Stories from ‘The Jungle’

Here’s another poem I translated for the Journeys in Translation project. In this one, Emma Lee retells the stories of six people from the Calais camp and their families. It was a challenge to render the already long lines in Polish, a language that tends to stretch sentences even more, but I was determined to translate this one. “Stories from ‘The Jungle'”, each one very personal and moving, really stuck with me.

Oh, and I forgot to mention in my previous post: by buying the original collection of poems, you support the foundations Doctors Without Borders, Leicester City of Sanctuary and Nottingham Refugee Forum.


The poem in English:

Stories from ‘The Jungle’

Everything Abdel sees is smeared, despite his glasses.
With the sleeve of a dusty shirt, he pushes grime
From the middle to the edges of his lenses.
They’ve witnessed family fall victim to war crimes.
He could shower for a fortnight and never feel clean.
English is an official language in Sudan.
At sixteen he wants to join relatives already in england.

To dodge military conscription, Sayid, 20, fled from Syria.
Inspired by the story of one of his heroes, William Gibson,
Sayid got to Egypt, then packed on a small boat to Lampedusa,
Through Italy to France, from where he can only move on.
On a borrowed laptop he listens to Syrian pop music.
He’d love to cook. He still has to pay a trafficker
weekly for the right to chase lorries to his brother in England.

With a bandaged hand Abdul, 21, tells of imprisonment
And gestures to describe the electric shocks he received
After his arrest by the Sudanese government.
His tribe also harassed by rebel militia. He feels deceived
By traffickers. Despite his razor-wire injury,
he’ll try again. Sudan was an English colony.
He wants to stop looking over his shoulder.

When a tiger stalks, play dead. But it’s hard not to run.
When his friends were arrested in Eritrea, Hayat fled
and moved from Ethiopia to Libya and across the Mediterranean.
He became tiger, his prey an England-bound train. His hunt failed.
His broken arm cast, he hunkers in a makeshift, tented cave.
A tiger fails nine of ten hunts. He’s five down, four more to brave.
English is the only European language he speaks.

At Baath University in Homs, his English Literature studies
were interrupted by conscription. Firas drew and followed an isopleth.
Three family members were killed by Syrian government forces,
he couldn’t bear to see or be responsible for any more death.
Skin torn by razor-wire, he still dreams of Oxford spires.
Relatives live in several English towns, all with universities.
He wants to use the language he’s immersed himself in.

Ziad was a respected lawyer in Daara. Now he fidgets,
grubby and injured from climbing fences, dodging
security and avoiding dogs. The pack of cigarettes
crinkles as he weaves it in his fingers, emptying
a last curl of tobacco. He didn’t smoke them but can’t finish
with the packet. He translates legal arguments into English.
He wants to join relatives and practice law again.

These stories are based on newspaper reports. Names have been changed.


The poem in Polish:

Historie z „dżungli”

Przed oczami Abdela wszystko zamazane, mimo że ma okulary.
Rękawem brudnawej koszuli rozciera sadzę
Na szkłach – ze środka na brzegi.
Widzieli, jak cała rodzina pada ofiarą zbrodni wojennych.
Mógłby myć się co chwilę i ciągle czuć się brudny.
Angielski jest jednym z języków urzędowych Sudanu.
Szesnastoletni Abdel chce dołączyć do krewnych, który są już w Anglii.

Aby uniknąć poboru, dwudziestoletni Sayid uciekł z Syrii.
Zainspirowany historią jednego ze swych idoli, Williama Gibsona,
Sayid dostał się do Egiptu, wsiadł do łodzi w kierunku Lampeduzy,
Przez Włochy dotarł do Francji – stamtąd może tylko ruszyć dalej.
Na pożyczonym laptopie słucha syryjskiego popu.
Chciałby być kucharzem. Na razie co tydzień musi płacić przemytnikowi,
By gonić za ciężarówkami do Anglii, do swojego brata.

Dwudziestojednoletni Abdul opowiada o swoim uwięzieniu
I gestem – jedna dłoń w bandażu – pokazuje elektrowstrząsy,
Które dostał po aresztowaniu przez rząd Sudanu.
Rebelianci również nie dają spokoju jego plemieniu. Czuje się oszukany
Przez przemytników. Pomimo rany od drutu kolczastego
Spróbuje jeszcze raz. Sudan był kiedyś kolonią brytyjską.
Abdul chce przestać oglądać się za siebie.

Kiedy tygrys się skrada, stój w miejscu. Ale instynkt każe uciekać.
Gdy aresztowano jego przyjaciół w Erytrei, Hayat uciekł z kraju,
Przebył Etiopię i Libię, a potem Morze Śródziemne.
Stał się tygrysem, a celem – pociąg do Anglii. Polowanie się nie udało.
Z ręką w gipsie przykucnął w prowizorycznym namiocie-jaskini.
Tygrys wraca głodny dziewięć na dziesięć razy. Stawił czoło pięciu,
Zostało więc cztery. Angielski to jedyny europejski język, jaki Hayat zna.

Jego studia z literatury angielskiej na uniwersytecie Al-Baath w Homs
Przerwał pobór do wojska. Firas narysował na mapie linię i podążył za nią.
Troje z jego rodziny zostało zabitych przez wojsko rządu syryjskiego.
Czuł, że nie mógł być świadkiem lub sprawcą ani jednej śmierci więcej.
Ze skórą zszarpaną drutem wciąż marzy o studiach w Oksfordzie.
Jego krewni mieszkają w różnych miastach w Anglii, w każdym – uniwersytet.
Firas chce mówić językiem, który tak go zafascynował.

Ziad był w Darze uznanym prawnikiem. Teraz kręci się,
Brudny, pokaleczony od wchodzenia na siatki, ukrywając się
przed strażą i unikając psów. Paczka papierosów
Szemrze, kiedy skręca ją w palcach, wyciągając ostatni
Zwitek tytoniu. Wcześniej nie palił, ale teraz
Jedna paczka nie wystarcza. Tłumaczy teksty prawne na angielski.
Chce dołączyć do krewnych i znowu być prawnikiem.

Powyższe historie zostały oparte na wiadomościach prasowych. Imiona bohaterów zostały zmienione.

Word Issues #7: Vain

Have you ever thought about the Polish word “próżny” (“vain, void”) very, very deeply, as if your life depended on it?

Because when you do, one of the things you may notice is that this word has two distinct meanings which are different yet the same.

“Próżny”, when applied to containers, rooms and such, means more or less the same thing as “empty”.

Another meaning generally applies to women who want to hear compliments and are unhappy when they don’t. When you think of it very, very deeply though, it means “empty” just as well.

You see those women around you? They’re empty. You must tell them they’re pretty, and they’ll be filled. Fulfilled. You must say that often to keep them in that state.

I have a friend who thinks all women are to some extent vain and need to hear compliments from time to time. Back when we were exchanging e-mails more often, he used to compliment me randomly because I didn’t know how to tell him it doesn’t do much for me.

Now I’m thinking perhaps I should write him an e-mail saying that he’s been wrong all his life.

Because it has never occurred to me with such clarity before that there’s millions of ways in which a woman, or anyone other than that, can be filled, fulfilled, happy or whatever you wish to call it, and not just from time to time but every day.

Music. Work. Friendship. Sex. Writing. Taking care of someone else. The scent of air when Spring is just around the corner. You know, the sort of things that make you hum “because the world is round it turns me on.”

So much of it out there, and inside of you, too. Why would anyone prefer to just hang around waiting to hear they’re pretty?

Cockroaches Don’t Stand a Chance // Word Issues #5

This is my end-of-year rant about security plus a little lesson of Polish.

There is a beautiful Polish expression used to refer to the place one lives in: “u siebie”. It’s difficult to translate it into English literally because, unlike the English “at one’s (place)”, it uses a form of the reflexive rather than the possessive pronoun. In this way, on the lexical level, it doesn’t point to a place but to a person — its owner and/or inhabitant. “At oneself” could be the closest lexical equivalent… if it wasn’t so unintelligible.

Anyhow, it’s one of the expressions in the Polish language I thoroughly love. Because even if it stands only for the simple concept of “place of habitation”, to me it carries a load of very important meaning. What does it mean to be at your own place or, forgive the crudity of the translation, “at oneself”?

For the period of my life which I spent living in my parents’ house and with a depressive mindset dominated by insecurity, I didn’t know what that meant. I didn’t feel like the house was my own place and in fact, no place was “home enough” for my troubled mind. Then, as I began to realize the trouble, I slowly convinced myself that I should take better care of myself. In the meantime, I made some awesome friends, moved out to Krakow, began therapy, and all along was learning how to simply be good to myself so that I don’t fall in any trap my own mind may have in store for me.

Photo by Toby Hudson (Wikimedia Commons)

Because for many reasons, my mind isn’t a great place to be. But as I was learning to take care of myself, I recently realized that every physical place I have lived in for some time — my first Krakow kitchen/room, which I hated because it had no doors and no privacy; my second, cosy room in what is known as one of the more dangerous districts of Krakow; and my current place of living, an ugly flat that I’m sharing with two guys and an army of cockroaches — is my place, a place where I can “be at myself” (być u siebie), where I can “go back to myself” (wrócić do siebie) every evening, and where I can also “invite someone to myself” (zaprosić kogoś do siebie).

Once again, forgive me the crudity of it, but you get the concept, don’t you? It’s not really about the place you live in. It’s about the feeling of security you have found in yourself. Not in the fact of being in the place you made your first steps in, and where your mom is to bake your favourite cake to cheer you up, or anything. Not in the fact of living on your own, and having personally bought all the items that are in your flat, either. Not even in the fact of liking the place: as I moved into my current place of living, I was repulsed by it. I remember telling SO, who helped me move my stuff there, that it’s so ugly I was never going to like it.

But now, I like it regardless of the cockroaches and all — because I live there, and if I live there, it must be a nice place. C’mon, with all the reading, thinking, crying, talking, and laughing I’ve done there? With everything good I’ve done there to maintain that feeling of security, even if I lose it sometimes? Cockroaches don’t stand a chance of making me dislike it.

I wish for all of you to feel secure in yourselves in the coming year and on, so that we all have a secure “place” to go back to, wherever that might be.