Samantha DeStefano on translating David Diop

Samantha DeStefano

on translating David Diop

In “To a Black Dancer,” which is often considered David Diop’s best poem, Diop celebrates the beauty, grace, and exuberance of an African woman who is performing a traditional dance. European Surrealism’s surprising juxtapositions of seemingly unrelated images and endorsement of revolutionary movements influenced Négritude poets’ writing style and anticolonial politics, both of which are evident in Diop’s experimental poem.

Rumeur can mean either “rumor” or “murmur, hum, rumble,” an ambiguity which has divided other translators. I chose to translate it as “rumble” to convey the dancer’s earthshaking impact on the world and to enrich the description of her dancing with a visceral sense of sound and movement. She is not a vague “rumor of Africa” but a powerful creative force rendered in energetic images, an ecstatic personification of Africa and its vibrant traditional culture. Négritude poets often used Black female figures as symbols of Africa’s strength and potential for regeneration. Like Léopold Sédar Senghor’s poem “Black Woman” (translated by Donnisa Edmonds in the Spring 2018 issue of DoubleSpeak) but with more concrete imagery, Diop uses a sensual woman to evoke Africa. The dancer’s vitality embodies Diop’s pride that Africa’s present attributes and ancient traditions would redeem the continent from the damage done by colonialism.

Multiplié literally means “multiplied,” but I translated it as “unceasing” to better express the idea of repeated triumphs and the proliferation “of dreams and stars” that they produce. A kora is a West African harp, so I translated koras as “kora harps” to define the term for an American audience and to enrich the poem’s depiction of traditional African rituals with the musical instrument that accompanies the dance. Les perruques du savoir (“the wigs of learning”) refers to the wigs worn as status symbols by wealthy, formally educated Europeans during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when their nations began colonizing Africa. By burning these wigs along with European “myths” and “false gods” in the flames generated by the dancer, Diop rejects French cultural imperialism and asserts the authority of African knowledge and ways of life.

about the author

David Diop was born to a Senegalese father (a cousin of Léopold Sédar Senghor) and a Cameroonian mother in 1927 in Bordeaux, France. Throughout his life, he divided his time between West Africa and France. He was a radical voice of Négritude, a twentieth-century Francophone African and Caribbean literary movement that was inspired by the Harlem Renaissance and Black poets such as Langston Hughes. Négritude’s goal was to promote pride in a rich Black culture as a reaction against oppressive French colonial rule. Diop’s protest poetry is more militant than that of African poets like Senghor. His writings display the commitment to African liberation and revolt against colonialism found in Caribbean poets like Aimé Césaire. Diop contributed poems to Présence Africaine (African Presence), an influential Parisian political and literary magazine of the African diaspora. In 1956, he published his only book, Coups de pilon (Pestle Blows), which was translated into English along with additional poems and prose pieces as Hammer Blows and Other Writings in 1973. He died in a plane crash near Dakar, Senegal, in 1960, days before Senghor was elected the first president of the newly independent nation.

about the translator

Samantha DeStefano graduated summa cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania with a BA in English, a concentration in medieval and Renaissance literature, and minors in both classical studies and gender, sexuality, and women’s studies. At Penn, she studied Latin, Old English, and Middle English. She has published academic research in Transcription Collection and Journal of the Penn Manuscript Collective on a manuscript of Poems, 1805–1818 by John Syng Dorsey, the author of the first American textbook of surgery, for which she translated quotations from Latin poetry. She published translations of David Diop’s poems “To My Mother” and “He Who Lost Everything” in the Spring 2020 issue of DoubleSpeak. She has near-native knowledge of Spanish, and after graduation she embarked on four years of intensive study of French.