Virginity

by Ribka Sibhatu

To a bride, her virginity can be more important than her eyes. In
our tradition, if a bride isn't a virgin, the day after her wedding, we
return her to her parents' house, dress her in a wonciò, and set her on a donkey. This is considered a disgrace by the whole family. During the war, people fled the city for the countryside. To adapt, you had to make sacrifices, like carrying twenty litres of water on your shoulders, even if the well was three or four kilometres away. In 1981, I was a refugee in Adi Hamuscté, some twenty kilometres from Asmara. One afternoon, a handsome youth and four old men came to the house where I was staying, and explained that the young man, whom I'd never seen before, wanted to marry me, because a day earlier, he'd had the misfortune to discovered that his bride had been violated! If my father had agreed, and I'd refused their proposal, I'd have risked either being married off or being cursed by my father. The curse of a parent is a child's worst fear. So I had an idea: to declare that I too had suffered an irreparable incident...! I leave you to imagine my father's reaction who, in the eyes of our community, was also disgraced. This young man of ours left without a word in search of his virgin.

The literal translation of this poem was made by Andre Naffis-Sahely

The final translated version of the poem is by The Poetry Translation Workshop

Notes

Translating this remarkable prose poem was a real delight. The piece works on so many different levels and registers and, throughout, is infused with ironies which are rendered with wonderful understatement. The challenges we faced were how to signal the shift of tones whilst remaining true to the original's lightness of touch.

Andre, and the other native Italian speakers in the workshop, recognised certain awkward moments in the original which are clearly intentional as Ribka Sibhatu has flawless Italian. Again, we wanted to retain those anachronisms, such as the 'handsome youth' which, in English, sounds rather old-fashioned.

We also struggled with the position of the authorial voice and its distance, or intimacy, with what's being related here. Andre had used 'you' to recount what was done to violated brides, whereas a strict translation of the Italian would be 'one'. We settled on 'we' to give the sense of an impersonal, unreachable force acting upon her.

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