A Review of Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún’s Ìgbà Èwe: Translated Poems of Emily R. Grosholz

In the ‘Notes on Translation’ section of Kola Túbọ̀sún’s Poetry Collection, Ìgbà Èwe: Translated Poems of Emily R. Grosholz, he states that “Translating is affirming, a pleasure of ferrying words from one language reality into another, so great in itself as to be its own reward.” As Túbọ̀sún states, translations affirm the ideas in the initial text, while also increasing readership and dissemination of the ideas.

The 26 poems in Ìgbà Èwe are neatly arranged, with both languages existing side by side for ease. Even though most of the poems detail the uncertainties and conflicts involved in parenting and childhood, there are other intersecting themes dealing with events such as Christmas and similar symbolic celebrations. A lot of the poems are also reflective, reminiscent of the penchant that Yorùbá poetry has for the didactic and philosophical. Grosholz’s career as a philosopher also reflects in the poems and this made her collection a delightful translation to the Yorùbá culture. 

Childhood, which is the central theme of the collection, is universal. The translation was able to give the ideas contained in the collection a home in the Yorùbá language. Images of nature, bucolic places, and rural reminiscences run through the collection. The vivid imagery evokes memories that connect to the Yorùbá culture, thereby domesticating the ideas in the poems. At the center of the book is the fraught process of parenting and nature is embraced as an active participant in the process. The issue of parenting is also approached from many angles and history is used as a trope in the narration.

In ‘Àwọn Ọta Gidi’ (Real Bullets), a child laments when he learns that the government used to recruits soldiers by means of conscription:

“What?” he demands, suddenly agitated.
“You mean our government could make me fight?
You mean they could send me out on a battlefield
To get shot? Send me out in the open where enemy
Guns would really be shooting at me? Real bullets?” 

The tension between how generations of people understand issues is laid bare in the excerpted portions of the poem. Also noteworthy is Grosholz’s ability to elevate the mundane and create a universe where sundry things like toys and football become useful tools in expressing emotions. In ‘The Discovery of Puddles,’ puddle becomes a ‘coming of age’ symbol. All these items find a home in Túbọ̀sún’s translation.

The poet approaches childhood with a sense of wonder, nostalgia, obliviousness, and hope.  The diction is clear in both languages and evokes visual imagery. As the poems move from English to Yorùbá, the translator adopts some local equivalent for some words. ‘Cradle’ becomes ‘ibi itemosi’. Some transliterations were also done, with ‘blue’ becoming ‘buluu,’ ‘rose’ becoming ‘roosi,’ and ‘engine’ becoming ‘enjinni.’ Some of the poems also embody Yorùbá philosophy about life to the point that they can stand alone without the original English version.

Generally, the translations convey the words while retaining the poem’s originality. However, Yorùbá poetry typically achieves musicality through performance, not necessarily through literary devices as reminiscent in English poetry. The Yorùbá also relies on tonality. Some of the translations defy this tonality in an attempt to remain committed to the structure of the English versions. An example is the first stanza of ‘Putting on the Ritz’ (Ríródẹ́dẹ́- Kàndudu ni Ritz):

Lẹ̣́yìn ìgbà ọyẹ́ tó pẹ́ tó sì tutù,
Níkẹyìn, lósù karùn-ún, àwonọjọ́
Ọlọ́wọ́rọ́ díẹ̀ jí àwọn olóorun dìde.

Ordinarily, lines 2 and 3 would have been one line in Yorùbá language.

Despite Túbọ̀sún’s commendable effort, some of the translations don’t quite reflect Yorùbá culture. They can’t stand on their own. This is no fault of the translator but the unwinnable conflict between translation and adaptation. Only adaptation, which might mean a change in some words, can make it make sense within the Yorùbá context. There is also a loss of cadence in some of the poems, as a result of the translator’s attempt to retain the structure as it is in the English language. In some situations, he finds alternatives that prove fitting. One of such is ‘Ojú àwọn wo nìyẹn? Dúdú bíi kóró ishin’ used for ‘Whose eyes are those? Bituminous black eyes.’ This is exactly the method that localises the context of some of the poems. Also important is Yemisi Aribisala’s illustrations which enhance the translations. The illustrations depict a universal image of children in a way that they reflect both the English and Yorùbá languages.

With this coherent translation, one begins to appreciate early Yorùbá hymn translators who even tried to retain the sound patterns and tonality in many instances. Some of the songs had their wordings changed to fit the tone of the English originals; they are important texts in the Yorùbá linguistic corpus. There is no perfection in translation, as language is always in a state of flux. Túbọ̀sún’s work is laudable and it is a worthy contribution to both languages. It is a good addition to the study of differences and similarities in languages. It also exposes Grosholz’s poetry to a new audience.

The compressed storytelling in some of the poems is what one would find in Yorùbá oríkì poems. The poems are lyrical but the storyline is condensed. Túbọ̀sún, an accomplished poet himself, is a fitting translator because he has a collection (Attempted Speech and Other fatherhood Poems, 2015) that discusses a theme similar to Grosholz’s. His lyricism is also obvious and the translations are arresting, fascinating and engaging. Translation itself is a skill, and not every bilingual person can translate properly. Translation is itself a language, because language is an embodiment of a people’s totality. Besides, putting parenting and childhood in words is an ambitious project, and even translating such a project is more ambitious. The words are emotive and philosophical. Grosholz’s philosophical musings find a home in the Yorùbá culture, itself highly philosophical.

The collection is about memory and remembrance, a reflection on parenting, longing and nostalgia. It is a masterful combination of both lyric and narrative poetry, the universal nature of issues which transcend cultures. As Túbọ̀sún says in the collection’s introductory note, translation is an affirmation of two or more cultures in a progressive conversation.

Ayọ̀délé Ìbíyẹmí is a lifetime student of Literature. He is also a reader and critic who writes occasionally. For him, the world is intractable and it is words that make it livable. He was a Wawa Young Literary Critic Fellow and has won the Ken Saro-Wiwa Critical Review Prize. His work has appeared in Agbowó Magazine, Lagos Review, Olongo Africa, and other publications. In defiance of President Buhari’s dictatorship, he tweets random thoughts via @Ayo_Eagles.

Feature image: Open Country Mag