Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Translating The Sahara Testaments

As many things in life translating The Sahara Testaments by Tade Ipadeola happened by circumstance and coincidence. He was due to be the PEN-Flanders guest in spring. For an obscure reason he didn't get a visum from the Belgian embassy. Yet Sven Peeters who was to interview him was all prepared and asked me to translate two poems, which I did. I began thinking and thought our guest should be able to read more poems so I asked Sven if he had any more poems by Tade. I could not have foreseen that then Sven mailed be a pdf file called The Sahara Testaments, containing 200 poems, all quatrains (you remember: four lines) and a fixed rhyme scheme in the greatest majority of them. I looked at it, thumbed through it, fell for the rigorous work (although I am usually a free verse poet) and translate one more, and then an other one. I love the desert. My desert is the Mojave Desert in California and Arizona. A high desert mostly rocky, and here and there an area with sand dunes. Nothing like the vastness of the Sahara being a continent on its own. When Tade arrived  at the flat we met and talked poetry and translation and I translated a few more poems for the two performances we had in the framework of The day of the writer in prison. Too many, although they may count them lucky not to have been killed like happens all too often in South America. Working together was fun and my PEN colleagues suggested I translated the whole book.  Now it is essential to know that he was the recipient of the Delphic Laurel in Poetry. 200, two hundred poems... Delphic Laurel in Poetry is only the biggest, most important poetry prize in Africa. I am still a bit intimidated by the task, yet some poems give them easily in Dutch, others are recalcitrant and I have to be very careful with them, peeling of layer, after layer until the also become a poem in translation.
I am very grateful for the time Tade grants me when I have a question or can't find a reference. When words have several meanings, I don't try to guess what connotation he had in mind but just ask him. His response is always kind, to the point and very helpful. If I don't understand what is meant, I cannot translate it. And although Tade's poetry is highly formalized, it flows as if effortless. The grand gift with this translation is that I get to see the world and the African continent, through the eyes of a keen African observer, in a way rereading history from a different perspective. I am now over halfway through in a first draft. I'll be asking a mutual friend to go through the text with me to catch mistakes, stupid or inelegant constructions.

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