My Abebà


It was a real pleasure to translate this poignant, powerful poem by Ribka Sibhatu.

As you'll see, we reversed the syntax of the first couple of lines so they flowed better. 'Asmarina', someone who lives in Asmara, is an affectionate, diminutive term, which is why we translated it 'a girl from Asmara'.

Andre had been puzzled by 'bistre'; but Cristina Viti, a native Italian speaker, pointed out that it can also mean 'kolh', which made perfect sense in the context.

The first time that 'alghelghel' was used we decided to add 'basket' in order to avoid having a footnote; we did the same thing with 'hmbascià' bread. Subsequently, we just used the Eritrean terms without glossing them.

'Un'intensa notte', which Andre translated as 'an intense night' also carries a sense of intense as in a deep colour. We thought about translating this as 'momentous' and then hit upon 'indelible' which, like the Italian, has the sense of depth of hue.

Haz-Haz, a district of Asmara situated on top of a hill away from the city centre. It is known for its small alleys and cone-shaped houses.

Abebà: flower.

Bistro: either 1) café or 2) bistre: 1) a brown pigment extracted from the soot of wood, often used in pen and wash drawings. 2) a yellowish to dark-brown colour.

Aghelghel: A basket woven from palm fronds used to hold hmbascià. Sibhatu compares this metaphor to Keat's Urn, as a metaphor for a type of beatuy that transcends death.

Hmbascià: A traditional type of bread baked during festive occasions.

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Charles Cantalupo

Greetings!  This is a great poem, and I enjoyed your translation.  Ghirmai Negash and I translated the same poem, which appears in our anthology, Who Needs a Story: Contemporary Eritrean Poetry in Tigrinya, Tigre and English (Asmara: Hdri Publishers, 2006, now distributed by African Books Collective / London). Our translation also appears at http://www.fascicle.com/issue03/poems/eritrean2.htm.  Here it is:
Abeba, my flower from Asmara…
Measured and subtle
As her makeup
And her finely drawn eyes –
She spoke like poetry.
The food her family sent
To prison everyday
Arrived as usual
The day her grave was dug.
I heard her cry.
Later that night
I also heard
The prison guard
Summon her out
And the shot.
She lives in my dreams
And refuses to leave,
Knowing all my secrets
And never letting me rest.
Before she died
She wove a basket
Inscribed “for my parents” –

Abeba, my flower from Asmara…
Who never blossomed.
My cell-mate.

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