When Emma Ramadan asked me to translate Khadija Arouhal’s poem “They Told You,” I was honored and excited. I was also a little bit hesitant when I found out that Arouhal, a young Moroccan woman, writes in Tamazight, a language I was unfamiliar with. I already find translating poetry daunting—what with bringing the poet’s breath, the poet’s pauses, the poet’s eventual stutters into another language—but here there was an added layer: I would be translating poetry out of a language I was neither able to read nor understand.
I am cautious when asked to use a bridge language in translation, which consists of translating not out of the original source language but the language of an already existing translation—in the case of this poem, French. Though I know in some cases it is absolutely necessary, I have resisted it in the past because I think that to capture the essence of an original text—more specifically, a text’s original rhythm—it is crucial to have access to that original text when translating. I would have felt comfortable with a Latin language original text because I am able to grasp its letters, most syllables, and sounds, but in the case of Arouhal’s work, even the alphabet she was writing in was completely unfamiliar to me. It didn’t look like anything I’d seen.
After doing more research, I discovered that Arouhal writes exclusively in Tamazight because it is the language of her people, the Berbers, and it is a language that is rarely, if ever, written—let alone for creative works. The first time Arouhal wrote in Tamazight she was in middle school: she pinned her poem to a bulletin board and someone ripped it down shortly after. But the student or teacher who destroyed her poem did not stop Arouhal from writing in her language; not only did she continue to write in Tamazight, but she made writing in what many call a “non–politically correct” language her mission as a writer. What I ultimately gathered from my research was this: Arouhal is a woman who demands to be heard in her own language. But also—and this I gathered from reading her poem in French—she is a woman with a loud and clear message. Indeed, the nature of Arouhal’s poem convinced me that she would not mind if I used the French language as a bridge into English, so long as her message and the way in which it was delivered was preserved.
The voice Arouhal uses in this poem is direct and its rhythm is deliberate and tenacious; every line hits its target, so to speak. It is this urgency, truth, and bluntness that I was eager to arrive at in English. Though I was not able to imagine what this poem would sound like in its original tongue, reading it aloud in French assured me that the tenacity hailed directly from the original. The poem’s repetitive drumbeat, “On t’a dit/Que tu/Je te dis” (in English “They told you/That you/I tell you,” respectively), is not the French translator’s; this drumbeat sounds out an urgency hailing directly from a poet with an important message, and it was that rhythm that ultimately urged me to translate Arouhal’s poem. In addition to the clear message within this poem, there is also the clear-headed way in which Arouhal arrives at her message. She does so with the logic of the poem’s drumbeat—“They told you/That you/I tell you”—but also through skillful argumentation, as if she were defending herself before a jury in court.
When I set out on what was to be my first bridge translation, I noticed that the language glided smoothly from French into English, which I credited more to the clarity and power of Arouhal’s argument than to the fact that French and English are closer than we often like to admit. I immediately noticed that there were rhymes in the French, but there was no way I could be sure they were present in the original. A difficult question followed: did I attempt to keep the rhymes in English or not? Ultimately, I decided that I should see where the rhythm of the poem took me without the constraint of rhyming—not because I was not up for the challenge, but because what I find interesting in this poem is the tenacity of its rhythm and the clear outline of Arouhal’s thought that progresses to its beautiful and grand conclusion.
Once the drumbeat of the poem (“They told you/That you/I tell you”) was in place, the rest followed nicely. There was no play on words, no small nuances of French that needed my minute attention; once the rhythm was in place, the poem seemed to translate itself. In the end, I attributed this to Khadija Arouhal’s skill and mission as a poet—and perhaps also a little bit to the classmate or teacher who once ripped her poem off the school bulletin board and set her on her urgent course.