“I shiver a little, I shudder a little”: Gist Translation and Uncanny Bodily Knowledges

Alison Phipps and Tawona Sithole share a poetic call and response between gist translations of the Carmina Gadelica (1900) and daré wisdom of Ndau traditions.

Kufunda hakuperi is an ancient saying recited/resighted to acknowledge a moment when new learning occurs. It is in those moments when we say “Ah!”, “Oh!” that we recognise that learning is never accomplished. We recognise the immensity of our own imagination and of the world in what Maria Popova (2013, n. p.), in her online blog, The Marginalian, describes as “the gladdening mystery of life.” And it is this mystery wherein lies gist, a kind of enough – like listening to conversation/music/poetry in an unfamiliar language.

Appearing from distinct cultural traditions, but coalescing in the tradition of scholarship, we not only recognise but rely on gist to navigate the often-opaque waters of intercultural flows. In this spirit, we set out to share some cultural and linguistic edges of our creativity and enquiry.

In a call and response between gist translations from the medical humanities of Alexander Carmichael’s ethnological collection, the Gaelic Carmina Gadelica ([1900] 1994) and daré wisdom of Ndau traditions, and of their elders, we are offering these poems and spells, incantations and ways of warding off the pains which visit body, mind and spirit.

The mingling of words is like the mixing of spittle and dust to anoint, to relieve, to honour.

The ways that peoples take the things of the earth, the land, the touch of skin and careful, well prescribed ways in which this might be affected, are evoked here.

But this is evocation. It is just, gist. This is not for understanding or clarity or certainty. This is the realm of enough, understanding for enough for healing and enough earth and enough words for something to be protected, sheltered, held and unhurt.

Each tradition deals with and in the uncanny. Forces beyond comprehension but manifesting in ailments, pains and emotions are held in the words of both traditions. Each tradition is its own medical humanity and the translations here – gist translations of earlier forms and renderings – are brought into the language of these days, of our own ailings and ailments. As poet-scholars we find ourselves in an uncanny state of questioning?

How to be whole?
How to be held?
How to heal?
How to know?
What do you not know?
How to see with the
Eye of the seer?

How to be woman

How to Re-turn
to healing work
to incantation and praise
for days of deportation;

For a medical humanity
of the gist.

(Authors’ original poetry)

munzwa/thorn removes another thorn

the language of medicine
is best known to plants
the language of healing
is best known by the body
the language of healers
is best held in the well

(Authors’ original poetry)

Countering of the Evil Eye #142

An eye covered you whole
A mouth spat you out
A mind desired you

Four gave you harm
Man. Woman. Boy. Girl.

Three will thwart them.
A loving creator; child, spirit.

I appeal to the aider of women
I appeal to foster mother of children
I appeal to the contemplative by shore and sea
I appeal to the sky to all birds above and creatures below

And if a man has done you harm
With evil eye,
with evil wish,
with evil passion

May you cast off each ill
every malice,
every abuse
every harassment

And may you be whole again

While this thread goes round you

While this thread around you goes

Honouring all that is good, is just.

A balm forever.

(Gist translation from Carmina Gadelica, p. 139)

If you keep looking at me
My people
My things
My style
My gift
like that…..

(Authors’ original poetry)

Birth Blessing of Midwives #217

A wavelet for your form
A wavelet for your voice
A wavelet for your sweet speech

A wavelet for your luck
A wavelet for your good
A wavelet for your health

A wavelet for your throat
A wavelet for your pluck
A wavelet for your graciousness

Nine wavelets for your graciousness.

(Carmina Gadelica, pp. 191-192)

The chikuta
Where new life is welcomed
Is neighbouring
the chikuva
Where ceased life is sent off

(Authors’ original poetry)

 Gist: Wavelets of Form. Watercolour mandala.
© Alison Phipps. Reproduced with permission.

My Soul’s Healer #242

May my soul’s healer
Keep me at night fall
Keep me in the daybreak
Keep me at noon

When the journey is rough
Help and safeguard
My means and my ways this night.

I am tired

Shield me from erring
From my path

Shield me from shame.

(Gist translation from Carmina Gadelica, p. 215)

chinoziva ivhu
kuti mwana wembeva anorwara
an ancient saying
what knows is the earth
that the child of a mouse is unwell

(Proverb from Zimbabwe)

do hesitate to
touch the head
do hesitate to
touch the feet
uncanny bodily knowledges
do hesitate to
enter the sango/forest
do hesitate to
touch the zvimerwa/plants
do hesitate to
utter mazwi/words
uncanny bodily knowledges
open up to kunaya/healing
munzwa unotumburwa neumwe munzwa
is an ancient saying
a thorn is removed by another thorn
open up to the myst
open wide to
a twist of gist

(Authors’ original poetry)

About the authors

Alison Phipps is UNESCO Chair for Refugee Integration through Languages and Arts at the University of Glasgow. You can follow Alison on Twitter @alison_phipps.

Tawona Sithole is Artist-in-Residence with the UNESCO Chair for Refugee Integration through Languages and Arts at the University of Glasgow. You can follow Tawona on Twitter @Tawona_Sithole.


Carmichael, Alexander. 1994. Carmina Gadelica: Hymns and Incantations. Edinburgh. Floris Books.

Popova, Maria. 2013. “How We Spend Our Days Is How We spend our Lives: Annie Dillard on Choosing Presence over productivity.” The Marginalian (blog). https://www.themarginalian.org/2013/06/07/annie-dillard-the-writing-life-1.

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