The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Ethiopian literature, the new frontier?

Author - Chris Beckett


As an English poet writing about my boyhood in Addis Ababa, I soon realized that Shakespearean sonnets were not appropriate! I needed to find out about Ethiopian poetry and literature, so that I could adapt some of their forms, wrap my English words in an Ethiopian gabi, if you like. Only then could I get close to the feeling of being an English boy in Addis. So I started Amharic evening classes at SOAS in London and, while waiting for my Amharic to magically improve, I haunted the library looking for English translations of Ethiopian poetry and novels.

What I found was that not much Ethiopian literature is available in English! There are a few novels/short stories written in English, like Daniachew Worku's The Thirteenth Sun (1973) and Hama Tuma's The Case of the Socialist Witchdoctor and other stories (1993); also Nega Mezlekia's memoir, Notes from the Hyena's Belly (2000); and more recently Dinaw Mengistu's prize-winning novel Children of the Revolution (2007) and Maaza Mengiste's Beneath the Lion's Gaze (2010). These are all well worth reading: I especially like Hama Tuma's mordant satire, which is enough to shatter your rose-tinted spectacles about life in Ethiopia, even as you roar with laughter! But where are the translations of contemporary authors writing in Ethiopian languages in Ethiopia?

As for poetry, my main interest, I started with the religious form called q'ene, otherwise known as Wax & Gold (Semenna Worq), that I read about briefly in Philip Marsden's Chains of Heaven. Q'ene depend on double-meanings in Ge'ez so are obviously difficult to translate, but their brevity and playfulness is the template for a lot of folk poetry and Azmari songs. A few wonderful translations of folk poems are to be found in Jack Mapanje's Oral Poetry from Africa (1983) and in Wole Soyinka's 1975 anthology Poems of Black Africa, which includes a beautiful Ethiopian Love Song:

You lime of the forest, honey among the rocks,
Lemon of the cloister, grape in the savannah ...

The Journal of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies is also rich in articles about, and examples of, Ethiopian poetry, mostly from the early or mid 20th century: for example, George Savard's translations of Afar warrior boasts, Werner Lange's translations of Kafa songs, and Enrico Cerulli's version of a sensuous Oromo poem, Ox, which you may have heard on Poetry Please on Radio 4 this August:

If I were an ox, an ox, a beautiful ox!
beautiful and stubborn,
a rich merchant would buy me,
buy me and slaughter me,
spread out my skin and take me to the market.
An ugly woman would bid for me,
but a beautiful girl would buy me!
She would crush perfumes for me.
I would spend the night rolled up around her,
I would spend the afternoon rolled up around her.
Her husband would say, "It's just a dead skin."
But I would have my love!

More recently, Alula Pankhurst has written a fascinating article on Jigger Flea poems (often in the voice of the hated flea) and Prof. Fekade Azeze of Addis Ababa University has published a seminal book on oral famine poetry from the 1980s, Unheard Voices (AAU Press, 1998):

Here, take my clothes, roll them up and eat them!
I'm going where people have beans.

As for written poetry, the late poet-laureate Tsegaye Gabre Medhin wrote some impressive poems in English, notably Nile, which you can find on the internet. Solomon Deressa made exciting translations of the artist/poet Gebre Kristos Desta in the 1960s, and Deressa himself writes frequently in English (as well as French) - for example his wide-ranging poem/essay The Poem and its Matrix. All these poems show an interest in experimental styles, influenced by western literary movements, but are still fully engaged with Ethiopian social and political issues. Deressa's Matrix, for example, is a plea for literary pluralism but political cohesion in post-Derg Ethiopia: here English perhaps plays the negotiator with other Ethiopian languages for whom Amharic is a whip-carrier. The Poetry Translation Centre in London (with Martin Orwin) has also translated a wonderful poem by Mengistu Lemma, Longing, which is on their website:

The train hauled me out of London -
out of the smoke, the smog, the grime,
the filthy mix of soot and dust -
while the train spun fog from the fabric of steam,
clothing the land with its garment
of blessings and punishment,
Yizze kataf, yizze kataf, goes the powerful weaver.
Isn't it amazing? Life's a miracle:
coal smoke set free through the power of coal!.......

When I was visiting Addis in 2007, I met the brilliant young poet and novelist Bewketu Seyoum. Coming from a religious family in the countryside of Gojjam, his poetry has the concision of q'ene with the social and emotional punch of oral poetry:

ኅሰሳ ሰላም
ማጭድ ይሆነን ዘንድ ምኒሽር ቀለጠ
ዳሩ ብረት ንጂ ልብ አልተለወጠ
ለሳር ያልነው ስለት እልፍ አንገት ቆረጠ፡፡

In search of peace
Our hands bend iron for sickles,
but the heart starts to imagine
our enemies' necks as grasses.

If q'ene delight in a hidden "gold" meaning, Bewketu's poems derive their power from a haiku-like intensity which sets the reader's imagination working. He tackles love, poverty, freedom, abuse of power, even global warming, but with a lightness of touch which is modest and compelling.

ክልክል ነው!
ማጨስ ክልክል ነው!
ማፏጨት ክልክል ነው!
መሽናት ክልክል ነው!
ግድግዳው በሙሉ ተሠርቶ በክልክል
የቱ ነው ትክክል?
ትንሽ ግድግዳ እና ትንሽ ኀይል ባይለኝ
“መከልከል ክልክል ነው!” የሚል ትእዛዝ አለኝ፡፡

Prohibited!
Smoking is prohibited!
Whistling is prohibited!
Peeing is prohibited!
The whole wall made up of prohibitions.
Which one is right??
Were I blessed with a piece of wall, a little
piece of power,
my slogan would be:

Prohibitions are prohibited!

Ethiopian poet and novelist Bewketu Seyoum
Ethiopian poet and novelist Bewketu Seyoum reading from his work, In Search of Fat, during the Poetry Parnassus festival held at London's South Bank Centre as part of the cultural Olympiad.
Photo © Chris Beckett

A bilingual pamphlet of Bewketu's work, In Search of Fat, with translations by myself and Alemu Tebeje Ayele was published by Flipped Eye to coincide with the Poetry Parnassus Festival at the Southbank Centre in June/July this year. Hosted by Simon Armitage as part of the 'cultural Olympiad', 180 poets from around the world attended and Bewketu represented Ethiopia, performing to great acclaim on the roof garden of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, in the Poetry Library and the Festival Hall, as well as for the Wordsworth Trust in Kendall and at a concert with Baaba Maal in London! One of his poems was read on BBC Radio Scotland and he ended his trip with a reading of his humorous short stories in Lithos Road, organised by the Ethiopian Artists Association in Britain: he was not the only star, there were stunning readings in English and Amharic by many London-based Ethiopian poets and writers.

As my Amharic improves, I hope to tackle other contemporary poets such as Zewdu Milikit, Fekade Azeze, and Getnet Eneyew. There are magazines here and in USA which are interested in publishing good translations of Ethiopian poetry and fiction, such as Modern Poetry in Translation and Wasafiri (in which Fekade Azeze's poem Addis Ababa is due to appear next spring). The Poetry Translation Centre at SOAS is also open to working on Ethiopian poems, if anyone can supply literal translations (not only from Amharic of course).

Even with my limited knowledge, it seems clear that contemporary Ethiopian literature and poetry are full of a unique energy and vision. They really deserve to be better known outside Ethiopia!


In Search of Fat book cover

In Search of Fat
Bewketu Seyoum (translated by Chris Beckett and Alemu Tebeje Ayele)
Flipped Eye, 2012
ISBN 9781905233380
Paperback 38 pages; 210 x 136mm
Price £4


First Published in News File Winter 2012

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