SESSION 4 – translating haitian literature

Kaiama L. Glover, Deborah Jenson, nadève Menard

MODERATED by njelle hamilton

Are the paratextual materials (introduction/afterword, bibliography, glossary, footnotes) useful to readers?  On occasion, I have received complaints by purists (even among Haitian scholars) who want only the translation of the text, with no added materials to distract their reading. From my first translation, however, I have always assumed that readers who do not read French (or Kreyòl and any other non-English languages) may not have knowledge about the social, literary or historical background. Looking back over my presentations (introduction/afterword) now, I am inclined to think that I included too much background information. It would probably have been better to shorten the presentations and leave to curious readers the effort of informing themselves more about the socio-political background.
– Carrol Coates for H-Haiti

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Kaiama L. Glover specializes in literature of the French-speaking Caribbean with a particular focus on Haitian cultural production. She is the author of Haiti Unbound: A Spiralist Challenge to the Postcolonial Canon (Liverpool 2010); co-editor of Marie Vieux Chauvet: Paradoxes of the Postcolonial Feminine (Yale French Studies 2016) and of the forthcoming Haiti Reader (Duke UP); and translator of Frankétienne’s Ready to Burst (Archipelago Books 2014), Marie Chauvet’s Dance on the Volcano (Archipelago Books 2016), and René Depestre’s Hadriana in All My Dreams (Akashic Books 2017). She is founding co-editor of sx archipelagos: a small axe platform for digital practice and Director of the digital humanities project In the Same Boats: Toward an Afro-Atlantic Intellectual Cartography. She is currently completing “Disorderly Women: On Caribbean Community and the Ethics of Self-Regard,” a monograph concerning wayward literary representations of womanhood in Caribbean prose fiction.

The very concept of a purist – one who calls for things to remain true to their essence and free from adulterating or diluting influence – is "funny" to me when it comes to translation. Yes, the work of the translator is first and foremost to communicate, to carry meaning from a source language to a target language with as much faithfulness and beauty as possible. This, objectively, is our practical goal as translators. Insofar as both faithfulness and beauty are subjective terms, however, I think one would be hard-pressed to refuse the intervention (the influence) of the craftsperson (the translator) as she seeks a balance between the two – faithfulness and beauty, content and aesthetic – for her target-language reader. Inasmuch as we translators hope to render recognizable and even relatable the works (and cultures) we've chosen to translate, I see no betrayal in providing contextual clues and other enhancements of meaning (though there are certainly more and less elegant ways to incorporate such paratextual elements). Because whether we like it or not, English has become the global lingua franca, casting most other languages in its shadow. And as translators into English, we cannot help but be aware of the, shall we say, limitations of the anglophone reading audience. 

This being said, I fully appreciate Coates's ambivalence as regards his desire to encourage "effort" in the hoped-for "curious reader." I take very much to heart Glissant's declaration of "the right to opacity" and its attendant refusal of too-easy preumsuptions about peoples of the so-called Global South. The stakes are arguably high, given the power differential between nations of the English-speaking North Atlantic and places like Haiti, somehow presumed to be at once illegible and too legible. We must be careful as translators of Haitian literature not to turn our source text into an object of study, not to make it a different kind of work by the over-presence of a paratextual frame. Managing that trick – honoring what the original author meant to reveal while demanding effort from the target-language reader – is, I believe, the very core of the art of translation. 

Deborah Jenson is Professor of Romance Studies and Global Health at Duke University. A scholar of "long 19th century" French and Caribbean literature and culture, she also works in the fields of cognitive literary studies and health humanities. Publications include: Beyond the Slave Narrative: Politics, Sex, and Manuscripts in the Haitian RevolutionTrauma and Its Representations: The Social Life of Mimesis in Post-Revolutionary France; Poetry of Haitian Independence (with Doris Kadish and Norman Shapiro); Unconscious Dominions: Psychoanalysis, Colonial Trauma, and Global Sovereignty(with Warwick Anderson and Richard C. Keller); Sarah, A Colonial Novella (with Doris Kadish); and special issues of Yale French Studies and The Global South on Haiti and the broader Caribbean.  Her current monograph project is on the Caribbean critique of emerging brain science and related mental health fields in the late 19th and early to mid 20th century, with a focus on Antenor Firmin, Louis Mars, and Frantz Fanon. 

In early fields of literature from Saint-Domingue / Hayti, I would go so far as to say that paratexts are often what reveal a text to be literature. Political and military leaders of the Haitian Revolution had little discernible “literary” profile, until scholars began to notice such narratological feats as Toussaint Louverture’s channeling of rhetorically-vivid subjectivity through a barely mastered French writing apparatus in his cold cell at the Fort de Joux, to his mentally conjured interlocutor, Napoleon Bonaparte. The literariness of the following passage is conferred not just by the nociceptive drama of the analogy structuring his accusation, but by the spectacular bid for liberty manifested by a voice poured into bits and chunks of unconventionally separated spaces and letters, words whose sense is only clear if they are read out loud:

“A re te abitrerement san montandre, ni me dire pour quoi, an pa re toute mésavaire, piÿer toute ma famille, an general, saisire mé pa pié, et les garde, man bar qué, man voyer nu comme ver de ter, re pan dre de calomni les plusa tros cer mon conte, da pré cé la, je sui an voyer dant les fon du ca chau, nes ce pa coupe la janbre dun quie quin et loui dire marché, nes ce pa coupé la langue et loui dire parlé, nes ce pas an teré un homme vivant?”

[Arresting me arbitrarily, without hearing me out or telling me why, taking all my possessions, pillaging my whole family in general, seizing my papers and keeping them, putting me on board a ship, sending me off naked as an earthworm, spreading the most atrocious lies about me, and after that, I am sent to the depths of this dungeon, isn’t this like cutting off someone’s leg and saying “walk,” isn’t this like cutting out someone’s tongue and saying “talk,” isn’t this burying a man alive?]

For the partially literate affranchi, writing in French is an unsteady scaffold on which to construct a life-or-death, poetically urgent, storyworld, and that is a literary act. Translation and paratext blur together as the necessary developer to reveal the invisible ink.

Let us not forget that the kreyòl “Serment du Bois Caïman,” despite the monumentality of its storied role as the launching oath of the Haitian Revolution, was transcribed as a paratext, a footnote, to Hérard-Dumesle’s classically-inspired French poem “A Travers les sillons” in the 1824 Voyage dans le nord d’Haïti. Within the French poem, an asterisk leads to the bottom of the page, where we read “the meaning of the oracle in the idiom it which it was pronounced”:

Bondié qui fait soleil, qui clairé nous enhaut,

Qui soulevé la mer, qui fait grondé l’orage,

Bon dié la, zot tandé? caché dans youn nuage,

Et la li gadé nous, li vouai tout ça blancs faits!

Bon dié blancs mandé crime, et part nous vlé bienfets

Nadève Ménard is professor of literature at the École Normale Supérieure of Université d’État d’Haïti. She is the editor of Écrits d’Haïti: perspectives sur la littérature haïtienne contemporaine (1986-2006) (Karthala, 2011) and the Journal of Haitian Studies’ special volume on Michel-Rolph Trouillot (2013). She is also the author of Lyonel Trouillot, Les Enfants des héros: étude critique (Champion, 2016) and one of the editors of the forthcoming Haiti Reader (Duke). Translation projects include Gina Ulysse’s Why Haiti Needs New Narratives: A Post-Quake Chronicle (with E. Trouillot, Wesleyan 2015) and the web exhibit Haiti: An Island Luminous (with E. Trouillot, 2016). She is currently working on an English translation of Le Fondateur devant l’histoire by St. Victor Jean-Baptiste and a book manuscript currently titled "Enduring Myths: Haitian Literature and Foreign Scholars." 

I think without question paratextual materials can definitely be useful to readers. Beyond distracting from the reading of the primary text, however, I think the danger is that these materials also add meaning to the text, meaning that is often unintentional.  Beyond explicating certain words, expressions or situations, footnotes and glossaries also signify the text’s foreignness, and in the case of footnotes, they do so repeatedly throughout the reading experience. The translator then must act themselves if continuously calling attention to the text’s foreignness is something they want to do. To my mind, the idea being conveyed is that context clues are not enough to render the text and the culture it represents comprehensible to an outsider. Haiti is just that foreign. It would be interesting to contrast translations of Haitian texts with translations of works intended for a Haitian audience. Are paratextual materials provided as extensively? What does that say about what cultures are expected to know about each other? Which culture is expected to work more to access foreign texts? Which culture can expect to have foreign texts rendered as familiar as possible for them?  Conversely, paratextual materials may also give readers the false impression that the text they are holding is the final answer in terms of the particular country or culture it hails from, when one would hope that it is only the beginning.