Au bout du petit matin…
The first line of the poem is deceptively simple. It seems to have caused a fair amount of trouble for translators, who have rendered the phrase in English in a variety of ways. Eshleman and Smith’s 1983 translation bothered them enough that they changed it completely in 2001, and Eshleman changed it once more in 2013.
Césaire uses the phrase repeatedly in the first section of Cahier, which opens with an unsettling description of the Caribbean. As the sun begins to rise over the islands, the usual hopeful symbolism of a new dawn is nowhere to be found. Instead, the first light of day reveals a wasted, “pock-marked” land; a mutilated tropical paradise. The oppressive heat, the poverty, the violence of colonization, the dull normality of suffering—all of it creates an unsparing picture of a landscape as traumatized as its inhabitants. The quiet anticipation of this short phrase is followed by violent language and imagery. This pattern echoes over and over in the opening to Cahier.
A translation of Au bout du petit matin must do the job of the original, serving as a sort of mantra leading toward the dark material to come. At this point, we get the first sense of how the translators address a question they will have to answer at every step of the process: What is relevant enough to translate?
Meaning is obviously relevant. But every word, phrase, and passage has a host of other qualities. To name several:
•Rhythm (How many syllables does each word have, and how do they fit into the rhythm of the sentence, and how does the rhythm of the sentence fit into the rhythm of the stanza? Is there a break in the rhythm somewhere? Is it loose or structured? Which words and which syllables are stressed?)
•Phonetics (How do the words sound aloud? Are they fluid or cacophonous? Is there alliteration?)
•Semantics (Why this word and not a synonym? What are the connotations of the language here? Are there possible double meanings? What cultural and historical baggage does this word or phrase have?)
•Tone/register (Is the language conversational, formal, stilted, or odd in any way? Does the phrase hint at an irony? Is there humor? Does it create a gut-level emotional response? Are the words common or unusual? Easy or difficult to understand?)
•Form (Where are the line breaks? The punctuation?)
No matter how careful the translation, it will never be able to preserve all of the original’s qualities at once. This is where the question of relevance comes in; a translator will have to choose which qualities of the original have a significant impact on the reader. The answer will constantly vary. As a result, translators must constantly negotiate what to sacrifice and what to retain.
Distinguishing between what matters more and what matters less is also important in any criticism of a translation, which has the danger of becoming an overzealous inventory of every aspect of the original text the translator failed to convey. That approach ignores that the most technically accurate translation is not always the best. Burton Raffel (the translator who published the scathing review of Berger/Bostock) writes, “Translating poetry means recreating in one language the feelings and forms of expression of another language.” By framing translation as a process of recreation—not just imitation— Raffel implies that translators have the right to decide whether they might more effectively reach the same end as the author through different means.
This approach makes sense, but it also makes sense that a translator try to retain as many effects of the original as possible, unless for some reason retention is impossible. Giving things up unnecessarily is more accurately described as a loss than a sacrifice. This is why—to return to Au bout du petit matin—some of the translations falter at the first line.
Both au bout du and petit matin have multiple possible translations in English, but no direct equivalent. Au bout de means roughly “after,” or “at/until the end of”; petit matin means roughly “early morning.” Both are colloquial, unlike some of the stilted English versions. The biggest culprit here, surprisingly, is the Eshleman and Smith 1983 translation. Their “At the end of the wee hours” is not a phrase that comes naturally to most English speakers. Besides its odd Scottish flair, “wee” also sounds infantile, which is arguably the bigger issue. It is far too cute, given the violent images that follow. Similarly, Berger and Bostock’s “At the end of the small hours” is also an unnatural phrasing. It seems like both of these translations tried to preserve the word petit, which returns to the question of relevance. Finding an equivalent to petit is not necessary to communicate the meaning of petit matin, and the attempt to do so only shows that what sounds natural in one language will sound awkward in another. The other translations (“dawn” and “daybreak”), while literally less faithful, are more faithful to the effect the original phrase would have on a French reader.
Especially in a poem, phonetics are also relevant. The original phrase has a series of strong consonants—[b], [d], [p], [t], [t], [t]— both voiced and unvoiced. The result is a sort of popping, staccato effect that gives the line a strong rhythm. Abel/Goll and Snyder, who both give “At the end of the dawn,” end up with a smoother, more euphonic phrase than the original. Eshleman/Smith’s “wee hours” phrasing is more fluid still, with the words blending together. Berger/Bostock’s “At the end of the small hours” and Eshleman/Arnold’s “At the end of first light” do not replicate the popping effect of the original either (the consonants [f], [s], and [z] are fricatives, which can be drawn out since they are made by releasing air). In terms of loyalty to phonetics, then, the closest are Rosello/Pritchard (“At the brink of dawn”) and Eshleman/Smith’s revised and much improved 2001 translation (“At the end of daybreak”). The [b], [d], and [k] mirror the voiced and unvoiced consonants of the French.
The 2001 Eshleman/Smith translation is especially telling, as this line is perhaps the most significant change from their 1983 version. They do not explain their thought process (poor reviews of that line in particular might have had something to do with it), but the change speaks for itself. Apart from being more faithful phonetically, their second version also is just a much better idiomatic translation.
In this opening line, the register and phonetics of the original are not only possible to preserve, but relevant. Counting the types of consonants might seem persnickety, but they do have an impact here. They give the phrase a steady beat, which anchors the unpredictable, unsettling first section.
Other parts of the translation are less straightforward than phonetics. Rosello/Pritchard and Eshleman/Smith 2001 give au bout differently—as “brink” and “end” respectively. The words have different connotations: “brink” anticipates the beginning of something new, and the sense of a tipping point. It holds more tension than “end,” which focuses on the conclusion of a present stage, but not the future. More concretely, “brink of the dawn” would mean the moment right before the sun comes up; the “end of the dawn” is the moment right after the sun rises. The French phrase can in fact mean both. The English version has to choose.
Does the difference actually matter? I like the sense of anticipation in the Rosello/Pritchard version. It suggests a pre-sunrise stillness, capturing the first few seconds that light makes the islands visible. But I am only molding Césaire to my personal taste, with no assurance that this was his original intention. The translators, when authorial intent is murky, have a right to make their best guess and to use their own taste, too. In the countless little instances like these, translation is an act of creation. Part of choosing a favorite translation is choosing an interpretation that aligns with our own.