A Name is Sewn into the Flesh, translated by Georgina Collins

A name is sewn into flesh
Not shown on the forehead
A name flows
In the blood
It grows
In the poem
And lying at the heart of all words
A name heralds the meaning that dawns
And steers the poem
From within its speech
Raising its spectre
From the belly of the text
And never will it part
From the body of words
But in the crowds of sounds
In the surges of years
It appears
Its reign extends
The length of the uttering
Departing the lips
It abandoned the crown
And joins the people
In the collusion of laughter
The distance between name and blood
Won’t darken the door again


Jean-Claude Awono is a highly regarded performance poet from Sa’a in Cameroon and has presented his poetry at festivals across Africa, Europe and China. I first came upon his work last year when working in Yaounde, the capital, as part of my research into literary translation in Africa, and I fell in love with his use of language and the performative nature of his work. For a translator, this poem resonates because it explores the very structure of language and the significance and power of “a name”. However, this single word was challenging, for ‘nom’ can also be translated as ‘noun’. The reason for my choice was that name can effectively have that dual meaning, whereas ‘noun’ limits the sense to a grammatical one alone. Other such dual meanings include ‘palais’, meaning palate and palace. I distributed the two meanings elsewhere, keeping the physical relationship to speech with ‘lips’, and translating ‘cime’ instead as ‘crown’, inferring both superiority and royalty. There are two additional lines in my translation. The first was to take account of the distinct French and English sentence structures, but I also enjoyed creating these new punchy rhythmic lines that incorporated the type of repetition used in the source text and was still in keeping with Awono’s style. The second additional line towards the end was created both for rhyme and rhythm, a direct translation lost the source text poetry, and I felt this extra line brought the poem to a poetic close. Awono also uses alliteration and assonance throughout, and if I was unable to reproduce a sound in the exact
location, I would instead replicate it elsewhere. Note, for example, sceptre/sépare and speech/spectre, and front/nom (and loosely sang) alongside shown/flows/grows.

Le nom se porte dans la chair
Et non sur le front
C’est dans le sang qu’il coule
C’est dans le poème
Que grandit le nom
Et assis au cœur des mots
Il énonce le sens de l’aube
C’est de l’intérieur du parler
Que le nom gouverne le poème
Depuis le ventre du texte
Qu’il brandit son sceptre
Rien ne le sépare
Du peuple des mots
C’est dans la foule des sons
dans la houle des ans
Qu’il prend corps
Son règne se propage
Le long du dire
Le nom a quitté le palais
Il a abandonné la cime
Et rejoint le peuple
Dans la complicité du rire
Entre le sang et le nom
La distance a foutu le camp


Original poem by Jean-Claude Awono. Reproduced by kind permission of the poet.