Translation is an unrealistic task. Words and phrases have no equivalents, only approximations, and any message relayed from one language to another will shift in the process.
Literary translation is the least realistic of all. Unlike an instruction manual or the content of a phone call, literature uses language as more than a tool to communicate the message at hand. Translation would be simple if language were just the means to an end. In literature, however, language is both the means and the end in itself. An instruction manual can be rephrased using close synonyms and still accomplish its purpose; Middlemarch cannot.
When we say, “I like that author’s writing,” we mean that the way that author uses language resonates with us. In very simple terms, we like the way that person is able to string words together. A native English speaker might say she likes Balzac’s writing, or Dostoevsky’s, but she cannot know that for sure. She likes the writing of their translator and trusts that the translator has faithfully represented the writing of the author. If she had happened to pick up a different translator’s edition of Crime and Punishment, she might have come away convinced that she hated Dostoevsky’s writing.
A diligent translator will try to preserve the way the original author uses language, a task more easily said (and criticized) than done. The effect language exerts on readers is far more complex than a dictionary can help with. Even if a translator achieves the unlikely task of finding a word’s precise counterpart in another language, there are other subtleties that contribute to meaning—all of the cultural, social, and political connotations that language gathers through centuries of use, which are rooted in the history of the people who use it. Then the translator must consider the impact of a word’s sound, possible wordplay, and a host of other factors. A translation cannot hope to capture all of those countless layers of meaning.
If translation is unrealistic and translating literature especially so, translating poetry is the most daunting prospect of all. Some intellectuals have argued that it should not even be attempted. Something in poetry’s essence seems to exclude translation; more than other literature, the point of a poem is in large part the language used to create it. Robert Frost famously defined poetry as “that which is lost in translation.”
Alongside the challenges of translating literature in general, poetry adds other considerations. The physicality of language matters more in a poem— the sound of words, their rhythm, and the way those sounds and rhythms interact with each other. If poetry is the form of writing closest to music, reading a poem in another language is a little like listening to a clarinet playing a violin concerto. The effect is different than the original.
Since perfect literary translations do not exist, especially for poetry, the translator’s objective is to make the least imperfect translation possible. But in an endeavor where failure is not a danger but a certainty, what is the goal and how can readers judge whether a translation has achieved it? “Faithfulness” often comes up as a goal of translation, but what does that mean? How can a reader know whether a particular translation is faithful enough, if there are so many layers of meaning to consider?
The field of comparative translation attempts to answer these questions. In the introduction to their book The Craft of Translation, Dr. Rainer Schulte (who co-founded the American Literary Translators Association) and John Biguenet (who served as its president twice), write,
“One of the most fruitful areas of investigation can be identified in the study of multiple translations: the same text translated by more than one translator […] since their initial way of seeing a work varies according to the presuppositions they bring to a text. No two translators perceive every moment in a text with a similar awareness or intensity […] [they have] varying value judgments within a text about what elements should be chiseled out for the act of transplantation from the source-language situation into the target language.”
As Schulte and Biguenet point out, every translation is an interpretation. Translators try to stay true to the source text, but since they cannot stay true to everything at once, they also must choose which aspects of the text to prioritize. Schulte and Biguenet conceptualize “the translator as a mediator between the surface appearance of a word and its semantic, etymological, and cultural weight.” This mediation always involves subjective judgment.
Perhaps the best way to understand a source text is to read as many of its translations as possible. Perhaps that is also the best way to understand the process of translation: to read many different approaches to the same task, alongside the source text. In doing so, a reader can trace the translators’ choices and the reasoning that led to them. A reader might also recognize patterns that indicate each translator’s theory of how translation should work. And of course, the reader can judge which choices and theories are most effective, though that judgment, like the translations themselves, will be subjective.
This project will explore how different translators approach a work that requires them to grapple with some of the most ambiguous aspects of translation.
ABOUT CÉSAIRE AND CAHIER
“Aimé Césaire is that mountain which one climbs without ever reaching its summit,” wrote the Philadelphia Review of Books in 2014. The “formidable pinnacle” of that mountain is Cahier d’un retour au pays natal, the masterwork of the Martinican poet and politician, a book-length poem most often translated as Notebook of a Return to the Native Land.
Césaire was born in 1913 in Martinique, then a colony in the French Caribbean. Children in French colonies who showed academic promise were often sent to study in France, and Césaire completed his high school years in Paris. There, he met other students from French colonies—including Léopold Senghor and Léon Damas, with whom he would found the Negritude, a Francophone cultural and ideological movement that challenged the rhetoric of European superiority. They began to understand not only the trauma of colonization, but the transparency of its justifications. After graduating from the prestigious École Normale Supérieure, Césaire returned to Martinique for the first time in eight years. He wrote Cahier in reaction to this homecoming.
The French surrealist poet André Bréton, who wrote the preface to Cahier, described the poem as “nothing less than the greatest lyrical monument of our time,” and modern critics have called it “the rallying cry of decolonization.” Cahier is by turns jarring and lyrical, provocative and reflective, ironic and sincere. It returns, with growing defiance, to the psychological violence of colonization. Césaire rejects Europe’s supposed intellectual and cultural superiority, scorns the French mission to civilize its colonies, mocks the myth of the African savage, and declares fierce pride in his black identity. While his philosophy of negritude constructs a pan-African community, it also transcends race to envelop the world’s most marginalized people into a larger community united by suffering.
Césaire went on to write numerous works of poetry and prose, and served as mayor of Fort-de-France. Throughout his life and since his death in 2008, he has remained best-known for the philosophy of “negritude” immortalized in Cahier. The negritude movement had an immeasurable influence on postcolonial thought. Whether later Francophone intellectuals defended or criticized Césaire—and some did find fault with negritude, arguing that it was not specific enough to the Creole experience—his work laid the foundation for theirs. Just as importantly, Cahier is a striking work of literature in its own right. It exemplifies Jean-Paul Sartre’s description of Césaire’s poetry: it “explodes and whirls about itself like a rocket, suns burst forth whirling and exploding like new suns—it perpetually surpasses itself.”
All of these groundbreaking political and poetic qualities also make the poem extremely difficult to translate. Translators must constantly balance the poem’s ideology with its poetry, making sure not to retain one at the expense of the other.
Between 1947 and 2013, seven English translations of Cahier have been published. This project will consider all of them. The objective will not be to rank them; instead, I will argue that certain translations do a better job of translating specific aspects of the book. One translation may communicate the poetry beautifully, but unintentionally change the meaning of several phrases. Another might faithfully communicate the meanings of individual words but neglect their connotations, which shift from culture to culture. It is unlikely that one translation will do everything wonderfully once. Placing the translations in competition is also inherently unfair. They each are a product of their context and time period, along with the translator’s individual vision. Word meanings and cultural references always shift over the decades, so it is no surprise if the newest translation seems more relevant than the oldest.
It is worth noting that over seventeen years, Césaire released four different editions of Cahier. The original version, published in 1939 by Volontés, includes some Christian imagery that is toned down in the later editions. The two 1947 editions (one of which is a bilingual version that marks the first English translation of Cahier) are more influenced by Surrealism. The final and best-known revision of the poem, Césaire’s 1956 Présences Africaines edition drops some of the surrealist language in favor of subtle references to the Cold War. Most of the translations use the 1956 Cahier as their source text. The edition each translator used will not be relevant for this project, however, since I chose to analyze excerpts they have in common.
Below are brief descriptions of the seven translations. For context, I have included whatever information about the translators is publicly available (some of them are not well-known), along with brief summaries of critical reception.
1. Lionel Abel and Yvan Goll, Memorandum on My Martinique (Brentano, 1947)
Goll was a Franco-German poet with ties to the Surrealist movement. Abel, the Brooklyn-born son of a rabbi, was an authorized translator of Sartre (who called him “the most intelligent man in New York City.”) Together, they had the disadvantage of being the first English translators of Cahier. Their translation is generally regarded as the worst by the few people who have actually read it—the publisher printed only 1,000 copies, and it is almost impossible to find one today.
To give Abel and Goll due credit, their version set a framework for future English translations. They make a few strange choices, which have given Memorandum a worse reputation than it deserves. It is often surprisingly graceful.
- Emile Snyder, Return to My Native Land (Présences Africaines, 1968)
The second English translation of Cahier was not published until over twenty years after the first. Snyder, a native Frenchman who moved to the United States at fifteen, modeled his version on the existing Abel/Goll translation. Every English translation after Snyder, save one, has used Césaire’s 1956 edition of the poem as its source text.
- John Berger and Anna Bostock, Return to My Native Land (Penguin, 1969)
Berger is a British writer and translator who lives in France. He and Bostock have often translated as a team. Burton Raffel, a well-known translator himself, gave their version the cold shoulder: “The Berger/Bostock translation is not bad, but neither is it good—and a translation which is not good is not good enough for any good poem.” Other reviews were generally kinder (“By emphasizing [Cahier’s] narrative line their version is easy to read. By simplifying its flow they make it less intimidating,” writes The Philadelphia Review of Books.) Berger and Bostock were the first and only translators not to publish a bilingual edition.
- Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith, Notebook of a Return to the Native Land (1983)
This is the translation that led The New York Times to write, “Aimé Césaire has found his voice in English.” Eshleman is a renowned poet and translator. He is also the most prolific translator of Cahier, having co-authored three of the seven translations, and is generally regarded as the best. Smith is an Algerian professor of French. They communicated with Césaire during the translation process, and the finished product attracted significantly more attention than the previous English versions of Cahier. Eshleman and Smith are prolific translators of Césiare; unfortunately, this means that their Notebook is buried in a 400-page volume of Césaire’s works.
- Mireille Rosello with Annie Pritchard, Notebook of a Return to My Native Land (Bloodaxe, 1995)
Rosello is a literature professor at the University of Amsterdam who specializes in gender and postcolonial studies; Pritchard, a postgraduate student, contributed. In her introduction, Rosello briefly describes her approach to translating Cahier: “For each unfamiliar expression or unknown word, the question was, not so much ‘what does this mean?’ but ‘how strange does it feel to me’ and ‘how can I theorise my own feeling of alienation?’”A review in the journal Translation and Literature was generally favorable, calling it “an extremely faithful translation,” though one “that constantly verges on the literal.”
- Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith, Notebook of a Return to the Native Land (Wesleyan University Press, 2001)
Though Eshleman and Smith finally give Cahier its own book, the rest of the changes from the 1983 version are minimal. Their most significant departure is their translation of the poem’s first line. After that, they mostly switch pronouns and articles. The success of Eshleman and Smith’s translation comes in part from their effort to capture not only Césaire’s ideas, but his “skill in manipulating the physical elements of language,” as they write in their introduction.
- A. James Arnold and Clayton Eshleman, The Original 1939 Notebook of a Return to the Native Land (Wesleyan University Press, 2013)
For Eshleman’s last translation of Cahier, he partners with A. James Arnold, the lead editor of a volume of Césaire’s complete literary works (in French). Theirs is the only English translation of the original 1939 Cahier.
From what I can find, the seven translations have never been compared at once. There is also very little scholarship that discusses these translations as a group, especially the connections between them and how they may have influenced each other. Though the personal backgrounds of the translators would be an interesting study (for instance, Lionel Abel and Yvon Goll, the co-authors of Cahier’s first translation, were both Jewish—Abel was the son of a rabbi—and published their translation shortly after World War II), this project will be limited to their work.
Each of the five excerpts that follows is a key moment of Cahier, whose translation is crucial to a reader’s understanding of the poem. I have tried to choose excerpts that inspired particularly interesting translations, but that also give an impression of the style and themes of Cahier. To that effect, the excerpts range from more structured verses to looser, prose-like passages, and cover some of the poem’s most central ideas. They are presented chronologically.
For each excerpt, the original French from the 1956 version is provided. Below it is a link to the seven English translations of that excerpt, which appear in an interactive display via the website Juxta Commons. A viewer can look at each translation separately or choose two to compare side-by-side, as seen below. (Click the “Change” button to select from a menu of all the translations.)
It will be clear that the three editions with Eshleman as co-translator are very similar. The two main exceptions are the translations of the first and last lines of the poem. The Snyder translation is also very similar to the Abel/Goll; in some of these selected passages, they do not differ at all.
I will spend about half of the analysis of each section discussing a broad principle of translation that the passage helps illustrate, which will incorporate some translation theory. The rest of the section will focus on close reading, directly comparing how the translations differ and to what extent those differences matter. I will try to trace the reasoning behind each different translation to make educated guesses about how the translators decided to prioritize, sacrifice, and interpret aspects of each passage.
I will also make some qualitative judgments about which translations of a particular word or phrase are strongest. Sometimes that judgment is relatively objective—in instances when one translation is much more effective at preserving the impact of the original, or when a translation is inaccurate. Unavoidably, like any reader, my preferences will also reflect how I personally read the poem.