Analyzing these five excerpts allows plenty of observations, but not many conclusions. There is no single English version of Cahier that demonstrates a unified theory of how translation should work, much less a theory that significantly adds to the broad principles of translation discussed throughout this project. So what do we gain from comparing how different translators approach Cahier, besides the novelty of doing something that has not been done before? What do we gain from comparative translation in general?
For one, it allows a deeper understanding of the source text. Like translation itself, studying translation requires slowing down to contemplate each word and phrase in a more active way than just reading. It requires peeling back the layers that contribute to the effect of language on the reader—not just feeling the effect, or even naming it, but naming the small, under-recognized factors that create it. Only then can a reader think about how one might reconstruct those same effects in a different language.
It is not necessary to know the source language to notice differences between translations. The inability to read a text in its original language will always limit understanding, but a foreign reader does not have to be able to judge which translation is best. Instead, the reader can recognize each translation as one interpretation of the same work. Different interpretations will appear in the places where the source text has the most ambiguity. Recognizing these places of ambiguity in a text is key to understanding it.
Especially a text as complex and ambiguous as Cahier benefits from this kind of attention. Part of the poem’s charisma is its ability to leave powerful impressions, even from passages that seem impossible to grasp. The reader does not have to understand everything, or even understand much, to feel the poem’s resonance. Comparative translation pushes readers to analyze how and why those impressions pierce through the poem’s ambiguity.
Comparative translation also offers case studies of the types of problems that can arise in translation and options for how to deal with them effectively. Just from these five excerpts, we can make arguments about the best ways to approach certain aspects of translation. To name a few: Since translation is about reproducing an effect, an idiomatic phrase in the source text should be given idiomatically in the translation, even at the cost of word-for-word accuracy. Faithfulness does not require replicating the original text’s grammatical structure; that can backfire and result in an awkward translation, since standard grammar rules shift from one language to another. Translators should not deviate from the source text without a clear reason—if something is sacrificed, something should be gained.
For centuries, intellectuals have recognized that literary translation presents the paradox of being both impossible and necessary. Reading foreign literature limits our own self-centeredness, particularly in the West. It increases our understanding and respect for other cultures. It humanizes peoples whose realities are far, figuratively and literally, from our own. For all of its cultural distinctions, at its core literature deals in universal human thoughts and emotions, which gives it the power to link very different groups of people.
The premise behind translation is essentially optimistic: Languages, and the people who speak them, have enough in common to make translation work. But the potential for translation to work does not always translate to reality. It requires sensitivity and deliberation, not to mention a good deal of trial and error. It requires multiple attempts to translate the same work, including new replacements for translations that have become dated. Above all, translation requires both translator and reader to recognize its inconclusiveness.
As the celebrated translator William Weaver once wrote, “The words of the original are only the starting point.”
Césaire, Aimé. Cahier d’un retour au pays natal. Paris: Présence Africaine, 1983.
TRANSLATIONS (chronological order)
Césaire, Aimé. Memorandum on My Martinique. Translated by Lionel Abel and Yvan Goll. Brentano, 1947.
Césaire, Aimé. Return to My Native Land. Translated by Emile Snyder. Présence Africaine, 1968.
Césaire, Aimé. Return to My Native Land. Translated by John Berger and Anna Bostock. Penguin, 1969.
Césaire, Aimé. Notebook of a Return to the Native Land. In Aimé Césaire: The Collected Poetry. Translated by Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.
Césaire, Aimé. Notebook of a Return to My Native Land. Translated by Mireille Rosello with Annie Pritchard. Bloodaxe, 1995.
Césaire, Aimé. Notebook of a Return to the Native Land. Translated by Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith. Wesleyan University Press, 2001.
Césaire, Aimé. The Original 1939 Notebook of a Return to the Native Land. Translated by A. James Arnold and Clayton Eshleman. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2013.
“Aimé Césaire.” Academy of American Poets.
Batchelor, Kathryn. Decolonizing Translation: Francophone African Novels in English Translation. 2009. New York: Routledge, 2014. Kindle file.
Biguenet, John, and Schulte, Rainer, eds. The Craft of Translation. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1989. Print.
“Derrida, la traduction.” Idixa.net. Created April 28, 2010.
Eco, Umberto. Mouse or Rat? Translation as Negotiation. 2003. London: Orion Books Ltd, 2004. Print.
Gavronsky, Serge. “Black Themes in Sureal [sic] Guise.” The New York Times. February 19, 1984. http://www.nytimes.com/1984/02/19/books/black-themes-in-sureal-guise.html
Homel, David, and Simon, Sherry, eds. Mapping Literature: The Art and Politics of Translation. Montréal: Véhicule Press, 1988. Print.
Hermans, Theo, ed. Translating Others. Vol. 2. 2006. New York: Routledge, 2012. Kindle file.
Jackman, Rod. “A Man of Sowing.” The Philadelphia Review of Books. May 26, 2014.
Kinloch, David. “Review: Notebook of a Return to My Native Land / Cahier d’un retour au pays natal.” Translation and Literature vol. 5 issue 1. Edinburgh University Press, 1996. http://www.euppublishing.com/doi/abs/10.3366/tal.1922.214.171.124?journalCode=tal&
Lind, Dara. “9 Shakespeare innuendoes you should have been embarrassed to read in English class.” Vox. April 23, 2014.
“Memorandum on My Martinique: Aimé Césaire.” Surrealist NYC. March 30, 2013.
“Memorial Resolution: Professor Emeritus Emile Snyder.” Indiana University Bloomington. 1993. http://webapp1.dlib.indiana.edu/bfc/view?docId=B04-1993&chunk.id=d1e99&toc.id=&brand=bfc
Middleton, Christopher. “On Translating Günter Eich’s Poem ‘Ryoanji.’” In The Craft of Translation, eds. Biguenet, John, and Schulte, Rainer. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1989.
Rabassa, Gregory. “No Two Snowflakes Are Alike: Translation As Metaphor.” In The Craft of Translation, eds. Biguenet, John, and Schulte, Rainer. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1989.
Raffel, Burton. “Review: Return to My Native Land.” Research in African Literatures vol. 2, no. 2. Indiana University Press, 1971.
Steiner, George. After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation. 1975. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. Print.
Van Gelder, Lawrence. “Lionel Abel, 90, Playwright and Essayist.” The New York Times. April 25, 2001.
Watkins, Nan with Leuzzi, Tom. “The Wet Flame of Your Tongue: Translating Yvan Goll.” The Brooklyn Rail. June 19, 2013.
Weaver, William. “The Process of Translation.” In The Craft of Translation, eds. Biguenet, John, and Schulte, Rainer. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1989.
Wolf, Gertrud. “Paulo Freire: Pedagogy between oppression and liberation.” European Infonet Adult Education. July 3, 2014.
Special thanks to Professor Kaiama Glover and Dr. Alex Gil of Columbia University.