Volume 27, Issue 1/2, Fall 2021
Anjuli I. Gunaratne
Gregson Davis and the Katabasis of Translation
Returning to Aimé Césaire’s Journal of a Homecoming
The focus of this paper are the themes and principles informing Gregson Davis’s innovative 2017 translation of Aimé Césaire’s, Cahier d’un retour au pays natal. For long, the poem’s title was translated as Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, but Davis renders it as Journal of a Homecoming. To understand this and other highly nuanced changes, I argue that it is necessary to keep in mind at least five crucial aspects that guide Davis’s translation. First is the open-ended nature of his approach to translating this particular poem. This approach is necessary because the poem is about the unfinished and still ongoing process of decolonization. Second, is the principle of committed listening, which is a mode of reading and translating that involves a complex series of returns, revisions, and re-evaluations. Third, is the motif of katabasis or the journey to the underworld, which for Davis is an important metaphorical frame operating in the poem. Fourth, is nostos or a homecoming, because the journey to the underworld requires a homecoming. These classic archetypal themes introduce a vertical dimension to the journey back from the underworld that makes a spiral out of the linearity of historical/postcolonial time. Fifth, is granularity. A granular translator must keep re-evaluating what to prioritize as a new translation of a word must open up spaces for new images to appear in the poem. This is indeed the granularity of Davis’ thought-provoking translation. Taken together, these aspects account for the excellence of Davis’s translation.