Translator’s Note

Nancy Naomi Carlson

Alain Mabanckou, from Congo-Brazzaville, is best known for his novels, for which he was twice named a finalist for the Man Booker Prize. Although his prose has been translated into close to twenty languages, his poetry collections have never before been translated into English. At times nostalgic for his childhood, Mabanckou often takes aim at the dictatorial regimes that have held Africans hostage for decades, caught in prolonged cycles of civil war.

This selection of translations comes from Mabanckou’s Quand le coq annoncera l’aube d’un autre jour… (When the Rooster Announces the Dawn of Another Day), originally written in 1999. The sequence of poems dedicated to his mother reprise a similar theme from La légende de l'errance (The Legend of Wandering), written in 1995 in response to learning of his mother’s death, which made him realize he could never again write a single line of poetry without feeling her presence. He wrote La légende de l’errance in three days and three nights, without revision, persuaded that the words were coming directly from his mother, and therefore could not be revised.

Mabanckou’s language is sparse and subtle, and often pack a punch. Irony infuses his texts, and often with a sense of playfulness that serves to deepen the seriousness of his themes. In “[somewhere/clay],” the simplest of elements, clay, becomes part of a broader history encompassing prehistoric geology’s cycles. In “[one day the moon],” the moon, personified, becomes a victim of a lost, shared memory—a memory of the way Africa used to be before corrupted by politics. A subtle kind of music also infuses these texts through sound and rhythmic patterns, including silence. I use a sound-mapping technique to delineate salient patterns and try to infuse my translation with music, while remaining relatively faithful to meaning. Here is my sound map for the first stanza of “[somewhere/clay]”:

quelque p art
l’argile se décompose
dans les profondeurs de la terre

I noticed the assonance of [ar] that appeared at the end of the first line (“part”) and was immediately echoed by the next word (“argile”), though the sound repeats itself in an unstressed syllable, adding to the understated, yet effective sound pattern. The alliteration of [p] is also subtle, repeating itself in each line, and once in the middle of a word, rather than the more obvious first letter of a word. Notice, too, the [r] sound that occurs at the end of “profondeurs” (the [s] is silent in French) and echoed by “terre.”

My translation honors the music of the original with its own subtle sound patterns, as follows:

clay decays
in the depths of the earth

Notice the alliteration of [d] in the second and third lines. Line two contains two words that almost rhyme with one another, but not quite, with their shared [ay] sounds.

These translations are part of As Long as Trees Take Root in the Earth and Other Poems (Seagull Books), forthcoming in Fall 2021, which includes my translations of two complete Mabanckou volumes. The title comes from the book by that name, with its reminder for us to “remain human to the end/ as long as trees take root/ in the earth.”


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