Clare Pollard on Translating Caasha Lul Mohamud Yusuf

By: Clare Pollard,

Martin Orwin and WN Herbert have both written brilliant essays about the challenges of co-translating Somali – essays that were invaluable when I began this project -- so I will attempt instead just to say a little about my particular experience of co-translating Caasha Lul Mohamud Yusuf.

Having been excited by the possibilities of translation for some time - I have collaborated on many Hungarian translations and am working on a new version of Ovid’s Heroides - I was pleased to be invited to work with a Somali poet by the Poetry Translation Centre. From a purely selfish perspective, I felt I would have a huge amount to learn from a poetic culture so radically different from my own, whilst as soon as I read Caasha’s work I also realised that - as young female writers - we have much in common.

At first I worked with Maxamed Xasan 'Alto' and Said Jama Hussein, who provided me with simple, literal translations from the Somali and also met with me to talk through the poems line-for-line and explain the cultural context. In Starbucks and libraries, the complex technicalities of Somali poetry were scribbled down for me on napkins, whilst I also learnt about khat, tribal punishments and camel fat. I began to get a glimpse of a Somalia beyond the news headlines, one which for many is the most beautiful, cultured country in Africa: the pearl of Mogadishu, lush Daallo, deer and honey. And I was also told about Caasha – what a remarkable poet she is, how boldly she takes on traditional (and often male) forms such as the gabay, her fierce technical prowess, the incredible outpouring of emotion in her work.

As I began to understand the poems, it soon became apparent that it is this remarkable contrast between wild feeling and controlled form – the hot and the cool - which I needed to capture. But how? There are many aspects of Somali poetry which can seem clumsy to an English ear: the politically charged rhetoric (readers in the UK often loathe the sense they’re being told what to think), the length and seeming bagginess, the extreme alliteration (entire poems often alliterate on just one letter), the shifts in address, the digressions. In fact, these poems are the opposite of clumsy, they just use techniques which are currently deemed ‘unfashionable’ on Creative Writing circuits (shifts in address are common in Ovid’s work, for example, who can hardly be accused of sloppiness).

It was tempting to make Caasha’s work more palatable for an English audience – to be both translator and editor, knocking off the awkward edges. But instead I decided to damn fashion. It would be ridiculous to tidy and tame such powerful poems. I just had to look outside the mainstream lyric for models.

Reading Simon Armitage’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight helped – in its alliteration and caesuras Somali poetry is strikingly reminiscent of Anglo-Saxon verse, and the fact readers have embraced Armitage’s version meant that perhaps they could handle Somali translations that alliterated heavily too. In Caasha’s ‘The Sea-Migrations’ I managed to keep the poem alliterating on D – the d-d-d sound giving the poem a ferocity that makes it almost feel like a pummeling:

They are devoured, picked dry by sharks and sea creatures,
wild dogs eat them like darib, the best camel fat,
and many dead bodies lie decaying on our shores
defiled by strangers' eyes, skin peeled off their carcasses,

their lives end in distress, and there will be no decent burial.

In the remarkable ‘Recollection’, about the experience of Somali women in Europe, I also managed to mimic the original’s music somewhat by having it alliterate in G - I think the repetitive, guttural sound underlines the horror and monotony of the woman’s life.

I also realised that Caasha’s work has much in common with the best contemporary performance poetry and drew on this to make my co-translations work out-loud, signaling that they are part of an ‘oral’ tradition. Caasha reads quickly, reminding me of stage-poets who use tumbling, almost hip-hop rhythms. Thinking about performance poetry helped with many aspects of Caasha’s work, particularly the way in which it seeks to directly engage the audience and make them question their own lives. In ‘The Writer’s Rights’ the ‘you’ is the public – it is a dazzling political speech in which we are implored to help protect those who bear witness in Somalia:

Honestly, I swear:
you can't harm the journalist or singer,
you must never harm the poet.

In ‘Taste’, the use of ‘you’ creates a real intimacy, as the reader becomes a close female friend sharing insights about men:

Though he may place you in a skyscraper
and fill your world with glass
or fashion, or your demands,
arriving at your door with every whim,
if he's not to your taste, he's just a blocked path.

And, of course, meeting Caasha in person was an inspiration. We have now done six readings together for the Poetry Translation Centre and I have enjoyed her company hugely. She is poised, no-nonsense and has a wicked sense of humour. Every reading she turned up breathless at the train station – running slightly late - with a fabulous, coordinating head-scarf. Every reading she blew the audience away with her integrity and passion.

Translating Caasha’s poetry is an experience that will definitely impact upon my own writing. It makes me want to tear up a lot of mainstream English poetry’s ‘rules’. The expansiveness and engagement of Somali poetry makes much work coming from the UK seem a bit cramped: it challenges us to be bolder. And Caasha has made me question many of my ingrained assumptions. When I told her how much of my work involves teaching creative writing, she giggled at the idea. ‘Writing can’t be taught,’ Caasha told me. ‘It is a gift from god.’ Looking at her poems, I can believe it.