ma négritude n’est pas une pierre, sa surdité ruée contre la clameur du jour
ma négritude n’est pas une taie d’eau morte sur l’oeil mort de la terre
ma négritude n’est ni une tour ni une cathédrale
elle plonge dans la chair rouge du sol
elle plonge dans la chair ardente du ciel
elle troue l’accablement opaque de sa droite patience
Cahier is famous for introducing the concept of negritude, a word created by Césaire and expanded upon in this passage for the first time. The neologism négritude comes from nègre, a derogatory word for a black person. In reappropriating the slur, Césaire turns a humiliating insult into a badge of pride. Instead of shame, Césaire’s negritude signifies strength. The evolution of the word nègre into négritude also mirrors the trajectory of the poem, from its dark beginning to its triumphant climax.
Dealing with the term négritude is a crucial decision for a translator, since the word carries so much weight. Every translation but one has chosen not to translate the word at all: négritude just loses its accent to become “negritude.” This seems like the logical decision, for several reasons. For one, the term will already be familiar to some readers. When discussed in English, outside of this poem, the philosophy is generally referred to by its original name. Preserving the original spelling is a way of ensuring that readers will connect this word to contexts in which they might have heard it previously and might hear it again.
Another consideration, this time semantic: no English word has the same connotations that nègre carries in French. Abel and Goll, the first to face the task of translating the word, came up with “niggerness.” Like négritude, the word is a neologism whose root is a racial slur. However, nègre and “nigger” are a less-than-ideal match. The first can be used more broadly, depending on the situation’s context—it has a pejorative tone, but not always the violence of “nigger.” For an American reader, “nigger” is an extremely loaded and sensitive word. It brings its own baggage, which gives “niggerness” a different effect than the word négritude.
This new effect is certainly powerful. With their jarring choice, Abel and Goll communicate both Césaire’s reappropriation of a slur and his provocative tone. Because of the distance between French and English in this situation, though, it is impossible for for an anglified neologism to be very faithful to the original. In the end, it is best not to choose a replacement for négritude. The translators need not worry about confusing the reader with a foreign word, since negritude shares a root with “negro” in English.
Translation theorists have come up with the terms “foreignization” and “domestication” to denote strategies of dealing with unfamiliar cultural concepts in a text. These strategies, though opposites, are not meant to exclude one another. Every translation uses some blend of a foreignizing and domesticating approach, depending on the source text and the style of the translator. While neither strategy is “right,” there are situations in which one of them works better than the other.
Abel and Goll domesticate the word négritude when they translate it as “niggerness.” They allow an anglophone reader to understand the meaning of the word immediately, even if that meaning is not an ideal translation of the original. This is the gist of the domesticating approach to translation. As Kathryn Batchelor explains in her book Decolonizing Translation, domestication “facilitates the target reader’s encounter with the foreign.” It puts unfamiliar cultural concepts in terms that the reader will understand, even if that means sacrificing some of the effect of the author’s original choices.
The other translations use a more foreignizing approach, which has a greater tolerance for the unfamiliar. It retains some aspects of the text that might feel culturally alien, reminding the reader that they are reading a translation. Domestication moves the author toward the reader; foreignization makes the reader move toward the author. In the case of négritude, the foreignizing approach works better because there is no English equivalent that produces the same effect. As discussed earlier, preserving the effect of the source text is more important than preserving its words, whose meanings vary depending on the culture in which they are used. A translator’s job is to recognize those effects and mediate between cultures, not just languages.
Obviously, the choice not to translate cannot be used very often. But a good translator will know when to concede that sometimes, no translation is better than an unsatisfactory one.