader either pretending to overhear, or to be the person addressed.

As I saw in Somaliland, looking out on audiences in their hundreds, raucous in their delight at Gaarriye's driven, witty performances, these are not poems which need to pretend to have listeners, and the particular way in which they are 'public' has interesting ramifications for both the translating poet, and the attentive Western audience. I'd like to expand on these, both in terms of their relevance to the translation process and the broader set of influences upon the translating poet, for the rest of this piece.


As Martin argues in his important essay 'On the Concept of "Definitive Text" in Somali Poetry', the Somalis' veneration of poetry manifests itself in a fastidiousness about the accuracy of the recital, or, more precisely, a fastidious intent to be accurate:

'The performance of maanso is not something to which the reciter brings an affective contribution...it is the words which are of primary importance as is the painting rather than the frame. In other words the nature of the act of performing maanso is something which foregrounds the words themselves...the fact that variations may be found [in performance] does not detract from the central concept of the goal of verbatim memorization which implies the presence of the conception of a definitive text in the mind of the Somalis. The fact that the composer of the poem must always be acknowledged supports this.'

This respect for an integrity the poem is understood to possess in an a-textual state, that is, without the need for it ever to appear in print, is manifested specifically as an awareness of its content (as well as its formal integrity and the ownership of its author). Such respect, in itself, points to an interesting definition of 'public poetry'. Somali poetry is not public simply because it is addressed to a plural audience in a public setting. It is public because all its premisses of persona, form, tone and subject are to a marked extent shared by both poet and audience.

What the Somali poet is performing, in terms of subject, can seem more varied than our lyric mode; the politics of protest, for instance, play an honoured role, and the poem 'Geeridii Ina Boqor (Death of a Princess),' for instance, offers a trenchant critique of Saudi society. But, crucially, how it is performed must conform structurally to that shared pool of knowledge: a Somali audience traditionally heckles two types of failure: that of the alliteration and that of the metre.

All this impacts in two main ways on Western poets and their audiences. The first is that these structural certainties support length - arguments and images can be developed, instances can be enumerated: in short, rhetoric can be deployed as a performative as well as an argumentative principle.

When I was working on these pieces, I asked Martin whether the frequent divisions within a text corresponded to stanzas. He said they did not, and I began to think of them instead as simple verse paragraphs. Then, when I heard Gaarriye and other Somali poets read, I discovered that these short gaps were actually spaces for audience appreciation. As some rhetorical or imagistic or alliterative flourish was presented, which the poet knew would appeal to his audience, he paused for applause. This 'interruption' of the poem occurs very infrequently during a reading in the UK, though any poem which, without such pauses, is felt to go on too long, is often criticised as too 'rhetorical'. Gaarriye's example calls us to reconsider such terms.

In translating him, we had to begin with a premiss that each poem required as much rhetorical integrity and argumentative force as possible to sustain the attention of a Western audience. Each of those pauses, for instance, had to become as syntactically neat as possible. In 'Garaad-daran (Self-misunderstood),' I therefore embellished each of the iterations of the refrain 'Garaad-daran naftaydaay!' with a new term:

       I can't understand you, curious self...

       I can't get to grips with you, gregarious self...

       I can't seem to fix you, quarrelsome self...

       I can't get to grips with this garrulous self...

This allowed me to emphasise either the alliterative sound (G), or bring out the play of puns and near-puns on his own name Gaarriye comes up with in this poem on the growth of a poet's mind. Then, with Martin's cautious approval, I added a summative element just before the conclusion, to give that Western listener a firmer handle on this poem of length: 'Curious, gregarious, garrulous self,/did you fail to grasp the stifling norms?/To quarrel...'.

Ironically, given this, our only major deviation, the second main impact of the Somali sense of 'definitive text' on our translation was in terms of integrity. Just as another Somali, reciting someone's poem, must provide the author's name and aim for 'verbatim memorization,' to use B.W. Andrzejewski's term, so, for a translator from Somali, textual accuracy is a higher than usual priority. This is one case in which the version, for a frequently bilingual Somali audience, decidedly will not do. Martin and I therefore agreed that (with certain clearly-argued exceptions!) following the meaning took priority over such gestures as attempting, for instance, to find a consistent rhythmic equivalent.

3. Gebaggebo (End)

When a horse walks into a bar, joke logic compels the barman to ask, 'Why the long face?' Perhaps the same is true of camels, but when a poet walks into the same establishment, the barman feels at liberty to protest, 'Why the long poem?' Therefore for me, as a committer of poems which occasionally go 'over the page,' this issue of the rhetorical integrity of a substantial 'public' poetry, was of great personal value. It was the element which fed me creatively.

I had noticed, when Gaarriye and I first read together, in Liverpool's Bluecoat Centre, that the large Somali audience were not content to sit still, to be rapt as the master rapped. On the contrary, they clapped, exhorted, got up, took photos with their mobiles, posed in those photos with Gaarriye, called people up, asked Gaarriye to speak to those people, or attempted to capture him reciting down the line. Through all this he indefatigably, indeed insouciantly, continued to perform - and therefore so did I.

In other words I learnt that the well-made poem is sufficiently robust. If it is very well-made, it induces applause and, here and there, that rapt look occurs for real, not through politeness. It doesn't require our reverence or more polite forms of appreciation, only the space in which to, as Martin says, 'foreground the words'. Everything else is background noise.

Supplementing this insight, the Somali sense of the 'integrity' of the poem was of equal importance to me as a teacher of my own, not very xer-like, body of students. I've been looking for a long time for a way of describing the strange manner in which a poem exists at each stage up to the point of publication. That ghost shape which haunts the head, perhaps accompanied by a title or the hollow frame of a stanza, perhaps not; those few scraps and fragments that hang around, sometimes for years, waiting for major drafting to be done; the working draft that undergoes major or minor changes as a result of (or in defiance of) feedback from a peer or mentor - in each case there is a sense of a gravitational centre, something which it is necessary for the composing poet if no-one else to believe in as the 'poem'.

It has always seemed too premature a moment to apply the term 'text' to this fluid entity, with all the theoretical issues which haunt that term. But the Somali sense of a goal to which the recited poem is constantly aspiring strikes me as a more evolved idea of a similar type. 'Text' in this context becomes a post hoc rationalisation, a concept to which we might prefer this aspiration of a particular confluence of language and metric patterning to achieve structural coherence.

Between these two nutritious revelations, I feel I've experienced a feast of words and experiences which will enrich my practice for some time to come. As it says at the (temporary) close of 'Uurkubbaale' (the poem is in two halves of which, so far, we have only translated the first):

      Dear God, don't seal this man's lips --
      may the truth he speaks continue
      as though it burst fro my own mouth.

1 Traditionally, maanso is the most consciously literary mode of Somali poetry; Martin notes in 'On the Concept of "Definitive Text" in Somali Poetry': 'a maanso poem [is considered to be] constructed in three parts: arar, dhexdhexaad and gebaggebo, which we might translate as "introduction", "middle section" and "end" respectively.'

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