The conversation, part of the Creative Writing Program’s “In a Word” series, examined the role Van Clief-Stefanon and Woubshet’s friendship has played in their collaborative work. Together, they have been translating Van Clief-Stefanon’s poetry into Woubshet’s native language, Amharic, a decision Van Clief-Stefanon says was first inspired by the question, “What language do you want your work stored in?”
Van Clief-Stefanon said she realized she not only wished for her work to be stored in an African language, but in Woubshet’s original tongue. “The whole idea of your work stored in the language of your best friend … just kind of took on more and more life for me,” she said, adding that the decision to translate her poetry was one “based solidly out of friendship.”
Woubshet said that for him, the project was motivated not only out of his friendship with Van Clief-Stefanon but out of admiration for her work as a poet. “The sense that somehow Amharic readers are bereft of [Van Clief-Stefanon’s] poetry seemed obscene,” Woubshet said. Together, the two discussed the inseparability of one’s life from one’s work, as well as the importance of being engaged and fully present in one’s day-to-day existence.
The discussion also included a reading of Van Clief-Stefanon’s poem “Axum,” presented first by Van Clief-Stefanon in English and then by Woubshet in Amharic. The poem was inspired by one of the pair’s several trips to Woubshet’s native Ethiopia. Van Clief-Stefanon says that through these trips, she developed a love for the city of Axum and Ethiopian culture that encouraged her decision to have her poetry translated into Amharic.
The project explores a variety of topics, from the personal and political connotations of sensual life to the larger relationship between Africans and African-Americans.
Woubshet and Van Clief-Stefanon shared a number of anecdotes from their travels together, including key moments that the pair believe to have tested their friendship. “Do you have a courageous friend who’s going to stand up and protect you?” Woubshet asked the audience, recalling a time when Van Clief-Stefanon defended him from homophobic heckling during a panel at Oxford University.
Following the conversation, Woubshet and Van Clief-Stefanon took questions from the audience. One audience member asked the pair how they felt about the argument that translating art such as Van Clief-Stefanon’s poetry creates not a replica of the work, but an independent text.
The pair agreed the translation was, in a manner of speaking, something new. Woubshet called the translated poetry “its own entity,” saying that experience of translating Van Clief-Stefanon’s work and seeing it in another language made the work more material to him. Though a speaker of Amharic, Woubshet usually writes in English, which he says contributed to the feeling of the translated poetry being “new.”
This story originially appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.