This article originally appeared in French in the January 4 issue of the Haitian daily newspaper Le Nouvelliste. The translation was provided by Carolyn Shread, language instructor in French at Mount Holyoke College.
By Dieulermesson Petit Frère
Carolyn Shread teaches in the French department at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. She recently translated Les Rapaces by Haitian novelist Marie Vieux-Chauvet into English as The Raptors. Having participated in several of professor Shread’s class discussions in her course on Chauvet, I invited her to talk about her work.
Dieulermesson Petit Frère: Tell us how you came to Haitian literature and to Les Rapaces in particular.
Carolyn Shread (C.S.): It all started with a beautiful painting on a poster advertising a course during the year of the bicentennial of the Haitian revolution when I was still a doctoral student at the University of Massachusetts (UMass). Without that poster, I might never have set off on the fascinating adventure that has been the discovery of Haitian literature, culture and history. It was in the context of this course that I went to look for the works of a writer I had heard about in Paris, but whose novels I had not been able to find in any bookstore: Marie Chauvet. Finally, on the 12th floor of the W.B. Dubois library at UMass I met up with Les Rapaces.
D.PF: Why did you decide to translate this novel into English?
C. S.: The idea of translating Les Rapaces into English occurred to me only subsequently when I began a master’s in translation studies after completing the doctorate. Over the course of three years I considered this short 120 page text under every angle in translation studies. Having a text to which I could refer to explore any theoretical concept was very fruitful, especially in terms of the resistance and challenges the text made to translation theories.
D.PF: But, unless I am wrong, this was not the first work that you translated?
C.S: No, not at all. I began to translate as soon as I completed my undergraduate degree at Oxford University. The first translation commission I received was from the owner of a small Persian carpet shop. It was a poetic text about flying carpets, which strikes me as very apt, given how far afield translation has taken me.
Since then, these carpets have taken me to the most beautiful countries, including that of the psychoanalyst Bracha Ettinger and French philosopher Catherine Malabou. Recently I translated three of Malabou’s books, the last of which is titled Ontology of the Accident: An Essay on Destructive Plasticity. Translation and plasticity are a good match...
D.PF: Tell us a little about Les Rapaces. What in particular attracted you in this novel?
C.S: Despite the apparent simplicity of this allegory – a cat, a rat, the police – I am still as fascinated as ever by the complexity of the analysis in Les Rapaces. As a presentation of the workings of a society – and a process defined by violence – this tale also conveys a vision of the possibility of transformation. No doubt this is the hope that has kept me near this text for so long. As a student of literature, I share a fundamental question with the author: what can literature do for society? Does literature have the ability to contribute to, narrate or initiate transformation?
D. PF: You are British and live in the United States, so I assume that you are not familiar with Haitian life and culture. How did you bring the novel into English knowing that certain cultural references would escape you? Did you take into account the slippages between the French, which is the source language, Kreyòl, which is also present in the text and English, the target language?
C.S: You are quite right. I do not know Haitian culture well, and I knew even less about it seven years ago. That was what led me to pursue my research and travel to Haiti; it is also the grounds of my fundamental question: by what right do I translate this text? But on the other hand, someone pointed out that no one else has done this work and that if we wait for the ideal translator, it might be a long time coming. This is the Achilles heel of all translations, and yet so few translations exist. So isn’t the question rather: how can we increase the number of translations? At least this translation exists, as does my Haitian apprenticeship. As for the issue of the languages within the text, yes, the Kreyòl in the French was emphasized in the English translation thanks to my Haitian collaborators, notably my current interlocutor!
D. PF: Is the translation the same text or rather another one that translates your own impressions of the work?
C.S: Neither text nor critical work; it is quite simply a translation. Translations have the same right to exist as source texts. Our cultures have a hard time accepting translation as a category; there is always a nostalgia for an origin, a fixed identity. As with any creative work, a translation requires choices and implicates change and movement. No translation can ever be the same text: this notion is illusory and derives from an ideology that prefers the myth of self-generation to the complexities of collaboration.
D.PF: You are now teaching Les Rapaces at Mount Holyoke College in the United States, what made you choose this novel for your class?
C.S: Many of my students in this French language course have read no other literature in French before Les Rapaces. It is a slightly unorthodox choice, and is in no sense easy, as it requires significant work on the part of the reader, yet there are several reasons why I find this a fruitful initiation to literature in French. First of all, before reading the novel, we engage in a research process together: the students give presentations on the geography, ecology, history, languages and religions of Haiti. This preparatory work lays the groundwork for reading through the study of a Francophone country. This choice allows me to emphasize the fact that French is the language of many countries outside of France, while also insisting on the point that in the case of Haiti, French is only the language of about 10 to 15% of the population, which always surprises the students who often view Haiti as a Francophone country. Reading Les Rapaces thus allows me to challenge certain assumptions about the Francophone world.
D. PF: Marie Vieux-Chauvet has attracted an increasingly wide audience on account of both her style and the subjects she deals with in her novels – taboo subjects – is there anything in particular in her work that has impressed you?
C.S: Her courage, her conviction, her engagement. The fact that she spoke as a woman, to show us specifically how sexual violence is inherent to power structures, at the point when no one was talking about it. Her sensitivity to the resistance of women, even when the margins of manoeuver are constrained. The first part of Les Rapaces opens with women who spit on the dictator’s flag; it closes with an old woman who has the courage to stand her ground and speak: “If I know where all the water in this country is going, no one and nothing will stop me from saying so. And saying so again” (p. 38). That’s no small thing, and it’s exactly what the author did, and paid for with her exile to the U.S.
D. PF: Who are Les Rapaces, the Raptors, then, for you?
C.S: The raptors are all those who believe, as Duvalier himself did, that gratitude is cowardice, while in fact it is our strength, our life force. There are raptors everywhere and I live in the country that specializes in raptor systems. And yes, of course, this analysis of a recycling of violence that is structured so that some people suffer systematically more than others is just as relevant today.
D. PF: How did your image of Haiti develop after reading this novel? And what has changed since then, since we know that you have already visited Haiti on two occasions?
C.S: Earlier I said that translation has carried me far. At the beginning, the most worrying question, and the one that remains so in fact, is the following: by what right do I translate this text? I thought about what Gayatri Spivak argues in her article “The Politics of Translation,” namely that in order to translate, one must live intimately with the language and culture of the text. Does this mean that the desire for discovery is not enough? Ever since I began this venture, I have been moving closer to Haiti, through reading, encounters and friendships.
I should add that the idea of translating this text came to me when I realized that the Haitian-American students in the elementary French courses I taught at UMass could not access Haitian literature written in French. As second or third generation immigrants, they speak English and Kreyòl at home, but do not know French: this translation intends to help them discover this national heritage. Furthermore, one of the most powerful moments in the translation of this text was when young Adélia’s “merci” slipped from an English “thank you” to a Kreyòl “mèsi.” That was when I began to acknowledge the place of Kreyòl in the French text within the framework of the translation, through the addition of Kreyòl within the English. The Kreyòl in this translation is the bridge that connects these students in the diaspora to their Haitian heritage.
D. PF: What is your view of Haitian literature, which I note has a strong presence on your bookshelves?
C.S: I have hardly begun to explore the full wealth of Haitian literature. I would even say that I have not yet finished reading this first work. I find that I read more and more slowly.
D. PF: You have already translated three texts by Catherine Malabou as well as Marie Vieux-Chauvet and you are already working on another book. Apparently, you translate only women. Is this a choice, or just chance?
C.S: It’s a choice. For too long, at Oxford, I read only men, moreover, the French texts I read were exclusively those of writers from France. Fortunately, since then, I have been able to hear other voices. We need women’s stories, since we do not have enough of them. If we are going to change the history we live, we need to make room for her stories, for stories from elsewhere.
D. PF: Les Rapaces is not yet in the public domain, so you cannot publish the translation; what do you intend to do with it?
C.S: I shall wait for the day when someone will approach me about publishing it. It’s a strategy that has worked for me in the past. Having done everything possible to try to publish this text in English, now is the time to wait, even as I note that ironically I have published five articles on a translation that does not yet exist in the public domain.
D.PF: Do you intend to translate other Haitian authors in the future?
C.S: For the time being, I have no translation projects for either Haitian literature or anything else. Translation is a siren’s call, a call to the other, one which cannot be anticipated.