lie, lie-moi, fraternité âpre
puis, m’étranglant de ton lasso d’étoiles
Je te suis, imprimée en mon ancestrale cornée blanche
monte lécheur de ciel
et le grand tour noir où je voulais me noyer l’autre lune
c’est là que je veux pêcher maintenant la langue maléfique de la nuit en son immobile verrition!
Just as the first phrase of Cahier has divided translators, so has the poem’s last word. Verrition is another construction of Césaire’s. Its meaning is left ambiguous for the reader.
In the translator’s note to their 1983 version, Eshleman and Smith appear to cut short the speculation:
“Only Césaire himself was in a position to reveal (in a private communication) that “verrition” which preceding translators and scholars had interpreted as “flick” and “swirl” had been coined on a Latin verb “verri,” meaning “to sweep,” “to scrape a surface,” and ultimately “to scan.” Our rendition (“veerition”) attempts to preserve the turning motion (set against its oxymoronic modifier) as well as the Latin sound of the original—thus restituting the long-lost meaning of an important passage (the last few lines of the Notebook).”
Since their source was in the best position to know, Eshleman and Smith seemed to have the final word with “veerition.”
The sense of closure did not last. Other correspondents of Césaire revealed that he had told them something different. In Eshleman’s third and last collaborative translation of Cahier, this time with Arnold, he changes the phrase from “motionless veerition” to “still verticity.” The footnote explains that while Césaire had personally assured Eshleman and Smith that verrition’s root was verri, “Kesteloot, who had also consulted Césaire, claimed the root was vertere, to turn. André Claverie was given the same etymology by Césaire” (66).
Césaire can no longer explain himself, but it seems most likely that both verri and vertere were on his mind when he created the last word of his poem. Both refer to motion, whether sweeping or turning. That seems like the most believable reason that Césaire would give different explanations to different people, other than his personal amusement.
Verrition also sounds very much like the Latin word for “truth,” veritas. It is unlikely that Césaire would not have noticed that resemblance. Semantically and conceptually, the word “truth” would even fit the passage. Identifying these additional meanings is speculative, but a translation can try to recreate those that might be relevant, so that the reader can decide.
The discussion of word roots, in the end, by no means offers a clear answer to what the best translation may be. The first three translations opt out of creating their own neologism; Abel/Goll and Snyder end with “unmoving flick,” and Berger and Bostock choose “seized swirl.” The latter is an intriguing image to end on, suggesting a whirlpool or vortex. However, as discussed throughout this project, translations should try to recreate a word’s effect on a reader. In his essay “On Translating Günter Eich’s Poem ‘Ryoanji'” the translator Christopher Middleton describes the responsibility “to resist any impulse to shout (explicate) what the [text] has chosen to mutter (implicate).” Translating an imaginary word as a perfectly normal word neglects this responsibility. It removes the mystery; it explicates what the text implicates.
Rosello and Pritchard’s choice, “immobile revolvolution,” is more faithful. They seem to have seen vertere in verrition even before Césaire confirmed it. (An unfortunate drawback is that it looks a little like a typo of “revolution.” My first reaction was confusion over whether or not the spelling was purposeful, though other readers may understand it more quickly than I did.) Eshleman and Smith use “motionless veerition” in both of their versions, before Eshleman/Arnold’s switch to “verticity.” Eshleman/Arnold write, “We agree with Kesteloot that the poetic sense of the image is an arrested turning motion. We have settled on the translation “still verticity” to render that meaning while suggesting the powerful upward sweep of the final passage.” (66) Even so, “veerition” still communicates a stronger sense of movement than “verticity.” Most readers will not recognize the root vertere and see instead a word that seems like it might be describing something vertical.
It is fitting that the book’s last word has proved impossible to pin down. The diverse translations seem to bring the poem around full circle, to the first line that also inspired such different readings. For a poem that resists translation, this last passage is a fitting conclusion.
A few other notes on the remainder of this last section: whether a product of artistic license or a careless mistake, some translations contain a few inaccuracies. Berger and Bostock, for instance, repeat the word “follow” when it is only written once in the original. They also “fish for [emphasis added] the night’s evil tongue” instead of fishing with the tongue, which is written (in a few more words) in Césaire’s version. It is not as though one preposition over the other drastically changes the reader’s interpretation of the line. Still, it does slightly change the image Césaire created with no apparent reason at all. A reader should be able to trust that their translator will not make unjustified changes. Even though the discrepancy is small, many small discrepancies like this one make a difference.
In their translation of lécheur de ciel, Berger and Bostock maintain a grammatical construction that was necessary in French but not in English. They end up with the (ironically heavy-sounding) phrase “licker of the sky.” The rest of the translators go with “sky-licker” (with or without the hyphen), a weirdly beautiful turn of phrase that captures both the exuberance and the defiance of that final passage.