Thursday, March 19, 2015

Translation: Poems: Sunjata

Last summer, one of the books I picked up while in France at the James Baldwin: International Traveler conference in Montpellier was Sunjata's Sabir: Slam Poésie, published by Vents d'ailleurs in La Roque-D'Anthéron in 2014. The publisher's name means Winds from elsewhere, and the town, which I had to look up, is a "commune in the Bouches-du-Rhône department in southern France," according to its Wikipedia page, not far to the east of Montpellier. I knew nothing about the writer, but his name, invoking the great king and founder of the Empire of Mali, and the book's title, with the first word translated as "mumbo jumbo," followed by the appellation "slam poetry," caught my attention, so I picked it up. Searching online, I found another book by Sunjata, Kalachnikov Blues, a 2009 detective novel issued by the same publisher.

Sunjata, it turns out, is the pen name of Soumaïla Koly, a writer, musician, filmmaker, producer, and actor of Ivorian descent born in 1971 in Paris. His education in theater began in the troupe Kotéba d'Abidjan, with whom he began acting while still a child, and he later studied at the Université Paul-Valéry de Montpellier and Louis Lumière in Paris. Sunjata has released three hip hop CDs, two solo with the music company Blaxploitation, and one with the group Liste noir (Black List) from Artikal/Night and Day, and has directed several documentary films. The novel received the 2010 Prix Littéraire Continental in the New Talent category. Since 2013 he has been the spokesperson for the city of Lodève, and director of L'Espace Nelson-Mandela there. 

A glance through Sabir: Slam poésie indicates that all of the poems are meant to be performed live. Reading a few aloud, I can hear their close relationship to American slam poems. They utilize similar internal rhythms and rhymes, with often razor-sharp wordplay, and most aim to make strong political statements. In sum they differ from the various conventions of French poetry that I usually have encountered, especially in translation. They are clearly spoken-word poems, with the speed and force of that genre, and some are quite powerful. I have chosen one that does not rely so much on verbal play but which is far more straightforward and represents an overt diasporic gesture. 

One of the points that I made during my comments on race and translation at the Thinking Its Presence panel organized by Jen Hofer was that in the Anglophone world--and this includes the Anglophone African Diaspora, including Black Americans--is we have a limited view of the lives of other Black people across the globe in part because so few of their works get translated. Music travels, certainly, as does film, but how much--and how little--do we know about the world in which someone like Sunjata lives? We can infer a great deal from the parallels between French and American society, but what do we lose when we cannot read his words directly, even with the slippages that translation by its nature entails? When one considers the ongoing tensions in Western societies around race, nationality, religion, class, and other identity formations, shouldn't we want to pay a bit more attention? 

At the same time, as the poem below, "Up to Obama" indicates, he is quite aware of Black/American history, the eccentric French spellings notwithstanding (I have left all of the original orthography as it appeared in French, with corrections only in English), and the inspiration and power that he and other Black Diasporic people draw from it. This is not to deproblematize the Obama presidency or its continuation of some of the worst aspects of American imperialism and recolonization, but rather to note that even among his black and brown critics, Obama remains a powerful symbol, in part because of the tradition that made him possible and which he in many ways represents. I'll now end my long introduction and just present Sunjata's poem: "Jusqu'à Obama" (Up to Obama)."


La barbe de Lincoln
Le treizième amendement ratifié par le Congrès
Le bicorne de Marcus Garvey
La blackstar line contre vents et marées
Le reniement de la nationalité américaine de Web Du Bois
Le manteau de Rosa Parks
La moustache de Martin Luther King
La bague de Malcom x
Le visage tuméfié de Rodney King
Les lunettes de Malik el Shabazz
L'afro de Stokely Carmichael
Le poing levé des athlètes de Mexico
L'assissinat de JFK
Les freedom riders de Montgomery
L'assissinat de Martin Luther King
L'assissinat de Malcom x
Le cuir noir du Black Panthers Party
Le dashiki de Ron Karenga
L'impudence de Cassius Clay
L'impudence de Mohamed Ali
Rumble in the jungle
Ali/Foreman à Kinshasa
Ali boma yé!
Ali tue-le.
Foreman KO en lingala!
Le Vietnam
L'humiliation vietcong
La bannière étoilée se pare de oripeaux du drame,
Les poèmes de Maya Angelou
Huey Newton qui crame
Soul on ice d'Eldridge Cleaver
L'assissinat de Fred Hampton
Mumia Abu-Jamal
La gouaille de Rap Brown
Le cointelpro et l'implacable J. Edgar Hoover
La répression des droits civiques à Jackson
Le sacerdoce du révérend Jesse Jackson
Le black business d'Andrew Young
Les soul fictions de Chester Himes
Say loud i am black proud
La blackpoitation de John Shaft
Le groove rageur d'Isaac Hayes
Gil Scott Heron
Devines qui vient dîner ce soir?
Un noir!
Sidney Poitiers estampillé blackstar
Le noeud pap' d'Elijah Mohamed
Le délire de Louis Farrakhan
Oprah Winfrey Show
Cosby Show
La geste de la liberté de l'Alabama à l'Obama.
The beard of Lincoln
The Thirteenth Amendment ratified by Congress
The cocked hat of Marcus Garvey
The Blackstar Line against winds and tides
The renunciation of American nationality by W. E. B. Du Bois
The coat of Rosa Parks
The mustache of Martin Luther King
The ring of Malcolm X
The swollen face of Rodney King
The glasses of Malik el Shabazz
The afro of Stokely Carmichael
The raised fists of the athletes in Mexico
The assassination of JFK
The Freedom Riders of Montgomery
The assassination of Martin Luther King
The assassination of Malcolm X
The black leather of the Black Panther Party
The dashiki of Ron Karenga
The impudence of Cassius Clay
The impudence of Muhammad Ali
Rumble in the Jungle
Ali/Foreman in Kinshasa
Ali boma yé!
Ali kills him.
Foreman KO'ed in lingala!
The Vietcong humiliation
The Star-Spangled Banner adornes itself with dramatic rags
The poems of Maya Angelou
Huey Newton who's burning up
Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver
The assassination of Fred Hampton
Mumia Abu-Jamal
The joaning of Rap Brown
Cointelpro and the implacable J. Edgar Hoover
The repression of Jackson's civil rights
The vocation of Reverend Jesse Jackson
The black business of Andrew Young
The soul fictions of Chester Himes
Say it out loud, I'm black and I'm proud
The blacksploitation of John Shaft
The angry groove of Isaac Hayes
Gil Scott-Heron
Can you guess who's coming to dinner?
A black man!
Sidney Poitier stamped as a black star
The sacred knot of Elijah Muhammad
The madness of Louis Farrakhan
Oprah Winfrey Show
Cosby Show
The gesture of liberty from Alabama to Obama.

Here is a different sort of poem from the same volume. It has such swift and playful rhymes and homophony (début/eut/haut/beaux/débats/débit, etc.), along the lines both of hip hop and (in)famous French writers like Paul Verlaine ("Chanson d'automne") and Raymond Roussel it would be almost impossible to render perfectly into English. Here's a rough version, with some English-language music to parallel, however poorly, the French.


Au début il y eut
Des hauts des bas
Des beaux débats
À haut débit
C'était de bons débuts
Des baux des buts
Des bruits d'ébats
De gros débris
Des bris des bras
Des gros dégâts
Des aaah!!! des oooh!!!
Face au tourment des maux
Le détournement des mots
Contournement des maux
Desmotscratie des parlementeurs
Qui parlent et m'enterrent
Palabreurs, palabrant pas à l'abri
À l'abri des malappris
Palabres n'est pas bon.
At the start there were
Some highs some lows
Some great debate
At the peak flow
It was a good debut
Some lease some goals
Some lovemaking sounds
A lot of debris
Some shards some arms
Tremendous harm
Some aaahs!!! Some ooohs!!!
Facing pain's agony
The diversion of words
Suffering's contortions
Wordocracy of parliamentarians
Who speak and bury me
Palaverers, palavering not in a refuge
hidden from the misunderstood
palaver isn't good.

Copyright © Sunjata, from Sabir: Slam poésie, La Roque-d'Anthéron, France: Vents d'ailleurs, 2014, 2015. Translation copyright © John Keene, 2015.

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