In My Village and Monsters’ Dawn

French Poems by Marie Léontine Tsibinda
Translated into English by Catherine MacGillivray

Translator’s Introduction

Marie Léontine Tsibinda was born in French Congo in the village of Girard. She later attended school in the capital of Brazzaville, where she went on to university and ultimately received a Master’s degree in English in 1983.  In response to the burning down of her house in the context of Congo's civil war in 1997, Tsibinda fled her homeland in 1999; she then spent time in Niger and Benin, eventually settling in Canada in 2001, where she continues to reside.

Tsibinda  has said that she “discovered poetry in nature,” and that it is thus from nature that her inspiration comes. “For me, nature is the source of everything” (Conversations 14). Most of Tsibinda’s poetry is of this order, whether she is painting a picture of her village, her family, her country’s landscapes, its bordering sea, her people, their struggles, or her love for and commitment to all of the above and the human being at large. 

Tsibinda published her first collection of poems, Poèmes de la terre (Poems of the earth) in 1980, and in 1981 she received Congo’s National Prize for Poetry; she was the first woman poet to be awarded this honor. At this time—and still to some extent today—Congolese literature did not boast many women writers. For this and for the work itself, Tsibinda is worthy of the attention accorded her by this publication. 

The two poems presented here in a bilingual version, French and English, are both from Tsibinda’s 1987 collection Demain un autre jour (Tomorrow, Another Day) and reflect her ongoing concerns. I have chosen to translate these particular poems because of the way in which they both capture the difficulties of village life in sub-Saharan Africa, especially for those who live in les bas quartiers--an expression that appears in both poems. In Dans mon village (In My Village) Tsibinda creates images that resemble the linguistic version of an impressionistic landscape painting; L’Aube des monstres (Monsters’ Dawn) is in some ways reminiscent of a dramatic scene—and here we might recall that for many years Tsibinda was an actress in Sony Labou Tansi’s Rocado Zulu theatre troupe. 

 Tsibinda sees herself as participating in a post-négritude generation of writers she describes as “concerned with the problems of their homelands,” but also receptive to and interested in opening up to the world. It is her belief, and mine, that “tomorrow’s world will be constructed upon this encounter”-- of the inside with the outside (Conversations 17). In this age of rapid globalization coupled with the continued press of cultural imperialism, I am pleased to have this opportunity to offer the English-speaking world a glimpse into the landscape of French Congo’s premier woman poet, Marie-Léontine Tsibinda.


A Note on the Translation

 As a translator, it is always with pleasure and relief that I participate in a bilingual publication of poetry. Ideally, each reader will take a moment--even if they are not a student of French--to ponder the originals, to try to glean a sense of the many rhythms, rhymes, and sound effects that have been lost to the process, as well as to read my English versions in search of a way into “meaning.”

 Let me share just one example of what I mean by this poetics, which I call a poetics of loss. In L’Aube des monstres (Monsters’ Dawn), stanza three participates in French in a very complex and playful homonymic structure, one which was utterly resistant to the translation process as I undertook it. In French, au voleur and haut voleur are complete sound equivalents, though their meanings--as indicated by the English--vary greatly. Here Tsibinda is playing, as have many French-language poets before her, with the odd linguistic confluence in French which finds the verbs for “to fly” and “to steal” to be one and the same, voler. But she doesn’t stop here. In line 3, vos leurres is also a homonym, this time of voleur. Alas, the only hint of such elaborate sound play that remains in English is the imperfect rhyme that can be heard in “high fli-ers/your lures.” Thus I exhort the English reader to fly back and forth between the two texts while reading, in an attempt to steal back a little of the richness of the French into their English-language experience.

I would like to thank, for a competitively awarded Professional Development Assignment, the Graduate College of the University of Northern Iowa for its support of my work on this project, which has resulted in a previous publication as well.  (For those interested in reading more of my translations of Tsibinda’s poetry, please see the journal Translation.) I would also like to thank, as always, Anne Boyman for her keen eye and practiced ear; Professor Boyman has been my second reader for decades now, and I couldn’t do this work without her--though any errors are obviously mine. Finally, I would like to thank Jason Fly for his sense and sensibilities; they and he have helped sustain me time and time again, in work as well as in life.


 Sources Cited

 Conversations congolaises, eds. Alain Brézault and Gérard Clavreuil. L’Harmattan: Paris, 1989.

 Poèmes de la terre, Marie-Léontine Tsibinda. Editions Littéraires Congolaises: Brazzaville, 1980.

 Demain un autre jour, Marie-Léontine Tsibinda. Editions Silex: Paris, 1987.


Translation: Poems by Marie-Léontine Tsibinda 



Dans mon village


Dans mon village

les châteaux écrasent les masures

Faraday fait pâlir

la mèche-tempête


l’eau des pluies envahit

ma demeure

des jardins bien taillés

se moquent des fourrés

hirsutes où se tissent des serpents


dans mon village

on distingue la haute ville

de la basse ville


les murs de ma case tombent en ruines

les poutres ne supportent

plus le toit


dans mon village

chaque frère devient un ennemi

chaque rire une flèche

chaque parole un brisant


dans mon village

règne la suspicion

la communauté n’est plus

qu’un mot

l’argent commande l’argent

la pourriture s’infiltre dans

le sang de l’homme.

In My Village


In my village

castles crush shanties

Faraday makes

the storm’s wick pale


rainwater floods

my dwelling-place

well-trimmed gardens

mock the unkempt

woods where snakes weave


in my village

we distinguish high town

from low town


the walls of my hut fall in ruins

the beams no longer support

the roof


in my village

each brother becomes an enemy

each laugh an arrow

each word a breaker


in my village

suspicion reigns

community is just

a word

money commands money

rottenness seeps into

the blood of man.




L’Aube des monstres

L’aube à peine
dissout ses maléfices
quand soudain sonne
la cloche de la mort

des pas des cris des voix
se font entendre
balafrée de pluie
s’étire triste

au voleur! au voleur!
hauts voleurs hauts voleurs
vos leurres
se sont-ils évanouis?

des projectiles sifflent
des bâtons s’abattent
des voix halètent
un homme est saigné
sans pitié
on se défoule

 --Monsieur le Commissaire
un homme se meurt (tandis que le soleil se
lève . . . Doit-on toujours mourir à cette heure?)

 --Que voulez-vous que je fasse?

 --Coo . . . mment?

 --Un voleur des bas quartiers n’est pas un homme.
Allez dormir en paix. Un voleur de moins ici, où est le mal?

Les voitures sont en panne. Il n’y a pas d’essence . . .

--Ambulancier, regardez . . .

 --Il manque des médicaments à l’hôpital. Je ne me déplace pas. C’est trop tard . . .

Les mouches commencent la veillée.

Monsters’ Dawn

Dawn has barely
dissolved its evil spell
when suddenly
the death knell sounds

 footsteps cries voices
are heard
slashed by rain
stretches out, sad 

stop thief! stop thief!
high fliers high fliers
your lures
have they vanished?

 Missiles whistling
batons beating down
voices panting
a man is bled
without pity
we are letting off steam

--Mr Police Inspector
a man is dying (meanwhile the sun is
rising . . . Must death always take place at this time?)

 --What do you want me to do about it?

--Excuse me?

--A thief from the slums is not a man.
Go, sleep in peace. One less thief around here, where’s the harm?

Our cars are out of commission. There’s no gas   . . .

 --Paramedic, look . . .

 --There’s no medicine at the hospital. I’m not going out of
my way. It’s too late . . .

The flies begin their vigil.



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