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from the July/August 2021 issue

“A Scream That Can No Longer Be Held In”: Translating Rahma Nur’s “Linguistic Threads”

Linguistic threads. IV lines and blood cells. Oppressive silencing. There is a viscerality that emerges when sitting with Rahma Nur’s poem “Fili Linguistici.” In describing her experience as a member of a diaspora living in Italy—the loss of language, the persistent reminder of being other and outsider—Nur juggles the passive and active contestations of how language marks the body and how it shapes one’s experience with loss. Despite being a poem about silencing, "Fili Linguistici," with its staccato rhythm, almost demands to be read out loud.

In an April 2021 essay for Words Without Borders, Jhumpa Lahiri wrote, “The responsibility of translation is as grave and as precarious as that of a surgeon who is trained to transplant organs, or to redirect the blood flow to our hearts.” As translators from Italian, we each found ourselves doing just that when we chose to separately work on rendering Nur’s poem into English for the Bologna Book Fair Plus Poetry Slam. Untangling Nur’s words, uprooting their form and intention, and gently arranging them in English, we each sought to maintain the same care as she did while facilitating an introduction of the poem into the Anglophone world. Nur describes her writing as a scream that can no longer be held in, and in this poem, you can see and hear the inner voice that emerges when pain, rage, and sadness are too much to bear.

“Fili Linguistici” directly engages with questions that should be familiar to many people existing in diaspora—the inherent hybridity of an identity formed not only through loss and separation, but through acquisition and a claiming. In the poem, Nur addresses how people are connected yet divided by language. Published by Formafluens in the fall of 2020, the poem resonated with each of us. As you read our different versions of the poem, we hope that these notes guide you and address questions related to our choices.

“Linguistic Threads” begins by taking the reader through the experience of gathering language and its connection with the land. Nur writes:

In quel passo che allunghi
tra la terra che ti ha visto nascere
e il suolo che ti ha accolto

We each grappled with these beginning lines in different ways. Inspired by the corporeal nature of the piece, and uncertain of just how “welcoming” the suolo/ground actually was, Alta translated these first lines as “As you make headway/between the land where you were born/and the ground that took you in.” Comparatively, Candice and Barbara decided to mirror the subjectivity of the language in Italian, as the second line indicates that the terra, or the land, is also an active subject. As such, Candice translated the lines as “In the step that you take/ Between the land that watched over your birth / And the soil that received you.” While Barbara selected “witness your birth” and mirrored how the verb accogliere in Italian is meant to be positive rather than neutral, hence “the soil that welcomed you.”

From the start, one can tell the different paths each translator chose. For Barbara, the guiding principle undergirding each choice was allowing the reader to encounter the narrator’s feeling of undergoing a transformation. There is a deep-rooted passivity to the narrator’s experience of diaspora and loss that emerges almost immediately in the poem. Candice sought to have the reader get a glimpse into how actions that other you become a regular part of your life. The piece grapples with how language is used to mark, even attack, one’s body, and the exhausting compromises one must make for survival. Alta’s guiding principle, beyond aiming to maintain what she interpreted as the poem’s highly embodied nature, was to respect its words’ many ambiguities—whereby ostensible compliments are really insults, and other subtle shifts in meaning occur.

Nur invites the reader to consider the seemingly intrinsic connection between language and the body, specifically how, and even why, we think of language as something that can course or run through your blood. This coupling between the body and language becomes a site of questioning assumptions. We each translated the lines below differently.

che non permette congetture
ma giudizi perentori

“Congetture” became presumptions, speculation, and conjecture. While we each agreed that “giudizi perentori” represents a judgment, we qualified the activeness of the judgment, as snap, a final call, and absolute.

Each of us considered the othering of the questions and exclamations in Italian and Somali.

1hadaad soomaali tahay maxaad somali ugu hadlin?
come parli bene l’italiano!

Alta immediately noticed that the footnote at the beginning invites readers of the original to read the Italian before reading the line in Somali, and chose instead to invite the reader to absorb the line in Somali by placing the footnote at the end of the line, putting English second. Aware of how the piece speaks to language’s capacity to other, Candice decided not to translate the lines in Italian and Somali and leave them as is, and unitalicized. This helps the reader visualize how interrogations such as this become part of one’s everyday, when language is used to erase how and where someone belongs. For Barbara, leaving the Somali in its original form and translating the Italian into English felt like an appropriate mirroring of Nur’s choices. However, there was an intentional decision not to italicize either phrase in an attempt, in some ways, to demonstrate the innate presence of multilingualism in diasporic experiences.

In the second stanza, Nur describes the contradictions and paradoxes of language. Romantic images come to mind, like music, art, food, and nourishment. Language is also a weapon of oppression. Nur writes:

Dicono che le parole sono musica
dicono che le parole sono cibo
dicono che le parole sono arte
ma non dicono che le parole creano confusione

Alta flexed the poetic structure a little, saying that words “cause / confusion / disorder / discomfort / distance / trouble…”. Recalling texts like Lose Your Mother by Saidiya Hartman and Plantation Memories by Grada Kilomba, Barbara and Candice considered how language is used to erase, to muzzle. The choice for silence and muzzling was meant to illustrate the varying degrees of control on the mouth. Again, these choices indicate how language is something that is done to the narrator, who passively experiences these actions.

Nur continues by contrasting the complexities of adopting language. One language is tied to your blood, your biological mother, while another is adopted, your stepmother. The narrator navigates the concurrent experiences of multilingualism and the loss of language:

che la lingua materna
può diventare matrigna
e quella matrigna diventare materna
che non sono intercambiabili, non sempre
e che si può trascorrere una vita intera
senza parlarne una benché
altre due o tre siano dentro te.
La lingua materna cura
ma può far ammalare
se non la parli bene
e ti leghi a quella matrigna
come una fonte che ti nutre.

Recognizing the violence in the original, Alta sought to demonstrate the contradictions of how language is used by parroting the trope hinted at in the original: that a stepmother is wicked whereas a birth mother is gentle. Communicating in one language to belong to a specific place, even if it’s an adoptive one, becomes the spring to slake your thirst. The decision to select thirst is also tied to the corporeality of the poem, of how we perceive language as connected to the body. For Candice, the lines between maternal and stepmother tongues were messy, and she noticed how the narrator did not seek to completely untangle them for the reader. As such, the stepmother tongue becomes motherly, as there is always a compromise to make when people use language to mark your body, despite your multilingualism and belonging to multiple communities. Inspired by M. NourbeSe Philip’s “Discourse on the Logic of Language,”  Barbara sought to establish the poetics of the original, hence the repetition of mother tongue and stepmother tongue. While colonialism may not be the lens through which Nur describes her own personal story, Italian is the colonizer language of countries like Somalia and Eritrea, thus one can find similar themes between NourbeSe Philip’s and Nur's poems.

Nur closes the poem with further images of how the body becomes a vessel of languages, and there is still a connecting thread between the narrator and other members of the diaspora.

Alta described the diaspora that actively shuttles the narrator, carrying them along across distances, to other places where languages of the diaspora are spoken.  Candice interpreted the last section as an ode to code switching, as language can get you through the real and imagined gates of a community. Barbara and Alta translated the last line as rendered mute, to demonstrate the weight of the loss of language. For all three of us, we wanted to honor how muteness is a passive experience for the narrator. Each of us drafted our own translation, so the unveiling of the three different versions was a surprise to us all—we then spoke with Nur to get her feedback. Our relationships with her shaped our decisions and what you see on the page.


© 2021 by Candice Whitney, Alta Price, and Barbara Ofosu-Somuah. All rights reserved.

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