Stepping into Another’s Words

Nancy Naomi Carlson

Nancy Naomi Carlson

I didn’t grow up in Africa and I’m not banned from my homeland, nor do I identify as male or a person of color, and yet I have translated two books of poems by Alain Mabanckou, a renowned writer from Congo-Brazzaville. I am not a “calazaza” (a light-skinned person of mixed descent on the black/white continuum, with red or blond hair and very few black features) who feels marginalized in Paris, where she grew up, because her skin is too dark, but also marginalized in Fort-de-France, where she was born, because her skin is too light, and yet I have translated a collection of poems, as well as co-translated a novel by prize-winning writer Suzanne Dracius, from Martinique. I actively seek francophone writers of color to translate, mostly from Africa and the Caribbean, whose transcendent voices might otherwise go unheard by an English-speaking audience, as I believe much of the world’s greatest literature continues to be written in languages other than English. What makes it possible for me to attempt to understand the life experiences of Mabanckou and Dracius, as well as others, such as Abdourahman Waberi (Djibouti), Khal Torabully (Mauritius), Marie-Léontine Tsibinda (Congo-Brazzaville), and Louis-Philippe Dalembert (Haiti), is the art and science of empathy—the ability to understand the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of another…to want to understand them. Another way to put this is “the ability to step into another’s shoes.” For many, empathy is an elusive notion that takes on different shapes in different contexts, and often defies our attempts to pin it down.

As a certified school counselor and a licensed clinical professional counselor, I have long been acquainted with the concept of empathy, one of the three core conditions in person-centered therapy, developed by psychologist Carl Rogers. Not only was I trained in empathy skills, but I also learned that it wasn’t enough to be empathic if you did not demonstrate that empathy. Now working as a counselor educator (my day job), I help my counseling students focus on their clients’ feelings in order to see things through their clients’ eyes. I teach them to really drill down into what clients say they feel, avoiding the stilted “how does that make you feel” question, but using phrasing that invites clients to look more closely at the particular emotion they are expressing. “Tell me more about this anxiety.” “Help me to understand more about this hurt.” They say that people usually forget the details of an event, but hold on to how it made them feel, so if clients sense the counselor is connecting to their feelings, trust takes root and begins to grow, thereby strengthening the  therapeutic relationship.

Alain Mabanckou

I first made the connection between empathy and translation after reading The Art of Empathy: Celebrating Literature in Translation, a publication by the National Endowment for the Arts, that includes essays written by translators and publishers. In this book, Gregory Pardlo, a contributor, observed that “translation is a practice of empathy, like choosing a twin, where affinity and kinship is a declarative act, and not a passive discovery.” Pardlo talks about having had to rearrange much of himself “to make room for that imaginary guest to exist in my head.” I, too, believe the translator-author relationship is intimate, and in addition to the translator needing to make room in their head, the translator also needs to make room in their heart.

In counseling, how is the concept of empathy connected to the concept of worldview? Samuel Gladding, a distinguished counselor educator, defined worldview as “an individual’s perception of the world based on his or her experiences….Worldviews directly affect and mediate people’s belief systems, assumptions, modes of problem solving, decision making, and conflict resolution styles.” In order to fully understand and embrace the client’s worldview—key to providing ethically and multiculturally sensitive counseling services—the counselor must be well-versed in empathy. How does worldview tie into the translation process?  In an essay from The Craft of Translation, a must-read book for emerging translators, Burton Raffel maintained that “the literary translator is necessarily engaged with far more than words, far more than techniques, far more than stories or characters or scenes…. [They are] engaged with world views, and with the passionately held inner convictions of men and women.”

Using empathy, literary translators must take into consideration a number of factors which are often in competition with one another, such as literal meaning, historical and cultural context, personal connotations, etymological considerations, and, one of my favorites, the music of the original. They must strike a balance between such dichotomies as sticking too close to the original text versus straying too far; “foreignization” versus “domestication”; footnotes or stealth gloss for clarity versus flow, and meaning versus music. Decisions may vary across works by different poets, but also among works by the same poet, depending on the needs of each text. The myriad choices that must be made may lead to an impasse unless the author’s overarching worldview can be identified, which can help break many deadlocks. Sometimes that worldview is apparent in the author’s body of work, or even in the particular poem in question, but in other cases the vision is somewhat cloudy.

In these situations, it greatly helps to be able to consult directly with the author, if at all possible. I have been fortunate to have been able to maintain an email correspondence with almost all of the authors I have translated. Empathy and worldview are key to these interactions, as it’s crucial that I first establish a trusting relationship with the author—especially when they are not fluent in English—before tackling potentially emotionally-laden issues. Sometimes I have been able to meet with them in person. For example, I flew across the country to Los Angeles, to meet with Alain Mabanckou, in order to go over my questions concerning my NEA-supported project to translate his As Long as Trees Take Root in the Earth and Other Poems (forthcoming from Seagull Books in Fall 2021). Although Mabanckou was twice a Man Booker finalist for his fiction, his poems have never before appeared in book form in English, so it was especially important to me to be absolutely clear on not only the meaning but the spirit of his words.

Over an almond milk chai latte (for me) and a waffle topped with strawberries and whipped cream (for him), I asked questions about meaning, word choice, syntax, and context, including issues which had tormented me for weeks until I had declared them “irresolvable” without his input. Some of my questions pertained to words with nuanced meanings, where no single meaning emerged as the clear winner. One particular dilemma comes to mind involving the line “dieu nous tourne le dos,” the first line in a short, untitled poem. I understood the poet was writing about the political unrest plaguing his homeland, and that he had been declared “an enemy of the state” for his harsh criticism of the current regime. I also understood the poet was in mourning for his beloved mother who had died while he was in exile, as well as for his lost childhood and the villages and fields ravaged by the ongoing civil wars. Still, I did not really have a sense of Mabanckou’s relationship with formal religion or spirituality, so I felt uncomfortable making a choice between “god turns away from us” and “god turns his back on us.” Both options suggest there is a God, but an absent/missing one. One who is still here somewhere, but for whatever reason is no longer paying attention to us/Africa/Congo- Brazzaville/the world/humankind. In my mind, “to turn one’s back” seemed more deliberate and irreversible than merely “turning away.” It was important for me to find out more about Mabanckou’s thoughts on the matter. With little hesitation, he chose “to turn one’s back,” as follows:

god turns his back on us
night drives us into the whirlwind
the hand that strikes
belongs to a brother

we share
the Kingdom
and funeral rites

Translating four-letter curse words can also cause confusion for the translator, as their impact may vary across languages. It’s important that the translator use a word choice that carries an emotional weight equivalent in both languages. In this case, I needed to step into Mabanckou’s shoes to determine what connotation of “merde” (“shit,” “crap,” “turd”) he had in mind, as well as the emotion that word was meant to convey. My guess was that his intent was to subtly criticize the African dictatorships by making use of a profanity (“shit”), and Mabanckou confirmed my hunch. The complete poem follows:

here comes the rule of men draped in deceit
while modern-day Sisyphuses lug rancor
like doomsday ladybugs
sentenced to rolling the shit to the next river bank

As a final example, let’s talk about Mabanckou’s relationship with trees, which for him are a symbol of birth, growth, life, and death. The tree’s roots are especially important, as they represent the regenerative power of nature. Roots evoke grounding and homeland for the poet. And hope. In the poem “[in this ancestral land],” Mabanckou writes: “rester homme jusqu’au bout.” I was not sure how to translate the gender-laden term “homme” (“man,” “mankind,” “male,” “bloke”), though with a capital “h” it could mean “humanity,” “human beings,” “humans,” “people”–a more inclusive term that includes those who identify as women or non-binary. Complicating the issue was the fact that in these poems Mabanckou almost never begins a word with an upper-case letter, so the meaning of “homme” was particularly ambiguous. My impulse was to go with the broader sense of the word, and Mabanckou agreed, as can be seen in the following text:

in this ancestral land
there’s an embryonic plant to be hoed
songs of September birds
rivers diverted from beds
deserted plantations
barbed wire circling raised voices

remain human to the end
as long as trees take root
in the earth

As translators, it’s important for us to hold on to our author’s worldview as we work in the space between languages, sometimes getting lost in the maze of word choices. I believe a translated poem should sound “natural,” as if it were originally written in English, and am reminded of translator Margaret Sayers Peden’s conceptualization of the original work as an ice cube that, when melted, results in every molecule changing place. She compares the refreezing process to bringing the text into the second language—a process that involves new molecules taking the place of those that escape yet resulting in a new ice cube that “to all appearances [looks] the same.” On the other hand, I believe a translated poem should retain the essence…the flavor of the original…indeed, the voice of the poet. Paying close attention to the author’s worldview through the practice of empathy can help make it so.

Writing Prompt

Every writer has a worldview, including the way they view the universe (Is there sentient life in other places of the universe? Are humans at the top of the evolutionary ladder?); human nature (Are people selfish/evil/good/generous by nature?); spirituality (Does God exist? What happens to us when we die?). Worldview can mediate how poets view the importance of their poems, as well as the writing process itself (Muse-driven or otherwise). Translations make it possible for us to witness worldviews that may be very different from our own.

  1. After reading my translations below of two poems by Alain Mabanckou, what aspects of his worldview seem clear? What are hinted at? Do any resonate with you?

  3. Write a poem infused with some aspect of Mabanckou’s worldview in your own voice, on your own topic, choosing your own words.


[it’s midnight]

it’s midnight
shrews and pangolins
already roam the banks
of the Loukoula
death is moaning in dens
thickets of silence
suddenly stir

my torch has gone out
I’m haunted by words
and now I can’t wait to complete
this tale
before the break of day

[I’m not to blame]

I’m not to blame
said the migratory bird
I was gone for the winter
my only crime
is to sport the same
plumage as those in my branch

the birds of your kind
have sinned in your name


Some Final Thoughts

As Kenneth Rexroth observed, “The writer who can project [themself] into the exultation of another learns more than the craft of words. He learns the stuff of poetry.” When I translate, I carefully and obsessively study the original text, not only for meaning, but also to get a sense of the inner workings that might not be noticed by the casual reader. The poem’s structure. The flow. The shape.

Mary Jo Bang talks about “interrogating” each word in a translation. I do the same for each word in my non-translated poems, laboring over denotations and connotations. I am, of course, the arbitrator of these decisions, and my decisions are filtered through my lived life—my own worldview.


White Pine

Nancy Naomi Carson

Not mine, but the one dwarfed
by Gothic vaults of Elderdice Hall,
barely observed in the rush
to lecterns, interns and chalk

of my second career, until needles,
color of rust, bedecked my path,
and pine cones dotted the lawn,
seemingly fallen overnight,
like some early winter snows.

I picked one up—wooden petals closed
tight, except for three rows flaring out
from the base with thorns—a prop
I would use for my students:

tight-lipped counselee; trust slow to bloom;
stages of grief as painful as pulling out thorns.

Next day’s shock: the pine cone had opened,
as if infused with something to make it more
than itself, to become itself more fully,
in a form more enduring, more endearing—
a kind of empathy I could hold.


Translating Myself

Nancy Naomi Carson

Elle allait sur la pointe de ses pieds nus…elle sabbattait
contre sa poitrine, avec un long frisson.—Gustave Flaubert

Aveling’s Bovary comes to Leon barefooted,
but Russell’s Bovary tiptoes on bare feet.
The difference begs definition. A doubled supplication—
pieds nus losing truth in the twice translated,
like a copperhead shedding its skins.
Tell me the perfect words to bring me to you—

as if perfect were not petals of abstraction,
white and unknowable, but the fruit of here and now,
thick and earthy, weighing down the tongue.
Would you have me come in well-heeled pumps
or spiked heels, wobbly and drunk?
Sneakers padding the floor, laces trailing like adders?

Or stripped to essentials—flesh and bone.
But barefooted or on bare feet?
Bare feet seem too plodding, since I would be light footed
and running toward you. But would I throw myself
upon your breast with a long shudder, swooping
like a tern, wings beating against her own dazed reflection,

or sink into your arms with an equally long shudder?
No, if I were to sink, it would be into the green pool
of your eyes—more of a resurfacing,
an emergence from the long cocoon of longing.
A dipping, as a taper that grows, or a plating of gold,
or a brioche brushed golden with yolk, devoured.


Works Cited & Notes

The Art of Empathy: Celebrating Literature in Translation. National Endowment for the Arts: Washington, DC, 2014.

Biguenet, J. & Schulte, R. (Eds.). The Craft of Translation. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago, Illinois, 1989.

Gladding, S. The Counseling Dictionary (4th Edition). The American Counseling Association: Alexandria, Virginia, 2018.

“[god turns his back on us],” “[here comes the rule of men]” “[I’m not to blame],” and “[it’s midnight],” by Alain Mabanckou (translated from the French by Nancy Naomi Carlson) are from As Long as Trees Take Root in the Earth and Other Poems (forthcoming from Seagull Books, 2021). They first appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review.

“[in this ancestral land]” by Alain Mabanckou (translated from the French by Nancy Naomi Carlson) is from As Long as Trees Take Root in the Earth and Other Poems (forthcoming from Seagull Books, 2021). It first appeared in Guernica.

Rexroth, K. “The Poet as Translator.” Bureau of Public Secrets. Originally published in The Craft and Context of Translation (University of Texas Press, 1961).

“Translating Myself” and “White Pine” by Nancy Naomi Carlson. Reprinted from An Infusion of Violets, by permission of Seagull Books.

Nancy Naomi Carlson

Nancy Naomi Carlson is a translator, poet, essayist, and senior translation editor for Tupelo Quarterly, having authored eleven titles (seven translated), including Khal Torabully’s Cargo Hold of Stars: Coolitude (Seagull Books, 2021). An Infusion of Violets (Seagull, 2019), her second full-length poetry collection, was named “New & Noteworthy” by The New York Times. A recipient of two translation grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and a grant from the Maryland Council for the Arts, she was a finalist for the Best Translated Book Award and the CLMP Firecracker Poetry Award. Her work has appeared in such journals as The American Poetry Review, The Georgia Review, The Paris Review, and Poetry. Decorated with the rank of Chevalier in the Order of the French Academic Palms, she has earned two doctorates and is a professor of graduate counseling at Walden University. See more at