Image credit: Kevin McNamee-Tweed, "Untitled," clay

View Artwork Credits
View full size

The Village

Can you ever forget your village?

Can you ever forget its shores
where the sound of lapping water rises each night?


Can you ever forget its underground springs?
Can you ever forget its banana tree leaves
rustling in darkness?
Listen to this passing song:
it’s a choir of children in the pirogue
gliding along the river.


Do you feel how the daytime air vibrates
and feel the shudder of lush land
when the rushing train rattles the silence of mountains?


Watch the sun falling asleep
and just like it, lay out your mat and sleep
for a new day follows today.



In My Village

In my village
mansions squash the shanties
Faraday puts storm lanterns to shame
rainwater floods
my home
well-pruned gardens
poke fun at shaggy
thickets where snakes intertwist


in my village
you can tell the high-end districts
from the low-end ones
the walls of my hut are falling into ruin
its beams no longer support
the roof


in my village
each brother becomes an enemy
each laugh an arrow
each word a shoal


in my village suspicion reigns
community is nothing more
than a word
money commands money
corruption infiltrates
mankind’s blood.

Le village

Peut-on jamais oublier son village?
Peut-on jamais oublier ses rives
d’où monte le soir le clapotis de l’eau?


Peut-on jamais oublier ses sources?
Peut-on jamais oublier ses feuilles de bananiers
qui bruissent dans les ténèbres?
Écoute ce chant qui passe:
c’est un choeur d’enfants dans la pirogue
qui glisse sur la rivière.


Sens-tu vibrer l’air du jour
et sens-tu frémir la terre grasse
quand l’ardeur du train bouscule le silence des montagnes?


Regarde le soleil qui s’endort
comme lui, étale ta natte et dors
car demain est un autre jour.



Dans mon village

Dans mon village
les châteaux écrasent les masures
Faraday fait pâlir la mèche-tempête
l’eau des pluies envahit
ma demeure
des jardins bien taillés
se moquent des fourrés
hirsutes où se tissent des serpents


dans mon village
on distingue la haute ville
de la basse ville
les murs de ma case tombent en ruines
les poutres ne supportent
plus le toit


dans mon village
chaque frère devient un ennemi
chaque rire une flèche
chaque parole un brisant


dans mon village règne la suspicion
la communauté n’est plus
qu’un mot
l’argent commande l’argent
la pourriture s’infiltre dans
le sang de l’homme.

Translator's Note

English translations of African poets writing in French are not easy to find…and English translations of African women poets writing in French are even rarer. Indeed, it’s only been a few decades that African women poets’ voices have been published in French! Marie-Léontine Tsibinda, from Congo-Brazzaville, is a critically acclaimed poet, fiction writer, and playwright who fled her homeland during its civil war, and is now living in Canada. None of her collections of poetry have been translated into English. La tourterelle chante à l’aube (The Turtledove Sings at Dawn), from where these two translations come, was published last year, and contains a mix of selected poems from her previous books, as well as many new poems. In this book’s preface, Boniface Mongo-Mboussa, professor and scholar of French literature, describes Tsibinda’s work as an ode to nature and to her homeland, particularly the Congolese village where she grew up.

Before translating each of Tsibinda’s poems, I create a “sound map” that highlights the patterns of assonance and alliteration in the French version, as well as the patterns of rhythm. The challenge is to honor the music infused in these lyrical poems, while trying to remain as true to the meaning as possible—often a very delicate balancing act! I find it easier to replicate general patterns of sounds, though not necessarily the same exact sounds, nor placement in stanzas, in my translation. For example, in the second stanza of “The Village,” Tsibinda, in describing an underground spring, makes generous use of the sound “[s]” to imitate the sound of escaping water: “Peut-on jamais oublier ses sources?” Although I could not replicate these sounds in the same line of my English translation, I was able to bring in these “[s]” sounds three lines down to evoke the sounds of a river, with its pirogue and children’s choir: “Listen to this passing song.” In addition, the subtle music found in the last two lines of this stanza includes the alliteration of the sound “[g]”: “c’est un choeur d’enfants dans la pirogue/ qui glisse sur la rivière.” I was fortunate to find English words to imitate this pattern: “it’s a children’s choir from the pirogue/ gliding along the river.” (I admit to wondering whether I had pushed the “[g]”-alliteration too far by adding a third “[g]” sound, but ended up deciding it wasn’t too heavy-handed as a final “[g]” in “along,” and could still remain true to the original.)

Similarly, in the last line of the first stanza of “In My Village,” Tsibinda uses repeated sibilants to describe the movement of snakes: “hirsutes où se tissent des serpents.” I was able to imitate this pattern, as follows: “thickets where snakes intertwist.”

Clearly this level of attention to sound and meaning is extremely time-consuming, but necessary, to fully appreciating Tsibinda’s texts. I must also add that I do not (and cannot) include every last sound effect, but look for the most salient ones…the ones that most call attention to themselves, either through their placement in the line, their pure rhyme, or through sheer repetition…the ones that demand to be heard.

Nancy Naomi Carlson


In the Classroom