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Translator's Note: From the Artist's Sketchbook

by D.A. Powell


I first encountered Annette M'Baye's work in Negritude: Black Poetry from Africa and the Caribbean (October House, 1970), edited by Norman Shapiro. M'Baye was represented by two poems and a short bibliography. I was an undergraduate at the time, enrolled in a course on women writers of the world. I was looking for a research project and decided, naively, that I would focus on M'Baye's work. I had no idea what the rest of her poetry would be like, but I must have been intrigued enough by the two poems that I had read. I certainly knew that no one else would be writing about M'Baye, since so little was available. I utilized my school's interlibrary loan system and sent to Pennsylvania for the only copy of Kaddu that had been catalogued by any library at that time. (Kaddu is a Wolof word which refers to speech; M'Baye's work often emphasizes the oral tradition of poetry, embodied by the gawalo, or griot.)

The book arrived: M'Baye's poems were written in French with a smattering of Wolof words. Before I could write about the poems, I had to translate them, which took me most of the semester. Fortunately, my professor was kind enough to accept the translations as substitution for a research paper. She even suggested that I might publish the translations. But then, of course, life intervened, my own writing changed, I moved, I went on to graduate school, etc. And the manuscript of translations seemed less and less polished, less and less worthy of my attention.

One of the factors that helped me to abandon the project was my friendship with poet Etel Adnan, who had been educated in the French schools of colonial Lebanon and who had immigrated to the us in the sixties. Etel generously read through my translations and made numerous comments and suggestions. Afterward, I knew that the manuscript needed substantial revision. And so the manuscript moved from apartment to apartment, office to office, untouched until now. Going back to the work, I can see what first attracted me. The poems are political, charged with the excitement of Senegal's fledgling independence. I felt emboldened by M'Baye's work, the way one can be captivated by what Robert Duncan calls "that place of first permission" poetry's emotional and psychological power.

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This poem originally appeared in the April 2008 issue of Poetry magazine

April 2008

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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