Intertextuality, translation, and postcolonial misrecognition in Aimé Césaire

Paul Breslin*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

1 Scopus citations


In this essay I attempt to work out the implications-for general propositions about "postcolonial" literature-of the divergent reception histories of two plays by the late Martiniquan man of letters Aimé Césaire. In American and British universities, Une Tempête (A Tempest) is by far the most taught and discussed of Césaire's four plays (counting the dramatic poem Et les chiens se taisaient [And the Dogs Were Silent]). There have been three English translations of Une Tempête, two of which are in print and readily available. La Tragédie du roi Christophe (The Tragedy of King Christophe) has been translated only once, in a long out-of-print version by Ralph Manheim that, as Rodney E. Harris pointed out, "corresponds neither to the first edition of 1963 nor the revision of 1970" ("English" 33) and, as Femi Ojo-Ade has observed, "lacks a great deal of the spirit exhibited in the original" (14). The MLA International Bibliography lists forty-four articles on Une Tempête, twenty-nine in English, fourteen in French, and one in Italian. For La Tragédie, the situation is almost exactly reversed: of forty-three articles, fifteen are in English and the rest mostly in French, with a few in Italian, Spanish, or German. And yet, according to Nick Nesbitt (127), La Tragédie du roi Christophe is by critical consensus Césaire's greatest play. Raphaël Confiant, in his sharply critical Aimé Césaire: Une Traversée paradoxale du siècle, regards Christophe and Cahier d'un retour au pays natale as the two works that will ensure Césaire's reputation in posterity. He rates Une Tempête dead last among the plays (157, 170). David Bradby, in Modern French Drama 1940- 1990, treats Christophe and Une Saison au Congo as "major plays," relegating Une Tempête to a single paragraph (145). Admiration for Christophe has driven me to undertake a new version, with my cotranslator- And my French tutor for most of 2007-Rachel Ney. Once I could actually read-not just laboriously decipher-the play in French, I realized what I had been missing. Since many American and British academicians can read French well enough, the prominence of Une Tempête and the relative obscurity of Christophe began to seem odd. What does this disparity reveal about our perception of Césaire, and in what ways might it exemplify a larger tendency toward misrecognition or self-imposed blindness in our attention to postcolonial texts? Why have we English speakers allowed this remarkable play to be completely upstaged? Robert Eric Livingstone gives one obvious answer: "thanks to its canonical source, A Tempest remains Césaire's best-known play, and the one most accessible to a literary pedagogy" (192). Christophe, in contrast, alludes to historical events from the aftermath of the Haitian Revolution, which remains, despite the increased attention of historians since the 1980s, an underreported story. We can place Une Tempête in a series of other Caribbean and Latin American rewritings of The Tempest, from José Enrique Rodó through George Lamming, Roberto Fernández- Retamar, and Kamau Brathwaite. More broadly, we can understand all these New World tempests as instances of the "Empire writes back" frame proposed by Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffi ths, and Helen Tiffin, according to which rewritings of metropolitan canonical works from the periphery reverse the dominant discourse of the "other." This approach has the fatal attraction of convenience. As Lisa McNee remarked in her article on teaching Une Tempête: "Nonspecialists can effectively teach such texts in conjunction with the European texts they know well without doing a great deal of background research" (198). But there is one further reason for the greater success of Une Tempête in crossing the language barrier: its conformability to the genre David Scott called "anti-colonial romance" (7- 8), which narrates the triumphant overcoming of colonial oppression. Scott still thought it necessary, in 2004, to challenge the persistent assumption that anticolonial romance was the inevitable structure of postcolonial narrative, even though neocolonial vicissitudes of independence have foreclosed its vision of a triumphal future. This narrative template is above all allegorical. The story takes its signifi cance from being mapped onto either a larger, generalized myth of anticolonial resistance or an existent narrative that can be reframed as a fable of anticolonial resistance. Une Tempête is an instance of anticolonial romance to the degree that it reads The Tempest as a colonialist allegory that it reframes as an anticolonialist counterallegory. As Jonathan Goldberg found as recently as 2004, "prevailing views of the play" still take it "as simply a reversal and refusal of the colonialist plot of The Tempest" (94). Une Tempête, in all the ways just described, is more accessible and seemingly transparent than Christophe (though, as I will show, appearances can be deceiving). That is probably so even for a French reader. A. James Arnold comments on the reduction of Shakespeare's rich linguistic palette in Césaire's rendering and adds that Christophe, in contrast, is Shakespearian in its wide range of linguistic registers ("D'Haï ti" 133). Christophe, then, because of its extraordinarily wide range of diction and idiom, is harder to read and much harder to translate than is Une Tempête. And yet Une Tempête is a more complex play than most critics have acknowledged. Its very accessibility lulls us into thinking that its allegory is univocal and obvious, that all the relevant maps are clearly spread out before us. There is more to it than meets the eye, however, although what emerges is not so much a deeper coherence as an energetic collision of multiple and sometimes incompatible allusive contexts. The point is that we who approach postcolonial texts as cultural outsiders need to respect what Édouard Glissant called "opaqueness-that is, the irreducible density of the other" (133). It means doing more homework before venturing sweeping generalizations. After all, learning a language takes a long time. I want, to twist a phrase from Wallace Stevens, to make the postcolonial a little hard to see.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationAnalyzing World Fiction
Subtitle of host publicationNew Horizons in Narrative Theory
PublisherUniversity of Texas Press
Number of pages23
ISBN (Print)9780292726321
StatePublished - Dec 1 2011

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities(all)

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