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From the Translator: Nancy Naomi Carlson on Translating Suzanne Dracius’s “Women’s Fantasies”

By Nancy Naomi Carlson

Translating Suzanne Dracius’s “Women’s Fantasies,” my first translation of her work, opened a portal to an exotic Caribbean culture surviving . . . no, living in the shadow of Mount Pelée, one of the deadliest volcanoes on Earth, located in Martinique, in the Lesser Antilles. In 1902 the volcano erupted, destroying the town of Saint-Pierre. In this poem, “Hell’s Road” refers to rue d’Enfer, the name of a street in Saint-Pierre destroyed by the volcano. “Rise-to-Heaven Street” refers to rue Monte au ciel nearby. Despite the volcano’s constant threat, Martiniquans celebrate life, whether through riotous Carnival festivities, culminating in Mardi Gras, or through their rich culture that includes music, dancing, and storytelling.

While a discussion of “place” is key to understanding this poem, a discussion of language is also vital. In “Women’s Fantasies,” Krik krak is part of a Caribbean storyteller’s ritual of warming up the audience by asking “Krik?” and encouraging the collective response “Krak!” The storyteller then says “Yé mistikri! and the audience responds “Yé mistikra!” Finally the storyteller asks “Is the court sleeping?” and the audience responds “No, the court is not sleeping.” Though perhaps containing Christian overtones and uniquely bound with Caribbean storytelling traditions, these utterances do not hold universal meanings.

“Women’s Fantasies” highlights some of Dracius’s “signature” themes, including feminism, negritude, and classic Greek and Roman elements. The last lines of the poem are an example of how Dracius deals with the theme of racial identity in a diverse society: “and running, I escaped/ as a chestnut brown/ Caribbean gourmet.” In the original French, “marronne” is the word used for “chestnut brown” and also refers to “les marrons” (Maroons), descendents of escaped slaves living in the mountains and forests of such places as Suriname and the West Indies. Through word play, Dracius echoes the theme of the Maroons by using the verbs “running” and “escaped.”

“Women’s Fantasies,” in the original French, is extremely musical, through Dracius’s use of internal and end rhyme, both “pure” and “slant,” as well as through alliteration. I attempted to reproduce as much music as possible in my English version, without sacrificing meaning. For example, in the fourth stanza of the original French, most of the lines end with the sound “i”:

Faut-il vraiment que l’on soit ivre
pour faire exulter nos chairs vives ?
Faut-il que longuement l’on dérive
en féerie,
en barbarie,
extrêmes dans nos emportements
autant que dans nos engouements,
en frénésie,
en malcadi?

In the English version, although I was not able to reproduce the exact French sound “i” (“crisper” than an American “i,” so impossible to imitate exactly), I was able to make generous use of the sound of “ay” (“make,” “away,” “tales,” “ways,” “rage,” “cravings,” “crazed”) in order to maintain the music of the line. Similarly, since most of the original French lines end with a stressed syllable, I tried to reproduce this effect in English. I felt it especially important to focus on the music within this poem due to Dracius’s own words of invitation to the “you” of the poem in the fourth stanza, “in melody/ in harmony.” Perhaps it might be more accurate to say “in polyphony,” as Dracius smoothly weaves together rhythms and tones from sources as disparate as Pompeii (with its own volcano) and Amazon warrior queens.

Read Nancy Naomi Carlson's translation of "Women's Fantasies" in the November 2011 issue of Words without Borders over here.      

Published Nov 30, 2011   Copyright 2011 Nancy Naomi Carlson

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