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The Stephen Spender Prize 2014 for poetry in translation
in association with the Guardian

18-and-under category, commended

Read the judges’ comments
Email to request a free hard copy of the booklet (UK addresses only)
Read the winning entries from previous years

Victoria McBride

Notebook of a Return to My Native Land

I would uncover the hidden treasure of a great voice and a brilliant
Dawn. I would say storm. I would say river. I would say tornado. I
would say leaf. I would say tree. I would be wet from all the rain,
dampened from all the dew. I would roll words around like feverish blood
on the slow current of the eye in crazy horses like fresh children
like clots like curfews, like ruins of temples,
like diamonds too far beyond the miners' reach. He who would not understand me
would no more understand the roaring of a tiger.

And you ghouls climb chemical blue from a forest of tracked beasts
Of deformed machines from a jujube tree of rotting flesh
From a basket of oysters of eyes of a labyrinth of ribbons cut in the
beautiful sisal of a skin of a man I would have all-encompassing words
to contain you and thee tense land drunk
Land great sex offered to the sun
Land great dream of God's mentula
Land wild climbed from the chambers of the sea in your mouth
a tuft of cecropias.
Land whose stormy face I can only compare to the forest disturbing and virgin
that I long to reveal as my own face
to the unpenetrating eyes of men.
One gulp of your jiculi milk would suffice for you to reveal yourself
A mirage forever on the horizon
A thousand times more familiar
and gilded by a sun that no prism will refract – the land where everything is
Free and brotherly, my land

Leaving. My heart was beating with resounding generosities. Leaving…
I would arrive smooth-skinned and young in this my country and I would say to this country
Whose soil runs through my blood: 'I have drifted for a long
time and I return to the deserted gruesomeness of your wounds.'

Translated from the French by Victoria McBride

Translation commentary

An interest in French colonial writers led me to Aimé Césaire's work and this extract is a particularly passionate tribute to his island home of Martinique. Researching Césaire's political beliefs bettered my understanding of the poem's message and gave me a way in to the translation. He wanted a new definition of 'Negritude'. He believed that descendants of slaves needed a renewed sense of pride in their African heritage and a deeper connection to their native land. This would give them a voice (grandes communications) to reclaim more freedom and a brighter future (combustion) after the darkness of oppression. I wanted to convey more clearly this philosophy by creating an image of a new dawn. Using the conditional mood, at once dream-like and yet real because of the insistent 'I would', Césaire has created a fantastical dystopia. It is at once beautiful yet sinister, a beautiful paradise built on the suffering of slaves. Here was my first challenge: to maintain the alternating images of the beautiful and the grotesque, hence the image of a man's flayed back becomes a thing of beauty with 'a labyrinth of ribbons'. Another issue was Césaire's continuous use of prepositions (en… de) that substitute for the lack of punctuation, creating a relentless, persistent rhythm throughout. Identifying the correct translation for these proved to be much more difficult in English. Repetition was lost when de was translated as either 'from' or 'of', for example. At other times the position of adjectives in French changes the meaning (terre grand sexe levé) which makes the French so much more flexible than the English. On the other hand, the wildness of the imagery allowed me to stray from a literal translation to choose English vocabulary that conveyed the atmosphere and tropical vegetation of Césaire's native Martinique.

Victoria McBride