Translating Touareg Poetry

Ousmane Tamikrest

Ousmane from Tamikrest

I’ve been busy translating the lyrics for the forthcoming album by Tamikrest, the band from north eastern Mali lead by the talented Ousmane Ag Moussa. If you don’t know them already check out their existing album ‘Adagh’. One thing I always suspected but now know for sure is that Ousmane is a really excellent poet. As usual when I’m trying to get to grips with Tamashek poetry in translation, reading Ousmane’s lyrics in French gives me the feeling that I’m drinking a super fine whiskey that’s been watered down to a faint and washed out compromise, in comparison with the original. It reminds me of something that I learned quickly when I went to the Sahara and started working with Touareg musicians: their lyrics, or poems, are at least as important as their music, and probably a lot more so.

Some people complain about the repetitive nature of Touareg music: the drone, the simple call and response arrangements, the track-bound linear form of every song. It’s only a problem if you don’t understand the lyrics. I’m certain of that. And of course, apart from the very few non-Saharans who have learned how to speak Tamashek fluently, and there are some of those blessed people out there, most of us don’t understand the lyrics. Which is a crying shame. It’s left to record companies to squeeze a French translation out of the artist, and then someone like me, to turn that French into English. I’ve tried my best, and hopefully, the core meaning of each song will be very clear. But all those verbal subtleties, the puns, the nuances, the colour of and the depth of meaning of the original, will hover like an enticing aura around the words, unreachable to most of us. I’d love to do some more in depth translating work, like a real project, where the poet and the translators (English, French etc), sit down over days, weeks even, and discuss meaning and word play and all those issues. A Scottish poet called Don Paterson, who I really admire, recently published a book of poems by Rilke. His essay on the great German poet seemed to imply that trying to achieve literal translations of poetry is a useless exercise. You can only ‘version’ the original into something approximate in a new language, like a DJ doing a remix of a song, or a Jamaican dub master creating a version excursion. I like that idea. It injects real creativity into the job of translating.

Anyway, let’s hope the opportunity presents itself soon. In the meantime, look out for the Tamikrest album, which will be out sometime later in the year on Glitterhouse Records. And don’t blame me for the translations…I did my best, honest!

Andy Morgan (c) 2011

  4 comments for “Translating Touareg Poetry

  1. Ana
    February 27, 2011 at 6:12 pm

    Great to see some acknowledgement of the importance and value of song lyrics. It is all nice and good to appreciate the music, but I do agree that we lose something when we don’t understand the words. After all, if the musicians had nothing to say, they could have opted for gibberish! We translate poetry all the time, so why not start doing the same with lyrics? Nice endeavour.

    Incidentally, the German word for translating is “übersetzen”, which literally means “to place (sth) over (sth)”. So of course you have to add your interpretation to the original. That’s what makes it worth the trouble.

  2. March 10, 2012 at 5:17 pm

    I for one, would love to see the results of such “a real project,” a lyric translating marathon from Tamashek into English. A very worthwhile endeavour, it could shed a lot of light and truth on the difficulties in the region; and you’d be the perfect guy to head it up. So, what are you waiting for?

  3. Robyn
    June 5, 2012 at 7:18 pm

    Hi Andy,
    I’m working on a documentary film about the current crisis in Mali and the Tuareg and I need to hire a translator Tamashek-English. I’m also looking for some music for the film. Are you available or know someone? Thanks.

  4. Linda
    September 23, 2013 at 1:25 am

    Hi Andy,

    I’m currently doing some research for a writing piece relating to the Tuareg people and the Tamashek language and cannot seem to find the translation for grandfather and grandmother. Is Massi used for grandfather and if so, do you know the term for grandmother? I’d be so appreciative if anyone could supply this information!
    Thank you !

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