Il me faut le cacher au plus intime de mes veines
L’Ancêtre à la peau d’orage sillonnée d’éclairs et de foudre
Mon animal gardien, il me faut le cacher
Que je ne rompe le barrage des scandales.
Il est mon sang fidèle qui requiert fidélité
Protégeant mon orgueil nu contre
Moi-même et la superbe des races heureuses…

Léopold-Sedar Senghor—"Le Totem"

When the late, great Senhgor expressed a sentiment, it stayed expressed. Founding president of la République du Sénégal (after an exile for revolutionary activities), and member of the Négritude movement poet, Senghor was one of West Africa's most astounding minds. "Le Totem" (above is the complete poem) is one of very few French poems I've memorized. It expresses a sentiment that I don't know that I feel directly, but that I can well imagine based on knowing so many Africans in the diaspora (and older ones, in particular). Here is my poor student's translation:

I'm forced to hide in my most intimate veins
The ancestor with the hide of storms streaked and burned with lightning
My guardian animal, I must hide it
So that I do not breach the barrier of scandal.
It is my faithful blood that requires faithfulness
Protecting my inborn pride against
My very self and the superb among the happy races

This poem has a lot that is difficult to render faithfully into English, and in some cases, I've preferred a somewhat unidiomatic transliteration to an anglophone translation that would lose too much of the nuance (the last line is the main example).

Another place where I could barely approximate is "sillonnée d’éclairs et de foudre". I've always had a vague feeling of the distinction between these two French words for "lightning". The first being more a display of lightning and the second being more of a thunderclap, such as Zeus would have hurled at impudent mortals. See below for more on this distinction. I always think of Senghor's line as juxtaposing the white flash of "éclairs" with the blackened result of "foudre", using the apt verb "sillioner", which means "plough" as well as "streak".

I have the same attitude towards the Négritude movement as Nigerian Nobel Laureate, great playwright Wole Soyinka. Soyinka said to Senghor: "A tiger does not proclaim its tigritude. It acts."—from Myth, Literature and the African world (which is coming up on my re-reading list). I agree with complaints about Négritude as an overall notion. For my part, being an avid student of Western classics has never made me feel I cannot also soak myself in my own rich West African heritage. Négritude taken too carelessly can lead to a dangerous combination of anomie and chauvanism. But it's very hard to accuse Senghor and Césaire, the patrons of the movement, of themselves falling into such a trap. They and their colleagues through hard work and masterly writing carved into the world's consciousness a testament to the vast intellectual resources of their native land. They didn't just proclaim. They did act. And the value of their legacy is immeasureable.

I have the poem in Selected Poems of Senghor, edited by Abiola Irele (Cambridge University Press, 1977), which, according to my notes, I bought at Nsukka in 1989 (for ₦10.00). Incredibly, I can't find a good in-print source of Senghor's poetry in French. I must just not be searching rightly. If anyone can recommend one for fellow readers (I'm all set with my Irele edition), please leave a comment.

But appropriately enough, since it's Tuesday again, I have a bit more on "éclairs" versus "foudre". The visceral nature of this distinction was brought home to me a couple of weeks ago at la Table Francophone when Karen was explaining to me how a freak spring thunder and hailstorm had ruined her garden. She said something like "et partout des éclairs", gesturing upwards with both open palms. In my response I said something about "foudre", using the word I'm more familiar with for "lightning" ("fouldre" in Villon's (Old French) L'Épitaph, which I worked from in an earlier Quotīdiē. Karen gave me an odd look, and clarified: "éclairs". Since I'm there to improve my French I asked her for a detailed explanation of the difference. She explained that "éclairs" is lightning with the connotation of distant flashes in the sky, and that "foudre" is lightning with the connotation of striking the ground (or someone), with violent accompaniment of thunder, and the whole bit. Basically, the former is nature's display, and the latter is nature's vengeance. Makes sense given that "foudroyer" means to blast or strike (as with lightning), and "foudrayant!" is an exclamation (based on the participle) mixing terror and excitement. I had to stop using "foudrayant!" when my francophone friends would tease me about its quaintness (I suppose my beloved "donnerwetter" sounds just as quaint to a contemporary German).

[Uche Ogbuji]

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2 responses
Really interesting to read Uche.

Your english translation is really close but as you said, it's really hard to translate a poem. Not the english is worse in poesy than french (it would be stupid to compare both any way...) but a peom is such a complex mix of rythm, words, space, time, you cannot translate it easily.

Great article anyhow.

- Sylvain
Thanks.  As long as I didn't completely destroy the sense, I'm happy.  I knew it was a very hard task, because so much of Senghor is the texture of the words, which I feel so strongly when I read it aloud in French.  Maybe some day I'll be able to attempt a real poetic translation, trying to capture more of the tone and rhythm.