Poetry translation for language learners

Use poetry in translation to bridge the gap
Use poetry in translation to bridge the gap

Living among Somalis, I’m fascinated by their attachment to poetry.  The 19th century explorer Richard Burton wrote about Somalia, “The country teems with ‘poets, poetasters, poetitoes, poetaccios’: every man has his recognized position in literature as accurately defined as though he had been reviewed in a century of magazines” (from First Footsteps in East Africa).  This feeling has not changed to the present day, even as far away from East Africa as we are in Minnesota.

I know that if I want to know the Somali language, I have to know Somali poetry.  I don’t know what to do because I’m a complete amateur of the Somali language.  Sometimes I’ll look for Somali poetry hoping that I’ll understand it if I just stare at it long enough.  I needed a way to bridge the gap–the chasm–between my basic, basic Somali and the great expanse of Somali literary beauty.


Then my prayers were answered when I found the website poetrytranslation.org.  I found poetry by modern Somali poems in the original Somali, once translated literally, and once translated fluidly.  It was perfect!  That way I can read the original and hear the “music” of the rhyme and meter.  Then I can work through the difficult, dense meaning of the poem with a helping hand.

You think this is good: you can listen to some of the poems read by the poets themselves!  This dimension adds to the music and bridges the gap from the written to the spoken word.  For learning the language, this ensures that you’re reading with the correct pronunciation.  Moreover, the poem becomes more intimate, more tied to an actual human.  You can even subscribe to the podcast of the recorded poems (only available through iTunes, unfortunately for me).


Much more than Somali, I found poems of many different languages.  Now I have a great resource for working on my Farsi thanks to several poems in that language, as well as in the closely related languages of Dari and Tajik.  You can find poems in even more obscure languages, too (eg, Assamese, Siraiki, Shuar).  A good portion of the poems come from Asia: from Georgia and Kurdistan, to China and Korea.  If I were learning Chinese, I would especially love that an audio accompanies many of the poems in that language.  The one thing the site lacks (I hate to even say it since the site has so much) is that the site does not offer transcriptions of non-Latin scripts.

Every poem demonstrates painstaking work.  The curators of the site collect these original poems by poets already established among their language communities.  The literal translation offers insight into the translation method, and then the poems are rendered artistically into English, which are themselves worthy of enjoyable reading.

Poetry can help your language

I encourage you to compliment your language-study with this site if possible because it will help you on multiple levels.  First, it will allow you to learn grammar and vocabulary from solid native sources.  Second, it will highlight the way that your language uses imagery to convey ideas.  Third, you will gain insight into what the speakers of you language consider most beautiful in their language, and you will deepen your knowledge about their point of view.  Enjoy your language in its most artistic form!

Have you found unlikely language-learning aids?  Do you use poetry to learn your language?

Photo credit: Valentina_A / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Why Somali is harder than your language

English: A young Somali man.
A young Somali man. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Recently I was discussing with @JaredRomey about an article he posted, “9 hard languages for English speakers.”  I replied that I don’t know why Somali never makes it onto those lists; they tend to be the same list: Chinese, Arabic, etc.  Jared suggested I blog about why Somali deserves to be on the list.  He suggested 5 reasons why it’s hard–I came up with 7, but I’m only a beginner.


In difficulty, Somali can stand its ground against the hardest languages.  Yet the Foreign Service Institute puts Somali in category 2, where 3 is the hardest.  Category 2 includes Farsi and 3 includes Arabic.  I’ve studied both, and I don’t see how this is so; Somali seems to be way harder than Farsi and of at least the same level of difficulty as Arabic.  If you drew a Venn  diagram of languages and their hardest aspects, Somali would overlap with a lot of them.  While Mandarin and Somali have tones, Mandarin has no case.  While German and Somali have case, German has fairly simple sounds.  While Arabic and Somali have difficult sounds, Arabic has a consistent writing system.  Plus Somali does some odd things with prepositions you’ll have to read about, below.  Somali is a doosy–but the challenge is made lighter by the joy of Somalis hearing their language spoken by a foreigner.


For a bit of background: Somali belongs to the Afro-Asiatic language family, in the Cushitic branch.  More famous branches of this family are Semitic, to which Arabic and Hebrew belong, and Egyptian, which includes the language of the ancient Pharaohs.  Some overlap with Arabic, then, is natural.


  1. Three (four?) writing systems.  When Somali was originally written down in the Arabic script in the 13th century (Wadaad script).  In 1920, another script was invented that somewhat resembled the Ethiopian writing system (Osmanya script).  A more minor script was invented in 1930, called the Borama script.  The official script since 1972 has been a Latin-based alphabet (Somali alphabet).
  2. All the hard sounds of Arabic.  The guttural sounds that foreigners have trouble with in Arabic–they’re all in Somali.  The emphatic ha, the ayin, the qaf, the raspy kha–they’re all there.  (They’re spelled x, c, q, and kh, respectively.)  Additionally, Somali distinguishes between short and long vowels, like in Arabic, and other languages like Japanese and Finnish.  So my friends correct me if I say “si” rather than “sii.”  Finally, they have a retroflex “d” (spelled dh) like in Indian languages.
  3. Some of the tones of Mandarin.  Most have heard of the four different tones of Mandarin: high, low, falling, and rising.  Somali only has two, high and low, but they can sound different depending on the environment they are found in.  They change the meaning of the word, too!  “Boy” is ínan, and “girl” is inán; “dog” is éy and “dogs” is eý.
  4. Irregular plurals like German or Arabic.  A Somali noun forms its plural according to a pattern that is not predictable from its singular, and Somali has 7 or so patterns.  This concept may sound familiar to German- or Arabic-speakers.  Unlike English, which almost always forms its plural with “-(e)s,” Somali has no “regular” plural suffix.  So the plural of áf  “language,” flattens the tone and repeats the last syllable: afaf.  For some nouns, a suffix is used, so hoóyo “mother” goes to hoyoóyin, and áabbe goes to aabayaal (also note the tone shift).  Finally, words may shift gender as they go from singular to plural.
  5. Prepositions–unlike anything.  Somali prepositions don’t resemble any language I know.  They’re a challenge, so I’ll explain as well as I can based largely on this academic source and this textbook.  They are divided into prepositions and “deictic particles.”  They have four prepositions, roughly “to”, “in”, “from”, and “with”.  “Deictic particles” indicate activity relative to the speaker; the four Somali deictic particles indicate toward the speaker, away from the speaker, toward each other, or away from each other.  One may need to use both a preposition and a deictic particle.  Somali tends to place these items in front of the verb, not the noun.
    For example, “I pulled the man out of the well with a rope” is nínkíi bàan cèelka xádhig kagá sóo saaray.  The last five words literally mean, “well-the rope with-from towards_me I-raised.”  Similarly, “they used to give us news about it” is way inoogá warrámi jireen, literally, “They us-to-about news gave.”  They could have thrown a soo in there, too, right after inoogá.  It seems to me they cluster all the prepositions together.  In the first example, “from” goes with “well” and “with” goes with “rope,” but both stick by the verb.  In the second, “to” goes with “us” and “about” goes with the unspoken “it.”  Unscrambling in real time what preposition goes with what is beyond my level right now.
  6. Cases–like Greek or German.  Somali has four cases, but not the ones you may know from, say German or Greek.  They are absolutive, subject, genitive, and vocative.  Absolutive is used when it is by itself, and subject if there is another noun in the sentence.  Genitive, like in other languages, indicates possession, and vocative is used in directly addressing someone or something.  Like the plural, they are marked with a suffix or tone change, depending on the class of the noun.  In addition, like in German and Greek, the absolutive and subject are marked on the article, as well.  However, Somali also has different articles depending on whether the noun was mentioned before or not (similar to English “a” and “the”).
  7. Poetry.  Somalis are known for their love of poetry.  Richard Burton noted in the 19th century the widespread recitation and performance of poetry among Somalis.  When Somali is spoken it is peppered with poetic allusion, proverbs, and alliteration.  The uninitiated cannot understand the depth of the language without a deep knowledge and appreciation of the poetry.


Before you feel discouraged, let me tell you that Somalis love to hear their language spoken by foreigners.  Some non-Somalis have become YouTube sensations by simply interviewing in Somali.  When you try to learn the language, you will receive tons of help.  Somalis love their language, and their love is infectious.  Enjoy taking on this challenge of learning Somali and all the new, friendly people you will recruit to help your efforts and entertain with your enthusiasm.