Just after the A Bird is Not a Stone Kickstarter success, the collection Settled Wanderers — a project to collect and translate Sahrawi poetry — has also made its goal with several days to go. Poet-translator-editor Sam Berkson answered a few questions about the project-in-the-making:
ArabLit: There has been some Spanish interest in Sahrawi poetry, and there were certainly some Sahrawi works in Pierre Joris and Habib Tengour’s Poems for the Millennium, and some more done by the Poetry Translation Centre, but general interest in the this poetic tradition has been pretty slim. Why?
Sam Berkson: There was an English language Al-Jazeera documentary series called ‘Poets of Protest’ which included Al Khadra as one of the subjects. Her granddaughter’s, Aziza Brahim’s, fame as a singer perhaps led the documentary makers onto her. I don’t know too much else that brought Sahrawi poetry to the attention of the English speaking world. I’m not in academic circles and I can’t say for certain what is being talked about inside universities but I’ve got the 2010 Ecco Anthology of International Poetry which has over 200 poets translated into English from a number of different languages and it doesn’t include any poetry from a person of the Western Sahara.
I think the reason there is the lack of interest in the Sahrawi poetic tradition is because of the lack of knowledge about Western Sahara itself. …. When you hear nothing about it on the media, it is hard to believe that is actually happening. Talking about this project now to friends, even those who are educated, left-wing, open-minded, I continually meet disbelief: “Is there really a wall built across Morocco? But why don’t we know about it?” I can’t really answer that question. … Morocco can get away with ‘disappearances’, detentions without trial, repressions of protest and continual discrimation and harrassment inside the occupied zone because most of the world is ignorant to what is happening. That Morocco has been a faithful ally of the United States is not an insignificant factor, I think.
AL: Did you work with a “bridge” translator? Who was/were the bridge translator/s? How did that work?
SB: Unfortunately, I haven’t learned Hassaniya, but everyone I met was very helpful and patient. When I was there last time, I worked with two guys on the camps – Zorgan and Shaka. We would meet with a poet, and when she or he recited a poem, the translator would write down in Arabic script the words of the poem and check with the poet that they had got it right, asking questions about what he or she had meant. Then later we would go through each half-line word by word, with me always asking, ‘what does this mean?’, ‘where else would you use this phrase?’, ‘which word means that?’, ‘what’s the rhyme scheme?’, ‘is that bit funny’? etc.
Obviously with poetry, you need to know much more than what the poet was generally saying!
It was very difficult for them because firstly poetry is notoriously difficult to translate, but also because Shaka and Zorgan are very skilled at a different kind of interpretation. They listen to what someone says and then quickly summarise the main point – ‘what they were saying was …’. Obviously with poetry, you need to know much more than what the poet was generally saying!
I came out to the camps with Olive Branch Arts who were helping young people on the camps write and devise a play and the translators were really busy with that, so by the time they got to translating the poems for me, it was late in the evening and they were tired. This time around I’m going out on my own and will be working with one translator (whom I haven’t met yet) and we will have more time to devote to working out the meanings of the poems we collect.
AL: Do you give contextualization for the Sahrawi poetic traditions, footnotes to particular words, etc.? Or do you try to recreate the meaning in the poem itself?
SB: As much as possible, I am trying to re-compose the Sahrawi poem in a way in which captures the essence of the poem and can be understood by an English-speaking (especially a British) audience in a similar way to which the intended Hassinaya audience understands it.
There is no way to find an exact phrase to describe a Landrover-with-its-cabin-removed-so-that-a-gun-can-be mounted-in-the-back that fits exactly onto ‘Dreimissa’, so I am using a number of different phrases in the hope that between them all some of the way of understanding his poem is conveyed.
Of course, sometimes context is needed, so there may be some short introductions or some footnotes but wherever I can, I am trying to keep it all within the poem itself. For instance, I’ve been working on Beyibouh’s internally well-known poem ‘Dreimissa’, which means ‘hornless goat’ and is about the recommisioned landrovers that the ELPS used to fight the Moroccans. There is no way to find an exact phrase to describe a Landrover-with-its-cabin-removed-so-that-a-gun-can-be mounted-in-the-back that fits exactly onto ‘Dreimissa’, so I am using a number of different phrases in the hope that between them all some of the way of understanding his poem is conveyed.
AL: What sparked your interest in Sahrawi poetry? Do you engage with it in the original, or primarily after it’s been worked on by the translator? What is the balance between your work and the Sahrawi poets’ work in the collection?
SB: It is a unique and inspiring culture, where poetry is a part of life. It is, someone said to me, “the dignity of society.” I am interested in a place where poets have such a role. I also want to play my part in telling the story of Western Sahara to an ignorant world. Thus, the collection will be more biased in favour of translated works, with my impressions of what I saw as context for the Sahrawi poetry.
AL: How did you find the poets with whom you worked? Certainly there are some better-known Sahrawi poets (Al-Khadra, Limam Boicha). How did you decide which poets and which poems to include in the collection?
SB: It’s all word of mouth – asking people whom I meet out there and back home at the Polisario mission in the UK – and what my fixers can arrange for me on the camps. I have asked for a balance of young and old poets and of men and women but I shall find out who I am going to meet when I get there. I have connected with and been inspired by everyone I have met so far, so I am hoping that that will continue this time around.