Longing

by Mengistu Lemma

The train hauled me out of London —
out of the smoke, the smog, the grime,
the filthy mix of soot and dust —
while the train spun fog from the fabric of steam,
clothing the land with its garment
of blessings and punishment,
Yizze kataf, yizze kataf, goes the powerful weaver.
Isn’t it amazing? Life’s a miracle:
coal smoke set free through the power of coal!

The carriage was big enough for ten,
but no one was brave enough to open the door
I’d shut fast to keep in the warmth.
Instead, they huddled in the corridor,
unwilling to share the warmth with a black man —
even though coal is black, even though
the wealth of England was forged by black coal.

The train whistled like a washint flute;
haystacks dotted the distant fields,
just like the straw roofs of houses in a village at home. And, in the blink of an eye, I turned into
‘a traveller of God’ in the meadows of England….

‘Greetings to your household’, I cried,
I am your “black”, your unexpected, guest:
your kindness to me will bring you God’s blessings’. ‘Welcome, come in!’, the head of the household replied. Then his wife brought a bowl of warm water,
and kneeling down happily to wash my feet,
‘Don’t be shy, my friend’, she said.

First my mouth blessed that tulla beer of Gojjam,
then a bowl arrived, and my empty stomach began to fill
as I licked the linseed oil of Gondar from my fingers;
next, chicken stew rich with curds. Contented,
I yawned. Sleep overcame me as I lay down
on fine cotton and was covered with wool….

Dimly, I heard the door slide open — but was fully awake
by the time it slammed shut. I jumped,
but then calmed myself down,
glowering at the reckless young man,
the brave one who’d dared to enter my den as I slept.
But his spotless shirt and neat matching tie made me laugh: he was so amazingly clean!

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

On the literal translation:

[1] The word tizzita is rich in associations for Amharic speakers. It means ‘remembrance’ but is also the name for one of the musical modes in popular music a mode which is often used for songs which reflect a melancholy longing.

[2] The word used for dust is different to the one used in the line above

[3] washint: an end-blown flute played in Ethiopia similar to the Middle Eastern nay.

[4] Yizger mangadanya this refers to a traveller who on setting out on the journey trusts accommodation and sustenance to God that is to say s/he doesn’t have any prepared stopping places for sleep or food.

[5] T’ïk’ur engada this literally means black guest and is a term used for an unexpected guest. In the countryside the householder would be expected to give hospitality to such a guest something which would endow them with blessing in the eyes of God. The Amharic speaking people of the highlands of Ethiopia referred to here are Ethiopian Orthodox Christians.

[6] This is a loose translation of what is meant by the Amharic verb tagdaraddara.

On the final translation:

The final version was produced in the workshop and then finished by Sarah Maguire.

This was a fascinating poem to translate because it was so challenging and complex. If you look back at the two versions Martin produced – the first a literal translation, the second worked on a little – and then at the final version, you should be able to work out how we got here. So, as it would take to long to go through all the points we struggled with, I’ll just mention those that involved the most discussion.

7 In his 2nd version, Martin translated this as ‘shifting–quickly’, which is what ‘Yizze kataf’, means literally in English. But what’s important here is the onomatopoeia: the train sounds like a clattering loom, which in turn connects with the imagery of the smoke being a garment woven from fog. One of the most effective aspects of ‘Longing’ is its incorporation of the imagery of industrialisation, specifically of clothing.

8 ‘Life’s a miracle’: It’s important that the religious aspect of the poem is retained here.

14 It’s clear from the poem that the people ‘huddled in the corridor’ won’t come into the warmth because of their racism.

17 ‘The train sang with its washint flute’: Another instance where it seems appropriate to retain the original term in Amharic; here, specifically because this is the beginning of a reverie where the speaker is lulled back into a vision of his homeland.

23 ‘I am your “black”, your unexpected, guest’: This caused more discussion than any other part of the poem. The term ‘black guest’ in Amharic means ‘unexpected guest’, and the word ‘black’ is used here without any of the negative connotations it can attract in English. It’s a pivotal moment in the poem because the ‘black guest’ is of course welcomed in Ethiopia (as in many other cultures, unexpected and unknown guests, can bring the hosts blessings from God if they are treated hospitably) whereas the black man is shown being shunned in England. Because this is such an unusual use of the word ‘black’ in English, we decided that the poem would probably need a footnote to explain the Ethiopian context if it were published.

33 ‘Sleep overcame me as they led me to a bed/of fine cotton and then covered me with wool’: In the Amharic, it’s important that the guest is helped to go to sleep by his hosts.

Comments

  1. August 4th, 2013 at 11:10 am

    Sintayhu says:

    I really enjoy it the great poem, and also i am the biggest fan of Mengistu Lemma, thanks for shearing he's poets

  2. May 14th, 2013 at 5:46 pm

    mengesha tesfaw says:

    good

  3. April 24th, 2013 at 12:21 am

    woynshet says:

    i like ethiopoian poem bebuse thy are beside teru story and they really make sance 

     

  4. August 9th, 2012 at 3:48 pm

    ante says:

    amazing poem. thanx

     

  5. December 2nd, 2011 at 9:52 pm

    Dereje mekuria says:

    I am so glad to read the peom from Mengistu Lemma. I wish he had some book in market, I don' know if there are some.

  6. October 29th, 2011 at 9:58 am

    Abrha Tegegn says:

    I got the poem very much interesting. He vividly expressed tizita. It is splendid indeed.

  7. May 17th, 2011 at 11:53 pm

    tewodros heru says:

    amazing

  8. January 15th, 2011 at 12:24 am

    misganaw says:

    እውነት ለብልህ ይነግሩታል እንጂ አይመክሩትም!
        በጣም ላደንቅሕ  እፈልጋለሁ!

    i realy get what i need  before 2 apppriciate gash mengistu!

  9. November 13th, 2010 at 11:59 pm

    Alemayehu says:

    Mengistu usually called Abiye Mengistu is a great poet who pioneered modern poetry in Ethiopia. This piece of his work is remarkable. Actually as compared to the Amharic version the English one is just a glimpse, a glimpse of the original one. Still I like the craftmanship of the translaor as he did a great job rewriting Abiye Mengistu. The poet Mengistu I would say it again is really a poet at heart. Blessings to him, to the translater,  and of course the facilitators....

  10. January 5th, 2010 at 6:28 pm

    pat carrico says:

    How does this poem connect with Agatha Christie's "The Unexpected Guest", do you know?  I'm sure she must have been aware of the poem's existence, but was wondering if you knew more about it.

    Thanks.

  11. August 16th, 2009 at 3:43 am

    Ted N says:

    More Pls.Really enjoyed this poem, it sort of takes you into the moment... I don't know, I'm not a major poetry buff but i liked it quite a lot. Are there any more of this man's poems in translation? If so, Are they purchaseable?

  12. June 11th, 2009 at 9:59 pm

    Kiflom says:

    Mengistu Lemma is a great poet. I remember him from my years at the Institute of Ethiopian Studies where I was serving as a research fellow in linguistics. Your trnaslation of the above piece is wonderful. Mengistu Lemma was a great poet and humorist whose sarcastic remarks can make one roll with laughter. I will always remeber him. Thank you for making a piece of his work available to non-Amharic speakers.

    If you choose to take a recommendation from an old man: I ask you to look into the works of an Ethiopian poet by the name of Tewodros Abebe. As far as my opinion goes, he is simply the best Ethiopian poet at present. His works are the ones I truly enjoy reading next to Mengistu Lemma. I just wanted to send you a small idea with my gratitude. 

    Keep up the good work.   

     

  13. March 20th, 2009 at 9:40 am

    arsema says:

    i cannot comment the great poet's poem.but i can admire & appreciate since i am a great fan of him.