Samantha DeStefano on translating David Diop

Samantha DeStefano

on translating David Diop

David Diop’s “The Vultures” describes the destructive collaboration of Christian missionaries and French colonizers in Africa. Translator Ulli Beier renders the second line (“à coups de gueule de civilisation”) as “when civilization kicked us in the face” by reading “coups de gueule” as a literal composite of coups (“blows”) and gueule (an informal word for “mouth, face”). However, “coup de gueule” is an idiom that means “roar, yell, rant, tirade,” so I translated this line as “with the rantings of civilization.” I translated domestiqués as “domesticated,” rather than its secondary meaning of “controlled, subjugated,” to show that the Christian missionaries who helped colonize Africa sought to erase traditional African culture and replace it with European culture under the guise of “domesticating” and allegedly improving Black people. Before Diop describes the physical violence of colonization, he condemns the cultural imperialism that supported it, which relied as much on “all the books” as on “machine guns.” He immediately dismisses the racist ideology that justified the spread of “civilization” as mere “rantings,” establishing the hopeful promise of the poem’s conclusion.

The Paternoster is the Lord’s Prayer, which Jesus used to teach his disciples how to pray just as Europeans forced Africans to follow their Christian practices. I translated couvrait as its more intense secondary meaning, “drowned out,” instead of the literal “covered,” to emphasize how missionary activities dismissed the brutal realities of slavery.

In the poem’s penultimate line, Diop traces how European colonial nations’ industrial production used raw materials taken from African colonies. By connecting the exploitation of Swaziland (now Eswatini, its indigenous pre-colonial name), a Southern African nation colonized by the British, to his own heritage in West Africa under French rule, he expresses the Négritude movement’s Pan-African solidarity and hope for global Black liberation.

about the author

David Diop was born to a Senegalese father (a cousin of poet and Senegalese president 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 partly 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 and of “To a Black Dancer” in the Spring 2021 issue. She has near-native knowledge of Spanish and is fluent in French.