It seems fitting, if unfortunate, that we have had to translate this poem about exile at two removes. While he is arguably the most revered living Tuareg poet, Hawad has had to publish all of his poetry in French editions. He composes his work in Tamazight, but Hawad’s poetry and audience are often first found in French - albeit a French that he translates himself or alongside his wife, Hélène Claudot-Hawad, a leading scholar in Tuareg literature. This particular poem, composed as a commission for a French Literary Festival, acts in some ways as a speech towards its intended audience as well as a lyric expression of the sentiments it conveys. As André Naffis-Sahley, our bridge-translator, explained: the estrangement the poem describes is actually being described towards an audience which the speaker is, in some ways, estranged from.
Throughout the workshop André took time to explain both the nuances of cultural and personal significance, emphasising that this poem was unusual for Hawad in being relatively direct. Unlike the “trippy” verse novels/dramas which he usually writes, this poem seems to come from a single united lyric voice. In trying to find the right words and register for this voice, we felt the need to constantly balance the organic and the manmade elements of suffering and disaster that the poem invokes. So, for instance, the word “tige” in the first sentence might be rendered as either “stalk” or “stem” but also “rod” (to evoke a marker in the desert perhaps). To try and maintain these elements we chose “stick”. Likewise, in the final sentence of the first stanza, the toyed with translating the word “dévoré” as “consumed” to emphasis Hawad’s critique of colonialism and globalisation which have contributed to this enforced exile, but ultimately prefered the visceral “devoured”. We were particularly satisfied with the suggestion of “last rays of nomadic light” for “les rayons de la vie nomade” which gently rendered the elegiac undercurrent of the French into idiomatic English.
This excerpt from the poem represents perhaps the opening third of the whole poem. A documentary on Hawad’s work is available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SPejm_-K_kQ (subtitled in French).
Edward Doegar, Commissioning Editor