The 1954 song seemingly celebrates grapes and harvests, the wild nature and the warm wind. Actually, none of these. Indeed, this quite naturalist painting, disturbing, denounces racial crimes. A sort of pastiche of the American naturalist poem, Strange Fruit, written by Abel Meeropol (and not Billie Holiday herself) uses the naturalist allegory, objectifying the obscene, in an attempt to denounce atrocities.
The corpses hanging from the poplar trees and swinging are the fruits. They crowd this sad lullaby, a poem composed in three quatrains, each verse rhyming following a AABB scheme. The verse metric is rather free, in spite of a eneasyllable dominant. Yet the effect is less terrifying than melancholic. And if the suggestion is rather obvious, the message gets through.
Holiday is the voice that exposes the unbearable and customary lynchings of African-Americans. This kind of song was mostly never heard at he time. At least, some of the yiddish repertoire songs offered cristal clear metaphores built as fables, such as the infamous Dona Dona written by Sholom Secunda and Aaron Zeitlin (1941), where a calf is promised to the slaughter – an evocation of death camps where Jews where murdered.
Southern trees bear a strange fruit Blood on the leaves and blood at the root Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant south The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh Then the sudden smell of burning flesh
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop Here is a strange and bitter crop
Strange Fruit is a perfect a example of a Jewish-African American partnership, drawing from an experience of persecution (Meeropol was a Bronx native, born from Jewish Russian parents who fled USSR, while Eleanora Fagan, aka Billie Holiday, was still suffering segragation).
The suave singing tone contrasts entirely with the cruelty of the scene and turns the dreadful piece into a major anti-racism anthem.
This song is the base on which the evolution of the lexicon and the interpretations of the performers are discussed, in the turn of the Civil Rights, in 1964. Consequently, it can be considered as the first song advocating Civil Rights, whereas Sam Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come (1964) embodies the outcome, the dawn of a new era. Such a masterpiece of grim truth within the American Dream will undoubtedly influence the various branches of Black American music and set the scene for them, from classic rhythm & blues to Soul music and to hip hop.
For the French reader, the song was translated by Michèle Valencia (Allia, 2009), inside the book by David Margolick, Strange Fruit.
(David Margolick (pref. Hilton Als), Strange Fruit : Billie Holiday, Café Society and an Early Cry for Civil Rights, Philadelphie, Running Press, 2000, 160 p. (ISBN0-7624-0677-1)
DES ARBRES DU SUD
Des arbres du Sud portent un fruit étrange, Du sang sur les feuilles et du sang aux racines, Un corps noir oscillant à la brise du Sud, Fruit étrange pendu dans les peupliers.
Scène pastorale du valeureux Sud, Yeux exorbités, bouche tordue, Parfum de magnolia doux et frais, Et une odeur soudaine de chair brûlée !
Ce fruit sera cueilli par les corbeaux, Ramassé par la pluie, aspiré par le vent, Pourri par le soleil, lâché par un arbre, C’est là une étrange et amère récolte.
This is a serious matter raised by a recent discovery, as I was looking for critical examples of how to communicate the epitome of gospel songs to a French-speaking audience. It might seem quite a naive question, but yet I was expecting answers. Knowing MargueriteYourcenar for her famous writings, such as Alexis, L’Oeuvre au Noir or Les Mémoires d’Hadrien, and being aware she was acknowledged as a Virginia Woolf’s translator, I was nevertheless surprized, if not shocked, to learn that she intended to translate Negro Spirituals and provided a cultural and historical prologue. Let us first put it this way : Yourcenar at that time had a solid reputation as an author and as a translator. I am not going to patronize both a belgian and french academician, whose writings – I must confess – I tend to ignore. Much has been said since the mid 1990s, needless to reinvent the wheel : in a 2003 paper, taking the opposite side of 1965 global reception, Pr Isabelle Collombat analyzed the conditions of production of such a translation (Collombat, 2003), pointing at how improper was the process1.
First I began to shrug at the sight of the complete rewriting of a susbstance that one will not imagine sung in french. Then I began to feel really embarassed, at what felt like an abusive foreignizing, leading Yourcenar to see the black people in an european condescending way, escalating to a kind of excessive and earthy text adaptation, that ends sounding as Negro Spirituals sung by Edith Piaf. Alas !
The fact that it was undoubtedly acclaimed by the whole critic at the time it was published tells even more about the european ethnocentric failure. As aforementioned, the translation expresses radical stylistic choices, carried by an oversized romanticism. Yourcenar must have believed it was only a matter of transposing the negro condition to the oppressed French masses during La Commune tragic events (1871). Indeed, french popular songs, known as “chanteur de rue”2 genre, are noticeably influenced by the depressing atmosphere that followed La Commune, eventually pounded by WWI. This very musical genre is characterized by an exaggerated emphasis and vocal tremolos, suggesting the sadness of parisians walkways between the two world wars.
That emphasis appears to be heretic when it comes to translate the oral form incarnated by Negro Spirituals. Singing religious themes in cotton fields doesn’t equal singing la vie dans la rue.
In brackets, there is a major difference between singing to keep the fire of hope burning when you are a slave and singing as a chanteur des rue (street singer) just to make a living. The latter, though miserable, is a profession.
To achieve her goal, Yourcenar spent 20 years or so, to gather sources, Roland Hayes’ recordings being the cornerstone. Still, it is such a pity that she did not write the origin of each single song. The reader will have to go back to the introduction to understand Yourcenar’s position, her tone being mostly assertive :
« Pour trop de Français, encore aujourd’hui, la musique noire signifie l’excitation, le bruit, la chaleur ou l’exubérance, voire les trépignements et les cris, un succédané, en somme, d’un folklore primitif, ce qu’elle est en effet en grande partie, mais non pas ce trésor de ferveur, de douleur, de gaieté et d’humble tendresse humaine qu’elle est aussi. Par manque de connaissance de ce qui se cache sous la splendeur et l’intensité du son, cette grande poésie contemporaine chantée intéresse, étonne ou excite, plutôt qu’elle ne bouleverse en France l’auditoire »
(For most of the French people, black music means excitement, noise, heat or exuberance, even stomping and shouts, –a subsitute in a nutshell, of primitive folklore – from which she originated, but not a fervor gem of pain, joy and humble human tenderness, for she is too. By lack of knowledge of what is hiding underneath the majesty and the intensity, this great contemporary sung poetry amazes or turns on more than it moves deeply the French audience).
One can assume the intention was fairly good. But, stuck between the end of colonialism and an occidental-shaped mind, Yourcenar delivers the typical exotic vision of the Negro culture, with a tremendous amount of stereotypes. It appears mandatory to put it into context, but historicism (which makes us consider this translation as a moment of french literature in a pre-decolonization context) makes such an attempt quite clumsy.
Now, let’s take an example of Yourcenar attempt to translate a variation on Deep River (Fleuve profond, sombre rivière) : we can see Yourcenar preferred the classic poem form, by favoring rhymes and symetric construction, in verses. Abusive word contractions, unappropriated foul language and the use of Mon Dieu (“My God”) reflects a biased reading of a Negro Spiritual. Whatever the fervor is, it never allows the appopriation of God within the discourse.
J’connais une grande rivière,
C’est pas l’Mississippi,
Et c’est pas l’Muskegee,
C’est pas un trou boueux entre moi et mon Dieu !
La promesse qui m’console,
C’est pas une vaine Parole,
C’est pas l’prêcheur qui gueule,
C’est l’espoir du salut qu’est fondé sur Dieu seul !
Fleuve profond, sombre rivière,
Jourdain, Jourdain entre mi et mon Dieu,
Bâtissez-moi un pont d’prières,
Et qu’j’arrive à l’aut’bord, au camp’ment, au saint lieu !
As a conclusion, I read Fleuve Profond, Sombre Rivière with curiosity and to quench a need to identify French regards on Negro Spirituals. I was not expecting such an exotic and ethnocentric vision, depicting Negros with an exaggerated debilitating language (for the record, this latter language abuse has been turned into mockery by french songwriter Serge Gainsbourg in the song Toi Mourir in 1981).
Petit Nègre3, 4 does not equal to Negro Speech.
It underpins the translator choices : in this precise case, radical choices were made (and I suppose Yourcenar was aware she was taking responsibility for it).
But it the end, the songs are turned into vaudevillesque contraptions.
Because stereotypes were part of the culture.
1Collombat, Isabelle (2003). « Traduire ou ne pas traduire : Fleuve profond, sombre rivière de Marguerite Yourcenar », in GRAI, n° 6. (4/2003), pp. 60-76.