The Word Gulag

            They've opened a new gulag. The word gulag.

            I go there every week, taking with me a shopping bag containing some
fresh fruit, a bar of soap and a couple of tins of condensed milk. I call to a prisoner at random, then wait in the visitors' room with the gesturing crowd. The words file one by one out of a little door and stand in front of us on the other side of the wire. Pale. Trembling. Haggard. Shattered.

            Talk! barks the guard as he patrols the corridor that divides us, banging the grill with his keys.

            No one responds. Not the words because their jaws are visibly broken. Nor the visitors because, as they suddenly realise - they really should have got this earlier - the gulag has taken away their best words.

           Visit's over, the guard shouts, drawing a curtain we hadn't noticed before.

           Some barely audible words burst out, from which side of the grill no one could tell. Probably words of goodbye.


Translation notes

Abdellatif Laâbi spent many years in prison so this powerful, small prose poem is written from personal experience.

Translating a prose poem is a very different process from translating a poem. The key thing is getting the syntax right - not that syntax doesn't matter in a poem, but in a prose poem syntax is what structures the poem.

In French, this poem sounds very colloquial; its bare understatement is what gives the poem its force, so trying to make the synatax sound as 'natural' as possible in our version, is what took up most of our time.

We also - as always - spent a lot of time discussing the title. The literal translation of the French title is 'the gulag of words' but, of course, that sounds very awkward in English. So we went with 'The Word Gulag' because of its ambiguity: it can mean 'the gulag of words', 'the word-gulag' and 'the word "gulag"'.

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