Many tongues

By John T. Gilmore

The Trickster’s Tongue: An Anthology of Poetry in Translation from Africa and the African Diaspora, ed. and trans. Mark de Brito
(Peepal Tree Press, ISBN 1-900715-88-0, 383 pp)

Detail of Akilapa Masquerade, by Femi Oyaro

Detail of Akilapa Masquerade (2001), by Femi Oyaro. Image courtesy Peepal Tree Press

“There in amber Egypt’s blazing light, / a place of baking sand and torrid clay,” says the nineteenth-century Brazilian poet João da Cruz e Sousa, in a sonnet elegantly translated by Mark de Brito in the present volume, “Egypt is always ancient Egypt.”

It may be true that, as Ali Mazrui and others have pointed out, the idea of “Africa” is a cultural construct which was originally created by outsiders, and which has no inherent logic. There is no very obvious reason why the Red Sea, for example, should be thought of as a boundary instead of a means of communication, any more than, say, the Adriatic. The importance of Islam in Africa, the history of Zanzibar or of the Swahili language, all show the importance of cultural continuities across the landmass we conventionally divide into Africa and Asia.

Nevertheless, it is undeniable that European colonisation, from the time of the ancient Romans to the 1970s, as well as the transatlantic slave trade, created the idea of an Africa which was separate from other parts of the world, and which, at least in the imagination, possessed a unity. Aimé Césaire might come round to the idea that “nous n’avons jamais été amazones du roi de Dahomey, ni princes de Ghana avec huit cents chameaux,” but the “Great Kings of Africa” approach to the history of the continent has had a long-lasting appeal.

Continental Africans visiting the Caribbean may complain about the widespread ignorance which homogenises hundreds of different cultures. Nevertheless, diffusionist theories which claimed pharaonic Egypt as the source of customs and institutions across the continent, or essentialist notions of an “African personality” and a “Black soul,” however difficult to sustain in terms of verifiable facts, have undoubtedly played an important role in the African diaspora in asserting human dignity in the face of oppression and prejudice. A writer like the Colombian Manuel Zapata Olivella was almost certainly well aware of what he was doing when, in a poem included in this anthology, he gave the Yoruba divinity Orisha-Oke a “solitary dwelling-place / in the hidden peaks of Kilimanjaro,” on the opposite side of the continent. But he did so for a reason. One of the achievements of the Négritude movement, which owed so much to the collaboration of the Martiniquan Césaire and the Senegalese Léopold Sédar Senghor (even if, as de Brito points out, their views eventually diverged), was the concept of an Africa which was not only one, but a one whose achievements in any part could be a source of pride and inspiration to all Africans and their descendants throughout the world.

As de Brito acknowledges in his introduction, his anthology is partly inspired by this pan-Africanist concept, but his meticulous dissection of these ideas, as well as his choice of poems for translation, show that his other inspiration is the desire to demonstrate the great diversity of what can be, and has been, labelled as African. There are other anthologies of continental and diasporic African poetry, and the reader will find plenty of them listed in de Brito’s extensive bibliography. However, The Trickster’s Tongue is unusual in terms of its chronological and geographical range, and in the number of languages from which it draws.

Its ninety-five selections begin with the Ancient Egyptian inscription on the Triumphal Stela of the Nubian pharaoh Piankhy, dating from about 727 BC, and described by de Brito as “almost certainly the earliest literary work composed by a black African,” while they end with poems by authors now living. Piankhy is here translated by Terence DuQuesne, but all the other translations in the volume are by de Brito. They include oral poetry in Yoruba, not only from Nigeria and Benin, but also from Brazil, Cuba, and Trinidad. While de Brito himself was born in London, he is a great-nephew of Papa Neza (Samuel Ebenezer Elliot, 1901–1969), a celebrated Orisha priest in Trinidad, and thus himself part of the New World Yoruba tradition.

Other translations include ones from Haitian Creole, from French, and from Spanish and Portuguese, as well as work produced in Greek and Latin by North African writers from late antiquity, such as Commodian (author of “the earliest surviving Christian poetry in Latin”) and the better known St Augustine, and from writers of the African diaspora in the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries: the Spanish Juan Latino, the Jamaican Francis Williams, and the West Africa-born minister of the Dutch Reformed Church Jacobus Eliza Johannes Capitein. The birthplaces of writers included range from present-day Algeria to Angola, and from Madagascar and Mozambique to Mexico. There are also translations from French and Portuguese versions of oral literature in African languages, and from traditional chants and songs in Portuguese and Spanish from Brazil and Cuba.

While some well-known writers who have appeared in other translations are included, such as Césaire and Nicolás Guillén, most of the material in this anthology has never previously been translated into English. Some of the authors are people I had heard of, but never actually read, while others were entirely new to me and would, I suspect, be entirely new to many other readers. All of the selections are certainly of interest, and although the book as a whole is of a substantial length, in a number of cases I was left wishing that more work by particular authors had been included.

Who could fail to be intrigued by “El Negrito Poeta,” the eighteenth-century Mexican of Congolese descent José Vasconcelos, whose three brief epigrammatic verses in this anthology are enough to show he had a calypsonian’s gift for incisive social commentary? And the three sonnets of Cruz e Sousa which de Brito gives us (particularly, in my view, “Black Rose”) reveal that, while “deeply influenced by French symbolism,” he was also an original and creative writer of a very high order, who may well deserve the accolade his translator gives him, of “the outstanding Black Atlantic poet before the twentieth century.”

De Brito translates Cruz e Sousa’s work into accomplished sonnets in English. For the Haitian Creole of Oswald Durand’s “Choucoune” (a work which enjoys the melancholy fate of being famous and unknown, for its musical setting by the Haitian-American composer Michel Mauleart Monton was taken over for the completely different lyrics of “Yellow Bird” by the American writers Alan and Marilyn Bergman), he uses Trinidadian Creole and a “rhymed four-stress accentual metre . . . typical of traditional kaiso.” Most of the translations are into free verse in English, and read well as such. As most readers are unlikely to share de Brito’s wide range of languages, it would probably have served little purpose to have included all the source texts (which are given only for a very few short pieces), while this would certainly have increased both the bulk and the cost of the book. Their absence, however, and the unfamiliarity of most of them, makes it difficult to judge the translations as translations. In one or two places they seem perhaps over-literal. For example, “a quivering assemblage of coccinellas” renders Césaire’s “un conglomérat frémissant de coccinelles,” but “coccinelles” would usually be just “ladybirds.” In the Haitian writer Jean Brierre’s “Black Soul”, the line “You were familiar with the sealed houses of the entire world” looks like a reference to “maisons closes” (especially when the next line is “knew how to make love in all languages”), but “maisons closes” are just “brothels.”

The one piece included in The Trickster’s Tongue with which the present reviewer can claim to be thoroughly familiar in the original language is Francis Williams’s Latin poem in honour of Governor Haldane of Jamaica. While de Brito claims that his version is “no more than a readable crib,” it does an excellent job of providing this, and his commentary and notes are detailed and perceptive. It could be argued that it would have been better not to follow Edward Long’s History of Jamaica in calling Williams’s poem an “ode,” since it is written in elegiac couplets, not in one of the Latin lyric metres — Williams himself refers to it more correctly as a carmen (a poem, more generally). Also, more accurate biographical information is now available about Williams than that offered by Long (see my essay “The British Empire and the Neo-Latin Tradition: The Case of Francis Williams,” in Classics and Colonialism, ed. Barbara Goff). However, these are fairly minor points; more important is the way in which de Brito, unlike a number of other writers on Williams, has got the cultural context exactly: “Williams identifies with English culture, and Latin verse is of course an imperial form par excellence.”

De Brito notes in his preface that “Given the vast extent of African poetry, my selection is inevitably idiosyncratic and limited by my linguistic competence.” Nevertheless, the translations and the extensive editorial matter in The Trickster’s Tongue do succeed in introducing us to a very wide range of material, revealing an astonishing diversity in what can be classed as “African poetry.” This is certainly not treated in an essentialist manner. When, for example, de Brito gives us a selection from Nonnos, an Egyptian writer of the fifth century AD who wrote in Greek, he points out that most previous commentators have ignored the Egyptianness of Nonnos’s writing, just as “it has often been assumed, because of a deep reluctance to admit that ‘culture’ could have come out of Africa, and on the dubious basis of their names, that Plotinos (204–270) and Nonnos (fl. 450–470) were not indigenous Egyptians.” His point, de Brito continues, “is not to assert the contrary, but merely to note that there is no reason whatever to believe that these authors were of specifically Greek, Roman, or Asiatic origin.” Ultimately, it is irrelevant, just as the precise skin colour or ethnicity of St Augustine of Hippo is irrelevant.

De Brito’s authors are black, and mixed race, and in some cases possibly something quite different entirely, but what matters is the fact that the inhabitants of Africa and their descendants elsewhere have used words in many languages and in many forms to create works of art which express many different ways of seeing the world in which we all live. If Yoruba chants in honour of the Orishas are part of the African heritage, so too are Nonnos and St Augustine, and both the oral tradition and the self-consciously literary manifestations of African poetry are not limited in their significance or their appeal by the ethnicity of their readers. The Trickster’s Tongue, de Brito says, “asserts the right of every reader to move across cultural boundaries, to juxtapose diverse cultural forms, and to intervene in our construction of the past.” The range and variety of material in this anthology amply demonstrate why readers should wish to do so.


The Caribbean Review of Books, August 2007

John Gilmore is an associate professor at the University of Warwick, where he teaches at the Centre for Caribbean Studies. He is a former managing editor of Caribbean Week.