From the Translator: On Translating Burundian Poetry

I met poet Abdoul Mtoka during the summer of 2013, in Bujumbura, when Burundian writer and literary organizer Ketty Nivyabandi gave me his phone number. We corresponded by text message, which enabled me to appear much more fluent in French than I actually am, and led to a somewhat awkward meeting over coffee at a café in downtown Bujumbura, a hodgepodge of English and French that cemented our relationship in translation. Soon thereafter, Mtoka sent me a selection of his Swahili-language poems that had been published in France. I had told him at the time that I would like to try my hand at translating his poetry, if I could find a suitable partner. That, it turned out, would be the difficulty that forced the project onto the back burner, as I worked on several other translation projects, mostly from the Spanish.

Once Word Without Borders agreed to do this month’s feature on Burundian writing, I knew that I wanted to include Mtoka. Because Mtoka’s poetry comes from the Swahili tradition—I think of the Tanzanian poet Euphrase Kezilahabi and the Kenyan poet Alamin Mazrui as contemporaries—I felt like his was an important voice to include, as a representative of Swahili-speaking Burundi as well as the larger regional aesthetics of his Swahili-writing contemporaries. I began investigating potential translation partners using the best resource at my disposal: Facebook Messenger.

When I asked my friend Jean Claude Nduwimana if he knew of any Swahili speakers willing to collaborate on bringing Mtoka’s poems into English, he responded enthusiastically, offering to do so himself. Jean Claude is a talented translator who speaks English, French, and Kirundi as well as Swahili. Just a few days later he sent me his literal cribs of the poems, and we then went through several rounds of questions and revisions before arriving at our final translations.

This was not the first time that I’ve worked from cribs—I’ve translated poems from several indigenous Mexican languages via Spanish, and I’ve collaborated with other language experts to translate poems from Chakma, Kinyarwanda, and Kirundi—but each experience is different. Poetry translated from non-Western traditions sometimes seems offputtingly didactic to readers accustomed to the poetry that has evolved from Modernism, reflecting its more public role and purpose in the cultures that it comes from and serves.

As an example of our process, I’ve selected one quatrain that underwent significant revision, or, as I’d rather call it, polishing. Here is the Swahili original, followed by Jean Claude’s literal translation:                

Neno halina tena mlinzi
Lavamiwa na kusulubiwa
Nasi tu katika usingizi
Asemae kweli kuharibiwa

Literal Crib

Word has no more protector
Is attacked and crucified
And we are in a sleep
He who speaks the truth get damaged

In response, I asked him three questions: 1) if, in the first line “no more” had any temporal quality to it; 2) if the “is” that begins the second line was a copula belonging to the “Word” from the first line, or whether its conjugation in Swahili implied a subject of its own; and 3) if the “sleep” in line three referred to a specific instance of sleeping or to the state of sleep. Based on his responses, I made the following changes to make the poem as fluid and accurate as possible:

Revision 1

The word no longer has any protector
It is attacked and crucified
And we are in a state of sleep
He who speaks the truth gets injured

Once Jean Claude had approved the first revision, I went back over the entire text, striving to make Mtoka’s work function better as an English-language poem, primarily by employing more idiomatic speech, like in the first and fourth line, but also paying close attention to the repetition of sounds.

Revision 2

No one stands up for the word
It is attacked and crucified
And we are in a state of sleep
Speaking truth is under threat

Our translation is ultimately quite liberal, but we feel it reproduces the spirit of the original. The original poem, for example, has an A-B-A-B rhyme scheme that we forewent reproducing. Translating rhyme will teach any aspirant translator the absurdity of what we casually call “accuracy” as a goal. The challenge of reproducing the rhyme, which is one of the most extreme of the conventional linguistic strategies employed in poetry, often results in significant semantic variation and syntactic divergence. It’s these decisions, whether we opt to devote ourselves to form or content, that force the translator into the creative space where poetry is born.