Charles Cantalupo, the Per Contra Interview by Miriam N. Kotzin 



PC:  The phrase “Against all Odds” pertains to politics, to African literature and to your work with translation.  Would you tell our readers a bit about these three in the course of answering a few questions about your work translating poetry and fiction from Eritrea?


CC: “Against All Odds” – sometimes I feel stuck with this phrase.  It’s a cliché and overly dramatic.  I want a new project called, “Take it easy” – but this is not to be, at least not yet.  Politics, African literature, translation – each is its own struggle.  Combining them raises the odds against success.


PC:  How long have you been doing translations from Eritrean languages?


CC: I began ten years ago with the poetry of Reesom Haile.  Before his death in 2003, we did two books together:  We Have Our Voice (2000) and We Invented the Wheel (2002), both published by Red Sea Press.


Hearing him read the first time, I wanted to translate him. It was at Eritrea’s annual 8-day cultural festival in the summer of 1998. The event attracts hundreds of thousands of Eritreans every year.  I went there with Kassahun Checole, the publisher of Africa World and Red Sea Press, and Zemhret Yohannes, Eritrea’s “Director of Research & Documentation” and de-facto minister of culture.  We were working together on planning and developing a conference on African languages and literatures called “Against All Odds” which took place in Asmara in January 2000.  As we entered the huge fairgrounds, we joined a huge crowd rolling and surging like a powerful if temporary Eritrean river during the rainy season.  When I asked Kassahun, “Where are we going?  Where is everyone going,” and he responded, “To a poetry reading,” I thought I didn’t hear him right.  This many people to a poetry reading?


As we stopped at the edge of the crowd, an Arabic poet’s voice boomed from the podium loudspeakers.  The area seemed to be shaped like a huge basin, with children – whom I didn’t expect to see at such an event – packed into the middle, and the poet and the audience at opposite edges.  After a minute or so I could see that the arrangement was really just a platform with a podium, and the audience gathered in a flat place in front of it.  Still, my initial misimpression was telling.  Eritrean poetry was at the center of the festival, and I had never experienced poetry in this way before – so public, performative, respected, engaging, high quality and popular:  all at the same time. Furthermore, following the example of the children in the middle, a lot of the crowd was joining the poets in their lines, at times either anticipating and echoing them with obvious pleasure and understanding. 


Kassahun directed my attention to the next poet ascending the podium: tall and thin, with a much grayed Afro, hollow eyes, a long sharply angular face and wearing a dark tweed sport jacket with his classic white Eritrean blanket or gabi draped over his shoulder and wrapped around him.  The crowd’s cheering drowned out the announcement of his name over the sound system, and then his poem silenced the crowd, at least at first, his Tigrinya to the rhythm of “eZM.  Z-eEZM. eBUM.  B-eBUM” rattling from the loudspeakers like a rivet machine securing smiles, laughs and a few tears on all the faces.  One word kept recurring, “gewaal,” with a kind of faint guttural pause or half-breathed caesura between the “g” and the “a”, which the crowd picked up on and started repeating every time they heard it. “What is the poem about?” I asked Zemhret.  “The title could be translated, ‘Your Sister,’” he responded.  He told me that the word that kept being repeated meant “daughter,” and that the poem was a call for respecting women’s rights.


When Reesom finished, and as the applause and the cheers for “Your Sister” began to recede, he reached his long arm out to them and, as he formed a wide swirl with the icon-like dark gold fingers of his hand, slowly intoned, “Alewuna,” to which the crowd responded in near ecstatic unison but in the exact same tone, “Alewuna.”  He countered with “Alewana” the same way, again as did the crowd, which triggered another staccato prestissimo performance interrupted roughly every ten or twelve syllables with the more slowly pronounced refrain, “Alewuna, Alewana,” echoing back and forth between the poet and the crowd.


As Kassahun drove me back to my hotel later that evening and told me more about Reesom, I responded with “Maybe I could translate him, and you could publish a book of his poems.”  Although I felt a little pushy bringing up the prospect of a book for Kassahun to publish, expressing my desire to translate seemed like a natural, normal response to such a great performance.  Ironically, perhaps, Kassahun answered that although he liked the book idea, he thought that Tigrinya poetry was too tough if not impossible to translate. 


When I met Reesom Haile a few days later, after a long and cordial breakfast I brought up the idea of translating one of his poems.  “No,” he responded flatly, “It would be too difficult.  Tigrinya has too much to get across.”


First Kassahun and now Reesom suggested that Tigrinya was so unique from other languages that it couldn’t be translated.  I didn’t believe them.  I didn’t believe that there was any poetry in any language that couldn’t be translated, at least to the degree of creating a good poem in the translation if not a great poem like the original – although that was the goal!  So, I persisted with Reesom, and eventually he said he would email me something to try.


Four months later, in the middle of February 1999, it appeared in my inbox – the original Tigrinya in Latin letters with a half literal / half doggerel version in English – with a note from Reesom apologizing for the delay.  He sent me his most famous poem, “Alewuna, Alewana.”  In the Tigrinya version, nearly every line seemed to rhyme.  Also, the singsong version in English settled on abstractions and generalities without a single image.  I wondered.  Maybe Kassahun and Reesom were right.  Maybe Tigrinya poetry was impossible to translate.  Still, I had to try.  At least now I understood that “Alewuna, Alewana” in Reesom’s eponymous poem meant “we have, we have,” the “u” and the “a” signifying gender, male and female respectively.  As a refrain, the words repeated throughout the poem.  Why not, I then thought, set up a kind of grid, with “We have” positioned at the corners and key points.   Next I had them feed into the poem’s second recurring words – “men” and “women” – via the poem’s third most recurring word, “Who,” which led to a verb describing what men and women could do to rebuild Eritrea: sacrifice, gather, provide, lead, grow, study, persist, and more.  Along the lines of the experimental poetry of Charles Olson, I imagined the poem as a kind of field of energy filled with the poet’s spontaneously projected language. 


When I emailed my translation back to Reesom, he immediately rejected it.  “Wrong from the start,” as Pound wrote in “Hugh Selwyn Mauberly” – but at least, I got a start.           


PC:  What are the languages of Eritrea?


CC: Eritrea has at least nine local languages, descending from three major language families: the Nilotic, the Cushitic, and the Afro-Semitic.  Tigrinya and Arabic are spoken by the most people.  Tigre is popular, too.  Other languages include Afar, Saho, Bega (Beja), Bilen, Nara and Kunama.  Italian – the colonial language – is also widely understood, and so is English. 


Eritrea has no official language and one of the most progressive language policies in Africa – in theory and in practice.  For example, a fundamental mandate is for mother language education – the language a child first learns to speak and that he or she speaks most – to take place in elementary schools.  Before full-fledged Eritrean independence in 1993, even Eritrea’s provisional government, and before that its political organization in the field during the war, declared that every nationality had the right to learning in its own language.  At the same time, instruction in Tigrinya, Arabic and English are emphasized beyond the primary school level, since Tigrinya is so widely spoken in the country Arabic in the region, and English in the world. Longstanding studies by UNESCO and the Ford Foundation show that there is no better way to educate a country. Children learn better by studying in mother tongues instead of non-mother tongues or second languages. 


PC:  From what languages do you translate?


CC: I translate from Tigrinya, Tigre, and Arabic, but I don’t do this alone.  First, as in my recent book, Who Needs a Story: Contemporary Eritrean Poetry in Tigrinya, Tigre and Arabic (Hdri: Asmara, 2005; African Book Collective: East Lansing & London, 2006), I work closely with my co-translator, Dr. Ghirmai Negash, founding chair of the Department of Eritrean Languages and Literature at the University of Asmara.  Also, as we wrote in our introduction to the book, we relied on many others to help us, including faculty and students at the University of Asmara, scholars, journalists, writers, speakers, and some of the poets themselves in all three languages. Unlike in my other writing, when I translate Eritrean poetry, it is not a private, lonely process.  Instead, I feel as if I am working in some sort of Renaissance workshop – call it an African language Renaissance workshop – and doing one part of a massive public artwork about the Eritrean struggle in war and peace expressed in poetry.


PC:  How did you get interested in Eritrea?


CC: The publisher of my two books of essays on Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Kassahun Checole, whom I have already mentioned, is Eritrean.  In 1995 I was invited to a conference on African languages and literatures at Tel Aviv University. Kassahun had often said to me, “I want you to see my country.”  Since Eritrea is a little more than a thousand miles southeast of Israel – roughly in the same neighborhood, I thought – I arrived at the conference a week early and immediately left Tel Aviv for Asmara, Eritrea’s capital city.


Looking back now, I see a pattern emerge.  It makes what seemed like a spontaneous choice to build a trip to Africa into what I thought was primarily a trip to Israel actually appear more pre-determined. 


Ten years before, in 1985, when I had first visited Israel, I did so as a religious pilgrim and an ardent Roman Catholic.  Whether I took communion at dawn from the burial slab of Jesus in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher or on the golden summit of Mount Sinai above the Monastery of St. Catherine, I was overwhelmed in the belief that the bread and wine were the body and blood of Jesus.  The remoteness of such a belief from contemporary politics of the Middle East and/or contemporary thought and art didn’t bother me.


Before returning to the United States, I left Israel for a few days of what I thought would be a more touristy and mindless kind of fun.  Since the recent re-opening of diplomatic relations between Israel and Egypt allowed for flights between Tel Aviv and Cairo, I planned a jaunt to see the pyramids, the sphinx and whatever other exotic Egyptian sites I could squeeze in and afford.


The first part of a memoir I have written about my experiences in Africa, called Joining Africa, recounts what happened on this, my first trip to Africa.  In short, however, after less than a day in Cairo my religious faith felt like a big mistake or, at best, inconsequential. 


What I had read, believed and written up until then didn’t prepare me for Cairo, Al-Qahirah, “The Victor.”  Fifteen million people and no traffic lights?  The morning after my arrival, trying to ignore contemporary Cairo as I had also tried to disregard contemporary Jerusalem, I walked from my hotel on Zamalek Island in the middle of the Nile to the national museum.  As I entered I felt like I could have been on Mars: floor after floor packed with what I didn’t know, never learned and didn’t understand; glittering gold, black and uncanny angles, minutely detailed drawings and symbols painted into an infinite perspective.  I felt totally disconnected and ephemeral compared with what I saw as a maze of images and messages that seemed predatory in their strangeness.  As I walked through the museum I began to feel more dead – dead spiritually and not only physically – than anyone entombed with such spoils before they were dug up by thieves or archaeologists.   Yet as I left and re-entered the chaotic streets of Cairo, I felt overwhelmed by a nameless desire…and starved.  In between, I lost who I was.


Ten years later – ten years in which my interest in Africa displaced my Roman Catholicism – I came to Israel again, and again I left there for Africa.  Nevertheless, I still traveled as a kind of pilgrim.  I wanted to witness the site of one of Africa’s greatest, harshest and most recent revolutions for independence: Eritrea’s thirty-year armed struggle – the longest war in modern African history – to liberate itself from Ethiopian colonial rule, added on to Eritrea’s seventy-year struggle to liberate itself first from Italian and then British colonial rule before Ethiopia took over.


Both trips, as I suggested before, have a similar pattern.  My trip from Israel to Egypt in 1985 and to Eritrea in 1995 initiated major changes in my work and how I thought.  Both trips moved me beyond my previous, mostly western, cultural understanding or orientation.  These journeys, however, follow an ancient, legendary route:  that of the Ark of the Covenant coming from Jerusalem when it was ruled by Solomon: crossing into Egypt than then traveling south to the area identified now with the modern countries of Ethiopia, Eritrea and Yemen.  The story is from the Kebra Nagast or “The Glory of Kings,” a seven hundred year old text written in Ge’ez.  Historically, Ethiopian nationalism has developed the narrative into a kind of foundational, epic myth for Ethiopia – like Exodus for Israel or The Aeneid for Rome.  Therefore, I feel a little funny saying it might also serve as a kind of foundational myth for me.  I should add that Joining Africa provides some more sensible explanations, perhaps, of how or why I became interested in Africa and then in Eritrea.


Ultimately, however, what interested me first was Eritrea itself.  My relationship with the phrase, “Against All Odds,” starts here, too.  It is the title of a book by Dan Connell, published in 1993 by Red Sea Press, which chronicles the Eritrean revolution.  Connell used the phrase to characterize Eritrea’s horrific but eventually victorious 30-year struggle for independence.  The “odds” against this included fighting black Africa’s largest standing army supplied by the United States and other western bloc countries for the first fifteen years and the Soviet Union for fifteen more years, after a Marxist revolution overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie.    


My first visit came four years after Eritrea had won its independence and two years after Eritrea voted independence for itself in a nationwide plebiscite.  A lot of evidence of the long war remained: for example, most walls still had the pockmarks of gunfire.  On the edge of the city lay a vast tank graveyard named “Tsetserat,” also filled with artillery and other armaments – many still bearing the identifying characteristics of the countries who had armed Ethiopia – slowly bleaching in the sun and becoming overgrown with weeds and vines.  Connell’s Against All Odds tracked the course of the Eritrean armed struggle that led to such a surreally benign conclusion.


Yet what inspired me – and the thousand-line poem, “Eritrea,” included in my book, Light the Lights (Red Sea Press:  Lawrencevile and Asmara, 2003) – on my first visit was not the war in Eritrea but its peace.  And it still does, despite the popular misconception that Eritrea is a warlike, militaristic nation.  In the summer of 1995, I saw a new nation at peace and in action – with women fighters serving in the government, children learning in their mother tongues, a grass roots constitution process coming to fruition and so much more – developing itself with confidence, joy and incredibly hard work. 


If I had only read about Eritrea and the wars and destruction it suffered, I wouldn’t believe it could exist anymore.  But being there, from the first day I walked in Asmara, I began to hear a refrain that I can still hear now:  the words “without a war” almost as if to the four-note tune of John Coltrane’s “a love supreme.”


After less than a day in Asmara, I felt as if I belonged to the streets, even as I also knew that wandering aimlessly around the city I was lost, and I wondered how I would find my way back to my hotel.  Then I remember stopping at a street corner to catch my breath.  Leaning against a wall, I felt it crumble a little.  Running my hand over the lime and burgundy stucco, I put my fingers into still unrepaired bullet holes.  At the same time, I felt hungry.  Standing in front of a doorway with no sign or windows, I smelled bread and saw a bakery inside.  I stood on line inconspicuously in a dark room with a table at one end, roughly divided in half between long rolls and short.  No one spoke, as if everyone was in a hurry just to get home after a hard day’s work.  I watched the people in front of me and did what they did: handing over the right amount of money – a few Ethiopian birr – and taking two loaves in a small piece of waxed paper.   Outside again, I tasted the bread.  It was the same bread, the best bread, I had as a boy, going with my father to a bakery nicknamed “the stoop” in the old Italian section in Newark thirty five years ago:  before it was demolished for a high rise housing project, itself now in ruins, with broken windows and occupied by squatters, and worse than any building I saw in Asmara after thirty years of war.   


PC:  What did you study before you began this series of translations?


CC: In 1993 when I first interviewed Ngugi wa Thiong’o, I knew nothing about African languages beyond what I heard and understood barely a word of when I was in Africa.  I never expected that someday I would be a translator. 


As Ngugi spoke about African languages, my attention started to wander, and I started thinking about Renaissance Europe, which I had studied and written about far more than I did Africa.  Yet thinking about the Renaissance and hearing Ngugi talk about African languages at the same time started to flood my mind with questions I had not prepared for the interview and had never thought of before.


Didn't the rise of European vernacular languages like English, French, German, Italian, Dutch and more parallel the European Renaissance as well as the growth of separate, European nations? 


And didn't European vernaculars – including their translation into each other and of classical languages – feed a vast array of creative fires besides literature burning into each other that became the European Renaissance itself?  Wasn't the European Renaissance inconceivable without the growth and development of vernacular languages and translation, not only in literature and the arts, but also in science, government, politics, philosophy, religion, education, medicine, economics and more, even including the individual self? 


Ngugi’s speaking about African languages also sent me back to the Renaissance writers I loved throughout undergraduate and graduate school and who had been my specialty when I first became a professor.  I remembered Petrarch's Canzoniere, written in the third quarter of the fourteenth century, and the book's subtitle: Rerum vulgarium fragmenta, “Fragments in the Vernacular.”  It sounded a little rough and humble, but it announced the most significant event in the history of European literature: the shift from writing in classical languages, especially Latin, to local languages.  Over the next three centuries it shrunk over the horizon and disappeared nearly everywhere except in religious or academic cloisters - never to rise again.  Even my favorite writer, Thomas Hobbes, whom I wrote my first book on, compared the contemporary use of Latin in 1651 (even though he sometimes wrote in it, too) to “the Ghost of the Old Romane Language.”


Would African writers now who only wrote in colonial, European languages someday be similarly relegated, only to be read by the cloistered few, while African writers in local languages - the greatest languages of everyday African life - created bodies of literature above and beyond whatever we could imagine now?


Would there come a day in Africa when its writers would consider writing in colonial languages as little more than ghosts in comparison with writing in African languages?


Could reading African authors who only wrote in English, French or other colonial languages look as obtuse as someone only reading authors who wrote in Latin during the European Renaissance?  If not now then in the future, could there be as many books and handsome volumes on my shelves of African language literature as there were of my beloved English and European Renaissance literature?  What would I know about it without writers like Petrarch, Dante, Chaucer Shakespeare, Donne, Rabelais, Montaigne, Cervantes and more?   Did I listen to one of their African counterparts in Ngugi?


After mulling over such questions for five years, I began translating Eritrean poetry. 


PC:  What sort of writing did you do before you did these translations?


CC: Criticism and literary scholarship – which I’ve already mentioned – drama and poetry. 


Most of the poetry that I have published – at least what I still stand by – in some way derives from the experience I had on my first visit to Africa, which I have already partly described.  Soon thereafter, I took what I wrote in and about Africa and staged it – as performance poetry – with music, cast, dance, and a lot of spectacle. In the process, I found a voice for my work that was an abrupt and difficult departure from my poetry before that. 


Previously, it had become very religious, and I published a lot in Catholic literary journals.  I thought that one of the biggest lessons of modern poetry was that it came from the garbage heap or places like, in Yeats’ famous words, “the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”  What could be more trashed and ruined, I further thought, than the art and thought of Christianity?  Making it new, making it back into great art seemed like a plausible, even a kind of neo-Modernist experiment, albeit quixotic.  And nobody I knew had done it.  Therefore, when most of my colleagues in graduate school were reading Derrida, Foucoult, Bataille, Adorno, Benjamin, and Said, for example, I was digging just as hard into theologians like Augustine, Tielhard du Chardin, Rahner, and Bernard of Clairvaux. And the result?  I consider the experiment a failure, at least in poetry. 


Against this backdrop, I went to Israel and on to Egypt. 


Then I changed.  The first poetic results appeared in my second book of poetry, Anima/l Wo/man and Other Spirits (Spectacular Diseases:  Peterborough, 1996).  I began publishing a lot in journals like Sulfur, Talisman, First Intensity, and Angel Exhaust – journals known mostly for their experimental writing, ranging from language poetry to ethnopoetics, and fueled by contemporary literary theory, which I also became more open to.  And the result?


Between 1987 and 1998, it included six long poems -- totaling over 3700 lines –-about Africa –- including Senegal, Gambia, Kenya Morocco, Cameroon, Malawi and Eritrea.  But as an undergraduate, I was taught by formalists like Howard Nemerov, James Merrill, Anthony Hecht, Mona Van Duyn and Howard Moss.  Therefore, I always obsessed over poetic form – this goes back to my religious poetry, too.  For example, one poem in the African sequence was an ode; another was in 900 lines of terza rima.  All of them had elaborate arrangements. I should add that all or most of them would qualify, too, as difficult poetry, although to varying degrees.  I mean that the poetry purposely confronted a reader with problems in comprehension, although I firmly believed that it was necessarily a part of the material and not in my poetic style or presentation.


But then, translating Reesom Haile and other Eritrean poets required an almost totally different style.


PC:  What was there about Eritrea that you found fascinating so that you began this work?


CC: Since I have already talked a bit about Eritrea, and picking up on your last question, may I please change what you’re asking to what I found so fascinating about Eritrean poetry?


First, it forced me to find a different style from my poems in Anima/l Wo/man or Light the Lights.  Going beyond my first failure in translating “Alewuna, Alewana,” which was experimental, as if I was thinking of submitting it to the American and British literary journals that were publishing me at the time, Reesom Haile and I settled into a style that I heard as half American beat poet and half Greek Anthology. The lines in English had to be immediately accessible because, I as noted before, how else could be so widely and wildly popular he was in Eritrea?  By sounding difficult?


Yet his popularity fascinated me.  In my experience up until then, poetry readings did not draw thousands of people to fill stadiums, the way that Reesom’s did in Eritrea.  His work was a kind of common currency or daily bread for Eritreans in those days, and I mean all kinds of Eritreans: not just writers or literary people but young and old, professionals and laborers, men and women, the educated and the illiterate, journalists and government workers, politicians and priests.  I saw drunks on the streets of Asmara at 3:00 a.m. and children in the remote Eritrean countryside recognize him immediately and warmly greet him, yet not by his name but by repeating the phrase, “Alewuna, Alewana.”


I had never seen a more accessible poet and yet a poet of such high quality and expertise. In this respect, Reesom Haile was my introduction to Eritrean poetry, and I have learned since that he is not the only Eritrean poet whose work maintains such a wide appeal while embodying the highest critical standards.  Many of the poets in Who Needs a Story – like Ghirmai Yohannes, Meles Negusse, Solomon Drar and Saba Kidane (to name only the Tigrinya) – exhibit the same.


Since working on the anthology I have also learned – in large part thanks again to my co-translator, Ghirmai Negash – that traditional Eritrean oral poetry sets a clear precedent for a poetry that is popular and great. These oral poetic traditions, documented by colonial scholars in the early 1900s, included hundreds of poets and performers throughout Eritrea.  Surviving Eritrea’s 30-year armed struggle for independence, they are thriving today.  I have seen and heard them perform in Eritrea’s many languages:  getemti, male and female, most of them old.  They wear white; ribbon trims long gauzy dresses and scarves on the women:  white pants and shirts with white gauzy blankets, called gabis, on the men, many of them gripping the slightly curved handles of thin, smooth walking sticks.   Most of the getamo hold half-liter, white porcelain coated metal cups of sewa, Eritrea’s cider-colored, traditional barley beer, which a few of the women, the getemti, hold too.  Its color and shimmer resemble their skin. Their voices remain strong.  Their diction is crisp.  Their delivery is fast.  Their rhythms are indomitable. The crowds around them greet their masse, melques and dog’a(s) ecstatically.


In Eritrean culture poetry is central.  I see it going back at least four thousand years to an inscription on a stele located in Belew Kelew.  Worn away in parts, the words between a sun and a quarter moon, in Sabean, a forerunner of ancient Ge’ez, might be translated as “strug l  agains   ll  od s wi.”


PC:  Your poem, “Non-Native Speaker” begins: “White man and non-native speaker, could I ever understand? / Africa witnessed enough of my kind….” How did your background influence what you did in translation?


CC: The recent “Global Conversations” conference at UC Irvine included me on a panel called “The Role of the Non-Native Speaker in Revival, Restoration, and Visibility.”  That term, “non-native speaker” stuck out to me.  I have already talked about some of the knowledge and the ignorance I brought to translating Eritrean poetry.  I have also provided some of the personal background that propelled me.  Nevertheless, there is an historical and political background in which I am only one of many white men who have come to Africa for all sorts of reasons.  And the result?  Usually not good.  Therefore, in the poem that you so kindly mention, I wanted to be up front about the “odds” of my work operating outside of such an historical contexts.  Picking up where you left off, I cite,


…the scene from

Lee’s life of Malcolm:  the white girl asks him, “What can I do?  What

Can I do?”  “Nothing,” he answers coldly. “You can do nothing.” 

And didn’t Biko believe the same?  Black consciousness needed

No one like me to enable it and think I could do more.

Words like “revive” and “restore” are intimidating.

Someone like me making women, men and language they wrote in –

Language a decade ago I wasn’t even aware of –

Visible where they were unknown and invisible before?

It seems unlikely….


Chinua Achebe’s rightly accusing Conrad of making  “Africa a…setting and backdrop…a metaphysical battlefield,” for himself might as readily apply to me.  Edward Said might as well have accused me of going to Africa and thinking I had “the relative upper hand,” yet “as a European or American first, as an individual second,” proclaiming myself as “a part of the earth with a definite history…since the time of Homer.”


But as I have indicated, such admonitions were not a part of my intellectual background before I went to Africa.  I read them long after the fact of feeling overwhelmingly vulnerable and lost in the victorious maze of Cairo, in the sands of ancient Jericho a few days before that, in the

the predatory rocks of Sinai a week later and two years later in Dakar’s teeming Marche Sandaga, Goree’s ghosts, Togo’s spirits, and Mt. Kilimanjaro’s shadows.


What I began to feel guided by instead, however, were the famous opening words of the third chapter of St. Augustine’s Confessions?  “Veni Karthaginem,” “I came to Carthage.”  Augustine encountered the African city as a kind of midpoint in the course of his life before he traveled to Rome.  Moving from Carthage to Rome, he changed direction – most of all, the direction of his life.  After roughly two thousand years, he wanted to be amidst a new cultural cycle, in his case, Christian Rome.  Obviously these were literal places, but their significance was figurative, symbolic and historic, too, and they still are.  My journey was simply the other way from St. Augustine’s: to Rome first and then to Africa. 


I should add here that on my first visit to Africa, to Egypt in 1985, as in Eritrea ten years later, I felt overwhelmed and inspired to write.  Going back a little further, I should also add that when I first went to Europe in 1972 as a twenty year old, and for the next fifteen years when I returned again and again and again to Europe, I felt similarly overwhelmed by what I saw.  Thus, going to and writing about Africa was simply a continuation, moving from Rome to Rome’s Rome (which is actually a term used sometimes to describe Asmara). 


Sometimes I wonder why more of my colleagues don’t similarly continue their journeys – if only for the sake of beauty.   


Considering my background and what led me to Africa to translate poetry, here is what may be strangest of all:  Roberto Cantalupo, born in 1891, the author of a book called Gli Americani nella Africa (“The Americans in Africa”).  Is he a long-lost relative who knew what I would be doing before I did? 


PC:  What are the challenges of working in translation in a country with many languages and a tradition of oral literature?


CC: One big challenge is in not being swept away by the oral literature or orature of so many languages.  For example, when Ghirmai Negash and I were collecting poetry for the anthology, Who Needs a Story, the word “contemporary” in the book’s subtitle meant that we would limit the material to work of roughly the last three decades.  Still, as I have said, oral poetry in Eritrea over the last three decades has been a thriving art, too, and it has a longer and richer tradition than written poetry in Eritrea.  Even today, scholars like Solomon Tsehaye and Ghirmai Negash in Tigrinya, and Dessale Berekhet in Tigre, are producing new research on oral poetry and oral poets all over Eritrea.  Therefore, how could Ghirmai and I leave out oral poetry in an anthology of contemporary Eritrean poetry?  If we did, an objection to this critical decision would surely be just.  I can well remember our arguing about it ourselves.  The importance of our decision even spurs me to recall the exact spot in Asmara, rounding the corner of Tegadelti Street, and the blinding sunshine when we finally settled on only written poetry.  Yet at the same time we firmly resolved that the depth, breadth and high quality of Eritrean oral poetry warrant a translation project and an edition of its own.   Ultimately, we foresaw a mapping of the Eritrean verbal genome to include all of Eritrea’s languages as well as their performative and literary dimensions, with Who Needs a Story making only several steps in such an endeavor.


PC:  What appeals to you about translating as both craft—and art?


CC: An initial appeal of translation is the recognition or at least the expectation of beauty in the rhythmic arrangement of words of another language.  It’s like hearing a new piece of music.  Then there’s the recognition or expectation that such beauty, or at least some of it, could recur in my own language, too.  Underlying this process is a belief that the emotion of the work to be translated is genuine. 


Thus far, I could be describing the appeal of Eritrean poets like Reesom Haile and, from the anthology, what I call “poems of peace.”  However, contemporary Eritrean poetry also includes poems focused solely on war, while most poems fall somewhere in between war and peace, invoking both conditions: like the present situation in Eritrea today in its continuing struggle with Ethiopia to establish their common border.   It led to the war of 1998-2000, with over 100,000 deaths on both sides, and which now has resulted in a tense stand off where the question is not “if” but “when” the fighting will break out again.  It is a situation described as “no-war-no-peace.”


Frankly, I had an easier time translating Reesom than a lot of the poems in Who Needs a Story because most of his subjects were familiar to me:  bread, marriage, children, words, love, computers, food, toys, language, drinking, sex, shoes…etc.  When he wrote poems on topics that were not as much discussed in contemporary English speaking poetry – nationalism, God, exile, dictators, democracy – I could still imagine him as a kind of surrogate, writing what I or my English speaking readers might feel in his situation, too


Reesom never wrote directly about war, if only because he was not a fighter but out of the country during Eritrea’s war for independence.  In contrast, a commonplace among most Eritrean poets who talk about their work is the admission that they were not writers when they went to war and that they learned how to write poetry in the breaks between fighting in the field.  Therefore, Reesom Haile in his choice of subject matter and in the way he became a poet is for the most part an anomaly in contemporary Eritrean poetry.  Most Eritrean poets write directly about their violent experience in war and, and if they do write in relatively more peaceful times, the poems still contain remembrances or references to the fighting. 


Trying to translate Eritrean poets writing about war into English was a challenge that appealed to me, although not at first when I read the initial, literal translations into English of these poems in Tigrinya, Tigre and Arabic.  The language was stiff, bellicose, patriotic, flowery and larded with abstractions like “bravery,” “valor,” “courage,” “gallant” and “hero.” 


Show me a good English language literary journal that publishes poems like that. 


And yet I knew, as well as I knew who I was and what language I spoke, especially after having been in Eritrea many times, that the emotions of these fighter writers were genuine and that their work was the most accurate reflection imaginable of what they had gone through.


This predominance of war as a subject in Eritrean poetry – with the notable exception of Reesom Haile – is nothing if not empirical. 


Eritrea’s state of war with the government of Ethiopia can seem perpetual.  War in the Horn of Africa seems like a given and, whatever country or countries in which it occurs, the rest cannot remain untouched or unaffected.  I know that I have said earlier that the peace of Eritrea and not its wars is what I love most about the country, but this is because its peace remains against all odds in a place that still cannot escape from a mindset of war.  


Homer’s Iliad and Exodus in the Bible have a similar mindset of war, as do many national epics, like Beowulf, El Cid and Le Chanson de Roland.  Simone Weil famously called Homer’s Iliad “the poem of force.”  Confronted with the first translations of many of the poems in Who Needs a Story, I found a similar “poetics of force” which, though not epic, made me want to try to translate it.


After reading Weil’s brief essay, in Mary McCarthy’s translation, her phrases about the Iliad provided a kind of map or route that I memorized and followed into a poetry of war and finally to the imagery and metaphors of the Eritrean poems themselves.  They revealed, in Weil’s words, how a “washed out halo of patriotism” descended on the poems in which, to recall her words again, “The bitterness of such a spectacle is offered us absolutely.  No comforting fiction intervenes; no consoling prospect of immortality.”  “The true hero,”, again as Weil said of the Iliad, “the true subject, the center…is force.  Force employed by” people.  “Force that enslaves” them, “force before which” their “flesh shrinks away.”


The question, the challenge and the appeal for me as a translator was whether I could produce an English version of this that anyone would want or like:  worthy of Eritrea’s heroic sacrifice yet appealing to a culture that had for the most part renounced the portrayal and praise of such violence in its best poetry. 


Emerging from a violent century of two world wars, the cold war and many more local conflicts, into a 21st century of global terror from seemingly all sides, the appetite of most English-speaking  and western readers for a poetics of force was sated or, if it was palatable, only from the distance of one or two thousand years.  Horace’s famous tag line in Latin, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” – To die for one’s country is honorable and sweet (or satisfying) – had long been deconstructed to be heard only as ironic, as in Wilfred Owen’s poem based on this line in 1917.  No quality poem of World War I, World War II or subsequent wars in the west had been able to go back from Owen and recover the original meaning or heroic tone of the phrase in Horace’s third ode. 


However, Eritrea’s war poetry – be it totally about war or of war and peace conjoined – repeatedly took a Horatian and/or Homeric stance on war, unflinchingly and profligately violent with little or no use of irony and ultimately without regret, serving the cause of Eritrean nationalism. 


A poetics of force and war often animates the poetry of emerging nations, though to different degrees.  The critical quality and achievement of such poetry, however, is questionable, especially if it is recent and if it is to be translated from its original African languages into languages of nations and cultures where a poetics of force and war poetry can only be viewed negatively if it is current. 


Precisely this critical problem became the challenge – and what appealed most to me – in translating Eritrea’s contemporary poets and poetics of war.  How did one find the language in English to represent such a contemporary and genuine Eritrean fact of existence and the emotion it generated if English had no such language in its poetry, as Paul Fussell, my old teacher, so persuasively argued in The Great War and Modern Memory, since roughly the beginning of the twentieth century with the exclusion, perhaps, of some poems by Rudyard Kipling?    


PC:  What are the politics involved in translating these days? (Not academic)


CC: Should the world be as interested in Africa’s greatest and most neglected resource – its languages – as in Africa’s other resources and commodities?   I think so.  The best way to communicate with Africa – and what my memoir, Joining Africa, shows me struggling to learn – is by listening to the African word, that is, by listening to what Africans themselves have to say – over 90% of whom do not speak European languages – in their own languages.  This may be an “inconvenient truth,” but no amount of foreign aid (close to $600 billion at last count), generous NGO or western celebrity can compare with the potential of African languages to provide the simplest, fairest, most democratic, economic, and achievable way to improve African lives and livelihood through the application of knowledge, education, science and technology.  “The Asmara Declaration,” which came out of the Against All Odds conference in Asmara, in 2000,establishes this fundamental   ( 


My small role in this political movement has been to co-chair the conference, make a documentary about it also called Against All Odds (, co-author the declaration and help to redraw the map of poets worldwide to include poets from Eritrea, heard and made visible outside Eritrea in their own languages and in translation.  Eritrean poets are beginning to become known and enjoyed throughout Africa and the world, much as poets of other countries have achieved worldwide recognition:  for example, the way that contemporary Eastern European poets were first read widely in the 1970s or South American poets in the 1960s, and without whose influence most contemporary poetry in most languages is unimaginable since these poets expressed and explored a sensibility not widely recognized before them.


Now is the time for African language poets to be similarly heard, with Eritrean poets as part of the vanguard.


For me, this is politics, at least politics that I can be a part of, although it’s not the stuff of CNN, Fox News or Foreign Affairs, where mention of the word, “Africa,” is practically a synonym for “disaster.”


Then again, there have been moments.


I remember one afternoon when I needed a copy of the proofs of Who Needs a Story for a talk I was giving that evening.  The proofs were at the printers, Sabur, which had a huge building in a kind of proto-industrial park across a red clay field behind my hotel.  The day was showery, and the field became a patchwork of small lakes and big puddles through which I had to walk a zigzag pattern to keep my feet relatively dry.  Sabur also stood contiguous to a UNICEF outpost wrapped in barbed wire, enclosing six huge satellite dishes and three towering communication towers.  The path leading to Sabur’s gate also led to the UNICEF encampment.  As I approached, I saw two UN guards – they looked Indian – get up and start walking towards the heavily barricaded gate.  One turned around and spoke, although I couldn’t hear him, and two more guards followed.  They looked Irish.  All four wore blue helmets.  At the time I didn’t make the connection that the guards might be walking towards me.  I thought they were only checking the gate, which the puddles all around compelled me to walk straight towards.  Around ten yards away, I saw the two Irish guards raise their guns and heard the safety caches – click, click – removed from their triggers.  Turning around to see if anyone was behind me, seeing that there wasn’t and continuing to walk, I realized the guards were pointing their guns at me.  At the same time, a deep puddle cutting off the path forced me to make a sharp turn to the left around five yards from the UNICEF entrance to the Sabur gate.  Two old men attended it.  They immediately swung it open and welcomed me in Italian: “entra qui.”


PC:  How often do you go to Eritrea?


CC: When I was working on the conference, “Against All Odds,” I visited several times a year.  Now I try to go annually.   I am dependent on the generosity of grants and the Eritrean people. 


PC: What are you working on now?


CC: I am working on my memoir, Joining Africa, for publication.  My previous three scholarly books, two books of poetry and three books of translations of African language aimed for the most part to attract readers in their respective fields.  But Joining Africa is different.  Although keeping my previous readers in mind, I wrote it primarily for a more general readership who might have a healthy curiosity about Africa – informed by popular and/or journalistic accounts of its harsh political realities, dreams of safaris and exotic cultures – but not much direct or personal experience of the continent.  Wanting a reader of Joining Africa to picture himself or herself in my place, I also wrote the book as a kind of “everyman” or every woman’s education in what 21st century Africa might really be about.


In the last year I have also been working on translations of 19th century Tigrinya oral poetry, which I have already mentioned, with my colleague, Ghirmai Negash.  It seemed opaque and remote, like the contemporary war poetry, but only at first.  Soon it revealed a kind of Tigrinya sensibility that before I could barely have imagined, and yet it also seemed powerfully present in the country and its situation that I see today.  The mood can be excited, resilient, hopeful until, achieving some success, it is swathed in foreboding that something worse will come. Ghirmai and I titled one of the poems, a kind of mini-epic, “Negusse, Negusse – The World Falls Apart.”  We alluded to Achebe’s famous first novel on purpose, joining the chorus of praise on its fiftieth anniversary, but also suggesting that Eritrean literature, in this case its traditional oral poetry, contained equally powerful wonders.


Another project is a book on the poems in Who Needs a Story called War and Peace in Contemporary Eritrean Poetry, for which I am seeking a publisher.  As the former is the first anthology of contemporary poetry from Eritrea ever published, the latter is the first book on the subject, functioning as a critical and scholarly introduction yet also as a kind of reader’s guide to some of the strongest African language poetry being written today.  In addition, the book contains an opening chapter on the means of cultural production that led to Who Needs a Story being published, a version of which appears on the African Book Collective website.  The process was a story in itself.  The book concludes with an extended essay on the poetry of Reesom Haile, to provide an example of the kind of in-depth analysis that the writing of many of the poets anthologized in Who Needs a Story? deserve and in time will no doubt generate as more Eritrean poets – based on the high quality of their work – become the focus of more writers and scholars.


Last but not least, I am beginning to put together an anthology of translations of Eritrean short stories.  It would be similar in scope to Who Needs a Story and a kind of companion volume.  I have high expectations for it.  Since Eritrean poetry has attracted so much attention, I would think that short stories, an even more accessible form, would attract at least as much if not more.



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Charles Cantalupo


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