At the Living Heart: Translating Aimé Césaire

By David B. Hobbs

At the Living HeartAimé Césaire was one of the foremost French poets of the 20th century. He was also one of the foremost leftists on his home island of Martinique and in the French National Assembly. Upon his death in 2008, he was honored with a state funeral attended by then-President Nicolas Sarkozy—ironic, considering Césaire’s refusal to meet with him in 2005, after the passage of a bill compelling French history teachers to emphasize the “positive aspects” of French colonialism.
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In 2013, the centenary of Césaire’s birth was marked by academic conferences and new scholarly editions of his work. His words still have enormous power outside the classroom as well—at the Festival d’Avignon that year, for instance, the playwright Dieudonné Niangouna revealed that while he was imprisoned during the Second Congo War and forbidden from speaking or reading French, he hid lines from Césaire’s long poem, Cahier d’un Retour au Pays Natal, on the inside of his shirt.

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