This selection of translations comes from Khal Torabully’s Cargo Hold of Stars (Cale d’étoiles), to be published by Seagull Books in 2020. Torabully has devoted much of his writing career to giving voice to the millions of men and women, mostly from India and China, who served as indentured workers during the years spanning 1834 to the end of World War I. Conditions for indentured workers were abysmal, starting with the fact that many were plied with alcohol, separated from their families, and tricked into indenture, waking up in a ship’s cargo hold on a former slave ship. Once they were brought to the sugar cane fields in Mauritius or elsewhere, usually a region under colonial rule, they continued to be exploited — forced to endure harsh conditions and strict rules. Infractions often resulted in jail time and a lengthening of their contractual obligation. Torabully’s mission is to re-vision, re-imagine, and re-define the derogatory word “coolie” to coin the term “coolitude,” a concept that encompasses the diversity of transcultural exchanges (geographical, biological, and ethnic) that enrich our sense of humanity. Despite our myriad differences, we all are members of Humankind. UNESCO has recognized Torabully’s writings as “vectors of peace.”
Torabully’s language is playful, inventive, and peppered with Mauritian Creole and neologisms, which makes it especially challenging to translate. These linguistic acrobatics stand in stark contrast to the violence and cruelty depicted in the majority of these poems. For example, in “[My equinox sails, my wails],” the word “perroquet” is both a kind of sail, as well as a parrot. I was able to come up with “screecher sail,” a kind of sail. In the same poem, Torabully plays with sound in the expression “loin de poix, point de loi,” which literally means “when you’re far from tree pitch (e.g., land), you’re far away from the law/justice (e.g., the masters could do whatever they wanted with the coolies, with no reprisals). I was able to retain some of the playful rhyme with my “far from pitch, law is ditched.” Still in the same poem, Torabully plays with the sound [k] for the lines “Coulé, le coolie, l'homme écorché, / écourté, écourté, écoutez!” My translation was “The sunken coolie, the skinned man, / cut short, cut short, listen! ” Torabully believes that “ordinary language” is not enough when giving voice to history’s indentured workers and their horrendous experiences.
Another challenge I have faced when translating Torabully is to honor the music infused in these very lyrical poems. I map the rhythms and sounds of the original text (assonance and alliteration), and try to replicate patterns (though not necessarily exact sounds, nor placement in stanzas) in my translation. For example, in “[Star, cythère cythère panaris],” there’s a bit of slant end rhyme going on throughout the French. Specifically, in the fourth stanza, “épicée” and “cendrés” rhyme, as well as “Apsara” and “masala.” I was fortunate to be able to pair “shadow” and “ash,” as well as replicating the “Apsara” / “masala” rhyme.
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