- Translating Césaire
Nothing ever frees but the obscurity of the word.Aimé Césaire 1
A few weeks after Aimé Césaire died on April 17, 2008, I organized a marathon reading of his epic poem Cahier d'un retour au pays natal (Notebook of a Return to the Native Land). Over the course of two and a half hours a heterogenous group of students, professors, and neighbors read the entire text out loud, using both the French text published by Présence Africaine in 1956 and an English translation from Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith's 1983 edition of The Collected Poetry. 2By 2008, Présence Africaine's version had been republished at least eight times. For my generation, it was the "definitive version," and Eshleman and Smith's translation was the definitive translation of that definitive version. 3
Recently, however, a plethora of new translations of Césaire's poem have appeared on the scene, providing an exciting opportunity to reflect both on the diverse and erudite language of the poem and on the difficulty of translating it. Césaire first published the Cahierin Volontés, a modernist review associated with Eugene Jolas and Raymond Queneau, [End Page 419]right before France's entry into the war in September 1939. 4That version was largely absorbed into the longer 1956 version—the one we used for our reading in memoriam—that begins with the famous refrain "Au bout du petit matin," translated by Eshleman and Smith as "At the end of the wee hours." After years of teaching and writing on the Cahier, and after hearing the entire poem recited out loud, that refrain has become inscribed in my memory as an essential part of the poem's texture in Englishas well as in French. How would more recent translations approach the refrain? I wondered as I prepared to write this review. "At the end of the wee hours," I told myself, is only one translation among many. What new form would it take in the hands of N. Gregson Davis? How could Eshleman, now joined by A. James Arnold, improve on his earlier rendition of "petit matin"?
"Wee hours" is indeed an odd locution, and I had every reason to look forward to something new. Yet I was taken aback by Davis's translation of the Cahier, titled Journal of a Homecoming, which renders the haunting refrain as "At the close of foreday morning." I was even more disconcerted by the beginning chosen by Eshleman and Arnold. Those of us raised on the 1956 version expect the poem to move quickly from the refrain to a series of insults and invectives: "Va-t-en, lui disais-je, gueule de flic" (Beat it, I said to him, you ugly cop). Quite sensibly, the two translators had opted for "At the end of the small hours" instead of "At the end of the wee hours." But what surprised me the most was that, between the covers of a volume that sports the title The Complete Poetry, they had chosen to omit the invective "Va-t-en" and the entire paragraph it introduces in the Présence Africaine version. 5That is, Eshleman and Arnold decided to revert back to the shorter original version printed in 1939, thus eliminating all the material Césaire had added since then. Why would they do such a thing?
Let me begin with the issue of the refrain. Disconcerted by Davis's choice in particular ("At the French literature to translate the opening refrain as an assignment—and I did so before I showed them any of the published English translations. As might be expected...