Nancy Naomi Carlson translating Abdourahman Waberi


        between rubble and sovereign sun
        all water consumed
        all wailing subdued
        since dawn
        this land remains the same:
        the open wound of Africa
       a tortured geology
       seen by the bird as it soars
       beneath each step
       skin stripped clean
       no clouds of ash
       not yet
       is proud
       since awakening men
       were they too stone-faced
       to suit his taste?
       that the Prophet had to bless the land of the Habash**—
       in remembrance of Bilal—
       does not explain my afflicted shore

       the herd is thinner here
       than anywhere else
       anyways so are the men
       a port
       a town
       a simple railroad track
       a fortress considered rich
       in one’s own backyard      

       for miniature republic
       parsimonious poems
*name of a young volcano in the Republic of Djibouti                   

Translator’s note: Bilal, Islam’s first muezzin, was one of the faithful companions
 of the Prophet Muhammad.


the foam of daydreams dissolving
when brushed by the raw real world
never stops bubbling before my eyes
I see it now as I see you
in this gaping day of post-night

everything floats enclosed in its form-to-be

the seed claims to push a stalk, weak
as a phallus post-sex
trapped between being and time

By Night

       Incredible silence, except for the drone of the fridge—
metallic cricket.
The pencil’s fine tip, its miniscule sex
leaves tracks in the white page’s sands, obliging mistress.
The lead spreads scribbles, loves
with a feverish love while the man flings
there his pressing desires—after-midnight seed.

Translator’s note: In a fortuitous coincidence, “pencil” and “penis”
in English are derived from the same Latin root.

Translator’s Note

One of the challenges I have faced when translating Waberi is to honor the music infused in his poems. French, by its very nature, tends to be very melodious, with certain vowel sounds singing even in everyday speech. I map the sounds of the original text (assonance and alliteration), and try to get as close to the original French as possible. However, I generally must content myself with replicating only patterns of sounds, rather than exact sounds, because I do not want to stray too far from the literal meaning of the text. In addition, many French vowel sounds simply do not exist in English (e.g., the nasal vowels, as well as the crisper vowels). Regarding rhythm, another aspect of music, the majority of French words stress the last syllable. To preserve their rhythm, I attempted to end lines with English words that stressed the last syllable or were mono-syllabic, as well as to limit unstressed syllables to two in a row, as generally occurs in French. The example below was my sound map for the first stanza of “Engravings,” as well as my translation:


Nancy Naomi Carlson

Nancy Naomi Carlson has received a literature translation fellowship from the NEA, as well as grants from the Maryland Arts Council and the Arts & Humanities Council of Montgomery County. The Nomads, My Brothers, Go Out to Drink from the Big Dipper: Poems of Abdourahman Waberi is forthcoming from Seagull Books (distributed by the University of Chicago Press). Author of three prize-winning titles, as well as Stone Lyre: Poems of René Char, her translations and non-translated work have appeared in Poetry and Prairie Schooner, and are forthcoming in The Georgia Review. She is an associate editor for Tupelo Press.

Abdourahman Waberi

Abdourahman Waberi is a prize-winning writer from Djibouti whose work has been translated into a multitude of languages. These poems come from Les Nomades, mes frères, vont boire à la grande ourse (The Nomads, My Brothers, Go Out to Drink from the Big Dipper), his only collection of poetry. Muslim by birth, Waberi’s themes include the nomadic life, colonial and postcolonial hardships, exile, Jewish writers, and the Arabic language. Most importantly, these poems, like his novels, short stories, and essays, carry the important message of tolerance. He is an Assistant Professor of Francophone Literature at the George Washington University.