We first began translating the young Somali poet Xasan Daahir Ismaaciil ‘Weedhsame’s poem ‘Catastrophe’ in a workshop held in March 2014. Since then this powerful poem has become tragically more relevant as hundreds of refugees from conflict and economic collapse have died trying to cross the sea to Europe, many of them Somalis.

This vivid, stirring poem confronts the same catastrophe as Caasha Lul Mohamud Yusuf's The Sea-Migrations: the countless numbers of Somalis forced into exile only to lose their lives at sea.

The section of the poem we translated last year began with the poet addressing the sea, blaming the disaster on the sea himself. In that workshop we completed the sea’s riposte when he accuses the Somali people of not learning their lesson from the tragic deaths that have continued to mount up. 

As you'll see, we focussed first on a powerful section where the poet accuses the sea of wanton murder. However, affronted, the sea replies, pointing out that responsibility for this wasteful loss of life is that of weak government. In this later section the sea takes umbrage and he turns on the people, insisting they themselves are solely responsible for the collapse of Somali society, a catastrophic state of affairs that’s led so many young people to embark on such a dangerous – and financially ruinous – journey.

Somali poetry is notoriously challenging to translate into English, largely for two reasons: many aspects of traditional, nomadic Somali culture are very different from those of urban English-speakers, meaning that we lack the vocabulary to describe their very particular weather systems and customs, for example; and Somali is a Cushitic language that’s a great distance, linguistically, from (Indo-European) English.

If you take a look at Martin Orwin’s literal version which deliberately stays very close to Weedhsame’s original (we translated lines 26 lines from 'The extermination that sea-migration brings –' to Why should you arouse lamentation/guilt from it [this]?) you’ll notice the syntax is very different from standard English, and this is what provoked most discussion. 

With the first stanza (‘The extermination…’) we discussed line 84,’ This incident which just kept going round and round you [i.e. keeps happening to you]’, trying to find a way to get the sense of something being endlessly repeated (which in the Somali idiom is expressed as something going around you) and came up with ‘this catastrophe which keeps coming at you’.

In the next lines the poet is scornful of the people’s inability to learn from these repeated experiences ‘ [Surely] something must be learned from it [i.e. you must learn from it] / Haven't you [pl.] grown old [enough away] from them [the bad things]’. It took a while to unpick the agency in these lines, but we ended up with ‘surely something must be learned from it? / Haven’t you grown any wiser yet?’

The next stanza took us directly into the heart of Somali nomadic culture with its reference to types of rain and animals. With line we decided to leave the 'gu’ rains' as it stands – it’s clear it’s a special, heavy kind of rain and we felt the proper name wouldn’t be too distancing. However, we decided not to use the Somali name for the next line, instead translating gudgude as ‘the afternoon rains’. For the following lines even though camping out in the Lake District was the closest any of us Brits had got to needing to ‘tighten the mats on the daso sticks’, we all appreciated the significance of rain-proofing your home!

The same was true for the following section, starting with 'with your camels and cattle', which refers to animal husbandry: those of us who had no experience of anything other than domestic pets easily grasped the importance of moving your camels away from places where they could be easily attacked by wild animals or become infested with ticks.

The syntax of the next section (starting with 'As you have sold your house') – in some ways, the heart of the poem which articulates the sea’s most damning attack on his audience – proved particularly tricky in terms of syntax and, if you compare our translation with Martin’s literal, you’ll see we’ve changed the order of the Somali lines quite radically. Here the sea accuses Somalis who sell their homes (in order to fund the traffickers’ extortionate fees in the hope of sending their children to Europe) of being ‘neighbours with death’, party to their children’s destruction and, therefore, deserving of no sympathy. A harsh judgement indeed.

Although we’ve still not completed the translation of this exhilarating and powerful poem, we were delighted with our progress and hope you find our efforts worthwhile. Comments would be very welcome indeed.

Sarah Maguire, Workshop Facilitator

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