Dr. Aisha Musa Speaks On Abdel Hai’s Poetry And Life, Translation Art

Dr. Aisha Musa Speaks On Abdel Hai’s Poetry And Life, Translation Art


Sudanese translator Aisha Musa Elsaid to “Sudanow”:

- Mohamed Abdel Hai is a born gentleman in the classic form of the word.

- His early contact with the vast mix of ethnicities, diverse cultures and nature of the Land definitely left a deep impression on him.

- There is nothing ‘impossible’ if the translator is well experienced and informed about his job. 

- All translators are creative and experts of rhetoric.

- A translator should never make contributions of his own to the original text.


KHARTOUM (Sudanow) - It was sheer coincidence that begets great deeds. Hailing from El Obied in Kordufan, Aisha Musa Elsaid, was in the UK 1965 for a thesis study on teaching English as a foreign language. It was there that she met the prominent poet Dr. Mohamed Abdel Hai, himself then a student, doing a PHD research. It was a coup de foudre, instantly the moment they met. And marriage it was. Theirs was a turning point in her life. She worked in the field of translation. She translated Wole Soyinka’s play “The Lion and the Jewel”, some Japanese Haiku poems, and a number of other works, including the doctoral thesis presented by Mohamed Abdel Hai at Oxford University titled “English and American Influence in Arabic Romantic Poetry”.

She had been a member of the Trustees of the Al-Tayeb Salih International Award for several sessions. Currently, she is the Chairperson of the Ghada Award for Young Writers Committee. She contributed in many academic meetings on English language curricula in schools. She also is a professor in a number of Saudi universities.


Sudanow interviewed her about her experience with the late poet Mohamed Abdel Hai and about some translation issues:


Q- How did you first meet and got to know Poet Mohamed Abdel Hai?

A: In 1965 I was on a British Council/Ministry of Education scholarship in England, University of Leeds Institute of Education for a 2year TESOL Diploma. I was Secretary of the Sudanese Students Society and one of my jobs was to meet and help the new Sudanese students coming to Leeds. It was a vacation time and I was the only member of the society in Leeds, so I asked my Canadian flat mate, Rita, to drive me to the Railway Station to meet the new scholar from Sudan coming for his Master Degree at the English Dept of Leeds University. It was holiday time and all College offices were closed. We met him at the station, it was raining hard. He was a bit shocked to see me wearing my blue ‘toab’ in spite of the boots and umbrella but I ignored his ‘polite’ remark.  We took him to our flat for tea and Rita made some inquiries to find his hostel. Our Hostel was an all-women residence so it took us quite some time to set him right in his out of campus hostel.

Until then I had no idea that he was a poet. And he looked too proud for my type of person but my Canadian friend remarked after he left: ‘’He makes a good husband Asha if you are thinking of getting married’’. I told her I wasn’t and we laughed.

But we had a close Sudanese community and we got to know each other.

Q- What was Mohamed’s view and treatment of women like? And what kind of relationship did he make with women in the family?

A: Mohamed is a born gentleman in the classic form of the word, very helpful and courteous. Although he is a bit reserved but doesn’t hesitate in making friends and acquaintances with the women around him. He befriended my sisters and friends and we found no problem in mixing our two groups together. Another woman would have died of jealousy but fortunately for him I believe in freedom of spouse in his or her choice of friends from both sexes. I know we surprised close friends and relatives but we were extremely happy.

Mohamed adores his mother and both grandmothers. He treats his sisters and my sisters like a father although some are older than him.

Q- What rituals did he follow when writing?

A: Reading and writing are the major activities of his life. He always has a book with him in car or bed or table. When he was writing he always has music around him and faint light. He would ask for tea and coffee but just place them near him for hours and would drink them cold. He wouldn’t shave or go out for a whole weekend. He knew exactly where each and every book in his library was and the history of how and when and where he got it from. He liked to share the poem or article with me and would humbly listen to my criticism or suggestions. Certain articles he wouldn’t discuss especially those concerning cultural or academic matters. But a new poem is as sacred as child birth to him and he would spend a long time revising and working on it.

Q- What do you say about a wife of a poet?

A: I guess there is no fixed phenomenon. I hear some writers go mad or queer when writing. But Mohamed is a very stable person at all times. And I am writer and reader too in addition to mothering a herd of kids. So his seclusion for writing gave me a break to do my own things and attend to the kids although for most of the activities he used to look after the kids himself. He used to enjoy family outings and visiting. When he vanished on his own I never ask as I believe a thinker, writer and poet like Mohamed ought to be given some freedom on his own if we appreciate his creativity... and we did.

Q - What is the social and intellectual background that made his character of encyclopedic and critic?

A: He is the grandchild of a writer, an intellectual who was one of the first groups that presented a work of Drama in the country, a graduate of College of Gordon, and a member of the Revolutionists of 24 Revlution who initiated the Independence of Sudan: Ismail Salih known as Fawzi. His uncle Saad Eldeen Fawzi a graduate of Oxford University Brasenose College (later attended by Mohamed) was first Sudanese Dean of College of Economics University of Khartoum. He accompanied his father (land planning engineer) travelling by car to all parts of Sudan. As a child, he also lived in Gazeera and travelled to Egypt on his own to visit Dar-al-Kutub. These vast experiences are bound to leave heavy marks of a kind! If he started arguing with Abdalla Al Tayeb at 7, then we shouldn’t be surprised at what he did at 17 when Sennar poem came to life through News Papers ( Al Ray al Aam). What Mohamed was exposed to was not only literary works; it was life with all its varieties and people of different looks, tongues and customs, animals, trees, means of transport, good things, bad things, painful things… As a child he almost died of Malaria but he lived to die after he ripened and matured. He wrote a poem that matches this controversy.

Sudanow reporter Najeeb with Dr. Aisha


Q- Concept of Sudanese Identity, old or new and why?

A: What I said about his early contact with the vast mix of ethnicities, diverse cultures and nature of the Land has definitely left a deep impression on him. Being the silent thoughtful child, youth and adult he must have assimilated all the differences, blended and restructured them in his own vision; hence the birth of Sennar as the first big work for Mohamed the Poet. I think that was the ‘say’ or ‘message’ he believed in about Sudanese Identity. It was important to him as it was recognition of humans’ equality defined historically, geographically, politically, biologically or whatever. It seemed, though I never discussed this with him, that within the borders of being Sudanese you could belong to any ethnic group and stay Sudanese regardless of tongue, colour or religion. 

Q- How far was he affected by the period of study he spent in Britain? Did it affect his poetry?

A: Like any young person Mohamed was affected by the long period he spent in England. As he spent most of this period with books and lectures and work, his Sudanese personality stayed unaffected but he grew even more bookish and greedy for research and knowledge. Literature with all its affinities stayed his major concern, but he also spent a lot of time with Arts, music and sports. Meeting the late Osman WagieaAlla and Ibrahim Al Salahi and Hussein Gamaan flared his interest for other trends of Arts.

I wouldn’t say he changed his method or style of writing but reading his later poems one can detect a taste of estrangement or loneliness. 

Q- Some think that his writing is for the elites and intellectuals.

A: All types and styles of poetry are for those who know, who taste, who understand, who appreciate, etc. So anyone who holds this view should better try to educate himself before attending to the understanding of poetry from party songs to melodies to epics.

Q- His writings during his disease...

A: He wrote a few poems and many articles and his books about Sudan Cultural Policy. Even after he lost speech and before full recovery he wrote one of his famous articles about Shelly and the Arabs; I co-delivered with him the article in a seminar at Oxford Institute of Oriental Studies, St Antony’s College. In his bed or his wheel chair, he was always busy revising, tidying up or writing in his notes and books. He even held classes for post graduate students in his room for lectures. The whole house was an office and library until the very last day he spent before going to Soba Hospital where he died.

Q- Some people say poetry is impossible to translate as it has to reflect rhythm, spirit and other complicated implications in the poem, what do you say?

A: To translate any text, I read it first to decide the method suitable for translating it. I do not follow one method as each text has its style, type of language, readers it is written for, message it is communicating, etc.

Literary texts involve knowledge of literary language and its rules and techniques. But there is nothing ‘impossible’ if the translator is well experienced and informed about his job. To translate a poem one doesn’t have to be a poet, but the knowledge needed here is even more than what is required from the poet. Because beside understanding the rules, techniques, language, form and others a translator must know enough about the poet and the particulars about the poem. Without that much knowledge the translation will be just literal translation with no rhythmical taste or beauty of word. Poetic language cannot be offered by general dictionaries. It needs specialized sources which are rare to find so people see the whole process as impossible and I would say: it needs more specialization and taste.

Q- Is translation an independent Art?

A: Yes, it is. Not all who know the two languages can be translators!

Q- Is Translation a type of Applied Linguistics as a new field in Literature?

A: If I understand this question then the answer is also yes to the first part and who says it is a new field?

Q- Should a translator of literary works necessarily be creative?

A: All translators are creative and experts of rhetoric, the Art of cloning, paraphrasing, transliterating etc.

Q- Does the relationship between writer and translator help success of the translation?

A: One important assistant of good translation is the coordination between translator and writer. When this is not possible, much knowledge of the writer is helpful to the translator as marker of his metaphors and unclear implications.

Q- Does the translator necessarily leave his mark in the text?

A: A translator should never make contributions of his own to the original text with the attempt to beautify or reduce the value. There are certain practises to change, add or omit parts of the text and this should be acknowledged in the margin or appendices.




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