Ashley Sniffen on translating Amina Saïd

Ashley Sniffen

on translating Amina Saïd

I have loved the poems of Amina Saïd since I discovered her during my first year of college three years ago. Her rawness and directness comfort me; she employs common language and a lack of punctuation, which enable the reader to grapple directly with each word on the page. This poem is one of my absolute favorites, for it is easy to fall in love with the first line; the evocative imagery jumps out at the reader, forcing her to come to terms with a violent, self-destructive sun and its rebirth after tragedy each day. This concept forces us to consider the essence of life, of our own regeneration with the coming and going of each day. I chose to translate égorge son spectre as “slits the throat of its former self” instead of “slits the throat of its ghost” in order to convey a sense of rebirth and regeneration of the sun as its own entity or “former self.” I wanted to delineate the poem’s first line, which also serves as its title, as evocative of the essence of a phoenix being reborn from ashes, and therefore believe the indication of “former self” is necessary in order to distinguish between a sense of the past and of the present.

With the line “each beginning represents a circle,” I chose to translate the French dessine (“to draw”) in a more symbolic manner in order to underscore the symbolism of a circle as representative of a beginning or of this feeling of rebirth that the first line of the poem conveys. In this manner, I chose the word “possibilities” in lieu of “beginnings” for the French commencements in the following line to emphasize the sense of possibility that is enabled through rebirth, which inherently constitutes a new beginning.

Saïd shirks off any usage of punctuation or capitalization; it seems that in some portions of the poem, particularly “and what was begins again,” might be better clarified by punctuation. However, I find the beauty in Saïd’s poetry to underscore an ephemerality rooted within words and a constancy lodged within uncertainty. Saïd seems to be telling us that poetry and therefore life cannot be fully understood through generic formulas of punctuation, but rather through endeavoring to unravel the deeper meaning within a collection of words themselves.

I felt calm when reading the second to last stanza, for I find solace in the repetition of the French word de (“of”) for this repetition suggests the struggle of remembrance, of attempting to uncover past memories which are so inextricably tied to the present and the future that the lines of distinction are blurred. This repetition also mimics Saïd’s signature rambling style, forcing the reader to consider the poem as a stream of consciousness that can apply to any person’s experience of life and of the trials and tribulations involved with love, darkness, and light.

Saïd juxtaposes notions of “you” with “me” in order to more fully arrive at the idea of an intertwining of souls, yet I believe that the beauty of this poem is more so discovered by ascertaining the connection of the individual self (or selves) with nature. By noting that “we fall in love with the night” and “we fall in love with the day,” she avails us to the beauty of life and the evocations of lightness and darkness imbued within it.

about the author

Born in Tunis in 1953, Amina Saïd was raised bilingual, learning both Arabic and French in school and speaking Arabic, the language of her parents, at home. After being encouraged by her teacher, she began to write poetry in middle school and soon became enamored with the power of the written word to relate essential truths of being. She studied English in college and started to publish poetry soon after graduation. Saïd made a living as a journalist in France but continued to write throughout her life, ultimately publishing her work in numerous poetry collections and being considered as a unique voice based on her Tunisian heritage and experimentation with form.

about the translator

Ashley Sniffen is a junior at the University of Pennsylvania studying art history and French and Francophone studies. Passionate about art, language, and education, she enjoys staring at the paintings hanging on white walls of museums and creating events that support artists and cultural institutions. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, basking in nature, and watching college basketball games.