Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Translating Tavengwa Kaponda

Tavengwa Kaponda is possibly one of the best Shona poets alive and writing today.

Kaponda is bi-lingual and is as comfortable with English as he is with Shona. He might also be conversant in a number of other languages that are used in southern Africa but he writes poems in Shona. His poems have been featured in a few bi-lingual magazines like Tsotso that publish poems and short fiction in English and Shona.

I first got a taste of his poems close to two decades ago when he used to write and give readings to a very small set of people. Then, as now, I was impressed by the depth of his knowledge of Shona poetry and how he came across as a distinct voice within the canon of Shona poetry.

Some of his poems are now starting to appear on his Facebook page. One of the first poems I came across there was "Gwenyambira":

Gwenyambira angakande mbira
mudziva otya kusara nechitima chechimanjemanje.
Mutinhimira nhemamsasa mutasvi wenguva
anowana wakamumirira
pachiteshi paanodzikira.

I loved the poem for how it could be read as a commentary on the relationship between the artist and his/her art.

In a Facebook conversation about the poem, a friend asked if I could translate the poem into English and, although I'd never tried translating anything from Shona into English or vice versa before, I had a go, and this is what I came up with:

The mbira player might throw his mbira
in the river, afraid he is going to miss the train [of what's new].
The mbira beat, rhythm and tempo, the rider of time
will be waiting for him
at the train station when he gets off.
The exercise was fascinating and revealing.

In my translation, I use 'he' and 'his' but the poem itself doesn't mention gender. The mbira player could be a man or a woman.

There were also references in Kaponda's poems that I couldn't translate into English. For example, I translated "Mutinhimira nhemamsasa" as "The mbira beat, rhythm and tempo" but that that doesn't fully convey what the phrase means. This is because nhemamsasa or nhemamusasa is a particular type of mbira music. It has particular significance in the Shona musical-social-spiritual-cultural tradition and is particularly associated with events where families or spirit mediums commune with the ancestors. Here is one example of it:

The music tends to be unwritten and it tends to be passed on from one mbira player or one group of mbira players to another. In that respect, it is very much like Kaponda's poems which, although they are written, they are mainly unpublished and can only be accessed when Kaponda gives readings or when he posts them on Facebook. And even when he does that, there might also still be need for them to be translated into other languages.

And like the mbira player who has received the beat, I took "Gwenyambira" to a South Leicestershire Poetry Stanza meeting recently and read both Kaponda's poem and my translation. The discussion that followed also looked at the mbira, the mbira player and the context within which nhemamusasa is played and the challenge inherent in trying to convey these references and contexts in translation.

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