Tigrinya, Translating, and Reesom Haile’s Poetry

(an excerpt from the afterword to We Invented the Wheel)

Charles Cantalupo

Like the languages of Amharic, spoken in Ethiopia, and Tigre, spoken in Eritrea, Tigrinya, the language of the poetry of Reesom Haile, is a Semitic language. Tigrinya derives from the ancient language of Ge’ez. It derives, like Hebrew and Arabic, from Aramaic, which is often thought to have been a language — along with Greek and Hebrew — of the original composition of much of the Old and New Testament and of Jesus.

Tigrinya is a major language of Eritrea. Eritrea has no one official language but officially recognizes nine languages. These nine languages are the basis of a progressive mother-tongue education system in Eritrea, which continues up to the fifth grade. Also, news reports, judicial proceedings and government programs and documents function in all nine languages. Obviously such a policy is not without its political and economic difficulties, but it is based on the simple and imperative realization that if the language of any group of people — however small in population — is not recognized, then the people themselves will not be recognized, leading to injustice and inequality if they are to try to participate and be represented in a democratic society. South Africa has a similarly progressive language policy, having mandated that its new Constitution exists in ten languages.

Contrary to the idea that translation, by growing an audience, hastens the demise of mother tongues, international or global recognition and translation have enhanced and not endangered Reesom Haile’s poetry in Tigrinya. We Have Our Voice was the first bilingual book of Tigrinya / English poetry. Furthermore, no Tigrinya poet before Reesom Haile has ever been featured on BBC (UK), Deutche Welle (Germany), RAI (Italy), Radio Vatican, and NPR (US); in journals like Left Curve, Samizdat, Exquisite Corpse (http://www.corpse.org/issue_8/poesy/haile.htm) and AI Performance; and translated into ten more languages (The Light & Dust Anthology of Poetryhttp://www.thing.net/~grist/l&d/lighthom.htm). Importantly, in all of these instances Reesom Haile’s poetry has appeared or been heard not only in translation into English but also in the original Tigrinya and, if in print, in Tigrinya Ge’ez script or, at least, in its Latinized form. Moreover, there are values clearly expressed in Reesom Haile’s poetry which most other poetry in such formats and venues would not or even could not utter without sounding artless, unsophisticated, arch or passe. In this respect, Tigrinya, its translation and growing audience can act as a means of preservation not merely for the language itself but for our entire, endangered world.

Aiming to enhance and not to endanger the stature of the African language of Tigrinya, the translation of Reesom Haile’s poetry still raises the question of the degree to which translations into English can match the style and music of the original. Addressing the literal, oral / aural, literary and poetic sense of the original, and more, impossibilities of translation arise. For example, in the original Tigrinya there is an absolutely daunting abbondanza of rhyme that would be impossible in English of any period or any serious style, not even in dub or rap. In another respect, the forms or genres of Reesom Haile’s poetry have a unique and continuing genesis in Tigrinya and oral culture that most contemporary poetry in English can only palely reflect in writing unless it is appreciated with an informed and acute sense of literary history. For Reesom Haile in his poetry,

The form of the poem is derived from its function. There are forms for work, for praise, for prayer, for bragging, for battle, for joining, weddings, funerals, criticism. My poetry makes use of all these forms, sometimes separately and sometimes in combination. And I have developed new forms for the challenges of building a modern, democratic nation.

The infamous, stinging conundrum of the Italian traduttore / traditore, translator / traitor, is at the root of questioning whether translation preserves or endangers mother tongues. The Eritrean conception of the role of the poet is relevant to this problem, particularly in comparison with the European derived formulation of the role of the poet as a "maker", faber or makir, or as a vates, "a prophet," with connections to the spiritual, the underworld, the irrational and the marginal that these terms can connote. Derived from the Tigrinya infinitive mgTam, literally to join, the Tigrinya word for poetry — gTmi, that is, "joining," — and the poet — geTamay, that is, "joiner" — are comparatively humbler. The Tigrinya terms deflect the more sublime sense of an individual who creates and even speaks for the gods or God. gTmi emphasizes a joining of words and worlds from the perspective of the collective, the community, and the society of which the geTamay is a part. In oral if not in written form, according to Reesom Haile,

Poetry is not a special activity of poets, for everyone is a potential a poet. Only that some people are more gifted than others in the art and their words and words more memorable. The poem is not an object separate and apart from its function: to ease the pain and to celebrate the pleasure of life. Women and men alike express themselves in music and poetry while at work or at play.

A little rarer, perhaps, the poet as "joiner" is like a carpenter or a tinker. Rarer still, the poet can be a kind of blacksmith: a sense that echoes the role in ancient Greek mythology of Hephaestus making the shield of Achilles in The Iliad. More humbly, the concept of the poet as a kind of blacksmith evokes a common occupation in Eritrea, where nothing metal is ever wasted but always either repaired or recycled. The Eritrean ability to fashion any spare part imaginable is legendary and has been a matter of necessity. Captured and repaired enemy armaments turned against their original possessors supplied the military hardware for Eritrea’s victory in its war for independence. Even today, a visit to Asmara should include its "Medeber" or metal market, where any and all kinds of scrap metal can be seen to metamorphose — in a din of hammering that itself becomes a profound music of drums — into something new and useful: where bomb shells, armored tanks, tire rims, bailing wire, cannons, and rusty mattress springs become buckets, lamps, crutches, chairs, desks, coffee pots, platters, radio spare parts, sledges, axes, shovels and, of course, ploughshares. The seeming madness of Asmara’s fleet of 1960’s Fiats functioning as the most elegant taxis around the city derives from a method: the ancient and living art of metamorphosis.

Fundamental to poetry, the same process applies to translation, particularly to translation of an African language. There is a common, mistaken assumption that because there are thousands of African languages translating them is quixotic. The impression that there is unique difficulty about Tigrinya and especially its poetry that makes it essentially untranslatable is similarly common, even among many speakers of Tigrinya itself. But guided by the humble conception of gtMi or joining — rather than the loftier conceptions of making, creating, and speaking like a prophet — the translator’s work can seem a little more, practical, everyday, and honest. Rather than attempting to raise the art of translation into a kind of "transcreation," the joining kind of translation resembles a transmission, with its own special wavelength of poetry itself: a joining translation and metamorphosis of poetry to poetry, poet to poet, primarily and intrinsically themselves as the prelude and the result of the mechanics of literal translation; a process of communication that is a distinct way of thinking in itself, applying the knowledge of two poetry traditions — in this case, Tigrinya and English — and realized in the verbal music or rhythm. It is a universal impulse understood at root with or without translation.

Reesom Haile’s poetry also offers a special perspective on two other universal impulses: the political and the religious.

A big reason for the popularity of Reesom Haile’s poetry is its political and sometimes impolitic content. He has patriotically rallied his nation any number of times — and there have been many — most famously with his poem "Alewuna, Alewana," "We Have, We Have," a poem so widely and frequently dispersed in Eritrea that the refrain has practically become interchangeable with Reesom Haile’s own name. To be anywhere at anytime in Eritrea with Reesom Haile is to hear "Alewuna, Alewana" lovingly pronounced by strangers, young and old, as soon as they recognize his face.

Politically, Reesom Haile is first and foremost a poet of conscience, like all great political poets. Furthermore, his poetry ranges freely yet artfully from international to national to local targets: from the politics of bedrooms to the politics of presidential offices. Because he frequently uses allegory, thick and thin, the local can be readily seen as universal. After all, the use and abuse of power are ubiquitous. A geTamay whose political acumen resembles Machiavelli’s, who was anything but Machiavellian, Reesom Haile is without illusion, thoroughly artful, and unequivocal in describing how it works and, furthermore, not necessarily appreciated by the politically powerful when his criticism is negative. The stakes are high and hotly contested, justifiably so, since the prize is nothing less than individual, national and spiritual survival, as in the poem "Freedom of Speech."

Like animals
People can agree.
But to argue
Seriously or for fun
We have speech.
If we fail
To keep it free,
Not giving everyone,
A say, remember
Babel — it fell.

Political poetry in America and Europe is almost an oxymoron: polarizing the many, persuading only the few and nearly always preaching to the converted — though this is not to say that poetry like Amiri Baraka’s is not the most accurate political commentary and among the greatest poetry being written in these places today, where great poetry and great political power are rarely seen together. Towards their own political regeneration, they have a lot to learn from a political art like Reesom Haile’s and the way it is comprehensively appreciated from the margins to the center of Eritrean culture and society.

Cultivating the art of political poetry, Reesom Haile’s work reveals a similarly unlikely dimension, at least from an Euro-American perspective, in being religious and even explicitly biblical or Christian. Any contemporary explicitly Christian art in the west today, if not self-critical or, at least, self-conscious, reeks of exclusivity, chauvinism and "hate speech" — a public loss, surely, and a personal loss for many, too. In Reesom Haile’s work, however, the biblical framework remains credible and matter of fact, with neither ideology nor inanity. Dozens of his poems illustrate this, like "No Regrets."

Forget Eden.
We’re not going back.
Adam and Eve
Had no regrets.
"Good riddance,"
She said.
"So we were fed.
He treated us like animals.
Adam, I love you."
"I love you, too"
He said.
"Nothing beats bread
Baked with your sweat."
Forget Eden.
We’re not going back.
Adam and Eve
Had no regrets.

Unlike in most of Africa, Christianity and biblical culture were not imported and imposed by colonialism in the relatively recent history of the region and of Eritrea. Instead, biblical spirituality stems from it through Ge’ez and its language of Tigrinya, as can be similarly said of Egypt, Ethiopia, and countries of the "Middle East" and many of their languages. These are places and languages in which biblical spirituality was born and bred. Their oldest literature includes biblical literature in their own languages. It should be included in a proper anthology of Tigrinya literature, much like an anthology of English literature that includes Anglo-Saxon and Middle English. Moreover, biblical literature is not a bundle of rootless, abstract concepts but existed first and foremost in the original language of its expression, identical with the literary and rhetorical devices of poetry and storytelling, including metaphor, character, plot, setting, suspense, hyperbole, irony, word play, shifting points of view, changing styles, contradiction, endless conflict, song and more. Biblical language — in its oldest texts, alleged originals and best translations — is not a kind of clear container for its ideas. They are inseparable from the language and the style they are expressed in. Sharing the same ancestry, biblical writing and Tigrinya, as exemplified by Reesom Haile’s poetry, live on in each other. Their content and style cannot be separated or dissociated. The sacred sense that attaches itself to Jerusalem and Hebrew or Arabic also attaches itself to Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, and Tigrinya: just as the legend of Sheba, the ancient queen, who bore Solomon’s son, Menelik, along a stream near the city, and as he, years later, carried the Ark of the Covenant out of Jerusalem to the same area. Indeed, if "to imagine a language means to imagine a form of life," it must also have memory, ancestors, history, archaeology, myths and a continuing and changing life: precisely as is embodied in Reesom Haile’s poetry. Questions of theology and belief aside, Christianity and biblical culture are a part of the mother tongue of Tigrinya. In itself and in translation, it not only delights and teaches — the sine qua non of literature — but also offers to reconnect us to a past that has been lost and a future with everything to gain.