Friday, October 30, 2015

"Kimbunga:" A Swahili Poem With My English Translation

Swahili, a major African language spoken mostly in Eastern Africa, boasts a written poetic tradition going back several centuries. Evolving on the northern Kenya coast, Swahili spread down the coast and adjacent islands as far as Mozambique, the Comoros, and Madagascar.

Among the greatest Swahili poets are Ali Koti, Bwana Mwengo, Muyaka bin Haji, Mwana Kupona, Shaaban Robert, Ahmed Sheikh Nabhany, Amiri Sudi Andanenga, Abdilatif Abdalla, and Haji Gora Haji, one of whose poems, "Kimbunga," I am presenting here, with my English translation.

A prolific writer, Haji Gora Haji has published poetry, fiction, a dictionary of the Tumbatu dialect of Swahili, and other works. I was privileged to interview him in Zanzibar. This poem, one of Haji Gora Haji's best known, appears in Kimbunga, his first poetry anthology.

Translating works of literature is a challenging and humbling experience. However, it is also rewarding, sharpening one's understanding and appreciation of language, poetics, and aesthetics.

"Kimbunga" is a moving but intriguing poem. It strikes me as an apocalyptic vision reminiscent of W.B. Yeats's "The Second Coming," while exemplifying perfectly Cleanth Brooks's characterization of the language of poetry as "the language of paradox." I hope someday to write about it and my experience of translating it.

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                               Kimbunga

1.     Kimbunga mji wa Siyu, kilichowahi kufika
       Si kwa yule wala huyu, ilikuwa patashika
       Kimeing'owa mibuyu, minazi kunusurika
       Nyoyo zilifadhaika.

2.     Yalizuka majabali, yakabirukabiruka
       Zikadidimia meli, ngarawa zikaokoka
       Kimbunga hicho kikali, mavumbi hayakuruka
       Nyoyo zilifadhaika.

3.     Nyumba kubwa za ghorofa, siku hiyo zimeruka
       Zikenenda kwa masafa, kufikia kwa kufika
       Vibanda vyao malofa, vyote vikasalimika
       Nyoyo zikafadhaika.

4.     Chura kakausha mto, maji yakamalizika
       Pwani kulikuwa moto, mawimbi yaliyowaka
       Usufi nusu kipeto, rikwama limevunjika
       Nyoyo zikafadhaika.

5.     Kuna kikongwe ajuza, viumbe kimewateka
       Hicho kinamiujiza, kila rangi hugeuka
       Wataokiendekeza, hilaki zitawafika
       Nyoyo zikafadhaika.


                                 A Hurricane

1.     A hurricane once arrived in Siyu town
       Sparing neither that one nor this one, it was sheer mayhem
       It uprooted baobab trees, the coconut trees surviving
       Hearts went panicking.

2.    Big rocks turned up, tumbling over and over
       Ships were sinking, while mere boats survived
       Fearsome as the hurricane was, it raised no dust
       Hearts went panicking

3.     Great storied houses were blown away that day
       They flew quite a distance, landing wherever they landed
       The huts of the lowly, all survived intact
       And hearts went panicking

4.     The frog drained the river, the water all dried up
       On the shore was conflagration, of the waves flaming
       Half a container of kapok, broke the coolie's cart
       And hearts went panicking

5.     A wizened hag there was, who held beings captive
       She is given to magical powers, changing hues at will
       Those who let her be, perdition will be their lot
       And hearts will go panicking.

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