Translation Not Possible Blog

There is an episode of Star Trek’s The Next Generation (yes, I am a sci-fi nerd) where we are introduced to an alien species that only communicates through metaphors and allegories. This method of communication is incomprehensible to others who only hear the nonsensical strings of individual words, even with the technology to translate languages universally.

Whenever I watch an old Somali riwaayad, the ones where everyone is on stage with the blurry VHS quality (you know the ‘classics’ I am talking about), I always feel like Captain Picard from that Star Trek episode. I can understand a lot of the individual words, but I am keenly aware that I’ve missed something completely as my mom laughs during one exchange, or when my dad nods in agreement at a soliloquy.

When I was younger, this didn’t really bother me too much. I knew I could carry on a conversation, with some Somaglish in between stutters. But as I grew older, that gnawing realization of the missing link was becoming apparent. The language was riddled with context and history.

Not surprisingly, this was occurring as I was starting to become interested in the written word beyond having it forced on me in school. Finding writers and poets I could better relate to, I started to fully appreciate poetry, written stories, and essays in my adulthood. And as my reading increased, so did my vocabulary and ability to understand the writers better. It’s like listening to music on a standard headset or speaker, and thinking you hear what the artist wanted you to hear. Only after switching to better equipment are you able to hear the work completely – the subtle nuances, feeling of the bass, and appreciate the range of the vocals. My grasp of the English language has offered me new insights, but it has also highlighted the disparity in levels with my mother tongue. My grasp of the Somali language was limited to the level of a child/adolescent.

Being deprived of my language due to a limited grasp of the context and history means that I’ll never be able to appreciate my people because I cannot understand its artists.

This is not a difficult leap. Beyond and within everyday communication, language transfers technical thoughts and abstract thoughts. When speaking of technical thoughts, think of the use of the language in engineering or sciences. In this realm language needs to be precise and can be more easily translated. Abstract thoughts are more difficult to translate. They lie in the arena of poets and storytellers. Since these thoughts can never truly be translated, it can arguably be said it is the essence of the language.

For example, take an important event in Somali history: independence. The technical language can tell me the date and figures. However; the abstract language will be able to express so much more: the feelings and emotions.

People are its language, language is its artist, and artists speak for the people.

And so, I am unable to understand the Somali artist because I cannot understand their language riddled with context and history. As such, I cannot understand my people.

Like the captain, able to appreciate but never able to truly comprehend.

Now left to and more able to express myself in a language I was not born to.



A longing like no other.

To feel her between my lips,

Taste her with my tongue and

To exhale her essence.

The unquenchable desire

To have her caress my ears,

Sense her vibrations on my drums

And to understand her Ujeeddo.

I wrote this poem while in the process of writing the article. I suppose I needed something to express what I was feeling to go along with a more cerebral article. Didn’t really have an intention to write a poem, but it felt like it belonged there. Ultimately, I hope my sentiment came through it: Hailing from the nation of poets, wishing to be part of it, yet can only contribute so little (one word).

H. is a “1.5” generation Somali diaspora currently residing in Toronto. He enjoys writing on the side and you can find some of his work on his blog.

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