Conversations with Moroccan Poet Abdellatif Laâbi

This post was written by Khalid Lyamlahy, a doctoral student at St Anne’s College. Khalid’s research looks at Moroccan identity in a post-colonial context, examining the concepts of nostalgia and revolt in the works of three contemporary Moroccan Francophone writers : Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine (1941-1995), Abdelkebir Khatibi (1938-2009) and Abdellatif Laâbi (born 1942).

Poet Abdellatif Laâbi

On February 20-21 2018, the University of Oxford hosted Moroccan poet Abdellatif Laâbi for a two-day event, supported by The Ertegun Graduate Scholarship Programme in the Humanities and the Maison Française d’Oxford (the French cultural centre in Oxford). The event provided a unique opportunity to discuss and engage with the work of one of the major voices of Francophone poetry.

Born in Fez in 1942 under the French protectorate, Laâbi was only fourteen when Morocco gained its independence in 1956. Laâbi taught French in Rabat and cofounded in 1966 with a group of Moroccan poets and artists the journal Souffles-Anfas, one of the most influential platforms for cultural and political production in postcolonial Africa and the Global South. A political activist in the Moroccan Left, Laâbi was arrested in 1972 and spent more than eight years in prison. After an international campaign for his release, he left Morocco and went into exile in France. Laâbi has published a wide range of works including poetry collections, novels, essays, autobiographies, children books, and translations, as well as a series of articles and interviews. In 2009 he was awarded the prestigious Goncourt Prize of Poetry, and in 2011, the Grand Prix de la Francophonie de l’Académie Française. His works have been translated into English, Spanish, German, and Italian, among other languages.

The first day of the event was introduced by Jane Hiddleston who provided a synthetic introduction of Laâbi’s trajectory and literary production. The first panel, chaired by Toby Garfitt, included talks by Andy Stafford and Khalid Lyamlahy on the motif of light in Laâbi’s work. In two equally enthusiastic presentations, Stafford discussed the at once ambivalent and rich meaning of a series of occurrences of the word “soleil” (“sun” in French) in Laâbi’s early poetry, while Lyamlahy reflected on the presence and absence of light in Laâbi’s writing, demonstrating how the poet recovers, protects, and brings light to his readership. For the Moroccan poet who has long lived behind bars, light is a source of hope, inspiration, and generosity. As he writes in one of his prison poems from 1978:

Bonjour soleil de mon pays
qu’il fait bon vivre aujourd’hui
que de lumière
que de lumière autour de moi
Bonjour terrain vague de ma promenade
tu m’es devenu familier

(Good morning sun of my land
how good it feels to be alive today
so much light
so much light around me
Good morning empty exercise yard
you have become familiar to me)

This extract is written as a dialogue between the jailed poet and the Moroccan sun. By repeating the word “lumière” (“light” in French), Laâbi celebrates life and creates a sense of freedom that resists incarceration and confinement.

Participants on the first day of the event at the Maison Française, Oxford

The second panel took the form of a conversation between Lyamlahy and Laâbi’s wife Jocelyne who is also a writer. Jocelyne has published a historical novel, an autobiography in which she recounts her life in Morocco and struggle for Abdellatif’s release, in addition to several collections of Moroccan tales which she gathered and translated into French. During the conversation, Jocelyne explained how she came to writing, commenting on her interest in Moroccan popular culture and, more broadly, the history of the Arab world. She also read some excerpts from the new edition of her Moroccan tales, Avec la rivière mon conte s’en est allé (Al Manar, 2018) which means “With the river my tale went away”, a closing formula used by Moroccan storytellers at the end of their tales.

In the final panel, moderated by Catriona Seth, Abdellatif Laâbi discussed the challenges of being a writer “from the periphery” and how this position shapes his approach to poetic creation and language. Significantly, Laâbi described his literary career as a “miracle”, a word that refers to both his background as the son of a Moroccan craftsman whom nothing predestined to become a writer, and to the sense of wonder and sensitivity that characterizes his poetic work.

Prof. Catriona Seth in conversation with Laâbi

The second day of the event opened with a discussion on language and politics in North Africa. James McDougall and Kaoutar Ghilani spoke about the evolution of language politics in the Maghreb, and the effect of colonialism and nationalism on linguistic dynamics in the region. They provided an instructive and complementary overview of the Arabisation policy and the teaching of foreign languages in both Algeria and Morocco, while Laâbi reaffirmed the necessity of recognising local dialects and promoting linguistic diversity in the region.

After this, Laâbi and his translator André Naffis-Sahely discussed the practice and values of translation. Drawing on his experience as a translator of Palestinian Arabic poetry into French, Laâbi defined translation as an act of love, dialogue, and deep understanding of the original text. Similarly, Naffis-Sahely drew on the legacy of the late British poet and translator Sarah Maguire to argue that translating consists in taking not only an aesthetic but also an ethical position. The discussion was then followed by a bilingual reading of Laâbi’s poetry in both French (by Laâbi) and English (by Naffis-Sahely).

This two-day event was a unique opportunity to engage with the deeply humanist and thought-provoking voice of Abdellatif Laâbi. Subtle and powerful, sensuous and rebellious, his poetry is not only a record of a life of commitment and dignity, but also a call to remain vigilant and reinvigorate the dynamics of resistance in an age of violence and intolerance. Laâbi reminds us that writing is the most valuable act of sharing. In his words,

Ton écriture est ton seul bien, celui que tu n’as jamais monnayé et que personne n’a jamais pu acheter. Et ne crois pas que tu en sois propriétaire. Ce bien n’est tien que dans la mesure où tu le distribues chaque jour, chaque nuit, surtout quand tu traverses les périls.

(Your writing is your only asset, the one that you have never sold and that no one has ever been able to buy. And do not imagine that you are its owner. This asset is yours only so long as you share it every day, every night, and especially when you are crossing perilous territory)

A display of Laâbi’s books

Virtual Book Club: the Portuguese episode!

The Virtual Book Club returns once again, and this time with an episode in Portuguese. This episode features a discussion about the poem ‘Paisagem’ by Maria Manuela Margarido (1925 – 2007), which was translated by Julia Kirst in 1995. Margarido was from São Tomé and Príncipe. Throughout her writing life she spoke out against colonialism, becoming a prominent voice in the liberation of Portuguese colonies in Africa.

Here, doctoral student Alex discuss the text with two undergraduates, Clare and Ebere, looking at topics like anxiety about colonialism, the role of the poetic voice, and the use of surreal imagery.

If you would like to receive a copy of the poem (in both the original Portuguese and the English translation) to follow as you watch the discussion, or if you would like future Virtual Book Club updates, please email us at

Translating Songs: The Art of the Impossible?

This post was written by Dr Alex Lloyd, a lecturer in German at Magdalen College & St Edmund Hall. Dr Lloyd is a key member of the team behind the Oxford German Network, and a convenor of the Oxford Song Network. Today she tells us about when German and song come together…

How do you translate the words of a song into another language so that it still fits the music when it’s sung in the new version? This was the challenge my students set us when we offered to translate Friedrich Schiller’s poem ‘An die Freude’ [Ode to Joy] for the collaborative translation collection, The Idea of Europe: Enlightenment Perspectives.

Schiller’s poem is well known in the setting by Beethoven in his Ninth Symphony. My second-year students suggested we attempt a translation which rhymed and scanned like the original and which could be sung to Beethoven’s tune. I had done translation workshops with students in the past which involved working with song texts (you can listen to some examples of German World War One texts here), and had also started to explore the theory behind producing singable or ‘vocal’ translations. So, we decided to try and fit our text to Beethoven’s music. Each student took responsibility for one or more verses of the text, and we discussed their ideas and solutions in our weekly translation class. The students enjoyed the collaborative aspect of the experience (it’s one thing translating by yourself, but quite another to have to reach compromises and negotiate!), as well as the challenge of thinking about text and music. One student reported: ‘It was great fun collaborating for this translation, as we realised we all emphasised different aspects of the original poem and had different interpretations of some of the images, so we had to pitch our ideas against each other to come up with a final version.’ When we were translating, we had to take a number of factors into account: the style and structure of the text, the register (formal or informal?), the literal meaning of words as well as the associations they have within society and culture. The first few lines of the first verse will show you what I mean:

Freude, schöner Götterfunken
Tochter aus Elysium,
Wir betreten feuertrunken,
Himmlische, dein Heiligtum!

[Joy, the gods’ own spark of beauty
daughter of Elysium,
Fire-drunk pilgrims’ solemn duty
to your kingdom we shall come!]

This is not the sort of thing that comes up in everyday conversation.

Often, it’s actually quite difficult to translate a text without losing something of the original – references, sounds made by the position of words in a sentence – and to say just exactly what the original text did. To translate a text so that it also fits the rhythms of a song is a very tall order. Indeed, this kind of translation has been called impossible. We had to think about the style and structure of the music as well as the text: phrasing, rhythm, stress, range, word painting. We also needed to think about the needs of the singers (not putting awkward vowel sounds on a very high note, for example), as well as the function of the song (the tune is used as the European Union’s anthem though performed without words), and the needs of the audience members who are listening to it. To use a technical term from translation studies, we had to ‘compensate’, by trying to introduce things elsewhere to achieve the same effects overall. Vocal translation encourages us to ask questions about the dynamic relationships between text and music. Perhaps have a go at translating your favourite song from English into German. Can you make it fit the music without sounding really strange?

Singable translation might be difficult, but it’s something we can encounter without thinking about it. Many people at Christmas sing the carol ‘Silent Night’ which is actually a translation of a German song, ‘Stille Nacht’. Or, take David Bowie’s famous song ‘Heroes’ which he also performed in German and in French.  One of the students who worked on the translation is now doing an extended project on the way hymns change between languages, and another will be taking a course on advanced German translation next year. A group of students and I performed the singable English translation of the ‘Ode to Joy’ at the launch of the book, The Idea of Europe: Enlightenment Perspectives, in November. ‘It was a lovely surprise to be a sent a video months later of our translation being sung at the relay reading event in the Taylorian!’.

And you can see a clip of Dr Lloyd and her students singing ‘An die Freude’ here…


*French Film Competition 2018 – Results!*

This was the eighth year of Oxford University’s highly popular French Film Competition, where secondary school pupils are invited to watch selected French films according to their age category (Years 7-11 or Years 12-13) and produce an alternative ending of their own devising. The 2018 film selection was Une vie de chat (Years 7-11) and Des Hommes et des Dieux (Years 12-13). As in previous years, the competition attracted a large number of entries: over 140, from more than 50 different schools.

The judges were greatly encouraged by both the strength and the diversity of this year’s field of applications. There was a notable increase in the number of video clips and storyboard submissions, and overall a great amount of creativity was on display; in both age categories, students channelled their energies into elaborate film scripts and imaginative essays. Many entrants showed commendable French language skills. Shortlisting was a difficult task, with fine margins separating the winners from many other pieces that showed impressive talent. The most successful entries managed to develop plot and character convincingly from the tone established in earlier scenes, picking up smoothly from the set starting-point, with compelling dialogue and plausibly innovative action, all within the specified limit of 1500 words.

In the Years 7-11 category, the joint winning entries were those of Priya Gurcha and Ethan Ross et al. Priya produced a dazzlingly illustrated storyboard that closely reflected the style of the original dessin animé, and caught the judges up in its alternative high-octane conclusion. Meanwhile Ethan and his team produced a very well sequenced, French-language film clip in which comic touches built to a gripping, poignant ending. The runner-up in this category was Sarah Shah with an imaginative and beautifully detailed screenplay, demonstrating convincing psychological development – complete with flashbacks – and a truly cinematic perspective. Highly commended by the judges are Auj Abbas and Daeun Shin. Commendations also go to Joshua Brookes, Kelly Chae, Ananya Ajit, Sofia Ispahani, Tyla Orton, Scarlet Somerville, and Bruno de Almeida Barreto .

In the older age category (Years 12-13) the winner is Florence Smith for her stunningly original ending to Des hommes et des Dieux. This well researched script reconsidered the legacy of the Tibhirine monks via a contemporary newsflash, allowing Florence to reflect on the viability of the monks’ Christian charity and respect for Muslims in France today. Runner-up is Peace Silly, who impressed the judges with her inventive re-imagining of the plot’s outcome, developed around the crux of the supply of medicines, and especially touching in its focus on the friendship between Frère Christophe and Rabbia. In this category, Max Thomas and Trinity Mae Dore-Thomas are highly commended, while commendations go to John John de Weert, Will Foxton, Maya Szaniecki, Georgia Brawne, Martin Christopherson, and Clementine Lussiana.

Some further notes from the judges on the overall field of entries for individual films follow below:

Une vie de chat: a contemporary classic by Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol, it received over a hundred submissions. At least twenty of these were worthy of consideration for a commendation, with the lower end of the age range (7-9) faring strongly. There was an abundance of entertaining entries that majored on a roof-top fight, shoot-out, car chase and/or tragic death of one of the ‘goodies’. Various entries swapped Notre-Dame for the Eiffel Tower when setting the final showdown between Nico and Costa. The zoo also crept back into several entries. More than one hit upon the idea that Nico might be Zoe’s father (one film clip even had him being magically transformed into the cat!). The most convincing entries were those that managed to engage all the major characters in a plausibly dynamic climax – without losing the quirkiness of the original.

Des Hommes et des Dieux: this is a demanding film that requires considerable background cultural knowledge (or research) in order to be best appreciated. Pleasingly, a number of entries showed exactly this, some quoting the Bible and Arabic phrases to evoke the mind-set of the French monks and the Algerians with whom they mix. We received a good number of entries in a high standard of French. A key challenge here for the students was to develop one or two unusual ideas without introducing implausible characterisation (particularly of Christian). Some entries were beautifully written, but ended up keeping close to the actual ending with the monks’ execution.

We hope you all enjoyed watching the films and working on your entries, and hope you will continue to pursue your interest in French cinema and culture!

— The Competition Judges

A Chilean Year Abroad: from terremotos to chilenismos

This post was written by Hector Stinton, a third-year Spanish & French student at Keble College.

As an undergraduate reading French and Spanish, I have chosen to spend my year abroad working in Santiago de Chile (August 2017 – June 2018) and Paris (July – September 2018) as a British Council English teacher and Assistant Film Producer, respectively. In the summer before starting the Spanish half of my year, I set myself three main objectives: to enhance my understanding of Hispanic culture, to improve my Spanish, and to challenge myself professionally.

Being embedded in life and work in Chile has given me great insight into Latin culture. For example, in England, flying or wearing our flag is uncommon and has nationalistic associations, even on St George’s Day; whereas in Chile, La Estrella solitaria is seen far more frequently, especially on Independence Day in September. Dig a little deeper, however, and you find that it is still a legal obligation, though rarely enforced, to fly a flag from every house or tower block – a hangover in the constitution written by Pinochet, demonstrating his pervasive legacy. At the other end of the spectrum, and typifying the wry sense of humour, the beverage of choice – a litre of sweet fermented wine with pineapple ice-cream – is called a terremoto (‘earthquake’), despite the fact that tremors regularly raze towns and villages, and have left the capital without any pre-modern architecture.

It is said that if you can speak Castilian in Chile, you can speak it anywhere in the world, since Chilean Spanish has a fearsome reputation for its thick accent, fast delivery, and plethora of peculiar idioms and neologisms, known as chilenismos. Separated from Peru and Bolivia by the Atacama Desert to the north, from Argentina by the Andes to the east, and surrounded by ocean to the south and west, Chile’s geography has seen its language develop hermetically. Even when Chile became more accessible, wars with her neighbours, and continuing mutual suspicion, have made the distinct speech a point of national pride. For this reason, Chilean vocabulary has been particularly enriched by its immigrant and native communities: ya (‘yeah’) from the German ja, ¿cachai? (‘you know?’) from the English ‘to catch one’s drift’, cancha (‘field’) from the Quechua kancha. The grammar, too, prefers the Italian ai or ei ending to the Iberian as or es when using the informal tu form in the present tense, and rejects completely the peninsular vosotros ‘you plural’. Acquiring all these subtleties, and many more besides, has made me a more complete linguist.

Professionally, working at the biggest language school in Santiago, the Instituto Chileno-Británico de Cultura, has presented its own set of challenges. On Friday evenings, I teach an advanced one-on-one student who happens to be the philosophy chair at the top university, and is preparing to deliver a series of lectures at Yale. A few hours later, on Saturday mornings, I go from feeling more like a tutorial student with the aforementioned academic, to helping a class of six-year-old girls colour and annotate big A3 sheets with titles like ‘My Zoo’ and ‘My Favourite Food’. ‘Variety’ is certainly the watchword at the ICBC, because every day I engage with and adapt to a huge range of different ages, backgrounds and abilities.

Thus far, I would go as far as to say I’m meeting or exceeding the objectives I set myself at the beginning of the year, thanks to an opportunity in Chile made possible by the British Council and Instituto Británico. Now I might even have time for some of my secondary objectives: learning to dance, learning to cook, and learning Portuguese…