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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, https://fr.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Chanteur_des_rues&oldid=173700176.

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, https://www.franceculture.fr/sciences-du-langage/le-francais-petit-negre-une-construction-de-larmee-coloniale.

Categories
Songrwriting Soul Music Text analysis

Donny Hathaway’s Thank You, Master (For my Soul): Food for the Soul

Prologue : Donny Hathaway (1945-1979) released his debut solo album, Everything is Everything in 1970. The Chicago native explores the typical love/soul theme concern, addressing to God.

A soulful moment amidst various styles, from rhythm and blues to Cuban rhythm, is the classic gospel-inspired Thank You, Master (For my Soul).

This is a very typical incarnation of gospel and Negro spiritual genre in a soul record from the 1970s, reaching success in popular audiences, as did Ray Charles records.

First of all, double and equivocal meanings are remarkable, so as the general praising tonality. The words are sung on a piano-driven laidback and slow groove, alternating a range of shades, form quiet, nearly silent passages to moaning vocals helped by a solid brass ensemble.  

Here, Master can be heard as a way to address to God in an ambiguous or double-sided meaning, but Lord is added to unveil the intention, hence the use of the anaphoric way. This is quite a relatively simple prayer-type songwriting. The vocabulary is as simple as it can be, and the repetition is typical of the greeting, thankfulness song. One can count 26 repetitions of “Thank You”, with the exception of the more formal “Much Obliged”. Humility, as a result, dominates the song.

In this respect, despite the pain, despite the sadness and the tears, Donny Hathaway thanks the Lord for keeping him. One can see it is none of a request for absolution or penitence: just selfless and pure thankfulness, as suggested by the following example, underlining a certain unworthiness:

My Bed was not my cooling board

Using a metaphor with the equipment used for dead bodies preservation, Hathaway emphasizes on his own ability to live as simply as can be, and to thank God for putting shoes on his feet (a typical biblical figure), completed with words: the walls of his room were not the walls of his grave.

With a catchy hint, Hathaway addresses the audience with a rather disturbing, somewhat elusive:

 Y’All don’t know what I’m talking about.

What’s more, it precisely synthesizes the unique relation, quite mystical, with God.

Some of the stances then following offer a double, if not, a triple reading and an increase in intensity. For instance, with the play of words hereafter in the last words of the song (that are echoed by a backing vocal performed by Hathaway himself), Hathaway uses a surprising polyptotic anaphora:

My sheet (my sheet) was not my wine (Was not my whining sheet).

On the whole, this is the epitome of revisited Gospel in popular soul music, characterized by this ability to play with words. Sheet can be linked to either a musical sheet, a bed sheet or, eventually, as suggested by the echoed words in brackets, a whining sheet, to dry one’s tears. Wine undoubtedly refers to the Christ’s blood at the church, given by the Minister, while Hathaway opposes sheet/wine in a curious manner that seems more relative to improvisation and the subsequent ad libitum part. A satiety that meets the need for “food for the spirit” while it still does suppose the “food for the body”.

Every single good owned briefly by the praying songwriter is described as a precious gift given by God, as a reference to the famous overexploited quotation  found in the book of Job “The Lord Gave, and the Lord Hath Taken Away” (Job 1:21). Even the word blessed, in “But Lord You Blessed Me” can be linked to either the benediction or the gift.

Thank You, Master (For my Soul)

(Donny Hathaway, 1970)

[Verse 1]
Thank You, Master, for my soul
Thank You, Master, thank you for my soul
You gave me food to eat, you put shoes on my feet
And You kept me
Lord, I know, haven’t been so good this week
But You continue to Bless me
And just want to take time to thank You, for my soul

[Verse 2]
Thank You, Master, thank You for my soul
Lord, thank You, thank You, Master, thank You for my soul, yeah
‘Cause you didn’t have to hear my moanin’
Lord, You didn’t have to hear my groanin’
But You kept me, yeah
You put shoes on my feet, you kept food for me to eat, yeah
And Lord, how You Blessed me
But most of all, thank You, Master, for my soul
Thank You, thank You

[Bridge]
That’s alright
Woo-hoo

[Outro]
Thank You, Master, Lord, thank You for my soul, yeah
Thank You for my hands, thank You for my feet
Thank You, Lord, thank You for my mind
Thank You for my soul
Lord, I know I haven’t been so good this week, God
But You kept me
You didn’t have to hear my moanin’
You didn’t have to hear my groanin’, hey hey
But Lord, You Blessed me
And Lord, i want to thank You
I just got to say “much obliged” to You, Master
‘Cause the walls of my room was not the walls of my grave
My bed was not my cooling board
Y’all don’t know what i’m talkin’ ’bout
My sheet (My sheet) was not my wine (Was not my whining sheet)
And I want to say thank You, thank You
Thank You, thank You, thank You, I want to thank You, Lord

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