Wandering and Wading into Translation

Do you ever go to bookstores and wander? I do. I can spend hours looking at the spines of books, careening forward to read a low-laying title, kneeling and stooping to make sure I didn’t miss a book, maybe the book that I will eventually leave with. Last week I went to the bookstore to feel better, and to reflect. After picking up and weighing a half-dozen books, caressing their covers and leafing through the first pages, I left. I didn’t buy anything. I didn’t want what the bookstore had, I wanted what it didn’t.

When I looked at the shelves I couldn’t see the books that were there, only the ones that weren’t. I don’t mean the books that have never leapt off a manuscript page and into the printing press, I don’t mean those that die, still-born in the minds of their authors, or those that fall out of the purview of the bookstore itself. I wanted the books that have not been translated, the books that I know other people want to read, the books that will speak multitudes to people if they could just speak the same language. I want to stress that I wasn’t hallucinating, I wasn’t seeing things––or not seeing them as the present case might prove.

It all began the night before as I was outlining notes for the dissertation chapter I am currently writing. At the time I was overcome by a feeling of anxiety, how would I be able to finish my dissertation? The road is long and arduous, and I am but at the beginning. To comfort myself, I rifled through the closet and pulled out my bound undergraduate and masters theses. Although these two projects took only a couple of months to compile, they felt as monumental to me then as the dissertation does now.

As I started to read them both, I noticed that I was obsessed by the question of translation. My undergraduate self, frustrated with my incomplete mastery of the French language, refused to read translations. I had to read the original. I had to translate it myself. I had to know what the words meant in two tongues, my own and this prosthetic one that I had been cultivating for a number of years. In that footnote so familiar to historians, critics and writers working with translations where you say “all translations in the text are my own unless otherwise noted” I made sure to say that no other translations would be mentioned because I wanted to “stress that translations are merely a stand-in for the French text, and I have tried to maintain the same “feel” of the text, but cannot help to think that all translations fall short of the original text and its authority.”

It’s funny to me that in such a declarative sentence, such a forceful statement, that I wasn’t even sure of myself. My own work was faulty, a lie. My advisor was kind enough not to point this out to me, maybe hoping that I would come back to it later. And so, I am.

At the time, I was concerned that the translations I was reading were inadequate, retrograde, or that they were, to use the most vaguely damning judgement to ever be cast about translations, “unfaithful.” I now know that none of these judgements were fair. For my undergraduate thesis I was working on the poetics of the Guadeloupian writer, Myriam Warner-Vieyra, whose novel Juletane was published in 1982 and shortly after translated into English by one of the most influential translators of Caribbean fiction in French, Elizabeth “Betty” Wilson, who also translated “First Prize” and “Passport to Paradise” from Warner-Vieyra’s collection Failed Women. As a matter of fact, Warner-Vieyra’s first novel As the Sorcerer Said… was translated into English by the much-celebrated UK academic and translator, Dorothy S. Blair. Apart from these translations, my would-be-MA-advisor French professor exposed me to many translations from the Heinemann and Longman African Writers and Caribbean Writers Series, which included important titles like Ferdinand Oyono’s Houseboy and Mariama Bâ’s So Long a Letter. This early exposure to translation fueled my reading; I craved everything, especially that which had not yet been translated.

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Elizabeth Wilson and Dorothy S. Blair translations of Myriam Warner-Vieyra

I spent many hours in the University of Maryland library staring at the PQ stacks, coveting all of the books that I could not yet read. I wanted to know what was inside their covers, wanted to get lost in their narratives, and wanted to share my experiences with others.

***

            When I began my master’s degree I rejected translations. I didn’t need them anymore, and they had nothing to offer that I didn’t already know. The only way that I can pardon the hubris of my younger self is to remember how insecure I was, how my insecurities in French were a reaction to being in over my head. Shortly after the first term began, a former professor asked me to translate a couple documents from French into English. They were newspaper ads and descriptions of Rio’s Guanabara Bay. I had done some translating for my undergraduate thesis, but this felt different, I felt like I was helping to convey inaccessible material to new readers rather than waging some kind of internal war with myself.

For years I’ve translated historical documents for either the website A Colony in Crisis: The Saint-Domingue Grain Shortage of 1789, articles for other scholars to be republished, or archival fragments to aid others in their research. In a large sense, I have drifted away from the literature that first caught my attention and my translation practice has been largely in the realm of history.

This blog space is an attempt to return to literature, to pay homage to the translators and writers I’ve come to know only in French or in English via translation. On Friday, I submitted my first literary translation to a press (we’ll see how that goes) and as I’ve been working on my dissertation, literature in translation has drawn me back in. Check back in for quick reviews, books and translations I’m reading at the moment, and my unbridled thoughts on the practice and ethics of translation.

Welcome, and happy reading!

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