Lectures Songwriting Soul Music Text analysis Translation

Are Negro Spirituals Translatable ? Yourcenar’s Case

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.

1 Collombat, Isabelle (2003). « Traduire ou ne pas traduire : Fleuve profond, sombre rivière de Marguerite Yourcenar », in GRAI, n° 6. (4/2003), pp. 60-76.

2 « Chanteur des rues ». Wikipédia, 10 août 2020. Wikipedia,

3 Petit-nègre is a somewhat pejorative french expression to characterize one’s poor language ability. In spite of decolonialization, it is still in use in a large part of the population.

4 « Le français “petit-nègre”, une construction de l’armée coloniale française ». France Culture, 21 février 2018,

Commodification Music industry Songwriting

The Commodification of Music

It has been a very discussed issue, especially since the vinyl era revival, starting in the mid 2000s. This video proposes a synthetic outline of records (be it material or digital) as a medium to replicate music copies.

How come so many people believe in vinyl acetate superiority ? Is fetishism built only against “soulless digital” ? As Walter Benjamin would say, does illimited reproductibility makes the music lose its soul ? (Walter Benjamin. (2008). The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction / Walter Benjamin ; translated by J.A. Underwood. Penguin.)

Can one lose the sense of listening while focusing on the ultimate and best technology ? How come purists want to go back to the master tapes ?

Let’s go for a quick insight !

Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search