Encounters of language and poetry at Nordic Somali Festival

Caasha Lul Mohamud Yusuf, visiting poet at Nordic Somali Book Fair Helsinki

“A reading nation is a happy nation” was the theme of the seminar day on Friday 9/12/2016 at Pasila Library, organised as part of the Nordic Somali Week Festival of Helsinki.

Poetry, literature and storytelling have been strongly present in the activities that diasporic Somali-speakers organize also in the Nordic region. Somali Book Fairs (Somalikirjamessut) have been organized in the city libraries of Helsinki, Espoo and Turku, regularly at least since 2007 as a collaboration between libraries and several Somali speaking associations. Libraries organize storytelling events for families in Somali language, and literary events related to the Somali language gather numerous audiences. The Somali speaking diaspora has also succeeded to organize the distribution of books in a geographically wide area, partly aiming to maintain the language and the strong storytelling tradition, partly to renew and create new literature in changing contexts.

Nordic Somali Week was organized both in Helsinki and Stockholm as a collaboration between libraries and several associations

One of the programme units of Friday’s event at Pasila Library that also the non-speakers of Somali language could partly follow, was a poetry reading of Caasha Lul Mohamud Yusuf , Somali poet based in Britain, appreciated for her technical skill and emotional force. She read her poems in Somali in company of British poet Clare Pollard who read her versions of Caasha Lul’s poems translated to English. The translation process was a collaboration with Maxamed Xasan ‘Alto’ and Said Jama Hussein, coordinated by The Poetry Translation Centre, which translates, publishes and tours contemporary poets from Africa, Asia and Latin America, aiming to introduce new audiences to poets who have arrived from around the world.

Though the Poetry Translation Centre is based in Britain, its model could be adapted also in the Nordic Countries. Actually, there have been examples of this kind, e.g. Runokohtauksia project in Turku, Finland that used a similar strategy. The translation process at the Poetry Translation Centre is often done as a process between three persons; a poet in the original language, a linguist or a linguistically trained translator, and an English poet who creates the final text in English, after long and detailed conversations about the content and form of the original poems. The website of the centre shows the path from the original poem from one language to another in a transparent way through three versions. Original poems, literal translations to English and the final editions are all published. This allows a curious reader to travel around the content and form that both float in the translation process.

A short extract of Caasha Lul Mohamed Yusuf’s poem The Writer’s Rights  / Xaqa suxufiga in the three versions lets us imagine other possibilities that each translated poem could take when finding a form in a very different language:

Original fragment in Somali by Caasha Lul Mohamud Yusuf:

Marka ay xannibantee
Taladu ay xayirantee
Xagaldaaca keentana
Fannaankaa u xaytoo
Ka dillaacsha xuubkoo
Xantoobsada dhibaatada
Oo ma geyaan xumaatada.

The same fragment in a literal translation made by Maxamed Xhasan ‘Alto’:

Third, when things are bogged down
And no progress can be made to break the deadlock
And the situation is falling apart in a chaotic and disorderly way,
It’s the poet who rolls his sleeves up
Start peeling the layers of difficult and ask the right questions
And takes up the matter onto his/her shoulder
So it’s forbidden to be harmed or treated cruelly.

The same fragment in the final translation made by Clare Pollard:

Thirdly, when life’s muddied
and nothing can drag it out
and things fall to chaos,
it’s the poet who’s needed,
unpeeling, peering,
taking matters on their shoulders.
You mustn’t crush them either.

Clare Pollard writes about the experience of translating / editing Caasha Lul Mohamud Yusuf’s poetry and tells about the discussions that little by little opened both the content of the poems and the complex technicalities of Somali poetry, specifically the gabay genre that Caasha Lul Mohamud Yusuf uses:

“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? “

(Clare Pollard’s article on translating Caasha Lul Mohamud Yusuf)

The experience of translation became meaningful for the involved poets. Pollard tells that the encounter between very different poetic traditions made her question unwritten rules and renew her assumptions:

“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.”

The Nordic Somali Week Festival at Helsinki was organized by Kayd Somali Arts and Culture (London), Redsea Cultural Foundation (Hargeisa), Somaliland Seura.ry (Finland) and Pasila Library. A partly parallel event was organized also in Stockholm.