Can poetry be successfully translated into another language? It depends on the kind of poetry and the capacity of the translator. I have read some books, which show the capacity of the translator.
They are so good that they make you wonder what the original was like. They read like an original – flowing language. The original is rendered so successfully that one feels the translator is at home in both languages.
I cannot place Wubet … Qinyet (Wubet … Poetry) among the books of poetry that can successfully be translated into another language. A short book by Aron Tesfalem Kelkai, Wubet has poems in Tigrigna on various topics. It is divided into five sections, though the author had no particular reason to organise his book in such a way.
One of the longest, Section 1, has nine poems, in most of which the persona writes admiringly about the beauty of women. In some the male persona compares himself with the woman of his admiration, and finds her wanting. The two exceptions are, ‘Bilhaten’ (Their Wisdom) and ‘Elala’ (The Chatty One). In the former, a group of women compose and sing a song about a woman that has not kept the culture because she slept with a man before her wedding day. In the latter, a child chats to his mother and asks her if there is tihlo (a delicious food in the Tigrigna ethnic group) after death and his mother responds.
In Bilhaten, it is surprising to see this modern time a poet endorsing a custom which oppresses women. In the poem, the poet negates his observations (in the first seven poems) that as partners or wives women play a significant role in men’s lives. He reveals whose side (the oppresive culture or the victimised woman’s) he is on in the first line: “It is care … that she may not sin again …” and then gives readers the content of the women’s song: “… I have heard that so and so has sinned …”
Section 2 has 16 poems. However, unlike in Section 1, the picture that introduces this section gives little information about the content of the section. In the picture, we see a family at a table, the man spicing a piece of bread offering it to his wife, as a little child sits on the floor while a little older girl has a lighted lamp on her head, which saves the woman and the man from the darkness.
One way or another, this section deals with family life. In it, the poet gives the problem of poor people much emphasis as he describes their sufferings and their problems. In Meqabir (The Grave) he has this statement: “The grave saves people from their problems. So does home. It won’t be inappropriate if the words are used interchangeably for the time being.” It doesn’t appear to Aron as dog’s life the kind he describes in Meqabir, in which daughters and their husbands live in the same house as their parents, and their brother and his wife. “The beauty of life is in living together,” he observes. “The point in [forming a family] is in living in one place”. Referring to the family in the poem, he asks: “Where is the harm for the family in their living together?”
In Section 3, there are only three poems. A translation of ‘Minbar’ (Life), one of the poems follows.
To live in …
To live in … no Life
Not to live
A and B
For the sake of Life.
A kerosene lamp, used in rural Eritrea in the past, introduces Section 4. In this section, Mr. Aron gives us a conversation between a dying man and Death, in which the latter tells the man: “Too late! You are dead – You have really died. Come on! The life I give you is much better!” Man excelling Satan in his evil ways, and a man rejecting Satan’s offer of peace are some of the ideas the poet discusses in this section. In short, Section 4 deals with the supernatural and the afterlife.
Section 5 is introduced with a picture of a typical room in highland Eritrea. Three stoves, and three chickens, and some household items grace the room. If the picture is intended to give readers some idea about the section, I think it fails to do that for the section discusses digital war, expression of thought, bad-mouthing, hard-work, and other issues. I can’t see how the picture is related to the section.
However, this doesn’t mean the section doesn’t have any interesting poems. It has some poetry that makes the reader think. Some of the best poems in the book are found in this section. Take, for example, this very brief poem, “Bahrikha” (Your Character) on how our character could be our ruin or our prosperity.
Is your grave-digger
Your guide or director.
One also finds ‘Darga Zeykede’ (He is Almost Alive), my favourite and one of the best poems in the book. By the way, this is one of the poems that people won’t find translating to another language.
He is Almost Alive
“I am here for you,”
He told me in the morning
In the evening,
He was gone; He left,
Left without a trace
But he left me his strength
See I am alive
Like everybody else.
In Wubet … Qinyet, Mr. Aron Tesfalem, though he doesn’t limit himself to issues rural, he uses objects, concepts, and means of communication that are peculiarly used in rural Tigrigna areas. His poems are full of words that are rarely used in urban areas. The good thing about these poems, however, is that one can guess the meaning of these unfamiliar words. Despite this fact, it is hard to make a comment that the poet should have been more careful about word selection because the characters are expected to speak the way the poet, Mr. Aron, has them express themselves.
However, I think he could have added a few footnotes on unfamiliar words or expressions to help readers understand and appreciate his poems better.
To be honest, readers are not hindered from enjoying Aron’s poetry because of his style: in a way only a section of the society can fully understand his choice of words or treatment of issues. Though in one or two poems, he describes a locale and a situation that is very likely to be unfamiliar to most readers, it doesn’t prevent readers from appreciating the poems. It is true in these cases, he should have included a note about the background of the places or the people. But this doesn’t mean readers can not enjoy the poems.
People can read Mr. Aron’s poetry, understand and enjoy them. They can empathize and feel sorry for some of the people in the poems. They can criticise the people for their wrong decisions, or admire their character, etc. But there’s one thing most readers can’t do. They cannot successfully translate most of the poems into another language (if they wanted) for Mr. Aron uses expressions that are exclusively used in Tigrigna. It would be hard to find expressions in their target language that can effectively translate the thoughts carried by the Tigrigna ones. If they were to try it, much of the enjoyment Tigrigna readers derive out of the poems would evaporate into thin air.