Azo Vauguy, translated by Todd Fredson, with a discussion by Todd Fredson, Honora Ankong, and Carmen Giménez Smith
The poems discussed and presented below are authored by Azo Vauguy. Vauguy is a Bété poet. The Bété are an ethnic group within the West African country of Côte d’Ivoire. Vauguy is considered a neo-oralist by other Ivorian poets, writing out of the mythic topography of the Bété. Rather than French symbolists or surrealists or even Negritude poets (the poetic lineages presented in Afro-francophone academic institutions), more local oral traditions inform Vauguy’s work. Bété oral poets are his predecessors, as is the generation of Afro-francophone poets that began transferring oral values to page-oriented poetry in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
Vauguy worked with Bété oral traditions to produce poetry in written French. The poems presented here are from his two collections, Zakwato: So that my Land never sleeps again… (2009) and Loglêdou’s Peril: Journey through the country of lost sight (2015). Working through the Bété mythos, Vauguy addresses ethnic violence, civil war, and neocolonialism in Côte d’Ivoire and in Africa, more broadly.
Like many collections of contemporary Afro-francophone poetry, these collections are book-length poems.
Zakwato tells a story in which the protagonist has fallen asleep while keeping watch over his village. Waking to find destruction and massacre, he travels to Zato-the-blacksmith across a psycho-spiritual terrain fraught with obstacles. With the help of ancestors and spiritual insights, he becomes the warrior-hero, Zakwato, able to transform himself to meet any challenge. Zakwato’s awareness grows across dimensions until he enters the state of perpetual vigilance that the blacksmith finalizes by removing his eyelids. At times the poet speaks to Zakwato, at other times he speaks as Zakwato, and at other times the poet offers a third person narrative perspective.
In Loglêdou’s Peril, the poems are lyric and set independently across the pages, but they develop serially across the length of the book. After the journey to have his eyelids removed in Zakwato, the warrior-hero becomes a bird and flies to the country of the dead, which is allegorically the post-colonial hell-state left by colonizers across Africa. Zakwato is the source of truth lighting our way and urging those from Loglêdou onward.
Following the poems, there is a glossary that offers background on culturally specific ideas or terms, like Loglêdou.
The double-translation, Zakwato & Loglêdou’s Peril, will be available from Action Books this spring (2023).
Carmen Giménez Smith: From a writerly perspective, it’s always interesting to discover new voices and new discourses. I revisited your translation of Tanella Boni. In his introduction Chris Abani writes, “When we center ourselves in the idea of journey…we lose sight of the real journey. Not one that individuates and celebrates the small will, but rather in the mythic process that brings the individual self into confrontation and negotiation with the collective self, the ‘mold,’ of the cultural person.” Can you talk a little bit about how you navigated this version of journey being trained, as an artist, in a Eurocentric model of journey?
Todd Fredson: So I first wonder if that is how I was trained– in a Eurocentric model of journeying, meaning one that individuates. I certainly understand. That would be the expectation. But I also feel I’ve had a fairly ambivalent relationship with my training, let’s say. Definitely, I’ve gone through various academic institutions for degrees. But I left as an undergrad and worked and traveled and returned. And that has been the pattern, no institutional training has been continuous. I’ve left and traveled, left and worked, and the world offers perspective and focus for my studies, and I return to academia–but where I feel most comfortable is in the field, however we want to define that. I didn’t come to translation because of anything to do with my MFA or PhD programs, or because of an undergraduate degree, or because I’d been introduced to writers and artists through those institutions. None of that remotely played into it–other than that I was interested in being a poet, and so that interest guided me when I looked out at the world for expressions and voices.
For me, the model for journeying was sort of an inheritance. I’m the son of a Vietnam vet who distrusted the world implicitly. He would finally be diagnosed as 100% disabled with PTSD by Veterans Affairs shortly after I returned from living in Côte d’Ivoire the first time, having served in the Peace Corps. Throughout my childhood my family lived down a dead-end dirt road in a rural Washington logging community. I spent a lot of time running around on the beach and in the woods by myself. So my first journey, my model, even, is just figuring out a basic relationship with an other that happens to be everyone. There’s no real consistency; it’s kind of a guerilla strategy perspective, like anything could be coming at you from any direction. So I feel like my journeying has been, I guess, trained by a wariness of those myths of American exceptionalism or Euro-american supremacy and fortitude. My father was the empire’s fodder. My interest was in being in places where, frankly, I have probably been the trespasser, where I just didn’t know how anything worked yet, and I’ve been required to watch and learn and listen and figure out what the rules of encounter were. To me, that felt infinitely more interesting than being in a classroom, let’s say, or reading a book. Though, I’d add, that even those conventional training grounds felt foreign, academia as a culture has always been a perplexing construction. So, to return to your question, my training has come from being on the ground, I think, mostly. That’s how I’ve navigated being an artist growing out of Eurocentric training. The reason I’m translating out of West Africa is because I went and lived there, and I didn’t live there to translate at all. I didn’t do anything with anybody in any academic circle for the two years I lived in a village. I worked in fields, got water from the well, strolled around in the evening with flashlights and handheld radios, and did stuff that people in that village did as political violence grew around us. I learned languages that people spoke there, and a French that was different even from the versions of the French that people in urban areas spoke. I would say it’s sort of a ground-up relationship to the texts or the act of translating them. I suppose that my own journeying has produced a very tactile experience with translation. I don’t think that I’m translating the texts with any facility because of my French. I think that it’s because I have cultural affinity with the places where I’m working and with the lives that I’m thinking about that are represented in those translations.
I would add that, of course, there is the Eurocentric privilege of mobility–having an American passport–that underwrites my ability to have these kinds of relationships and tactile experiences.
Honora Ankong: I really appreciate the generosity of that answer and what it offers us as your audience, which is a glimpse into your journey as a translator and more specifically, the work you’ve done with these two book-length poems by Azo Vauguy, Zakwato & Loglêdou’s Peril. I’m thinking of your experience in Côte D’Ivoire and what evidently has been your guiding principle, your affinity for this country, its history, vast cultural landscape, and people, all of which leads me into my first question. I was particularly struck by what you say in your translator’s note, “I feel certain that at times Vauguy is freestyling– or, perhaps, he is channeling. It is a powerful exertion of the right to speak, and in one’s own language, and, even, in one’s own idiom.” You implore us not to overlook the mythological and spiritual dimensions of this work, and as someone who understands and experiences writing as a spiritual practice, I’m curious to know if and/or how you channeled Vauguy while doing this work? Did you find yourself needing his guidance, and if so, how did you establish a connection to him (posthumously), and what did that spiritual practice look like for you?
Todd Fredson: I love that question. I can answer easily and directly. I invited Vauguy to participate with me all the time–during his life, after his death. I’ve built a sort of spiritual practice for myself, for sure, and I have a great reverence for elders and ancestors, for folks who have been in my life and are no longer, who passed–people whom I’ve been close to. I feel I keep communion with this pantheon pretty much all the time. Vauguy is one of those people I spent formative time with, you know, and so I think I’m always hoping he’ll be around offering direction. I’d also say that a lot of what I’ve learned about how to have a relationship with a place and its spiritual dimensions–its ecological psyche–happened when I lived in West Africa in the village I was living in, and with the neighbors that I had. I lived in Gouro territory, but the kind of land-based spiritual values that, historically, the Gouro have maintained are akin to what Vauguy’s work explores. He’s a Bété poet, and Bété territory is adjacent to Gouro territory. So as far as immersing myself in the spiritual topography of his work, I feel kind of familiar with the elements he engages. The Bété and the Gouro have, of course, very clear cultural distinctions, but there’s lots of overlap as well. When I’m thinking about the journey that Vauguy’s protagonist in the Zakwato myth makes, it’s a familiar landscape for me–the plants, animals, termite mounds, you know, all that. And then beyond, there is just a sense of the space, the feeling that it generates, because there is still rainforest, and, even where it’s been lost to monoculture, out in the fields, it’s quiet and the human presence feels very spare. The space feels psychically much bigger than the people, very much alive on its own terms. That was my experience, anyway, and Vauguy grew up in a similar environment. It was subsistence living, you know, so even just the weather dictated how months would go, whether food was available, whether work was harder or easier depending on whether there was water nearby. So a lot of my own sense about how to believe in the land, how to access its presence, to participate responsibly, formed during those few years. I’d say, too, that some of my sensitivity to that came from living there without language in the beginning. I didn’t speak Gouro and I barely spoke French, so meaning wasn’t really dictated by language. But a lot of the experiences that gave shape to some of my current beliefs, or what whatever you want to call them, happened there. I had a neighbor who was a sorcerer. I have very clear memories of going to ceremonies in his hut.
Thinking about the imprint of my Eurocentric background, I feel lucky to have come from an idiosyncratic spiritual background. I had family members who spoke in tongues. Others who were devout Lutherans or Catholics. And a father who wouldn’t listen to any spiritual leader who had not been in the hell-scape of war–if they had seen hell and could still advocate for a God, then that itself would be a miracle. The city of Olympia (WA) was the closest to us and, to my experience, it has had a concentration of clairvoyants and healers. I was well-exposed, but never indoctrinated.
Carmen Giménez Smith: I think this question extends into my next question. “But I have learned that living with incompletion, with difference that cannot be reduced, is part of my work. There are, of course, simply, connotations that cannot be accounted for, allusions that cannot be explained with certainty.” That’s from your translator’s note. To me, that seems like a type of ethos for being a translator in general, and I wonder if you could talk about how you came to form your translator’s ethos.
Todd Fredson: A lot of what prompted me to do translation was just general curiosity. I really wondered what people were talking about who were writing, let’s call it poetry, especially following the political and ethnic violence that I had been amidst, and the civil wars that came next. I looked for poetry, but as we see with Vauguy, that can be storytelling and more. So, big P poetry. Genre distinctions are always kind of problematic across cultures, anyway. But I was just really curious because I was trying to reckon with something personally, with my experiences alongside the violence that I’d been sitting in, and I knew I wasn’t the voice to talk about it, really. I was just an American who happened to be there, but would be able to leave at some point. So I started looking for the work that was being done.
I had no idea at all what writers in Côte d’Ivoire were doing, and it gave me permission to search wildly. That’s been the ethos, I think, to put audiences in front of as much stuff as I can, because, as I looked around, I thought this probably counts as poetry, and this counts as poetry, and this counts as poetry–all these vast and amazing, let’s say, cultural expressions. In Côte d’Ivoire there are upwards of 50 or 60 cultures, and the country is about the size of New Mexico. So I realized, this is endless, and everyone’s making an expression. You can find it on pagnes, the bolts of cloth people wrap around themselves or make into outfits that have designs, motifs which become symbolic and are low-key messaging all the time. You can find it in the way that at funerals people are wailing, and they are performing. They might be paid for that expression, and there are conventions for it.
I end up bringing expressions into English that are already book-ready, for the most part. But I’ve also worked with people who would consider themselves griots, who are singing or chanting, and with slam poets, and with storytellers who are telling bar tales. So the ethos for me is always to get the widest possible exposure–and always to have that idea of Poetry in mind when I’m making page-oriented translations.
I’m wary of being the proverbial gatekeeper where I would be like, this deserves to be translated, and this deserves it… . So I’ve worked hard to try to figure out how to, I don’t know, find things that are always at the limits of what I think I know or can understand. Part of that, again, is just constant field work. But that’s the most compelling part of it for me, the learning and making relations.
Honora Ankong: And I would go as far as saying, at least in my experience, that these translations require readers to fully immerse themselves in a kind of fieldwork– a critical and inquisitive delve into the historical and socio-cultural background of Vauguy’s work, and the political temperament of Côte d’Ivoire at the time he was writing these two books. You anticipated this necessity, especially for a Western audience, and you’ve brought your audience closer to this very necessary knowledge through the critical scholarship you produced in concurrence with these translations. I spent some time, out of curiosity, reading some of your critical essays, and following your research, which points to a wealth of conversations happening amongst Ivorian thought-makers. I tried to gather, admittedly with rudimentary understanding– as someone who is very much still a student of life, of writing, and of translation- the different frameworks you deemed necessary for readers looking for an entrance into the world of these poems. You invite us to consider both nationalism and, furthermore, ethnoculturalism as working frameworks– especially knowing you are dealing with a Western audience, which might have a tendency to halt our analysis at postcolonialism as the lens through which to understand the intentions of African writers. While Vauguy doesn’t shy away from postcolonial discourse in these texts, you warn that ignoring the ethnocultural– Bété particularities– of this text leaves readers at a loss. Could you speak more on what nationalism and ethnoculturalism lend as frameworks for understanding these translations? And also how you found balance between the work of translating these poems and generating critical scholarship around this work?
Todd Fredson: Finding that balance for this book was a conversation that I had with the publisher Action Books. I had originally submitted something that was much more scholarly. It had a large critical piece that accompanied the two translated collections. Ultimately, I think that context helps, because these are, I mean, they can be a bit esoteric. The long poems come out of a very specific ethnic and cultural background that even in Côte d’Ivoire requires some context. If you go to the North, people aren’t going to be that familiar with what the Bété are about—their myths or cosmology. Same thing, probably, if you head to Abidjan, a city of four million people from all over. But in discussing that with the editors at Action Books, Joyelle McSweeney and Johannes Goransson, we decided to just let the poetry be. There is a translator’s note if the reader wants a little initiation, and there is a glossary in the back because there’s a lot of the Bété that needs cultural context or supplementary information—or alternative readings, even. But the priority is to make it an experience the way that poetry is, or can be. Especially for poetry coming out of an oral background, that visceral, direct relationship with the audience is crucial. So all of that contextualizing is placed off stage.
To get to your point about the anti-colonial specifics, about how a term like “anti-colonial” can oversimplify things, one of the things that I think is helpful to know is that anti-colonial doesn’t simply mean anti-Western or anti-French. Definitely that is the root, a renewal of the Zakwato myth as an inspiration to protest continued French interference, but that legacy means something specific for the Bété. That legacy has brought other Africans into the mix, too, immigrants who have used the policies generated by the French-Ivorian alliance constructed after independence in the ‘60s. A lot of people were invited to come to work in agriculture to build up an export economy, which was not great for the Bété, who had land that was fertile and productive. So when it comes to the effect of colonialism for the Bété, or for communities in the fertile South, outsiders came to mean also Northerners, who are Ivorian, and people from Burkina Faso, who had a border invented between them and, then, say, “Ivorian” relatives, and others folks who migrated from around West Africa. The anti-colonial political violence that transpired alongside these collections—Zakwato was published as the First Ivorian Civil War simmered down and Loglêdou’s Peril following the Second Civil War—the violence was based on wanting an end to French influence and intervention. It’s definitely that. But there’s a much more specific history at work here that I think is pretty imperative. If you want to understand the audience that Vauguy is speaking to, then you’d want to know that background. Otherwise, you know, it’s easy to get lost in the broad postcolonial discourse, where cultural specifics often get washed away.
Carmen Giménez Smith: I love that because it returns to the first question that I asked. My sense is that you’re suggesting that there’s some kind of lens that even in its critique isn’t totalizing, because you’re trying to resist that as a translator?
Todd Fredson: Yes, it’s a matter of catching myself all the time. If I start to do something and feel like, oh, I’ve got a grasp on it, then I have to squint or to step back. Kind of, as soon as I focus, I’m like, oh, then what is it that I’m not seeing now? It’s the thing where, as soon as you focus, your periphery goes away, then suddenly you lose perspective on how else this could be approached, or what else is yearning to come in. That definitely feels fundamental to the ethos for me. I appreciate that observation.
Carmen Giménez Smith: I’m curious about the term terroiriste and how it connects necessarily to ideas of nationhood, statehood, landhood.
Todd Fredson: I love that word—“terroir.” It’s meant to indicate all of those things that go into the land, the character of the soil, and then that comes out in the growths. So as it’s applied to wine the grapes acquire the flavors of the land that they’ve been grown on, all those mineral elements. I think for Vauguy that it’s those spiritual elements, too. They are unimaginable without their land.
There’s always the two-ness in these collections—the below-ground and the above-ground, and, similarly, the local and the national or international. There’s the genie personality of a thing, like it’s spiritual comportment, it’s psychical function. And then there’s the very actual, physical comportment. You get stuff like grain nuts from this palm tree, and then you use them to make palm oil. And that’s a practical expression of that thing. But it’s also inspirited. The material and immaterial dimensions are entwined. With terroir there is that doubling, the land lives and provides of its own accord, but then it is cruised as a resource, cruised for a value or meaning in terms of its economic viability. What will it provide at fruition, at its next incarnation? What does it provide locally? What does it provide nationally or internationally in the marketplace?
So, thinking again about the translation ethos, you want to make sure that you’re attending to each thing locally, responsibly, and not glazing over those complexities in order to install the text in a “larger” conversation. But, at the same time, there is a larger conversation that it will become a part of, and so that must be kept in mind. Vauguy ties the colonial violence in Côte d’Ivoire to other colonial violence, like when he mentions Gaza “bedridden.” There’s that peripheral context that sharpens the local distinctions in a sense. I think that word, “terroir,” sort of helps draw out those different dimensions of working with this text.
Carmen Giménez Smith: It’s such a joy to discover a word that exists in another language that speaks to something that’s missing in your native language. That was just my response to that term.
Todd Fredson: Yes, “terroir” was applied by Henri N’Koumo. He’s someone who helped me sometimes in figuring out translation riddles in Loglêdou’s Peril after Azo died. He is a poet and was a close friend and supporter of Vauguy, and that description is from a review he wrote of the book. There’s a poem of N’Koumo’s in a micro-anthology that I edited that’s available at Jacket2. Kazim Ali made a beautiful translation of that poem. N’Koumo’s most recent collection is Poèmes Sauvage: Éclairés Au Feu De Brousse.
Honora Ankong: Within that realm of thinking, I’ve been considering how myth is dealt with or even analyzed within Western scholarship. I think there’s usually an attempt to enact full analysis, to extract a concise meaning or arrive at a shared understanding of mythological text and lore. But these poems resist that kind of flattening, and instead demand that the reader or listener revels in the luscious landscape of the Bété’s physical and metaphysical topography. These poems and their translations alike tickle all our senses. They are raging with sound, firm as trees in the earth, fluid with movement between the natural and spiritual worlds. The complexities of these poems go beyond political allegory as they are keen in their preservation of the culture they’re birthed of. How did you negotiate these demands alongside the demands of literary publications– considering what gets deemed worthy of publication or even predicted as a profitable venture?
Todd Fredson: That is a great question. I don’t have a simple answer to that. How do we decide what’s too foreign to be viable in our literary marketplace? Who decides?
Honora Ankong: And, then, trying to get an American audience to care about a deeply African, and more significantly Bété text, you know?
Todd Fredson: Let me run through some ideas that come to mind. I teach a mythology course, and so a lot of the things you just said are things we have to think about. For instance, Western academic practice is typically to analyze myths. This is our empirical reasoning, to dissect things and destroy things and find things inside, things that we can extract. And this is synonymous with how colonialism was initiated, that Age of Enlightenment logic, which proposed individualism and democratic principles for some, and then, also, rationalized colonial subjugation for others. We can try to figure out meanings, but of course we’re going to be figuring it out in our terms, which may be totally disingenuous when it comes to whatever the creator of that text or the renovator—as these oral traditions get passed from person to person—intended. So I’m always interested in studying mythic thinking. How do we get into a space of mythic thinking? One trick is just to try to avoid making our object of attention into something familiar, like a version of another thing you’ve previously made sense of.
But that mythic thinking space, for me, is that space between language when there aren’t words for things. Writing or translating, you can identify the thing through its feeling or intensity or some other resonance—there are many facets of “meaning.” And then you’re going to try to preserve as much complexity as you can without flattening things as you imagine the expression back into language. That’s a formidable task, even when I’m writing my own poetry–to preserve the complexity of the imagined in language. So it’s maybe another layer of trickiness when I’m trying to figure it out with somebody else’s voice and a text from a different cultural landscape. And, then, to consider this all in terms of my eventual audience—who that is and what version will recreate an experience like what the author’s audience might have had with the original… .
Zakwato, for instance, is a text that in its oral production is aimed at villagers in Bété territory, and in its literary production is aimed at Southerners in Côte d’Ivoire, but also others in Africa (who read French) who have suffered the effects of colonization, other communities who have established long-standing relationships with the land and who use those land relationships to guide their socio-political engagement–“islands of the indigenous” and “altars of African memory,” Vauguy says. We might call it a nativist perspective in Western academic discourse. So, ultimately, is there such a sensibility in the contemporary, English-language, American audience? Can we say, even, that audiences are comparable? I think many texts are moving from an “educated” readerly class to another “educated” readerly class. The authors of the originals have already gone through the training required to appeal to a publisher, etc. Vauguy is certainly educated. He was a journalist. But his poetics came through a different lineage. So at some point, I’ve just got to do my best with the language, guided more specifically by his voice. Ultimately that helps me translate the tonal complexion, which is where, I think, the reading experience can be transferred.
I don’t know if that answers the question. It’s a constant conundrum. And I’m sure I’m not alone as a translator there, but I do find Vauguy to be pretty far afield in terms of what gets brought into English. It was a unique and extensive work to try to solve all of the things you’ve raised. It helped that I got to work with him while he was alive–for a good stretch. That was invaluable.
Carmen Giménez Smith: I’m working with a translator right now who’s translating a younger Peruvian poet, and I’m fascinated by how slang gets translated. I experience this as a mother listening to my children: the kids say “that slaps” and that’s a unique phrase and I think, what is the equivalent to “that slaps” in another language? So I’m reading these oracular poems in your translation and in one instance there’s a stinky-ass vampire. I’m just wondering if you could talk a little bit about finding that language.
Todd Fredson: Stinky ass vampires. Sure. So that’s in Loglêdou’s Peril, which is the continued journey of Zakwato. Zakwato has long narrative stretches that seem to set up the lyric bursts. But Loglêdou’s Peril is a sustained lyric burst. And so it’s really musical. A lot of my work was figuring out how to really be just hearing it. Here my lack of intuitive French was helpful because I’m feeling my tongue turn without latching on to semantic meaning and I’m listening to sound. And so once I internalize that then I can try to reproduce it across the text as I’m creating the English version. I’m trying to be responsible to each poem, but there’s also the broader cadence of the poems’ sequencing, and working with the whole text there’s room to create an equivalent sonic experience overall, beyond the poem-to-poem equivalencies.
As you say, there are idiomatic choices within that as well–slang or comedy, it’s typically culturally specific and time specific, referring to connotations that are bundled in there. So first I tried to recreate the bounciness and the leaping of his language, because sometimes I think he’s just making a sound, almost, like those are the words. But of course the sonic quality has to be matched to the narrative version of the poem. So in that vampire passage, lisping and tongue-tied–most literally, their tongues are sticking to their teeth. And those are the idioms that match the French. These walking dead, these life-suckers, can’t get their words out right because they can’t pronounce the alphabet. Alphabet is capitalized in that passage, which I suspect is Vauguy making a comment about how much is bound up in knowing a language. He has, after all, translated this out of Bété and out of oral keeping into written French. We’re like three translations deep at this point. So, I think throughout, he’s considering how the tongue moves, how the voice works, how language is embodied, how language itself is a medium that is flexible, how it creates various realities, and how to play with it. It’s that space of mythic thinking. He’s always poking at language a little bit, because he’s presenting this in a colonial language, and I feel he is teasing it into doing things it doesn’t want to do. But the vampire part, stinky ass vampires, I mean, that has an idiomatic history that is cultural. In the Reggae vernacular something being vampiric, that’s a synonym for the colonial soul-sucking, bloodsucking qualities of the system. And in Côte d’Ivoire, with musicians like Alpha Blondy and Tiken Jah Fakoly—it was, like, Kingston, London, and then Abidjan as Reggae hot spots. In any case, Vauguy is talking about the lack of life and the stiffness of the colonial tongue. And he’s doing it by teasing the language that he’s using. That’s where I get to thinking about the idiom he’s working in, and that voice that I’m trying to translate. Across these languages, his idiom is irreverence, I think.
Carmen Giménez Smith: Thank you. I like that. His idiom is irreverence.
Honora Ankong: Toward the end of your introduction, you talk about the moment in Loglêdou’s Peril where “Vauguy uses a refrain to sound what it is at stake: life in a ‘crowd of cutthroats.’ As he considers histories of merciless plundering, there is inevitably the violence of these actors, the cutthroats. But this phrase also suggests something more literal, to have one’s throat cut– to have one’s vocal cords severed, to lose one’s voice, to be muted.” I’m thinking of what is previously at stake in this myth– Zakwato’s loss of sight begins the journey into peril and as the myth progresses we are met with another threat, the loss of voice. Considering the orality of these works, the rebellion of Vauguy’s musicality and the urgency present in his wordplay, I can’t help but think of the “cutthroat” as the threat of the future, an indication of what is and will be lost without the telling and retelling of this myth. What Vauguy has created here is a practice of preservation, and a resistance to not only being silenced but also “a powerful exertion of the right to speak in one’s own language and idiom.” I’m curious to know how your translation practice took all of this into account and how you achieved the preservation of these technical elements in your English translation.
Todd Fredson: I remember reading Zakwato the first time, and thinking, Oh, my god! This is incredible. It was just so relentless and vivid and unlike anything I’d really read or experienced as a reader. It felt I was very much involved somehow, like I was sitting at a play or performance. It was not like my experience of being the armchair reader of a book.
It motivated me to do just what you said, which is to think about how important it is to try to keep these things–that space between languages, the breadth of language, other linguistic expressions–available. Practically speaking, that book, Zakwato, had maybe 500 copies—or 300 copies—printed. They’re not very durable. If I get copies of books, even by noted authors, poets in West Africa, that were written 30 years ago, mostly at this point I’m getting a photocopy version. It’s hard to find the originals. There’s not been a lot of duration for the books themselves. They just may go out of print and disappear from the world.
It’s partly why Vauguy’s original versions are in this book. Someone else could translate his work again later with this book. That was another decision we made in publishing—it’s a much chunkier book, but we wanted to keep his work directly circulating.
As somebody who’s been drafted into teaching over the years, I just get a little bit impatient with the Western lens. So when I teach mythology, people expect to talk about Norse mythology or Greek mythology and nobody has an inkling that we could look at Sundiata or Queen Pokou or Zakwato, or any of the innumerable stories that have still not become visible. And his text, Zakwato, does seem like a really good symbolic statement, declaring that if we aren’t vigilant we will lose sight of things. In both texts he insists that if we are not assertive, we will have voices taken away. We lose a language every two and a half weeks, so, as Wade Davis points out, our ethno-sphere is disintegrating, in the same way that our eco-sphere is. I think of the book that way also, as an archive of an ecological imagination. It is a little bit of a manifesto or mission statement in those terms, about the importance of keeping cultural transmission intact.
Azo Vauguy, translated from the Bété and French by Todd Fredson: Excerpts from Zakwato and Loglêdou’s Peril
The city of honest souls was snuffed, sundered entirely under the violence and the brutality of evil forces. Zidogoplou, corpse ant, you who go to the country of the dead. Goplou kills death to offer eternity to humans. I quench my thirst with you, drinking your waves right down to the silt. All febrile, we will march, sifting the dreams of my youth. With you, I will hum the river’s purring refrains, where the tadpoles swarm about. The songs of the turaco, which announce ill times, the pagoda-bird’s barely audible song, which magnifies the setting sun—the alarm cris-cris will betray slumber and the needles of time, stiffened, will remain immobile.
People of Éburnie: Woooa!
Here is the Bagnon
People of my country: Woooa!
Here is the Bagnon
Each action we put forth
is a struggle to which we commit
Each action we pursue
is a battle that we win
And the fight for liberty never ends
Watch! The devil overflows with enthusiasm, happy to be clutching clusters of gold and the swath of diamonds that decorates his crest. The devil drones his cries of victory, stretched in his diabolic hammock for centuries and centuries! This being of misfortune scatters his evil widely in order to nap and nap!
Zakwato goes with his eyelids torn off
to knot a new dawn,
and fight for the new homeland
Over there, on the miles of hills
where hatred burns!
Brother kills brother
Mother kills child
The father rips the life from his offspring
Africa has been turned
into a blazing field favoring
the sinister ballet of griffon-vultures
The Congo river transports dead bodies
Zaire’s laugh is hollow
Africa flogs itself and disappears
into the misty breeze of those sad shouts
which cross forests, savannas, deserts
and gust across already sterile lands
Life without life. War of epithets, war of cannons that thunder, thunder, thunder torrentially and without end. Rabid fire of agitated nights, nightmarish nights. Insane nights, soul-draining nights, executing our swan song. Fields covered with crow-colored clouds. Din. Cacophony. Elegies accompanying bodies into their country of asylum. Everything is dulled. Silence. Silence of the capacious days in mourning. Days of despair, of hope gunned down. Sad page of day that lasts an eternity!
Zakwato inhaled the breath of the ancestor Gnènègbe. And, in a flash, Gofo-Gniniwa stepped over these thousands of mountain peaks. The forge of Blégnon-Zato is not easily accessed. It is far, very far. Where the sun has never set. Diamond-Zim’dali! I sing my joy in the drunkenness of the tests of time, tales and tellings, the history of my story. Story of the panther-spider, sublime tale, fervent joy, victory without blunder, without wounds, without lamentation. We do not count the time. We tell a story. The time does not count. It passes, passes, passes, and we mortals, trapped by impatience, nibble at it as it passes. The moonless night smiles at Zakwato, the sparkling teeth of the sky are spectacular. Interlaced, smoking mouths like hunting dogs after their game, lit tinder of serpents that hurl themselves onto the tracks of Zakwato.
La cité des âmes intègres étouffait, totalement écartelée sous la vio-lence et la brutalité des forces du mal. Zidogoplou, fourmi cadavre, toi qui vas au pays des morts. Goplou tue la mort pour offrir l’éter-nité aux humains. Je me désaltérerai avec toi, buvant jusqu’au limon l’onde salée. Tout fébriles, nous marcherons, tamisant mes rêves d’enfant. Avec toi je fredonnerai les refrains ronronnants des rivières où grouillent les têtards. Les chants du touraco qui annoncent le mauvais temps, les chants à peine audibles du coq de pagode qui magnifient le coucher du soleil, les cris des cris-cris trahiront le sommeil et les aiguilles du temps, enkylosées, resteront immobiles.
Peuple d’Éburnie : Woooa!
Voici le Bagnon
Gens de mon pays : Woooa!
Voici le Bagnon
Chaque acte qu’on pose
est une lutte qu’on engage
Chaque action qu’on mène
est une bataille qu’on gagne
Et la lutte pour la liberté n’a jamais de fin
Regardez ! Le diable déborde d’enthousiasme, heureux d’avoir ar-raché des grappes d’or et des palettes de diamant qui couronnent la huppe. Le diable pousse des cris de victoire, étendu dans son hamac diabolique depuis des siècles ! Cet être de malheur répand le mal pour des siestes et des siestes !
Zakwato s’en allait s’arracher les paupières
pour nouer une aube nouvelle,
et bâtir la patrie nouvelle
Afrique, Afrikaaa !
Là-bas, sur les mille collines
des feux de haine !
Le frère tue le frère
La mère tue l’enfant
Le père arrache la vie à sa progéniture
L’Afrique s’est transformée en
un champ de brasier favorisant
le sinistre ballet des vautours fauves
Le fleuve Congo charrie des corps sans vie
Le Zaïre rit jaune
L’Afrique s’autoflagelle et disparaît
dans la brise brumeuse des cris de désolation
qui traversent forêts, savanes, déserts
et soufflent des terres déjà stériles
Vie sans vie, guerre des épithètes, guerre des canons qui tonnent, tonnent, tonnent torrentielle sans trêve. Feu follet des nuits agitées, nuits cauchemardesques. Nuits démentielles, nuits ténébreuses, exécutant le chant du cygne. Champs couverts de nuages couleur corbeau. Tintamarres. Cacophonie. Des élégies accompagnent des corps sur leur terre d’asile. Tout est morne. Silence. Silence des grands jours de deuil. Jours de désespoir, d’espoir criblé de balles. Triste page du jour qui dure une éternité !
Zakwato reçut le souffle de l’ancêtre Gnènègbè. Et Gofo-Gniniwa enjamba en un temps éclair ces milliers de châines de montagnes. Dodobli ! La forge de Blègnon-Zato est difficilement accessible. Elle est loin, très loin. Là-bas où le soleil ne se couche jamais. Zim’dali diamanté ! Je chante ma joie dans l’ivresse des épreuves du temps, conte et compte l’histoire de mon histoire. Histoire de l’araignée-panthère, histoire sublime, joie frénétique, victoire sans bavure, sans blessure, sans lamentations. On ne compte pas le temps. On conte une histoire. Le temps ne se compte pas. Il passe, passe, passe et nous, mortels pris au piège de l’impatience, grigno-tons la patience. La nuit sans lune sourit à Zakwato par le scintille-ment spectaculaire des dents du ciel. Entrelacés, gueules fumantes comme des chiens de chasse poursuivant du gibier, des fagots de serpents s’élancèrent sur les traces de Zakwato.
from Loglêdou’s Peril
A near jest
A mere fresco
On the muddy banks
Of eternity’s erasure
In the desert
The explosion of Éburnie
Of this disconsolate continent
Confirms Loglêdou’s peril
No one laughs
No one sings
No one dances
No one eats
No one speaks
Have gutted us
Oceans of bitterness
Have swallowed us
Have buried us
To the third degree
We make ourselves sick
No one eats
No one drinks
We the brainless suckers
We’re the victims
Of those shameless idiots
We’re stuck in the mire
Some jerk tadpoles
We who have
Kept the promise
To share what we desire
With the divine Houri goddess of heaven
If I lie
Cut out my tongue
If I lie
Of my ancestors’ rest
Strike me down
And sweep me away
To the land of no-return
So listen to my word
People of Loglêdou
Listen to Gbaa Zikéi Ozi’s word
Stallion of Truth
Honey of speech
My word is sharp
Like the woodcutter’s axe
Tomorrow will be born
Out of the pain
But tomorrow will be clear
People of Loglêdou
My word is good
It is beautiful
It is impetuous
My word is exalted
Drawn from the sacrificial rite
It confirms the days ahead
A matrix charged
To purify those souls stranded out there in line
Il la voulait pourtant
Sur les rives bourbeuses
De l’effacement éterne
Dans le désert
La déflagration d’Eburnie
Du continent cafardeux
Confirme le péril Loglêdou
On ne rit pas
On ne chante pas
On ne danse pas
On ne mange pas
On ne parle pas
Des hordes de vampires
Nous ont étripés
Des océans d’amertumes
Nous ont engloutis
Des terres ingrates
Nous ont ensevelis
Au troisième degré
A rendre gorge
On ne mange pas
On ne boit pas
Nous les jobards écervelés
Nous sommes les victimes
Des bêtards effrontés
Nous sommes les purotins
Des têtards abrutis
Nous qui avons
Pourtant fait la promesse
De partager nos désirs
Avec la divine Houri déesse du paradis
Si je mens
Me tranche la langue
Si je mens
Oú reposent mes ancêtres
Au pays du non-retour
Ecoute donc ma parole
Peuple du Loglêdou
Ecoute la parole de Gbaa Zikéi Ozi
L’étalon de la Vérité
Le miel du dire
Ma parole est tranchante
Comme la hache bûcheronne
Dans la douleur
Mais demain naîtra clair
Peuple du Loglêdou
Ma parole est bonne
Elle est belle
Elle est impétueuse
Ma parole est valeur
Du rite sacrificiel
Elle certifie les jours qui s’annoncent
Qui purifie les âmes en souffrance
Glossary of terms (in order of appearance)
Zidogoplou: Corpse ant, a black ant that smells like something dead and rotten. It digs into the earth and lives underground, so it is said to live with the dead, for whom it can be a messenger.
Turaco: Weak-flying cuckoo-like bird.
Éburnie: The name proposed by Gnagbé Kragbé in a 1970 speech as a replacement for “Côte d’Ivoire,” which is a colonial designation—the Ivory Coast bordered the Gold Coast which bordered the Slave Coast. Kragbé advocated for a rupture of the country’s one-party system, which he saw as a puppet for French interests. As a contemporary concept “Éburnie” marks an ethnocultural boundary meant to include southern and western Côte d’Ivoire, which is marked eco-regionally as the coast, rain forest, and savanna prior to transitioning to the Sahel and the Sahara. The name “Éburnie” remains in popular use (blogs, periodicals, literature).
Woooa: Traditionally, in many tribes, this has been a response to a call. It is still heard at gatherings, as, for example, when one calls “Ivorian People!” and the crowd replies with “Woooa!,” or as a reply from an audience when listening to stories.
Bagnon: The most beautiful man, according to Bété male beauty standards. It refers to Zakwato. In many West African cultures, and notably the Bété, men and sometimes women acquire several names, each offering a characterization based on professional functions, talents, personal traits, encounters, etc.
Gnènègbe: Ancestor of the poet who said that the will—and courage—is more powerful than anything.
Gofo-Gniniwa: Long-legged wading bird whose genie-being can step across time—with one step it can cross great distances instantly, from one continent to another, for instance.
Zim’dali: Something that is very precious, a person who is treasured.
Panther-spider: A ferocious spider in the forests, the color of a panther, whose web is so strong it can catch birds.
Loglêdou: Loglêdou means “country of elephant tusks” in Bété, which is to say Côte d’Ivoire, or the Ivory Coast. The Bété word L Cglêdou is a composite word: L C= elephants; glê = tusks; dou = city, village or country.
Éburnie: The name proposed by Gnagbé Kragbé in a 1970 speech as a replacement for “Côte d’Ivoire,” which is a colonial designation (the Ivory Coast bordered the Gold Coast which bordered the Slave Coast). Kragbé advocated for a rupture of the country’s one-party system, which he saw as a puppet for French interests. As a concept, “Éburnie” marks an ethnocultural boundary meant to include southern and western Côte d’Ivoire, which is marked eco-regionally as the coast, rain forest, and savanna prior to transitioning to the Sahel and the Sahara. The name Éburnie is still in popular use (blogs, periodicals, literature).
Houri: Generally, the houri have been the women in Paradise awaiting faithful Muslims. However, more contemporary assessments of the Arabic roots of the word and its appearances in the Quran suggest a gender-neutral interpretation. Additionally, the idea of the houri providing eternal sexual rewards to believers might be interpreted more generically, such that the houri become idealized forms devoted to those whom they accompany in Paradise for the purpose of rewarding good deeds.
Zato-the-blacksmith: Also known as Blègnon-Zato, the magical blacksmith who removes Zakwato’s eyelids in the Bété myth of Zakwato. In the myth, the protagonist has fallen asleep while keeping watch over his village. Waking to find destruction and massacre, he travels to Zato-the-blacksmith across a psycho- spiritual terrain fraught with obstacles. With the help of ancestors and spiritual insights, he becomes the hero, Zakwato, able to transform himself in order to overcome any challenge. Zakwato’s awareness grows across dimensions until he enters the state of perpetual vigilance that the blacksmith confirms by removing his eyelids. Here in Loglêdou’s Peril, Zakwato is the source of truth lighting the way in this country of the dead.
Gbaa Zikéi Ozi: The depositary of the word. This may be a reference to the poet Joachim Bohui Dali, who wrote a collection titled Mahieto pour Zékia (1988) that helped usher oral forms into the written medium. Mahieto pour Zékia is a re-phrasing of another Bété myth. In this myth, men and women live separately at the beginning of the world. The men battle the women but always lose until they discover that Mahie, the chief of the women, is the source of the women’s power. The men strategize an all-out mission to kill Mahie and succeed. With Mahie gone, the women decide to live with the men and continue the war in the home. But in putting at least two women with each man in order to lessen the domestic work the women find that their responsibilities actually multiply. Joachim Bohui Dali adds something to the myth, a central character named Zékia, which is the Bété name for a chameleon. Zékia is also an anagram for Zikéi, a name the author assigns to himself as the speaker. Here in Loglêdou’s Peril, Gbaa Zikéi Ozi is a vessel of the word, one who brings Zakwato forward.
There is, likely, another facet to this Gbaa Zikéi Ozi reference. The word Zikéi may be another version of “Ziguéhi,” which is a word sometimes used for the street gangs who created a cultural movement in the 1980s and 1990s that incorporated dance, music, dress, comportment, conventions of encounter, and other elements of street style. “Ziguéhi” reportedly means warrior in Bété, and it happens at times that the words are differently transcribed (a “k” may become a “gu,” for instance).
Azo Vauguy was a career journalist and a poet who worked outside academic institutions, though in Côte d’Ivoire cultural affairs are not so monopolized by such institutions as in the US. As a journalist, Vauguy wrote for several Ivorian periodicals, focusing on politics and cultural affairs. Vauguy is the author of two poetry collections. The work explores oral forms and the mythological terrain of the Bété. His poetry collections, Zakwato and Péril Loglêdou established him as an eminent “neo-oralist” among his peers. Vauguy was born in 1954 and died in April 2020.
Honora Ankong is a Cameroonian American poet, writer, and educator. She holds an MFA in Poetry from Virginia Tech and is the author of the chapbook, our gods are hungry for elegies (Glass Poetry Press 2022.) She is a Watering Hole fellow, a 2022 Goodyear Arts Artist in Residence, a Lambda Literary Fellow, and a Hurston-Wright Foundation Fellow. Her work can be found in publications such as CreamCity Review, Foglifter, Poetry Daily, 20.35 Africa, and more. She is currently completing a Fulbright in Mauritius.
Carmen Giménez Smith is publisher and director of Graywolf Press and the author of several books including Be Recorder and Milk and Filth.
Todd Fredson and Azo Vauguy photo credit: Todd Fredson
Carmen Giménez Smith photo credit: Jason Gardner
Horora Ankong’s photo credit: Mary Fischer