Navigation – Plan du site
Traduire l’expérience multisensorielle au cœur du texte dramatique

August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean: Translating Multilayered Sensory Experience

Valérie Bada et Christine Pagnoulle


La puissance des pièces du dramaturge africain-américain August Wilson provient en grande partie de la manière dont sa poétique fait appel aux sens, que ce soit explicitement en évoquant l’expérience sensorielle des personnages ou de façon indirecte par son utilisation de rythmes syntaxiques propres, et par ses modulations spécifiques du vernaculaire noir américain. Quand nous nous sommes lancées dans la traduction pour la scène de Gem of the Ocean, la première des dix pièces qui constituent le cycle de Pittsburgh, nous avons dû chercher à rendre des effets similaires en français, et d’abord à négocier sa langue qui est non seulement hautement idiosyncratique mais aussi marquée géographiquement et historiquement. La scène centrale de la pièce qui se passe au tout début du XXsiècle, donc à un moment où l’esclavage est encore bien présent dans les mémoires, montre une transe hypnotique au cours de laquelle un jeune homme dont l’âme doit être « lavée » est amené à revivre la traversée négrière pour atteindre la mythique Cité des Os où les esclaves noyés ont littéralement « la langue en feu » ; cela ne peut se produire que parce que ses sens sont tous sollicités, y compris par des spirituals.
Les rythmes syntaxiques et intonatifs ainsi que la langue allitérative et anaphorique propres à la poétique wilsonienne sont autant d’agents médiateurs qui canalisent l’expérience sensorielle des personnages. Le présent article décrit les difficultés des traductrices à créer une langue en français qui éveille les sens du spectateur / lecteur tout en respectant le rythme et la référentialité multiple du texte.

Haut de page

Texte intégral

1It may be foolhardy, if not downright presumptuous, to endeavour to translate the work of a playwright who claimed that only someone born within the African American community has the right to stage or film any of his plays (Wilson, 1990: 70). Yet our translation project (which started as an academic exercise because we were convinced that his plays deserve an audience beyond the Anglophone world) has developed into an ambitious, multilingual project called “Translating August Wilson across Borders”, under the auspices of the newly created CIRTI (Centre interdisciplinaire de recherches en traduction et en interprétation) at the Université de Liège. The project is still at an early stage, as the first play, Gem of the Ocean, has just been translated into French, and is in the process of being translated into German. We are also currently collaborating with the Théâtre de Liège to give the newly translated texts a wider audience. At this point in time, though, the project has not yet matured into either performance or publication. Yet, part of the skopos of our translation, to use Vermeer’s terminology, is to convey the multilayered, referential complexity of the source text to the audience, while involving it in a sensory experience conjured up by the recreation of linguistic rhythms and sound effects. This approach faces major obstacles, as part of this paper will show.

2We have worked on a play entitled Gem of the Ocean, one of the ten plays in Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle. Each play is located in a different decade, and Gem of the Ocean takes place in 1904. It was written and produced in 2003. Wilson actually only wrote one play after Gem of the Ocean, namely Radio Golf (2005), which is also the last play in historical term since it deals with the last decade in the twentieth century. As Wilson insisted, each of his plays is “fat with substance” (Lahr, 2006: vii), all of them capturing some specific features of the period covered, with the trauma of transportation and slavery haunting them all. This is probably the case of the first play more than any other. Indeed, in 1904, the Civil War had not yet been over for forty years, and memories of enslavement and attempting to escape slavery were still vivid. Two of the male characters, Solly Two Kings and Eli, are close to seventy and were involved in the Underground Railroad. Aunt Ester, the towering mother figure in the play, is 285 years old, as she tells Black Mary near the end of the first act:

Aunt Ester: I’m getting old. Going on three hundred years now. That’s what Miss Tyler told me. Two hundred and eighty-five by my count. (Wilson, 2003: 43)

  • 1 . The name “Ester” also recalls the Biblical figure who, as a young Jewish bride to a Persian King (...)

3This is the only play in the series in which she can be seen on stage in flesh and blood, with all of her quirks and bouts of bad temper. However we also find references to this tutelary matriarch in Two Trains Running and King Hedley II. Her age means that she is exactly as old as the transportation of Africans to the shores of the North American continent. Her name, incidentally, can be understood to mean “ancestor” (Elam, 2006: 185), and she certainly functions as a link with the past. She is less of a Christ-figure, somehow “saving” her people,1 than a kind of female Socrates, or midwife, or drogman, initiating others into the knowledge of themselves and of their past. When called upon to “wash souls,” she insists that only God can do that. She can only create favourable circumstances.

4The plot includes unobtrusive touches of romance. There is the deeply ingrained yet apparently flirtatious love between Aunt Ester and Solly Two Kings, and the carefully developing relationship between Citizen Barlow, (the young worker who needs to have “his soul washed”) and Black Mary, Aunt Ester’s help in the house. But the topical focus of the play is on acute social and political issues. We are shown the way the mill owners treat their workers and the resulting disruption in the form of a strike then of arson, as well as the sinister figure of Black Mary’s brother called Caesar, both a policeman and a ruthless landlord who evicts tenants when they cannot pay their rent. This social concern is epitomized in the figure of young Barlow. Newly arrived from Alabama, Citizen Barlow found a job at the mill but soon found out what capitalist exploitation means: he had to pay more for lodgings and food than he was paid, and was detained by debts the owners had contrived. As a result, Barlow stole a bucket of nails from the mill. He is ridden by guilt, not on account of this petty theft but because another man, who was suspected, jumped into the river and drowned.

5However, as in all plays by Wilson, this social dimension is somehow, and not at all incongruously, combined with an intense spiritual experience that climaxes in a sensory re-enactment of the Middle Passage. This element will form the focus of our discussion. Similarly, while characters mostly use commonplace, everyday words, even the most mundane statement or question can resonate with a deeper, often metaphorical dimension, or with a range of implicit intertextual / intercultural references.

6While we will mostly comment on how language explicitly calls upon sensory experience and the way in which this can be conveyed in translation, we cannot ignore Wilson’s challenging use of African American Vernacular English (AAVE). This also contributes to the sensory appeal of his writings. August Wilson wholeheartedly embraced the African American heritage of his mother. He grew up in the Hill district of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. When he eventually found that his mission in life was to write plays, this same neighborhood is where his characters live. Most of them are African Americans who had migrated from the plantations in the South. He used the speech and accents he listened to when he was a child. As a result, language—Wilson’s creative use of African American Vernacular English—is one of the issues translators have to face. We are keenly aware therefore of the need to retain the cultural as well as socio-economic history of slavery and segregation, as the critic Bernard Vidal stresses. He rightly points out the historical specificity of AAVE, and the consequent inanity of attempting to transpose it into some local peasant idiom (une campagne): “[L]es Noirs sont tirés d’un milieu socio-économique précis, celui de l’esclavagisme, et de ses dérivés, pour être parachutés dans une campagne où un tel rapport de force ne peut s’envisager […] de sorte que le déplacement langagier n’a pu manquer d’entraîner corollairement une déterritorialisation de la problématique” (Vidal, 1994: 171). The problem, as indeed is clear in Vidal’s article, is not so much a change of place as a radical loss in the rootedness of AAVE. Indeed, it would not do to use some hexagonal slang just because the language is not standard English. If it had not all but disappeared, the gombo dialect (i.e. the variety of French that used to be spoken in Louisiana) could have been used, albeit sparingly, since we also have to make sure that the audience can follow the text, and all French creoles, including gombo, are more distant and distinct from standard French than their English counterparts are from standard English. All varieties of English include variations on a common recognizable matrix; for example, while AAVE has a very complex tense system, its verbal forms look and sound familiar. On the other hand, the French créole matrix is in many respects radically different from standard French (as illustrations we can mention the third person plural personal pronoun yo or tense markers such as te to indicate a past tense, ap for a present progressive, etc.). Translators are thus left in a familiar quandary, or double bind: we have to retain specific connotations that are inscribed in the language yet we cannot alienate a French-speaking audience. The option of using any French Caribbean créole, as Vidal advocates, would amount to unduly emphasizing the otherness of the text, at the expense of any possibility of sharing, which is the main purpose of the dramatic experience.

7However, as Myriam Suchet states in Outils pour une traduction postcoloniale, translation in such a context of heightened and yet subverted linguistic and cultural hierarchies should be “respectueuse de l’altérité du texte source […] une attention toute particulière est accordée au devenir de l’hétérolinguistique dans le processus de traduction” (Suchet, 2009: 169). And by heterolinguistic aspect of the source text, she means, quoting Rainier Grutman, “la présence dans un texte d’idiomes étrangers sous quelque forme que ce soit, aussi bien que de variétés (sociales, régionales ou chronologiques) de la langue principale” (ibid.: 49). The use of the African American Pittsburgh sociolect in Wilson’s drama offers such an example of heterolinguistic interplay: AAVE and standard English mingle in a seamless verbal flow and each character shifts linguistic registers. This alternating interlingual pattern offers a striking metaphor for the dialogic, multilayered plurality of African American culture as it is reconfigured in Wilson’s drama. Dialect thus functions both as a cultural marker and as a very concrete sensory tool that, through its peculiar cadence and accent, conjures up emotional responses. As Karia Holloway observes,

Dialect and poetry both intensify. Their adornment and special structures are their speakers’ conscious manipulations of language to render their experiences as they have felt them. It is a mimetic act—an effort to re-create, through the word, the experiences of a culture. (Holloway, 1987: 97)

8The dramatic re-creation of “felt experiences” through the melodic patterns of AAVE induces another synaesthetic theatrical “experience” across the stage / page. That emotional empathy is paramount in Wilson’s drama if the text is to resonate with the audience. Translating Wilson’s heterolinguistic interplay thus entails the creation of French rhythmic, melodic patterns, the effect of which should “quicken the senses” of both audience and readers.

9In Wilson’s plays AAVE is not just an ethnolect, pregnant with the cultural history of the African American community, it is a highly wrought poetic idiom. Its use does not denote a lower social status or a lack of education. All the characters speak the same language regardless of social status or education: Aunt Ester speaks AAVE despite her two centuries of wisdom and knowledge, just as the uneducated Solly and Eli do. AAVE thus functions as a unifying linguistic force within the African American community, and as a powerful marker of identity. In several instances we used a rather informal register, but translating AAVE into informal French only reveals the aporetic nature of such linguistic transfer. As mentioned before, we refused to resort to the use of a French créole lest we should de-territorialize the referential matrix of the play and also alienate our French audience / readership. Instead, we focused on shifts between formal and informal variations as well as rhythmic patterns to recreate a peculiar linguistic sensoriality. Translating an ethnolect (which encapsulates the entire history of African American resistance and resiliency) into variations of register and syntactic syncopations seems highly unsatisfactory. Yet it is through the very musicality of the language that we tried to convey a sense of the peculiar Wilsonian poetics. As Françoise Brodsky has stated with regard to the translation of Zora Neale Hurston’s dialectal idiom:

Il faut donc s’inspirer du texte original, se laisser guider par son rythme et faire confiance à sa propre intuition, à son sens de la langue pour se lancer dans un travail de recréation, un texte « à la manière de… » où, par un système de compensation ou de déplacement, on utilisera des allitérations, certes, mais pas nécessairement au même endroit, on rythmera ses phrases, mais en tenant compte des contraintes de la langue française afin de restituer, si faire se peut, la discrète mélodie du texte original. (Brodsky, 1996: 169)

10The sensory dimension of Wilson’s heterolinguistic poetics coheres through its correspondences with the thematic quest for connections and wholeness. This is experienced, both spiritually and bodily, by the characters. Indeed, Gem of the Ocean builds up to a central scene of ritual trance. All the characters except Rutherford Selig, the white peddler, and Caesar, the ruthless local constable, assist Aunt Ester in taking Citizen Barlow through the ordeal that will “wash” his guilt-ridden soul and restore him to the status of “man of the people.” This “soul-washing” ceremony takes place in Aunt Ester’s house. All the participants chant and talk Citizen Barlow into an entranced Middle Passage on a boat he holds in his hand, made of Aunt Ester’s folded Bill of Sale, dating from the time when she was a slave. Aunt Ester hypnotically talks him into cautiously climbing down to the bottom of the slave ship in the dark. After feeling in his flesh the violent whipping and branding and chaining of the slaves, whom Citizen Barlow imagines he sees, after experiencing utter despondency and being passionately told to “live to the fullest”. He comes to the submerged City of Bones with its twelve Gates and meets the drowned man, the man for whose death he feels responsible. This man is none other than the gatekeeper, with the power to give or withhold access to the City of Bones. When he confesses his crime, he is allowed to enter the City of Bones and meet its inhabitants with their “tongues on fire,” (i.e. the slaves who did not make it across the Ocean, who drowned, and who are “dressed in their splendors”) (Wilson, 2003: 66-70). It is thus a very powerful, sensory climactic scene in which the characters’ senses of hearing, sight, touch and even taste coalesce to reach a synaesthetic experience of connection and wholeness.

11The translation of that central scene should encapsulate the very essence of the imaginative power of performance to reach a new level of consciousness. Most of the senses are summoned in a very intense performance that engages the participation of both characters and spectators in an emotional as well as revelatory experience. Hence our peculiar role as translators, since we are not only engaged in translating words on a page, but must be aware of the text as material to be transformed into performance. Our translation practice must thus capture the play’s performative potentialities, enabling its protean meanings. We, as mediating agents, must carry out an act of performative interpretation of the text and of its visual and kinetic potential so that the act of translation itself can become a multisensory experience of reflexive immersion as well as imaginative interpretation.

  • 2 . Words in bold type are used in quotations throughout the article to emphasise certain points.
  • 3 . There are no page numbers as our translation has yet to be published.

12To illustrate this process, we propose to examine a few short excerpts from this scene. The first one focuses on the rhythmic power of language as both the site and the mediating channel of transformation.23

Aunt Ester: Don’t you feel it, Mr. Citizen? Don’t you feel that boat rocking? Just a rocking and a rocking. The wind blowing.


Just a rocking2 and a rocking. The wind blowing and the birds following behind the boat. They follow whenever it go. What is they following for, Mr. Citizen? The wind snapping them sails and the birds following. The birds following and singing and the fish swimming and the wind blowing-

(Citizen gets up and makes a sudden move to balance himself.)

Citizen: It’s moving! The boat’s moving! I feel it moving! The land… it’s moving away.

(Wilson, 2003: 64-65)

Tante Ester : Vous le sentez M. Citoyen ? Vous sentez ce bateau qui tangue ? Qui tangue et qui tangue. Le vent qui souffle


Il tangue et tangue. Souffle le vent et suivent les oiseaux dans le sillage du bateau. Toujours ils le suivent. Pourquoi ils le suivent, M. Citoyen ? Le vent happe les voiles et les oiseaux suivent. Suivent et chantent les oiseaux et nagent les poissons et souffle le vent…

(Citoyen se lève et perd presque l’équilibre.)

Citoyen : Il bouge ! Le bateau bouge ! Je sens qu’il bouge ! La terre… elle s’en va.3

13The hypnotic effect of Aunt Ester’s conjuring up the synaesthetic experience of the Middle Passage is achieved through anaphora (“following” is repeated four times) and rhyming as well as alliterative patterns, repetitive variations in a paratactic speech cadence that recreates the rocking motion of the slave ship “moving.” We felt that translating the various present participles into French participes présents, thus creating a rhyming pattern on [ã], would have resulted in a highly artificial speech pattern that would not reflect the “tossing” effect of the source text. This would have detracted from the highly dynamic effect of the repetition of “a” (“a rocking”), which may seem an archaic language feature, but is nonetheless actually part and parcel of African American Vernacular English. We decided to focus on rhythm and opted for an alternation of inverted syntactic order so as to create a linguistic destabilizing backwards and forwards, up and down movement.

14According to Bible translator Henri Meschonnic, in a translation: “il y a en effet à rendre tout ce que le texte, pas son écriture, nous a donné, et ce n’est pas seulement le sens des mots, c’est toute sa force par son continu de rythme” (2007: 105). And by rhythm he meant l’“organisation du mouvement de la parole” (ibid.). This is all the more relevant as the text is destined to be performed in the rhythmic cadence defined by actors and stage director.

15The syntactic motion we created thus conjures up the rocking movement of the slave ship. The sensory dimension of language (i.e. the rhythm voiced and felt through the wording of Aunt Ester’s litany) is here summoned by characters and translators alike. It thus achieves transformation: both Citizen’s transfiguration into a “man of the people” or the original text’s integration into a new linguistic configuration.

16The crucial importance of speech rhythm in Wilson’s writings was underlined by Marion McClinton, who directed some of his plays, as well as by Phylicia Rashad, who played Aunt Ester in the Broadway production. Both had to grapple with the rhythm of his language to stage or interpret his characters. McClinton mentions “the rhythm of hurt, the rhythm of pain, the rhythm of ecstasy, the rhythm of family” (quoted in Lahr, 2006: ix) that can be felt in Wilson’s plays. The African American historical as well as emotional experience is explored through the very rhythm of the language, be it the recreation of Pittsburgh’s AAVE or in the more formal poetic language Wilson uses in the stage directions. Rashad claims in her “Foreword” to Gem of the Ocean that

August’s characters are defined by speech—the rhythms of speech serve as emotional building blocks that support the progressive movement of the play […] He understood the power of sound and rhythm inherent in words, speech and music. (Rashad, 2006: xxx)

17As the Wilsonian rhythm is indeed inscribed in a textual continuum that alternates between speech and chants, we decided to keep all the explicit and implicit evocations of spirituals, gospel and blues songs in the original language. The trance scene is punctuated with songs that provide an auditory, hypnotic rhythm to induce Citizen Barlow’s mental journey to the City of Bones:

Aunt Ester: You see this boat, Mr. Citizen? It’s called the Gem of the Ocean.

(Aunt Ester hands him the paper boat made from the Bill of Sale.)

You gonna take a ride in that boat



Oh what a day

Eli, Solly and Black Mary (Singing):

To go to the City of the Bones

Aunt Ester (Singing):

Oh what a day

Eli, Solly and Black Mary (Singing):

To go to the City of the Bones

Aunt Ester (Singing):

We’re going to that city

Eli, Solly and Black Mary (Singing):

Going to the City of the Bones.

(Wilson, 2003: 63)

Tante Ester : Vous voyez ce bateau, M. Citoyen ? Il s’appelle Gem of the Ocean, le « joyau de l’océan ».

(Tante Ester lui donne le bateau en papier fabriqué avec son Acte de vente.)

Vous allez embarquer sur ce bateau.


(Elle chante)

Oh what a day

Eli, Solly et Black Mary (en chœur) :

To go to the City of the Bones

Tante Ester (Elle chante) :

Oh what a day

Eli, Solly et Black Mary (En chœur) :

To go to the City of the Bones

TANTE ESTER (Elle chante) :

We’re going to that city

Eli, Solly et Black Mary (En chœur) :

Going to the City of the Bones.

  • 4 . August Wilson may have had a particular song and rhythm in mind when he wrote it.

18If the lyrics and the structure are reminiscent of spiritual songs such as “Happy Day,” the musical rhythm is left to the imagination of the stage director. Yet it is interesting to note that the syntactic variation “the City of the Bones” can only be found in this musical passage.4 The lyrics are simple enough to be understood by most readers / spectators and never convey any essential new element that should then be somehow translated. This can be done either with some surtitling device or through one of the characters repeating the message in French, before or after the sung lines, as indeed we do for the name of the ship. Since Negro spirituals, gospel and blues have been integrated into French culture, their untranslated transfer works as an easily recognizable reminder of the original tradition they come from. Moreover, their untranslated integration into the French text creates a linguistic tension that serves as a reminder of the play’s cultural territory. Their musicality in English, their sensuous effect on the audience, add up to the sensory experience of connection with African American rhythms. Through their singing, the ritual participants create a soundscape that imaginatively propels them into the past, thus unifying them as an “acoustic community” (Schine). Jennifer Schine describes an “acoustic community” as “one in which sound functions positively to create a unifying relationship with the environment. For this characteristic to occur, it is necessary for sound to be heard clearly within the area and to reflect the community” (Schine: n.p.). Translating such intense cultural “soundmarks” as spiritual and blues songs into French would have fractured the rhythmic musicality of the verbal flow and, in so doing, disrupted the coherence / cohesion of the fictional “acoustic community.”

19Syntactic rhythm can also be generated by a syncopated alternation of seemingly erratic singular and plural forms:

Citizen: I see the people. They chained to the boat.

Aunt Ester: Them people you see got some powerful gods, Mr. Citizen. But they ain’t on the boat with them. They don’t know to call him on their own. God don’t answer to no one man. God answer to the all. All the people. They need all the people. Them people you see is without God. When we get to the City of Bones I’m gonna show you what happen when all the people call on God with one voice. God has beautiful splendors.

Citizen: They all look like me. They all got my face!

(Wilson, 2003: 66)

Citoyen : Je vois les gens. Ils sont enchaînés au bateau.

Tante Ester : Ces gens que vous voyez ils ont des dieux puissants, M. Citoyen. Mais ils ne sont pas avec eux sur le bateau. Seuls ils savent pas comment l’appeler. Dieu ne répond pas à un seul homme. Dieu répond quand tous appellent. Tous les gens. Ils ont besoin de tous les gens. Ces gens que vous voyez sont sans Dieu. Quand nous arriverons à la Cité des Os je vous montrerai ce qui se passe quand tous les gens unissent leur voix pour appeler Dieu. Dieu a de multiples splendeurs.

Citoyen : Ils me ressemblent tous ! Ils ont tous mon visage !

20Citizen is facing the chained slaves and Aunt Ester tells about their spiritual deprivation as long as they remain isolated individuals. The syntactic rhythm is cadenced by the paratactic structure of the speech, which mirrors the awed description of the spiritual revelation. Alliterative (in [ð]) and anaphoric (God) patterns create a rhythmic soundscape that manages to convey Citizen Barlow’s intense physical and psychic experience. Our translation tries to recreate a similar, paratactic soundscape by inserting alliterations (in [s]) and repetitions (gens, Dieu). What is obvious in this passage, and has to be heard in French too, is the coexistence of God in the singular with its Christian inscription and gods in the plural, the powerful gods they had in Africa: “Dieu ne répond pas à un seul homme […] Ils ont besoin de tous les gens”. Contrary to what Amanda Rudolph writes (2003: 562), they are not in any way opposed or contrasted but are in fact merged, and just as the boat is rocking, here we move seamlessly back and forth from plural to singular: they / he are / is one and the same. In the last line of this excerpt the plural pronoun “they” clearly refers to the people on the boat, but since gods are also mentioned in the preceding lines, a moment of uncertainty is not ruled out. This conveys the idea that men and (here African) god(s) look alike (“They all look like me”). The syntactic and metaphorical ambivalence undermines the dominant biblical symbolism and intertextuality enabling the text to instil Afrocentric elements and, by so doing, relocate the spiritual center.

There are and have always been two distinct and parallel traditions in black art: that is, art that is conceived and designed to entertain white society, and the art that feeds the spirit and celebrates the life of black America. (Wilson, quoted in Gates, Jr., 1997: 44)

21The same palimpsestic dynamics of cross-cultural references can be found in the next excerpt:

Citizen: The stars. Where are the stars?

(Citizen begins to sing an African lullaby to himself, a song his mother taught him. Then he is thirsty.)

Water. I’m thirsty. I need some water.


Citoyen : Les étoiles. Où sont les étoiles ?

(Citoyen se met à chanter une berceuse africaine, une chanson que sa mère lui a apprise. Puis il a soif.)

De l’eau. J’ai soif. Je veux de l’eau.


(Overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of the city and the people with their tongues on fire, Citizen Barlow, now reborn as a man of the people, sits down and begins to cry Solly removes his mask. The journey is over. Black Mary comes over and wipes citizen’s brow. She unbuttons his shirt and begins to wipe his chest.)

(Wilson, 2003: 70)

(Submergé par la beauté de la cité et des gens à la langue en feu, Citoyen Barlow, qui vient de renaître un homme de son peuple, s’assied et se met à pleurer. Solly retire le masque. Le voyage est terminé. Black Mary vient essuyer le visage de Citoyen. Elle défait les boutons de sa chemise et lui essuie la poitrine.)

22The City of Bones, the mythical place made of the drowned slaves’ bones, is where all voices converge into one voice, where they can make themselves heard and become a reunited people instead of being people in the plural. This is another translation issue. The word “people” is pervasive in the play and is at times clearly a reference to a juxtaposition of individuals (les gens, des gens) but sometimes a collective entity (le peuple). There is a passage in Act One when Aunt Ester contrasts the unreliability of “people” and the all-encompassing power of God, and there we felt the most adequate translation would be les hommes. In the quoted excerpt, Citizen Barlow is reborn as “a man of the people.” Now the same idiomatic expression also exists in French, un homme du peuple; yet the phrase is here made literal, thus losing its idiomatic meaning to refer to “the people” in a historical, cultural and spiritual continuum. We have to express collective belonging but we also have to express Barlow’s sense of having found his people and the place from which he can speak. Therefore, our translation renders it as un homme de son peuple.

23In the first part of the excerpt, Citizen Barlow’s questions convey his distress, his sense of being cut off and cast away, which is what happened to those transported Africans. However, when all is lost, singing alone remains, and what Citizen Barlow sings to himself is an African lullaby that takes him back to his childhood. The shift from spiritual songs to the African song signals the recognition of his origins as the born-again Citizen symbolically recovers the sound and rhythm of his lost heritage.

24Later, Citizen sees his people with their “tongues on fire,” a biblical image for the gift of understanding other languages that is bestowed upon the apostles at Whitsun. Thus they are turned into as many translators and interpreters. As used in the play, the words become literal and convey the sensory experience of the presence of the past and of “speaking in tongues” or recovering a lost language. Both sounds and images become mnestic catalysts through which the past is violently made present, and subsequently embedded in Citizen Barlow’s consciousness. The rebirth of the African American “citizen” thus becomes a journey back in time, and the past that is retrieved is both collective and personal.

25As Walter Benjamin might have argued, August Wilson’s plays, and Gem of the Ocean in particular, show that a “mimetic relation to the world, to the individual, and to others” (Puetz, “entry on mimesis”) has to be restored to retrieve a sense of “sensuous similarity” (Benjamin, 1986: 336). This process of sensory mimesis is enacted in the “soul-washing” ritual led by Aunt Ester, as the individual Citizen is initiated into the imaginative and embodied “bone” architecture of his “people”’s collective memory. It is performed on stage as both the actors’ bodies and their voices experience and convey the renewed connections with the world of senses. We can testify that it also occurs in the process of translation. Translators and authors alike are thus embroiled in the multisensory recreation of experience and language, a dynamic poiesis beyond the necessary mimesis achieved.

Haut de page


Corpus texts

Wilson, August, 2003, Gem of the Ocean, New York, Theatre Communications Group.

Works cited

Beavers, Herman, 2010, August Wilson: Completing the Twentieth Century Cycle, Iowa City, University of Iowa Press.

Benjamin, Walter, 1986, Reflections, trans. Edmund Jephcott, New York, Schocken Books.

Bigsby, Christopher, 2007, The Cambridge Companion to August Wilson, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Brodsky, Françoise, 1996, “La traduction du vernaculaire noir : l’exemple de Zora Neale Hurston”, TTR : traduction, terminologie, rédaction, vol. 9, n° 2, p. 165-177.

Center Theatre Group, 2012-13, Century Cycle. A Compendium. (accessed 12th July 2016).

Elam, Harry Justin Jr, 2006, The Past as Present in the Drama of August Wilson, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press.

Fournier-Guillemette, Rose-Marie, 2011, De la traduction du vernaculaire noir américain chez Hurston, Walker et Sapphire, Mémoire de maîtrise, UQAM. (accessed 12th July 2016).

Gates Jr., Henry Louis, February 1997, “The Chitlin Circuit,” New Yorker, p. 44-55.

Grutman, Rainier, 1997, Des langues qui résonnent, L’hétérolinguisme au XIXe siècle québécois, Montréal, Fides-CETUQ.

Holloway, Karla F. C., 1987, The Character of the Word: The Texts of Zora Neale Hurston, coll. Contributions in Afro-American & African Studies, New York, Greenwood.

Isherwood, Charles, October 3, 2005, “August Wilson, Theater’s Poet of Black America, Is Dead at 60”, New York Times. (accessed 12th July 2016).

Johnson, Andrea, 2011, Discovering Aunt Ester in Gem of the Ocean by August Wilson, MA dissertation, Gainesville, University of Florida. (accessed 12th July 2016).

King James Bible, (accessed 12th July 2016), trad. Louis Segond, (accessed 12th July 2016).

Lahr, John, 2006, “Preface to Gem of the Ocean”, second edition, New York, Theatre Communications Group, p. vii-xxvi.

Lavoie, Judith, 2002, Mark Twain et la parole noire, Montréal, Les Presses de l’Université de Montréal.

Lewis, Barbara, 2010, “Miss Tyler’s Two Bodies. Aunt Ester and the Legacy of Time”, in Alan Nadel (ed.), August Wilson Completing the Twentieth-Century Cycle, Iowa City, University of Iowa Press, p. 145-151.

Little, Jonathan, 2000, Twentieth-Century American Dramatists, Detroit, Gale.

Lyons, Bonnie & Plimpton, George (interviewers), Winter 1999, “August Wilson, The Art of Theater” No. 14, The Paris Review, n° 153. (accessed 12th July 2016).

Meschonnic, Henri, 2007, Éthique et politique du traduire, Lagrasse, Verdier.

Nadel, Alan, 2010, “Beginning Again, Again – Business in the Streets in Jitney and Gem of the Ocean”, in Alan Nadel (ed.), August Wilson Completing the Twentieth-Century Cycle, Iowa City, University of Iowa Press, p. 14-29.

Puetz, Michelle, “mimesis”, in Theories of Media Keywords Glossary, The University of Chicago, - _ftn12 (accessed 12th July 2016).

Rashad, Phylicia, 2006, “Foreword”, in August Wilson, Gem of the Ocean, second edition, New York, Theatre Communications Group, p. xxvii-xxxi.

Rudolph, Amanda M., May 2003, “Images of African Traditional Religions and Christianity in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone and The Piano Lesson”, Journal of Black Studies (Sage), 33:5, p. 562-575.

Schine, Jennifer, “Movement, Memory & the Senses in Soundscape Studies”, (accessed 12th July 2016).

Shafer, Yvonne, Fall 1989, “An Interview with August Wilson”, Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, 4, p. 161-173.

Suchet, Myriam, 2009, Outils pour une traduction postcoloniale. Littératures hétérolingues, Paris, Éditions des archives contemporaines.

Vidal, Bernard, 1994, “Le vernaculaire noir américain : Ses enjeux pour la traduction envisagés à travers deux œuvres d’écrivaines noires, Zora Neale Hurston et Alice Walker”, TTR : traduction, terminologie, rédaction vol. 7, n° 2, p. 165-207. (accessed 12th July 2016).

Wilson, August, 1988, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, New York, Plume.

, September 1990, “I don’t want to hire nobody just ‘cause they’re black”, Spin Magazine, p. 70-71.

, 1992, Two Trains Running, New York, Plume.

, 1999, King Headley II, New York, Theatre Communications Group.

, 2007, Radio Golf, New York, Theatre Communications Group.

Haut de page


1 . The name “Ester” also recalls the Biblical figure who, as a young Jewish bride to a Persian King, saved her Hebrew people from the exterminating wrath of one of his counsellors.

2 . Words in bold type are used in quotations throughout the article to emphasise certain points.

3 . There are no page numbers as our translation has yet to be published.

4 . August Wilson may have had a particular song and rhythm in mind when he wrote it.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Valérie Bada et Christine Pagnoulle, « August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean: Translating Multilayered Sensory Experience », Palimpsestes [En ligne], 29 | 2016, mis en ligne le 17 mai 2017, consulté le 17 février 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/palimpsestes.2294

Haut de page


Valérie Bada

Valérie Bada enseigne la traduction et les civilisations anglophones à l’université de Liège. Ses domaines de recherche sont la traductologie, les études sur le trauma et la mémoire, le théâtre post-colonial et africain-américain. Elle a publié des articles sur le théâtre post-colonial et un livre sur le théâtre africain-américain (Mnemopoetics: The Representation of Slavery in Contemporary African American Drama).

Christine Pagnoulle

Christine Pagnoulle est traductrice professionnelle et a enseigné la littérature anglaise et la traduction à l’université de Liège. Ses domaines de recherche sont la traductologie et la littérature post-coloniale, en particulier du Canada et des Caraïbes (avec plusieurs publications sur Kamau Brathwaite). Outre des articles et quatre recueils d’essais (en traductologie), elle a publié des traductions de poèmes pour des magazines et des anthologies, ainsi qu’un recueil de poèmes de Michael Curtis. Sa version française de Dream Haiti de K. Brathwaite a été publiée chez Mémoire d’encrier en 2013 et mise en scène par la Compagnie AWA (Paris), sous le titre Et ce n’était pas qu’on allait quelque part.

Articles du même auteur

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

Tous droits réservés

Haut de page
  • Logo Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle
  • OpenEdition Journals