Andre Naffis-Sahely on Translating the ‘Fearlessly Political’ Collection ‘The Rule of Barbarism’

The new Pirogue Poet Series, which aims to “encourage long-term, sustained dialogue between African artists and writers and the rest of the world,” has published its first volume: Andre Naffis-Sahely’s translation of Abdellatif Laâbi’s The Rule of Barbarism (1976 Fr; 2012 Eng). The visceral, searing collection, which throbs with Laâbi’s powerful orality, was first published while the poet  was serving an eight-year prison sentence (1972-1980) for “crimes of opinion” against the Moroccan state. There is an excerpt now on Jadaliyya; ArabLit also corresponded with Naffis-Sahely about translating the book:

ArabLit: How did you come to this book?

Andre Naffis-Sahely: The more I read Abdellatif Laâbi’s poetry, the more I’ve come to think of it as a brochure of horrors: Laâbi unrelentingly examines the darkest sides of our human condition; in this capacity, he is one of the great voices of our times. That said, I first came across his work through Le fond de la Jarre (The Bottom of the Jar), his memoir of growing up in Fez during the 1940s and 50s, which while heart-breaking at times, is also riotously funny and debonair. I purchased it back in March 2011 when I was holidaying in Fez; Alexandra, my partner, picked up a copy in a bookshop close to Bab Guissa, and holding it out to me, said: ‘this is going to interest you’. Neither of us knew I would end up spending the better part of that year immersed in his work. A few months later I signed a contract with Jill Schoolman at Archipelago Books, who will publish my translation in November. The autobiography led me to the poems and I began to translate some of Laâbi’s poetry for Sarah Maguire’s PTC ( Jill later proposed I translate Laâbi’s début collection, Le Règne de barbarie (The Rule of Barbarism) as the first volume in the Pirogue Poets Series.

AL: How did you go about translating these six long poems, in terms of a process?

AN-S: A book of poems is a feast of hors d’œuvres, a smörgåsbord where you fill your plate with bite-sized morsels – and while some will inevitably taste better than others, the reader can do as he likes: he can either nibble or eat his fill. The Rule of Barbarism, however, is a different sort of book. It is composed of six long, shamanic poems that I think can only be truly savoured if read in a single sitting. As a result, I translated them over the space of five, intensive, manic weeks – reading the originals out loud each morning before beginning to work on them and reciting the English versions in the evening before bed. What proved particularly helpful was to delve into Laâbi’s personal history, as well as that of his country. Some readers of The Rule of Barbarism might do well to read the afterword first, as it might provide them with some necessary context.

AL: Did working with his words, and trying to achieve his effects in English, teach you something as a poet?

AN-S: Reading other poets has never taught me how to write, but rather how to look and what my work should (and could) grapple with. Laâbi’s early work is fearlessly political – in the broadest, most human sense of the word – and surreal: its lyricism is lofty: in that it allows for a bird’s-eye view of Morocco as it attempts to find its feet in the aftermath of independence. Laâbi’s words have given me courage; I couldn’t have asked for more.

AL: Does having a bilingual edition change the translation process/possibilities at all? Where you know the reader will be glancing over at the French, rolling that around in his mind, and then going back again to the English?

AN-S: I think it takes a tremendous amount of courage, especially on a publisher’s part, to print a bilingual collection of poems. It can drastically limit the audience and readers often feel more licensed to criticise the translation thanks to having the original en face. Constructive criticism is never a bad thing, but it would be preferable if it came from qualified quarters. After all, anyone can use a dictionary or make an educated guess. I see translation as an interactive process between the original verse, the intentionality of the poet, and the background and poetic skills of the translator. There aren’t many perfectly bilingual readers who will tick all these boxes and therefore proffer a qualified opinion. Also, while a bilingual edition won’t change the translation process in itself, it will make the translator more wary of making mistakes, but that’s to be expected!


Read an excerpt on Jadaliyyawhich begins:

glory glory
we are the chosen people

erected upon the peaks of fate for us the tomorrows that sing rivers of honey and milk

sacrifice brothers sacrifice

exile in sacrifice
o the apotheosis of throats ready

heritage Abraham’s sadism

crimes on the table

heritage faith struck down by miracles the desert’s spontaneous abundanceKeep reading.

Also, you can read two poems translated by the group at the Poetry Translation Centre, led by Naffis-Sahely. They are ‘Fingerprints’ and ‘The Word Gulag’.


André Naffis-Sahely is a poet and translator from the French and the Italian. His fables appeared in Island Position’s inaugural volume of Imagine Africa. Naffis-Sahely’s translations of Abdellatif Laâbi’s Le fond de la Jarre (Archipelago Books), as well as Émile Zola’s L’argent (Penguin Classics) are forthcoming.