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let's learn from the trees

First Amharic-English anthology

Wosene Kosraf
June 17, 2020
May 2020 marked the publication of Songs We Learn from Trees, the first ever anthology of Ethiopian Amharic poetry in English (Carcanet Press, 2020). This is a huge landmark for Ethiopian poetry which has been flourishing in its own proud highland bubble for centuries! I remember being shocked, then angry, when I bought a copy of The Penguin Book of Modern African Poetry in 2002 and found not a single Ethiopian poet listed. Ethiopians will tell you wryly, “we suffer from never having been colonised”, and there is a grain of truth in this horrible witticism.
I grew up in Addis Ababa in the 1960s, but it was only when I started writing my collection Ethiopia Boy (Carcanet/Oxford Poets, 2013), looking for models of Ethiopian poem to imitate and thereby invoke my boyhood, that I realised how few translations exist of Ethiopian literature into English or any other language. Some academics (Ethiopian, Italian, German, British) have translated Ethiopian folk poems in the context of their cultural and sociological research, many of these published in the excellent Journal of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies, edited by Richard Pankhurst. Some great poets of the 20th century, like Tsegaye Gabre Medhin and Solomon Deressa, wrote or translated their own poems into English. As do some of the many Ethiopian poets in exile now, such as Hama Tuma. But the road of literary translation is still overwhelmingly one way, from European languages into Amharic.

If you are brave enough to delve into Amharic poetry, in the original, you soon find that its main building block is the rhymed couplet of two twelve-syllable lines with a pause in the middle, like an alexandrine. This is the base that poets play with, deviate from and come back to. Being an inflected language, Amharic rhymes much more easily than English. Another  tradition is of religious poems, Q’ine, still taught in specialist schools, where wordplay and homonyms are used to juggle between sacred and profane readings, called Wax and Gold. Both traditions permeates all contemporary poetry, giving it complexity and bite. Hard to translate of course.

I translate only with the help of a native speaker, usually my friend Alemu Tebeje in London. We go back and forth between literal and more poetic readings, always trying to convey the character of a poem beyond its word-for-word meaning. Our first efforts were picked up by Modern Poetry in Translation edited by David and Helen Constantine, then also by Sasha Dugdale. Three years ago, PN Review published our translations of Zewdu Milikit, Makonnen Wodajeneh, Bedilu Wakjira and Alemu himself. Shortly after, Michael Schmidt asked us to produce a wide-ranging overview of Ethiopian poetry for the Carcanet Classics series, covering Folk, Religious, 20th Century and Contemporary Amharic poetry.  
This has been a massive but hugely enjoyable and rewarding task. We have had lots of help and encouragement in Ethiopia as well as in Europe and USA.

It is a great honour to be able to present a small selection of these poets to the Poetry International audience today. We hope to bring you features focussing on individual poets in future, meanwhile please consider purchasing a copy of the anthology. It is cheaper than a ticket to Ethiopia and we promise you will feel transported!    
© Chris Beckett
Gemeente Rotterdam
Nederlands Letterenfonds
Stichting Van Beuningen Peterich-fonds
Prins Bernhard cultuurfonds
Lira fonds
J.E. Jurriaanse
Gefinancierd door de Europese Unie
Elise Mathilde Fonds
Stichting Verzameling van Wijngaarden-Boot
LantarenVenster – Verhalenhuis Belvédère