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Return to Equinoxes, Issue 2 : Automne/Hiver 2003-2004
Article ©2004, Clint Bruce

Clint Bruce, Brown University

Betraying the Betrayed: Towards a Translation of Cajun Poet Jean Arceneaux

Version française de l'essai
Translations of Jean Arceneaux

If you mention Louisiana to someone from France or Quebec, he or she is likely to remember that the state is home to an ethnic French population: “C’est là où habitent les Cajuns, n’est-ce pas?” Yes, most French-speakers use the English word “Cajun” to designate the Acadians of Louisiana, which they, like most Americans as well, vaguely associate with exotic landscapes and cuisine. The Quebecois and the French do not make much of it, but one must admit the oddity of the word “Cajun” in French. Are there any other proper nouns ending in –un? How do you form the feminine? “Cuisine cajune?” A bit counterintuitive to morphological habit. The evidence is clear: “Cajun,” the term given by other French-speakers to Louisiana’s Francophones, is a shameless loanword from English!

A good French dictionary will shed some light on the matter: “CAJUN n. and adj. – 1885, cajan; phonetic rendering by way of English of the word Acadien, pronounced in Louisiana with a strong accent on the second syllable [cadien] and palatization of di to dj,” the Grand Robert correctly informs us. In other words, “Cajun” passed from French to English, then back to French in an anglicized form. There is reason to wonder at such a tortuous trajectory, especially given that an alternative form, Cadien, more in keeping with French grammar, more respectful of etymology, and more faithful to the term Cajuns themselves use in French, is attested as far back as the 19th century. François Tujague, a French writer living in Louisiana, described “nos bons Cadiens” with little apparent difficulty. Why then does the French-speaking world today, supposedly alarmed by the threat of excessive English influence, cling to such an unattractive Anglicism?

This linguistic incongruity brings us face to face with a regrettable fact of history: from the outset of the French settlement in America, the Acadians have been an afterthought. From the fateful year 1755, when the English began expulsing them from the lands they had worked for more than a century, the Acadians found themselves without a home, scattered along the Atlantic coast and beyond. Several thousand exiles ended up in Louisiana, a Spanish colony since 1763 that became French again long enough for First Consul Bonaparte to sell it to the United States. While the Cajuns lived isolated and relatively unnoticed through the nineteenth century, the twentieth was another story. The petroleum industry, obligatory schooling in English, and improved roads all contributed to their increased Americanization. The French language suffered heavily, and by the 1950s and 1960s very few parents took the pains to teach their children French. It did indeed seem that the Cadiens were becoming Cajuns.

Given these unfavorable circumstances, one can easily understand the difficulties awaiting any Cajun undertaking literary creation in his or her native language, especially as over the years French has retreated into fewer and fewer communicative practices. Some “authorities,” even among the advocates of Louisiana French culture, declared such a thing impossible; Cajun French was essentially an oral language, thus unfit for written expression. In 1980, the publication of Cris sur le bayou : naissance d’une poésie acadienne en Louisiane [Cries on the Bayou: The Birth of Acadian Poetry in Louisiana] proved them wrong. This inaugural anthology showed unequivocally that the Cajun Renaissance, which we can date approximately to the creation of the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL) in 1968, had not failed to sustain quality creative writing in French. Bold, original, and deeply rooted in Louisiana, the texts in Cris sur le bayou expressed a common desire to inscribe the problematic experience of the Louisiana French-speaker confronted with the specter of his own disappearance. All deserve to be read, but for this issue of the journal Equinoxes, I have chosen to present in English translation several poems by the most prolific poet of that collection: Jean Arceneaux.

How might one describe Jean Arceneaux? It is hard to see him clearly in the few existing photographs, for a baseball cap, sunglasses, or Mardi Gras mask invariably hides the face of the alter ego of one of the Cajun Renaissance’s most important leaders. For this Louisiana academic and dynamic cultural activist, the decision to write under a pen name was by no means a thoughtless one. The back cover of his most recent book, Suite du Loup (Perce-Neige, 1998), provides a tantalizing account of this authorial device: born at age 27 during the first Meeting of Francophone Peoples in Quebec, “he returned to Louisiana to work in construction and songwriting in the Marais Bouleur region northwest of Louisiana. He has become a literary persona that allows his alter ego to live exclusively in French at times.”

When I first had the idea of translating into English a few poems by Jean Arceneaux, I was fully aware of his original mission of “living exclusively in French at times.” In today’s irreversibly assimilated Louisiana, writing represents a reprieve, a fragile refuge in the mother tongue, as well as a staunch commitment to defend that language. And this poetry grew, as the reader will see, largely out of resistance against the most harmful effects of Anglicization, namely the withering away of French and the folklorization of local culture. It then follows that translating it into the dominant language is fundamentally an act of pure betrayal.

Though the survival of French seems more or less assured in most parts of Canadian Acadia, literary expression in French is certainly no less important there than in Louisiana. Whence the daunting challenge taken up by the translators of the anthology Unfinished Dreams: Contemporary Poetry in Acadie (Goose Lane, 1990). In their preface, Jo-Ann Elder and Fred Cogswell point out several strategies for mitigating the unavoidable betrayal of the original works. Though they admit the impossibility of translating certain aspects of the texts, they nonetheless propose a number of effective solutions which have guided my own reflection: keeping place-names and other proper nouns in French, putting English borrowings and neologisms in italics, and privileging poetic meaning over literal meaning. Developed according to the demands of the poems, these strategies seek to “make manifest Acadie to the Anglophone reader,” Elder explained at the 2003 annual conference of the Assocation of French Professors of Canadian Colleges and Universities. A dedication to the literature of Acadie motivates one to risk a translation, or, as Elder puts it, “Giving life through translation to these remarkable poetic texts remains a dream that we hope to pursue, as well as a great journey that we share with the artists of modern Acadie.”

The better-established Acadian artists of Canada have little to fear, it would seem, from the “betrayal” of their writings. But I doubted that a Louisiana writer would show similar enthusiasm. My conversation with Jean Arceneaux’s creator confirmed my suspicion. “You have to understand that Jean Arceneaux’s poems where written in French for specific reasons…” he explained. I felt the need to justify the endeavor: it was to be a kind of experiment, the theme of this issue of the journal was in fact “La Trahison,” and the original French texts would appear next to the translations… After all, this project was not without precedent, since Cross-Cultural Communication had published a bilingual edition of his long poem, Je suis cadien (1994). He acquiesced, and I must thank him for his indulgence.

In keeping with the spirit of this issue, nearly all the poems chosen reflect in some way the painful betrayal of the Cajun language and culture, a betrayal that came as much from within the community as it did from Américains. My selection runs the risk of giving a false impression of Jean Arceneaux’s body of work, for his themes run a much wider gamut than the mostly political poems I decided to submit to the difficult passage into English. Honest as they may be, these translations bear witness, ironically enough, to the irreducibility of the originals. The bare meaning survives, and I believe that my efforts will provide enjoyable reading, but the true linguistic content simply cannot make it into English. Given that reality, I will limit myself to the modest ambition that this betrayal of Jean Arceneaux will encourage readers to follow to its source the echo of these rending cries from the bayou and the soul.

"Colonihilisme," "La nouvelle valse du samedi au soir, "190 West," "Chêne vert," "À Larry Ménard et tout le reste," "Schizophrénie linguistique," and "Jeu d’été entêté," first appeared in Cris sur le bayou : Naissance d’une poésie acadienne en Louisiane. "Hé, Américain !" was published in the collaborative volume Acadie Tropicale, and Suite du loup XI is reprinted from Suite du loup : poèmes, chansons et autres textes.

CLINT BRUCE is a Ph.D. student at Brown University


Arceneaux, Jean et al. Cris sur le bayou : Naissance d’une poésie acadienne en Louisiane. Montréal : Intermède, 1980.

----. Acadie Tropicale. Lafayette : Center for Louisiana Studies, 1983.

Arceneaux, Jean. Je suis cadien. Trans. Sheryl St. Germain. Merrick, NY : Cross- Cultural Communications, 1994.

----. Suite du loup : poèmes, chansons et autres textes. Moncton : Perce-Neige, 1998.

Cogswell, Fred and Jo-Ann Elder (trans. and ed.). Unfinished Dreams: Contemporary Poetry of Acadie. Fredericton : Goose Lane, 1990.

Elder, Jo-Ann. «  Comment dire «  l’Acadie  » en anglais?  » Rencontre annuelle de l’APFUCC, mai 2003, Dalhousie University.

Tujague, François. Chroniques louisianaises. Shreveport : Cahiers du Tintamarre, 2003.