4 December 2005

Ethiopia: Love Unto Crypt

Addis Ababa — A quick Review on the translation work of the famous Ethiopian Classic, Fikir Eske Mekabir

"Her handwriting was generally good .. The main reason was he wanted to sit close to her and touch and hold on to her hand whenever she made a mistake .. She was trying to reach for her items stretching her fingers out and touching the wall where they were hung. Bezabeh was studying her with his mouth and eyes opened. For a person who is in love each and every ordinary thing on the loved person has a secret of happiness .. That will never be finished or satisfied with no matter how much spoken about or heard of. Bringing her instruments over to him she sat down beside him. As she sat down, Bezabeh was getting more frightened. Seeing how he was feeling Sebele's feelings also started to change. She tried to write de (d )& se (™) but they became messier than ever been before. As usual he took her hand and had her write with him. He sat close to her. Since it is more efficient to hold with his naked hand he rolled up his sleeves warmth that was suppressed by the clothing due to the fire that was burning inside him was exposed and passed it through her dress .. It was like special warmth .. It was like an electric wave flooding in all direction through her entire body and making her to glow. That verdant body, that beautiful body, as if it was made from unpurified wax and as if it feared warmth, began to melt down. Without thinking and suddenly, her head straitened up, and her face turned towards his face, and being opened when her mouth went to look for his mouth they met on the way . They got lost together .The two virgins, the immaculate virgins, left this dirty world leaving the world that was stained with wicked things .. How good this new world was.

In this life span, we experience different types of love.

Those of us lucky enough to have felt or are still feeling it know what it means when we profess our love for our country, family, pet and yes our romantic lovers.

Some vanish so fast they are appropriately called infatuations. Yet there is that love which endures. Eternal it is, and follows us to our death . Love unto crypt.

Sisay Ayenew is not a familiar name to most of us here. The writer who lived in Maryland USA for a long time is now a subject of discussion among many, following the luanch last week, of his work of translation of Haddis Alemayehu's Fikir Eske Mekabir, a classic work of Amharic literature.

Born in Addis Ababa Sisay went to the Shimelis Habte High School. Sisay says unlike most of his peer, he used to enjoy reading novels. And adds that he had the ambition to do something that has never been tried. It was after his graduation from high school that he was struck with the idea of translating an Amharic classic literary wok into English.

Eventually, he began to contemplate on translating FIKIR ESKE MEKABIR.

At the beginning he was of the opinion that such undertaking would require of him lot of patience, effort, time and money.

"Even though I had always held the idea that the book was a work of great literature authored by a famous and respected Ethiopian novelist, it was not going to be an easy task to do the translation. Thus I dropped the idea and opted to pick another book instead," he said.

What came next was the urge to start up with 'Tikur Dem' by an other Ethiopian writer Andarge. But he found the volume of the book small.

It took a lot of thinking before he finally brought himself to go ahead with his original idea of translating Fikir Eske Mekabir.

He convinced himself that he could do it, no matter what!" For fellow Ethiopians who have read the book (I am sure there will be many), let me take you to the heart of the story with a short flash back. For those who haven't? Well, you have the added privilege of reading its English version.

Fitawirari Meshesha and W/ro Tiruaynet are determined to uphold the societal conventions of status and thus keep their daughter, Seblewongel, cloistered away from her less socially prominent' peers.

Bezabih, a scholar and poet, is contracted to tutor Seblewangel in the ecclesiastic Ethiopian literature.

Times spent between the two as student and tutor brings forth a blooming romance.

Despite the possible consequence of her parents' disapproval, Bezabih and Seblewongel plot an escape with the help of Gudu Kassa (a cousin of Seblewongel ). The story goes on .

Externalities have tried to judge on what they owe but their love paid their due. The world was enough for the duo. What others thought or said never bother them. Because, he found himself in her, and she in him. Along their way, there was a challenge but love was there to face all challenges.

Literature has a long history in Ethiopia, but it can be said that there has never been significant attempts (both in number and quality) to translate Ethiopian novels in to foreign languages. . It can be argued that, to some extent, this has hindered Ethiopian literature, and therefore our preserved and unique culture, from being known to the out side world.

Sisay is among pioneers to pave the way for such attempt aimed at introducing Ethiopia to the wider world.

In the words of Dr. Tamara Smiley, lecturer at African Studies at Harvard University: "The U.S publication of the Love unto Crypt opens the door to African literature in English even wider, with the novel Ayenew offers us the gifts we savored with Chinua Achebe's Things fall Apart and Arrow of God. We learn, we value and we want to know more about the life, religion and culture that gave birth to the novel . . . He has moved the story that lived in Ethiopia out to paper and into print as a legacy of the lives of his ancestors, contemporaries and generations to come. Ethiopia lives large in this book".

No wonder that it took Sisay 15 solid years to translate the book (5 years while he was in Ethiopia and the rest 10 years after he moved to live in the United States. The novel has hit the shelves of numerous book stores and has been included in Black American websites and Amazon.com at the price of $22 (and $34 , hard cover).

The novel was put at best book sections in New York Times' August 14 issue. Prominent figures like California's Mayor Arnold Schwarzenegger, US Vice President Dick Cheney's wife, Mrs. Lea Cheney were among those who expressed their views in appreciation of Sisay's work. Apart from these, Ethiopian scholars critiqued Sisay's work. Professor Getachew Haile, Professor Fasil Nebebe, Dr. Hailu Fulas, and Dr. Girma Wubishet among them.

But his work was not with out controversies. Claims arose from some who said he should stop the work because they already had started translating the book. For this and other reasons Sisay has refrained from having his translation sold in Ethiopia. He says that while translating Fikir Eske Mekabir he had consulted concerned people about the issues that brought the contentions. He even spoke with the late Haddis Alemayehu. Three years before the publication of the book he came to Ethiopia in need of help to complete his work.

He said that he would see to it and that arrangements will be made on distribution and price, including as to how many copies should be printed for sale here.

Proceeds from sales conducted here, Sisay says, will go to charity. Sisay has plans to publish the 2nd edition after he receives comments from scholars in the field. This is a valuable work of art and a worth while addition to the thin collection of Ethiopian literature in foreign languages.

In the hope of raising your appetite let me leave you with a short extract from the newly translated Fikir Eske Mekabir.

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