The First of May | Louis Paul Boon

On International Workers’ Day, A Giridhar Rao shares a translation of The First of May’, prose poetry by Louis Paul Boon.

ILD wikipedia Giris translated poem

Now I must write with my best pen, my summer pen, my Sunday pen. Adorn it with a red ribbon, and dip it in ink with which are written only words of joy, of sunshine and happiness, of freedom and cheerfulness;

Unfortunately, it is a pen I am not used to. I write with it the way I will later march in the procession: a little strangely, a little lost in the celebrations. Forgive me.

Great joy and great happiness always make me a bit quiet. I pinch my arm to know that I am not dreaming. I see so many flags during the march and I know that there’s my own flag: the flag that I always carry by myself in my heart, day after day.

I feel again then, the First of May, that I’m not alone, that I have not fought all alone for a little happiness in life, for some justice between us, for a better house, and a kind wife who is not exhausted by too much work.

This touches me deeply. Not everything is in vain, I silently think, deep in my heart. Hundreds, thousands, millions throughout the world think like me, carry the same flag in their hearts. And the First of May, the most beautiful day of the year, they come out with that flag, and march in processions, everywhere, in Paris and in Moscow and in London, and in my own little village of Waaiendijk.

There are people everywhere who think like me, who, like me, reap the fruits of what our parents achieved: the 8‑hour day, the 5‑day week, the paid holidays. And those are only the visible things, a few concrete things.

Because the rest is much more. The freedom to write what I think, the right to be who I am, the ability to look at the king, emperor or pope with my hands in my pockets. Not having to take off my cap if I don’t want to, not having to kneel and beg for bread crumbs, or a small place in heaven.

We no longer have to beg, we have acquired everything ourselves.

For that, thousands upon thousands march beside one another, under the red flag of the First of May. I should actually rejoice, I know, but I am too emotional and remain silent: for respect towards myself.

Tomorrow, the day after, my little flag will again lie folded, deep in my heart’s pocket, but today it is unfurled and flutters red, red, red, throughout the world.

Note on the text

This is an English translation of an Esperanto translation of the Belgian Dutch original. As an easy-to-learn language with a flexible word order, Esperanto has often functioned as an effective relay language”. 

I first read Jakvo Schram’s Esperanto translation of this prose poem in 2008 on his blog and translated it into English for my blog. Schram had first published his translation in Sennaciulo (May 2004, PDF), the magazine of the left-wing Esperanto organisation Sennacieca Asocio Tutmonda (World Anational’ Association. More here: SAT).

Neither his blog nor the magazine mentioned the source of the prose poem. Finally, in 2024, an Esperantist friend in The Netherlands tracked it down: Louis Paul Boon, De eerste mei”, Vooruit, May 1962. The poem also appears in Boon’s collection, Boontjes 1962 (1992).

About the Author

A Giridhar Rao is an MA in Education faculty member at Azim Premji University. He teaches courses on multilingualism in education. He is also active in the Esperanto movement, and is a member of the Akademio de Esperanto. He blogs in English on Bolii and in Esperanto at Lingvo kaj vivo