Four poems by Alain Mabanckou, translated from the French (Congo-Brazzaville) by Nancy Naomi Carlson

Paradigm by Bette Ridgeway

Translator’s Note

Critically acclaimed Alain Mabanckou, from what is now called Congo-Brazzaville, is persona non grata in his own country for his biting criticism of the dictators and civil wars that continue to ravage his homeland. Better known for his prose than his poetry, Mabanckou’s novels and essays have been translated into a multitude of languages, including English. It is not surprising that Mabanckou has chosen to write his aphorisms as if they were poetry, polished and compact like miniature gems. This lyricism creates tension with what the words themselves are describing—the dire situation of our planet and the beings who inhabit it—thereby underscoring the seriousness of his message.

A loner, the gorilla advances on all fours on dead leaves, inspecting the vegetation as if he were nervous about stepping on infinitesimal species. He rejects the idea that Humankind descended from the apes, otherwise why has he, the gorilla, remained at the animal stage?

Solitaire, le gorille avance à quatre pattes sur les feuilles mortes, scrutant la végétation comme s’il appréhendait de marcher sur des espèces infini-tésimales. Il refuse l’idée que l’Homme descend du singe, sinon pourquoi, lui le gorille, est-il demeuré au stade animal?

Nature, in its own way, shapes the surroundings, but the human hand is there, active. What’s the difference between this natural hill and the one arising from the whims of Humankind which thinks we shouldn’t simply interpret nature, but transform it?

La nature, à sa manière, façonne les environs, mais la main de l’homme est là, active. Quelle différence entre ce monticule naturel et celui né des caprices de l’Homme qui pense qu’il ne faut pas simplement interpréter la nature, mais la transformer?

The sound of a power saw could be heard from a distance: someone was sawing the trunk of a tree right in the middle of the road…And what if he unknowingly was slicing through his own ancestor?

Le bruit d’une scie à moteur s’entendait de loin: quelqu’un sciait le tronc d’un arbre en plein milieu de la route…Et s’il était en train de découper son propre ancêtre sans le savoir?

Tears have the salty taste of a rough sea that no one could soothe, not even our loved ones.

Les pleurs ont le goȗt salé d’une mer agitée que personne ne pourrait calmer, même les proches.


Alain Mabanckou is a prize-winning, world-famous novelist, poet, and essayist from what is now considered Congo-Brazzaville. Considered one of francophone Africa’s most prolific contemporary writers, his many accolades include the Prix de la Société des Poètes Français and the prestigious Grand Prix de la Littérature from the Académie Française. Twice a finalist for the Man Booker Prize, his prose has been translated into close to twenty languages, including Catalan, English, Hebrew, Korean, Polish, and Spanish. The Guardian described him as “one of Africa’s greatest writers” and he was named a 2022 Booker Prize judge. Mabanckou is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and is a frequent guest on radio and TV shows in France and around the globe. The first English translation of his books of poetry, As Long as Trees Take Root in this Earth and Other Poems (Seagull Books, 2021), was an NEA-supported translation project by Nancy Naomi Carlson.

Nancy Naomi Carlson’s translation of Khal Torabully’s Cargo Hold of Stars: Coolitude (Seagull Books, 2021) was the winner of the 2022 Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize and was shortlisted for the Sarah Maguire Translation Prize. She has authored twelve titles (eight translated), including An Infusion of Violets (Seagull Books, 2019), her second full-length poetry collection, which was named “New & Noteworthy” by The New York Times. A recipient of two translation grants from the NEA and decorated by the French government with the French Academic Palms, her work has previously appeared in ACM, as well as in the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day, APR, The Georgia Review, The Nation, The Paris Review, Poetry, The Writer’s Chronicle, and the Poetry Society of America’s Visiting Poet series. She serves as the Translations Editor for On the Seawall.

During a four-decade career, Bette Ridgeway has exhibited her work with over eighty museums, universities and galleries, including the Palais Royale in Paris and the Embassy of Madagascar. Awards include Top 60 Contemporary Masters, the Leonardo DaVinci Prize, and the Oxford University Alumni Prize at the Chianciano Art Museum, in Tuscany. Ridgeway’s permanent public placements include The Mayo Clinic and the Federal Reserve Bank, along with numerous private collections. Many books and publications have featured her work, among them International Contemporary Masters and 100 Famous Contemporary Artists. Ridgeway has also authored several books about her art and process.