Of the few poems I’ve translated in my life, this was definitely the most challenging. Ndiaye utilizes a lot of great imagery throughout the poem related to being the nurse or caretaker of someone that was difficult to translate directly. For example, de couver in the line “de couver mon sommeil éternel” translates most directly to “to wrap a child in cotton wool.” I tried to preserve this notion through the use of the word “swathe,” which similarly refers to the idea of wrapping a baby in fabric. I also struggled with the line “to care not to hide.” This translation originally did not make much sense to me within the context of the poem, so I tried many different versions and arrangements. However, I continued to come back to this most direct translation of Ndiaye’s words. I feel like it allows the most room for interpretation of her meaning without my own personal inputs. I maintain her punctuation, line breaks, and structure throughout the entire poem, along with the repetition of “When I Die.”
Three years ago, I translated the poem “Femme Noir” by Léopold Senghor for the 2018 edition of DoubleSpeak. When I found this poem by Ndiaye, I felt that it was a near perfect follow-up to my first translation, as it offers both a call to arms and love for Black women (specifically those from Africa) from the perspective of a Black woman. I tried my best to maintain the high-energy and fast-paced nature of the poem in my translation by keeping the lines to a similar length and retaining the same punctuation and structure. I also chose to translate all of the lines starting with femme as “Women of” to add repetition to the poem to keep it moving forward. I also tried to as closely as possible preserve the meanings of the more descriptive words like crépitements, which directly translates to “the crackling of machine guns.” However, I chose to use the word “sputter” in my translation because I felt it more accurately captured in English the sound she was trying to evoke. Similarly, while ni decolorées literally translates to “neither faded,” the line was difficult to translate as there is no meaningful English equivalent to this use of the past tense. I opted to use the phrase “left to fade,” as I believe it more accurately captures the feeling of the original line. Finally, I sifted through several different English translation of the line: “VIVE L’AFRIQUE LIBRE” (“long live free Africa,” “God bless free Africa,” etc.), but ultimate settled on translating libre as “liberated” as it felt like it carried the most nuanced understanding of what it means for Africa and Black women to be free.
Mariam Ndiaye is a Senegalese poet and politician. Unfortunately, this was the extent of the information I was able to find about her through the Internet. These poems were sourced from an anthology of Senegalese poetry published by the Senegalese Center of PEN International.
Donnisa Edmonds is a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania who is currently working as a neuroscience researcher trying to understand how we use our brains to make decisions. She was born in the Bronx, New York, but grew up in a small college town in Ohio. She has been studying French since high school and is struggling to maintain fluency in a post-college lifestyle. Her hobbies include sewing, roller skating, excessive visits to the craft store, and discussing music opinions with anyone who will listen.