ô lumière amicale
ô fraîche source de la lumière
ceux qui n’ont inventé ni la poudre ni la boussole
ceux qui n’ont jamais su dompter la vapeur ni l’électricité
ceux qui n’ont exploré ni les mers ni le ciel
mais ceux sans qui la terre ne serait pas la terre
gibbosité d’autant plus bienfaisante que la terre déserte
davantage la terre
silo où se préserve et mûrit ce que la terre a de plus terre
Though on first glance this passage appears straightforward, it poses a difficult question about translation. The first half is especially poetic, with its repetitive structure and sense of climax. With the idea that a translation should emphasize the poetry of this passage as much as possible, I found myself preferring the more succinct translations, like the Berger/Bostock and the Eshleman/Arnold 1939 version. The Berger/Bostock in particular falls into the steady rhythm “Those who Xed neither X nor X”:
those who invented neither gunpowder nor compass
those who tamed neither steam nor electricity
those who explored neither sea nor sky
These lines have a beautiful, understated rhythmic balance. It sounds like exactly what it should be—but it is not. The original is less symmetrical, interrupting that perfect balance in the second line of the three-part section with jamais su dompter (“never knew how to tame”).The difference brings up an unusual question: Is it wrong to deviate slightly from the source text if it makes the translation better? As poetry, the sparser versions work better than the other English translations, which feel bogged down by syllables. These three lines in Berger/Bostock or Eshleman/Arnold work well in English because of their rhythm, but they are less faithful to the French.
The translator might also consider that French grammar requires a definitive article in places where English does not. The English translation of this passage seems to flow better with most of the articles left out (“neither sea nor sky” instead of “neither the sea nor the sky”).
But is a translator at liberty to make those kinds of decisions? One could argue convincingly that in this situation, the translators have that liberty, since they do not seem to have sacrificed the impact of the original passage. The distinction between “never knew how to tame […]” and “tamed neither […]” exists, but does not change the overall impact of the line on a reader.
It is difficult to see why Césaire would have deliberately chosen to use a weaker rhythm. Could it be an oversight? That is a significant claim to make. It could have been a stylistic preference on his part (though it is hard to tell what exactly about it was preferable) or perhaps he meant to express some subtlety that needed that precise French phrase.
One could also argue convincingly that all of these considerations are irrelevant. Whether Césaire’s lack of perfect rhythm was intentional or not, whether it is meaningful or not, a translator’s job is to replicate the effect of the original as closely as possible. “Improving” the rhythm is an addition on the part of the translator, creating an effect that was not there before.
The last few lines of this excerpt have inspired some confusing translations. All of the translators give gibbosité d’autant plus bienfaisante as “gibbosity all the more benefic[i]ent,” except Berger and Bostock, who veer off in a different direction with “We the hump growing more benign.” “Gibbosity” can mean “hump,” but Berger and Bostock have completely switched the register of the word. They have done something most critics of translation discourage: normalizing an aspect of the work that the author chose to leave obscure. Providing the more understandable synonyms of words like “gibbosity” makes the reader’s task easier, but it fails to replicate the effect that the original word would have had on the original reader.
This is one of several times that the Berger/Bostock version changes the register of a word, which subtly shifts the tone of the section in question. At the opening of this passage, where all of the other translators give o lumière amicale as “O friendly light,” Berger and Bostock write “O well-disposed light.” Semantically, that translation is fine. But “well-disposed” is a much more formal, distant adjective than “friendly,” and it does not communicate the warmth of the others. This change in tone might not be earth-shattering, but it is unnecessary, and translators generally try to avoid making unnecessary departures from their source. “Friendly” is an easy alternative, and lets the other translations retain a feeling of intimacy that the Berger/Bostock loses.
Berger and Bostock also make an addition that is nowhere to be found in Césaire’s original. They use the pronoun “we” (“We the hump […] we the silo”), which does not appear in the French. (The other versions, true to the source text, just translate the nouns.) The Berger/Bostock translation is a fair interpretation of this passage, since a reader might assume that Césaire is referring to the African people he describes above. However, changing a passage that was previously in third person to first person is a significant shift. In the Berger/Bostock, the narrator moves from “those” to “we,” emphasizing his own part in the community he describes, and leaving the reader with a clearer message. Césaire’s original is more abstract; he leaves the reader with concepts and metaphors, not people.