In our world of Translation, of which I must admit having only a theoretical and quasi-experiential knowledge, the reasons why a literary work is translated into another language from the original may often be attributed to the success of that work, whether commercially or through the commendation of its most influential critics. The Harry Potter franchise for instance has been translated to over 60 languages.

There are other reasons of course, but if left to their own devices, translators have other reasons for translating works of literary importance. Our patron saint of translation is Saint Jerome, and he famously translated the bible into a few languages, thus the propagation of religion could be cited as another reason. There are also political and social reasons, as for instance what makes Spanish the language with the most translation in recent years. There is need to make such works available to the reading public of any language.

For me, this has not been the thing that attracts my attention to translate. Having come from a place where books are not as plentiful, the north-eastern corner of Africa, my impetus to translate should supposedly be based upon what I think would be most beneficial to the community I belong to. But this has not been the case for two main reasons. One is my own artistic interest in the work, and the other is what I have had access to in my youth. The success or ubiquity of a work is merely tangential. For instance, I have not read any of the works of English literature which one would traditionally encounter in their youth in the western hemisphere, whether in high-school or as gifts by particularly savvy uncles or aunties, at least not when I was young. They have not had an impression on me as they would have otherwise. This means that my interest in translation is for books I have read as an adult and out of those, only the ones which tickle my itch to translate.

My past pre-occupation was with Omar Khayyam, a 12th century polymath who produced a collection of four-line poems call the “Rubaiyat”. As a philosophy student at the time, my interest grew in this profound and mystical collection that was translated to English from Farsi by Edward Fitzgerald in the 19th century, particularly in it’s existential themes and dimensions. It was my consolation in the rough field of philosophical dialogue and exegesis, with all of it’s growing pains. I sought to make the same gift available to other immigrants who needed guidance and comfort in their times of questioning and turbulence.

My present interest is the John Milton epic, Paradise Lost. It’s themes of questioning authority, of rebellion against autocracy, of being in the losing side – right though you may be; all of these are important to me in a time when my native country, Eritrea, which has curiously had one president for 30 years, has been implicated in a civil war of its southern neighbour. Our situation as Eritreans (particularly as exiles) is getting more and more notice now, not only through politics but also literature, but more so in non-fiction than fiction. Milton’s poem needs my translation now for this very reason.

Paradise Lost was also quite importantly translated around the time of the Arab Spring – as the academic Islam Issa noted. The particular impetus to translate it likely came from the awareness – as in the garden of Eden – that one is living, not in the embrace of beneficent utopian rulers, but undemocratic, almost-omnipotent autocrats who quash dissent with an iron fist.

Milovan Djilas, a Yugoslav communist politician, also encountered Paradise Lost at such a critical time, back when there was a Yugoslavia. He was arrested repeatedly, mainly for standing against the powers that be for their elitism. On his second arrest, he must’ve personally identified with the poem’s subject, because he used a pencil which he hid in an orange, to translate the poem into Serbo-Croatian on rolls of toilet paper! Note here that his impetus for translating was no doubt his political predicament, as well as the abundance of time provided by his confinement in prison. Is this what we have to go through to translate great fiction? I sure hope not!

The problem, of course, is that if other translators like myself (of which there are very few) focus our attention only on esoteric and uncommon works of literature, the diet of the Tigrinya-reading community becomes skewed to our preferences, and consists solely of those books which we have chosen to translate. Because of this very shortcoming, there are many book-sized gaps left in the literary tradition of translated books in the Tigrinya canon. Even when popular authors are translated, only a few select works are translated at any time – and some are done so repeatedly. I’ll give an example, William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, has been translated into Tigrinya at least 4 times by three different authors since 1961, but of his other plays only Macbeth, The Merchant of Venice, and recently Othello, have been attempted. Other translations, if one consults the lists generated by foremost academics of Tigrinya, can be described as the eclectic collection of an indiscriminate bibliophile. There seems to be no concerted or organized effort, aim or direction to the collection; just a random choice of books that translators of various skill decided to gift the reading public.

Perhaps this is due to the lack of funding for such work, perhaps it indicates some failings in our publishing houses, and the industry in general. Or perhaps it is a sign of a newly emerging culture of translation, we can only wait and see. Let us not despair, however, as there is much to rejoice in! For instance, Jennifer Croft’s translation of Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights garnered not only international attention but led to the author winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2019. For myself, I am committed to producing as fine a translation as I am able, of all the significant works that come my way. Right now, for artistic and social reasons, it will be Paradise Lost. As someone who sees translation as a main contributor to the richness and complexity of languages, I see this lack as a defining challenge for translators. And among the philosophical and poetic tidbits I’ve translated in the past, I will surely attempt other literary giants to fill the gaps in translation in the future. I implore my fellow translators to do the same for their languages!

Minab W. Yetbarek is a Tigrinya Translator, hailing from Eritrea. He lives and works in British Columbia, and volunteers with many refugee & immigrant translation / interpretation organizations. He has translated Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat in the past. His current interests include translating the Milton opus « Paradise Lost » & the Swedish Epic poem « Aniara » into Tigrinya, and the so-called Great Novel in a Small Language, « D’kuan Tiberih /Tiberih’s Shop » (2003) into English. He also translates short stories.