Sunday, 21 April 2013

The Poems of Abdellatif Laâbi: "Only Vagabonds Can Be Poets..."

Poems - Abdellatif Laâbi, translated by André Naffis-Sahely (The Poetry Translation Centre Ltd, 2013)
The poetry of Abdellatif Laâbi has seen relatively little translation into English as yet, although he is viewed as a key contemporary poet in the Arab and French-speaking worlds. Also a novelist, and awarded the Prix Goncourt for poetry in 2009, this Moroccan poet was imprisoned for several years in the 70s and 80s for his literary work and political views. You can read his biography, and other translations of his poetry, on the Abdellatif Laâbi page at the Poetry Translation Centre website. (I was fortunate enough to take part in one of the Poetry Translation Centre's translation workshops, where I helped to translate a couple of the poems on the website.)
The Poetry Translation Centre specialises in translations of and collaborations with contemporary poets from Africa, Asia and Latin America, and this is the latest in a series of chapbooks which bring such work to a wider audience. Elegantly produced, these chapbooks always feature facing originals with the translations - a big advantage for discerning the shape and sound of the originals, even if you don't understand the original language - and a high standard of translation.
The ten poems in the chapbook include longer and shorter pieces, and a few prose poems as well. Forceful and often angry, they touch on subjects such as corrupt leadership ('The Wolves'), the power of language and poetry ('The Poem Tree') and questions of spirituality and its motives ('The Elegant Sufi'). Laâbi is sparing with his words, and the poems tend to end on a note of dark realism rather than optimism: "My head turned to the East/I lie in the middle of the road/and wait for the caravan of the mad" ('I'm a Child of This Century').
I was particularly moved by 'The Earth Opens and Welcomes You', which was written for an Algerian writer, Tahar Djaout, who was murdered by extremists. The poem is an elegy and a call for his work to be remembered:
The earth opens
and welcomes you
One day, your beloved will rediscover
your legendary smile
and mourning will come to an end
Your children will grow
and read your poems unashamed
Your country will heal, as if by magic
when men consumed by the illusion
will drink from the fountain of your kindness
(from 'The Earth Opens and Welcomes You')
The translations are for the most part elegant and effective, but I felt that occasionally the subtleties of the original French were lost (French being the one language where I am able to comment on the originals). For example, in 'The Wolves', the wolves "stuff their faces with fresh game/elect their token Judas by show of hands", a good translation; but "Ils mangent a treize" ("They eat in a group of thirteen"), which reinforces the idea of a twisted Last Supper, has been lost. French has a cutting edge that English often doesn't, and this was not always conveyed, but in general Naffis-Sahely has acquitted himself well with the challenges of these poems.
I'm a big fan of the Poetry Translation Centre's work and mission, and this is an excellent addition to their list of publications. I really hope that it will bring Abdellatif Laâbi's impassioned vision to more English readers.

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