Africa Poems - Notes of the editor

Lotta Suter

The Adaptation of Flooding Sounds

“I am here

Wielding salient voices

That ears should hear

And voices sing:”

                   Chenjerai Hove


With few exceptions all poems in this anthology titled “Africa in Poetry” are translations into German. Most of the poets wrote in English or French, some in Portuguese and Arabic, a few in Swahili or Afrikaans. A creative and competent team of translators made sure that the German texts are far more than mere crutches for understanding for readers who do not know the foreign language. They are careful adaptations. As such they clearly first serve the women and men who created the poems. But a good poetry adaption also wants to be poetic in itself. It wants to play with rhythm and at times with rhyme, with the sound and the colors of the target language. It will want to search a way through light and shade and also the deceptive twilight that is part of every language too.

Yes, something is lost in every translation! The regrets about that loss fill entire libraries. Yet in the inquisitive back and forth between the languages something can also be gained. It is a benefit that was enjoyed not only by us translators; since in this anthology the original poem and its adaptation stand next to each other as equals, every single reader can profit from the multilingual experience. When comparing original and adaption some readers might discover for themselves a “better” translation than the one offered in this book. That is good, it will be a unique adaption that reflects the perspective, cultural background and emotional preferences of that particular reader.

When we are approaching a poem this actively we will be able to enter the poem profoundly. It’s not like back in school when many of us could not get any closer to poetry although every verse was analysed and commented upon line by line. This was just one very limited way of teaching poetry, the words were dissected and fragmented into single units – like the poor dismembered frog in biology.

That is not to say that some knowledge of “dissection” was not tapped in the translation process too. In addition to using our technical linguistic skills we translators also relied on our knowledge of the respective cultural environments of the poems. These were all cultures that hid at least one further colonial culture in the background. There was a special intuition needed for poets who wrote in most cases in a language that was not their mother tongue. It means that every poem has to be transported over several stages, and there are several layers of translation and adaptation. In this manifold multilingualism we didn’t attempt the highest level of conformity in orthography and grammar. We respected the idiosyncrasies of the writers whenever possible and sensible.

The subject of many of the poems is war and famine, hope and disappointment, anger, revenge, black humor and a deep love and connection to the living and the dead and to the earth, who embraces both of them. The experiences and emotions are communicated with an intensity that is somewhat foreign to us Europeans, at least we do as a rule not express them this way. To bridge this emotional distance with words alone is difficult. And yet: the strong individualistic poem may be better suited to build a bridge to foreign experience than impartial statistics and international news.

While working on the poems we translators suffered and laughed together with the African poets. And we tried hard to put ourselves into those poems where we couldn’t gain access very easily. Every single work deserved our entire attention and care.

Last but not least translating – or adapting –hundreds of poems as was necessary for this anthology can only be successfully accomplished when the translators themselves also wish and dare to be poets. Or to be more modest: act as poetic agents. Whenever we had identified the sound, form and aim of a particular poem, we wanted to express the findings in a clear and strong language. As in performing music, in translating and especially in translating poetry it is better to play fully and risk a discord then to mumble the whole time for fear of making a mistake. This courageous stance I tried to maintain when translating and editing myself. And the same courage which is very compatible with respect for the original poems I have found in my translating colleagues. They deserve a big thank you for their great dedication to the project.

The anthology is published. Its fate is now in your hands, dear readers. What I would wish for its future has been said by the Zimbabwean writer Cheneraj Hove in the poem that introduced my notes on the adaptation of “Flooding Sounds”:

„You who have heard

My whispers

Make them one day

A flooding shout

That drowns oceans.”