They Pounced at Dawn

by Ismaciil Mire

Honestly, my wife, not one of my forefathers
Nor I have ever once traded with money.
Our ancestors always had camels,
And I got my share from the camel raids.
Only once I ventured where my father never went.
I loaded the camels; it took four nights to reach the village.
The minute I got to the gate of Burco with my goods,
The brokers pounced as if they knew I was coming.
As dawn broke, the sheepsellers set upon us.
Godless men gathered against us.
I was struck dumb when they prodded the sheep.
'It's worth this much', 'No it isn't', they haggled bluntly.
Their squabbling distressed me.
I trusted the man with the squint but he cheated me.
They tried to placate me with less than four shillings,
While I watched the hands that swindled me.
As for the sheep you're all asking about, they are now with
   men
Who deserve to be strung up on thorns by their heels.
All I was left with was rags and a stick.
Some men know more about money than me. Ask them!

The literal translation of this poem was made by Martin Orwin

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

Notes

The original text is taken from a collection of Ismaciil Mire's poems introduced, annotated and written down by Axmed Faarax Cali 'Idaajaa', published in Mogadishu in 1974 by Wasaaradda Hiddaha iyo Tacliinta Sare (Ministry of Culture and Higher Education), Akademiyaha Dhaqanka (The Academy of Culture).

The literal version is an early translation by Martin rather than a strictly literal version. It nevertheless reproduces Mire's syntax and phrasing closely.

Final translation notes:
'camel raids': we modified the expression 'cattle raids', which are familiar from the history of the English and Scottish borders, and the border ballads.

'I ventured where my father…': 'ventured' both captures the metaphorical meaning — 'had an experience' — and the literal — 'travelled to a physical place', in this case the town.

'I loaded the camels. It took four nights…': we've rearranged the order of these two statements to follow the sequence of events as they happened. The English of the literal version - 'which the camels were loaded up for…' — dwells on the purpose of the loading, and so introduces logical explanation, which vitiates the dramatic immediacy that characterises the poem.

'as if they knew I was coming': flirts with the expression 'they saw you coming', but tries to avoid the straight colloquialism-become-cliché.

'Godless men gathered against us': we've avoided the dominant characteristic of the gabay form — the repeated alliteration of a single sound. This line suggests a possible experiment which translates the gabay in the alliterative style of Ezra Pound's Seafarer or Seamus Heaney's Beowulf. 'Gathered against us' compacts both the metaphorical meaning of 'conspiratorially' — a meeting of wills in order to plan harm — and the literal sight of these sheepsellers in a group in front of the speaker. It's a pointed ambiguity since the poem blends a vivid visual sense of events that the speaker did not understand at the time with his rueful later realisation that he's been swindled.

'prodded': there's a trade-off of precisions here. We've lost 'the shoulders', but gained the particular collocation of 'prodded' and livestock. Perhaps we should have found a way to keep 'the shoulders'. Elsewhere we've attempted to preserve the visual impact of his description, which suggests a consciousness observing but not quite understanding the significance of what it's observing.

'squabbling': the Somali uses a single verb, and so consistent with Ezra Pound's 'use no superfluous word, no adjective, which does not reveal something', we compacted the adjective + noun of 'stubborn arguing'.

'I trusted the man with the squint': we've integrated the locution 'the one whom I trusted', which sounds formal, into colloquial phrasing, which communicates the situation more effectively of a story recounted to a group.

'As for the sheep': we've chosen a strong colloquial marker — 'as for' — to indicate the transition from the time of the story to the time of its telling.

'by their heels': 'Achilles tendon' has a medical precision which vitiates the aggression of the statement. 'By their heels' restores it.

'a stick': a more difficult case of the superfluous adjective was the 'whip-like' which we excised from the literal version. 'Stick' alone communicates the sense that the speaker is left with a worthless object after he has lost his sheep; yet 'whip-like' does add a further meaning. A whip would be used to drive the livestock he no longer possesses, and so it's a pointed reminder of what's gone. Having said this, the '-like' suffix is a concocted way of producing adjectives in English; it draws too much attention to a moment of the Somali which is less conspicuous and which confirms the preceding narrative rather than altering it.

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