Et je me dis Bordeaux et Nantes et Liverpool et New York et San Francisco
pas un bout de ce monde qui ne porte mon empreinte digitale
et mon calcanéum sur le dos des gratte-ciel et ma crasse
dans le scintillement des gemmes!
Qui peut se vanter d’avoir mieux que moi?
Virginie. Tennessee. Géorgie. Alabama
Putréfactions monstreuses de révoltes
marais de sang putrides
trompettes absurdement bouchées
Terres rouges, terres sanguines, terres consanguines.
For a reader, a familiar word or phrase can trigger associations that go far beyond its official definition. George Steiner, the first author to publish a book treating translation as an academic field, put it eloquently: “When using a word we wake into resonance, as it were, its entire previous history” (24). As Paulo Freire said before him, language is never neutral. Words and phrases gather political, social, and cultural connotations over time, depending on the contexts in which they are used. These connotations, like language itself, are fluid. A word that carried stigma a century ago might not anymore, which is why Shakespeare’s sexual innuendoes go largely unnoticed by modern audiences, to whom words like “dying” and “nothing” are not particularly suggestive.
Though we all use loaded language, every language has its own particular baggage. That poses difficulties in translation, where a word, phrase, or reference may not have the same cultural significance from one language to another. A translator can meticulously give the equivalent of the word in the source text, but is it a faithful translation if readers miss out on an implication that the author meant to communicate?
For that reason, most writers on translation theory agree with the writer and translator Umberto Eco, who proposes that “Instead of speaking of equivalence of meaning, we can speak of functional equivalence: a good translation must generate the same effect aimed at by the original” (56). Translation is not about communicating the meaning of words, but something much more abstract—their impact. That requires finding words (whether in the form of a name, a historical reference, a slur, a euphemism, etc.) in the target language that have a similar impact on readers as the source language had on its original audience.
This is why Raffel would not accept Berger/Bostock’s literal translation of one passage as “I accept […] / my race which no ablution of hyssop mingled with lilies can ever purify.” A native English speaker likely has no idea what hyssop is, and why an ablution of it, whatever that might be, would purify anything. This in itself is not a problem, since much of Césaire’s writing is intended to make the reader feel a little lost. However, Raffel argues that hyssop, which happens to be a remedy for bruises and an herb used in ancient Jewish ceremonies, is culturally familiar to European readers. He goes on to suggest that confusing an American reader with the term is unfaithful, and to propose “ritual sprinkling” as a substitute. Whether or not Raffel is right that Césaire’s intended audience would have had this particular herbal knowledge, his larger rebuke still stands: translators should translate “the sense, not the words.”
In some passages, changing Césaire’s word choice would be inappropriate. Geographical locations are one example that would stretch the translator’s liberty too far. Césaire plays with geography in the passage above, rattling off the names of cities—Bordeaux et Nantes et Liverpool et New York et San Francisco—first European, but quickly jumping across the Atlantic Ocean. In a footnote to their translation, Eshleman and Arnold explain that all of the cities were involved in the triangle trade, except San Francisco, which “seems to have been added for euphony and rhythm.”
Césaire names these places in order to claim a twisted physical ownership of the cities built with African slave labor, describing gleaming metropolises whose skyscrapers are tattooed with his fingerprints. Then he names southern American states—Virginie. Tennessee. Géorgie. Alabama—among the last to relinquish slavery. In the space of these few lines, Césaire has expanded his scope. That expansion is typical of his style in Cahier; though the poem is about the French colony of Martinique, Césaire never lets it rest in one location for too long. It is also insistently about the pan-African community, and even beyond it, communities linked by oppression.
The relationship between Césaire and a reader with European background is historically one of oppressed and oppressor, but Cahier reverses these power dynamics. Césaire makes French, an imposed colonial language, express the experience of the colonized. Not every translation can preserve the layers of this relationship between author and reader. However, English can do it almost perfectly, because Americans and the English share with the French a history as oppressors. Both powers have exploited, colonized, enslaved, and violated people of African descent. For that reason, English is the ideal language for a translation of Cahier. Because France and the U.S. have played similar roles in history, they are a natural parallel. White Americans read the poem with the knowledge that their country instigated the same kind of violence.
There is still a cultural gap between French and American readers, which means that Americans will have different points of reference. This particular passage has a reverse effect on the French and American audience. For Césaire’s French readers, the passage begins with domestic references (Bordeaux, Nantes) and then skips across the Atlantic, connecting France’s own role as colonizer to a much larger pattern. For the American reader, the same passage arguably has a more interesting effect. First come the foreign references that we expect (we know, of course, that Césaire’s accusations are leveled at the French). Then the passage suddenly becomes about our own history of slavery.
It is a crucial moment for American readers, because Cahier explicitly becomes about us. Instead of untouchable observers, we are players in the story. For Americans of European descent, it is a reminder that the oppressor in Cahier is not just France. For black Americans, and Americans of other races too, the passage is an affirmation that Césaire includes their history in his vision of negritude. No matter how much time passes since the poem’s publication, those ideas remain relevant. France and America will always have been built by the labor of the people they oppressed; they will always carry those fingerprints, and that “filth in the glitter of gems.” In that sense, Cahier is eternally modern.
A closer look at the translations of this passage reveals several key spots where vocabulary choices diverge. Some of those differences do not seem to have a significant impact on the reader—for instance, whether un bout is translated as “a bit” (Abel/Goll, Snyder), “a corner” (Berger/Bostock), “a piece” (Rosello/Pritchard), or “an inch” (Eshleman/Smith). Other differences are minor, but more important stylistically. Crasse is translated either as “dirt” or “filth”; the latter is a grittier, more evocative word, and even phonetically similar to the original. In other sections, though, some translators are more sensitive than others to the nuances of the original French. Trompettes absurdement bouchées is not wrong as “trumpets ridiculously blocked” (Berger/Bostock), “absurdly clogged up” (Rosello/Pritchard), or “absurdly muted” (Eshleman/Smith). But only the last translation recognizes that the root of the adjective bouchées is bouche, the French word for mouth. Using a word associated with the human body has several subtle effects: it aligns with Césaire’s very physical descriptions of violence (blood, filth, and various body parts are common images in this poem), and it humanizes a phrase that is only superficially about inanimate objects (human beings are silenced too, not just trumpets).
The Eshleman/Smith and Eshleman/Arnold translations stand out for giving terres sanguines, terres consanguines as “sanguineous, consanguineous land.” They decline to clarify Césaire’s unusual terms, unlike the other translations, which use easier synonyms. This translation also saves them from having to interpret Césaire’s precise meaning. On the other hand, the Berger/Bostock and Rosello/Pritchard translations clash: “blood brother earth” and “lands of inbreeding” have almost opposite connotations. The former evokes solidarity, while the latter is grotesque. Césaire could have suggested either, but he chose not to (“consanguineous” is a relatively neutral word meaning “of the same blood or origin”).
Those small shifts of meaning matter because above all, Césaire is in control of language. Though he writes in French, the language of his oppressors, it is not a French familiar to its native speakers. His language is both ideological and very physical, jarring and musical, arcane and obscure and often altogether new (neologisms abound). It is essential that a translator preserve Césaire’s total possession of language, at the expense of the reader’s understanding.
This point is especially important, even if it seems counterintuitive—confusing the reader is not a sacrifice for the translator of Cahier, but a goal, because that is exactly what Césaire did. In one passage, Césaire throws out a challenge: Accommodez-vous de moi. Je ne m’accommode pas de vous! These lines also work well as a description of his writing style, for Césaire is not an accommodating guide. Instead, he dares the reader to keep up with him through a book where he is always several steps ahead. His authority in Cahier is absolute. The translator who clarifies what Césaire left murky has neglected the most frustrating and most fascinating quality of his work.