Sue Jia on translating Aimé Césaire

Sue Jia

on translating Aimé Césaire

This poem is commonly interpreted as depicting the struggle of affirming one’s identity when one faces erasure from colonial oppression. As someone who focused on building the Black consciousness, Césaire uses the violent imagery of a storm to depict the cultural violence that erases the sense of self of colonized peoples.

Reading the poem out loud was an important part of the process for me. The poem does not have a rhyme scheme, but there are two phrases where Césaire uses assonance, namely “la face nue face aux pays inconnus” and “les clous de chevaux fous.” Rather than following a strict translation, I focused more on preserving the sound, rhythm, and general imagery of the original French. Instead of the literal translation “the nails of mad horses,” I translated the line as “the stampedes of the mad steeds.” My translation was “our faces uncovered facing countries undiscovered,” while the literal translation was “bare face facing unknown countries.” I changed the adjective order to preserve the rhythm. I interpreted the unknown countries to mean the colonizers, since the second half of the phrase describes how they cut off birds’ calls (symbolizing, perhaps, the colonized people’s voices). I wanted to preserve how Césaire in the original French flips the traditional roles of the colonizer and the colonized by describing colonizer countries as inconnus (“unknown”), an adjective typically used to describe colonized, foreign countries; thus, “undiscovered” was chosen as the English translation.

I chose to translate “the advent of man” as “the advent of humankind” to make the writing more gender-neutral in the current context of our time. The Canadian Translation Bureau website states “in our time the male meaning of man outweighs any other,” and thus it seems appropriate to ensure the translation reflects the original meaning of the entire human species.

about the author

Aimé Césaire (1913–2008) is one of the most influential Francophone poets of the twentieth century and a founding figure in postcolonial Francophone literature and the cultivation of the Black consciousness. He was born and raised in Martinique (a French territory in the Caribbean) before moving to Paris for high school on a scholarship and then university. As a student in France, Césaire became deeply involved in examining Black identity in the context of French colonial oppression. Césaire founded, with other students, a journal called L’Étudiant noir (The Black Student).

Upon his return to Martinique after his studies, he wrote one of his most well-known works, “Cahier d’un retour au pays natal” (“Notebook of a Return to the Native Land”). His works focus on the impact of colonization on Black and Martiniquais identity. He was an essayist and playwright in addition to being a poet. His famous essay “Discourse on Colonialism” was written in a poetic prose style. Later in life, he became a prominent left-wing politician in Martinique, occupying the positions of Mayor of Fort-de-France and President of the Regional Council of Martinique.

about the translator

Sue was raised in Canada, studied abroad in France, and currently works in Francophone Switzerland. This has led her to accumulate a confusing mix of vocabulary in French. Sue graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2017, concentrating in statistics and minoring in French and creative writing. While at Penn, Sue was an editor on the DoubleSpeak team and loved exploring works by authors in different languages.