Poem by IMMANUEL MIFSUD
Translated from the Maltese by RUTH WARD and IMMANUEL MIFSUD
Poem appears in both Maltese and English below.
Malta is a country caught in the crosscurrents: between North Africa and continental Europe; between insularity and a constructive role on the world stage; between prehistoric ruins and the blockchain. Mifsud is the voice of Malta, reflecting the archipelago in its richness, complexity, and contradictions. His is the voice through which the margins question the center; myths of progress are challenged; and the ancient interrogates the present, as in “Ġgantija II.”
The Ġgantija (“Giantess”) temples of Gozo were built during the Neolithic and are thought to be more than 5,500 years old, older than the pyramids of Egypt. They were erected by a people who worshipped a mother figure, a goddess. Awareness of intergenerationality and the unbroken cycles of life takes on a peculiar intensity when all that you have ever been surrounds all that you are in the present — and all you might aspire to become. It is comforting; it is confining. “Ġgantija II” was commissioned for an interdisciplinary event and an excerpt from it, in the Maltese, has been incorporated into a public sculpture on the island of Gozo.
Maltese is a complex, narrowly spoken language with under half a million native speakers. Nevertheless, Mifsud chooses to write in the tongue of his ancestors. English, on the other hand, was the language of occupation in Malta for well over a century until its independence from Britain in the 1960s. It continues to enjoy co-official status with the Maltese. Mifsud, as do many in Malta, speaks English and is competent in other languages as well. He could have made the more expedient choice to have English as the language of his literary career. But despite his international inclinations Mifsud has chosen the challenge of writing and teaching in the language of his forebears, in the language that continues to be spoken in day-to-day life by much of the Maltese working class.
As Mifsud’s translator, I, in turn, have chosen the challenge of navigating the intricate language of a close-knit community to which I may never truly belong. I’ve chosen to navigate the historical, cultural, and sociopolitical dynamics which inspire and are captured in Mifsud’s body of work—all while immersing myself in the region’s current events as though its newsmakers were my own next-door neighbors. Malta’s language, however tiny, is worth saving; her societal dynamics a laboratory from which the rest of the world might learn. Translation, for me, is a way of life—an ongoing engagement with the world rather than a literary event.
Lastly, I have chosen the challenge—and the gift—of working synchronously and collaboratively with an exacting writer. It is wonderful to be able to ask the occasional question, clear up a lingering doubt. But it can also aggravate to be asked the questions, to have doubt introduced just as closure seems imminent. Collaboration heightens the artistic accountability, and vulnerability, of both author and translator. The difference between a good translation and a great one depends as much on relational capacity as it does linguistic prowess. Mifsud and I have learned to mine the riches of this fragile artistic space, and that has made all the difference.
August 22, 2021
Stone reminds you of the blue sea —
that sea you crossed; the walk you walked
on the white rocks spreading before you.
It reminds you of your mother, large and ample —
arms heavy laden;
feet crushing the earth,
pounding the soil beneath them.
Stone is her forehead beaded with sweat;
the coursing of milk from which you drank
as, uphill, she bore you, lovingly at breast.
Stone reminds you of your father, brawny and tanned;
with broken skin scorched,
yet strong of grasp as he held you
when you arrived at the very top.
It reminds you of his finger pointing out distant shores
where it all begins, this story of stone.
Walk slowly and kiss all the silent corners.
Listen carefully for voices: your mother’s laughing,
your father’s comforting you at night.
Wind-like these voices:
Feel them gathering as you’re walking,
as you wander by all of the stones
searching for your face, their faces whispering to you.
Blood was never shed here — it was sweat. Sweat,
salty as the sea spray.
It was here that the seed that made you was shed.
Your people were shed: siblings and uncles
and aunts who grew old and died looking up at the moon.
These stones are yours — they arose from your land,
from your body, your soul, your mouth
mumbling waves; and the sound of thunder,
and even sun, as it marked and marked the hard days.
And the rain falls roundly;
the sound of babies tumbling from wombs.
Lie face down. Feel the beat as it rises, rises
from moonlit stones.
On your forehead lies the sheen of sweat.
Forage, forage in the dew, grass wet.
How cooling this holy dew!
Sacred dew, falling cold as descending ice,
upon your hair, upon your face,
dripping down stones.
It’s your face there, and
the gaze now rests; it rests there like a silence.
How cold you are. How cold you’ve become
lying here on these stone slabs.
On the vast stones, vast, at Ġgantija.
“Ġgantija II” is forthcoming in the original Maltese by Klabb Kotba Maltin.
Immanuel Mifsud is a four-time national literary award winner and a Member of the National Order of Merit of the Republic of Malta. He was awarded the European Union Prize for Literature and is the first Maltese writer to have given a reading at the U.S. Library of Congress. Novelist, poet, playwright, and translator, Mifsud altered the landscape of Maltese literature by making the unspeakable speakable. He is a founding member of PEN Malta and its current president, and lectures in literary theory and Maltese literature at the University of Malta.
Ruth Ward’s creative collaborations center on the Mediterranean, particularly Malta and Spain, where she has long worked on flamenco and other Spanish dance productions. Her poems, stories, and translations have recently appeared or are forthcoming in The Los Angeles Review, The Antigonish Review (Nova Scotia), AGNI, Columbia Journal, Hunger Mountain, Modern Poetry in Translation (London), and Southword (Cork, Ireland). Her literary works have been published, performed, or translated in sixteen countries. She is a U.S.-based member of PEN America.