Monday, 3 June 2013

...And Then One Day I Realised That I Loved Sudanese Poetry

I recently attended another Poetry Translation Centre workshop, which I've just occasionally been able to go to, where we (poets, translators, poet translators) translate a poem collaboratively. This time it was a poem by Ateif Khieri, an important Sudanese poet writing in Arabic (and now sadly exiled in Australia).

It was a fun evening. We ended up laughing quite a lot, which was a surprise, as it's not a particularly humorous poem. You can judge for yourself and read the poem, 'Exhortation to the Village (8)', on this link. (This is the final translated version, but there are also links to the original Arabic, and to the more literal early translation which we worked from.


There were a number of things about this poem which really got under my skin. The literal translation, which I had looked at quickly before the workshop, had something about it that reminded me of Paul Celan. I think it was the element of the surreal, and the sense that a really deep engagement with the original language and the meaning of the words, and some background about the poem's cultural roots, would help immensely. I mean, all of this is probably very much the case for most translation of poetry - but more so in some cases.

Sarah Maguire led the workshop as usual (I also love her own poetry), and we were really fortunate to have Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi there, who is friends with Ateif Khieri and whose own Sudanese Arabic-language poetry is, I hope, just about to take...everyone by storm. He and the first translator Samuel Wilder, and others in the workshop with a knowledge of Arabic, were able to help us with a closer engagement. The depth of meaning in many of the Arabic words is remarkable and this made the translation very challenging, but very interesting and rewarding.

The other thing that got me about 'Exhortation to the Village (8)' was simply a very, very strong feeling of familiarity. It came over me particularly with these lines:

After two streets of grief
I know
and treacherous paths toward the lord

The whole poem seems to find an intense, almost traumatized meaning (either positive or negative) in the details that surround the poet, in everyday life. And I still don't know what is familiar about it - whether it reminds me of another poem, or whether it is a less specific emotional familiarity.


  1. I don't know how it's possible for so many disparate things to leap out at me from the spare lines of a single short poem, but that's my experience here. The poet's 'the crates of fruit terrify' reminds me of nothing so much as Sylvia Plath's 'The tulips are too excitable'. And, as in Plath, I sense a feeling of barely suppressed panic under the otherwise mostly peaceful words of the whole. There is something zenlike, too: a few verbal brushstrokes suggesting entire worlds, oddly contradictory and internally explosive, which intrigue. I think a person could profitably compare the work of Ateif Khieri with that of the Russian Marina Tsvetaeva, another poet for whom the cultural and linguistic context would reign supreme.

    1. I think your comparison with Sylvia Plath (which I hadn't notice - although she and Paul Celan remind me of each other at times) is very perceptive. There is a real sense that the poet's alternately confused and frightened, or resolute and optimistic, mindset is imbuing his (often prosaic) surroundings with all sorts of emotional weight and metaphoric power, and Plath did that so well.

      It was so helpful to have several Arabic speakers in the workshop (either native speakers, or having learned the language and worked in translation) because the words have such depth. Having another great Sudanese poet like Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi there to help was amazing. It was especially useful to learn about the influence of Sufism on Sudanese poetry - and to learn that in Sudanese culture, yes, despair actually does at times appear in the form of a goat... (I think us Westerners found this sort of funny and shattering at the same time.)

      I have only read a little of Marina Tsvetaeva and very much want to read more!