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Translation in History Lecture Series: The politics of rewriting Haitian translation

By ucyow3c, on 19 March 2015


Written by Joanne Tapper, Translation Theory and Practice MA student

Tower of Babel illustration

What can we learn from practical investigations of the relationship between postcolonial translation theory and postcolonial writing?

Translation can never be purely aesthetic and will always remain complicated by ideological problems, argued Professor Andrew Leak (UCL French), as he gave the final lecture of this term’s Translation in History Lecture Series. Consequently, both translation theory and postcolonial studies are inherently political, embedded as they are within cultural systems.

He went on to quote from translation theorist Maria Tymaczko’s interrogation of the relationship between postcolonial translation and postcolonial writing, and framed the beginning of his lecture within the context of André Lefevere’s work, who stresses the political and ideological natures of rewriting: “rewriters adapt, manipulate the originals they work with to some extent, usually to make them fit in with the dominant, or one of the dominant ideological and poetological currents of the time.”

However, a kind of rewriting, not considered by Lefevere – but one that this lecture looked at in detail – was that of authors rewriting their own work. In order to do this, Professor Leak looked at the case study of a work rewritten for an international and metropolitan readership – Gary Victor’s A l’angle des rues parallèles, first published in Haiti in 2000 and republished in France in 2003.

The novel centres on embittered ex-government employee, Eric, who blames the loss of his job on the finance minister; the plot follows his subsequent killing spree across Port-au-Prince. It contains many fantastical elements but also has plentiful in-text references to real world events, several of which situate the precise timing of the action to between April and May 1999.

Professor Leak went on to explain that, while he is never named, the President who features is clearly identifiable as René Préval, and the same is true for his successor, who matches the physical description of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. These textual masks paradoxically draw one’s attention to the identity of their wearers, a technique (indirection) that has long been a practice of Haitian writers.

A l’angle des rues parallèles was republished by French press Vent d’Ailleurs, now including a short author’s foreword mentioning that changes had been made, but omitting to say that textual variants run to 2,000 words in total, or about 20 pages. These were categorised as:

1) Corrections of typographical and other similar errors.
2) Modifications designed to explicate or elucidate cultural or linguistic particularities that would otherwise remain obscure for a non-Haitian readership.
3) Additions clearly attributable to the author, which fall partly into the second category but which are also primarily intended to reinforce certain aspects of the political ‘message’ of the text.

Professor Leak framed category two within the familiar translation theory debate of domestication/foreignisation, referencing the political implications of whether to bring the reader to the source text, or vice-versa. He argued that the strategy adopted by Victor and his editors in the production of the 2003 edition lies somewhere between the two ends of the scale, giving an example wherein Victor expands on the culturally specific proper names of ‘Avenue John Brown’ and ‘Rue Lamarre’, which would be unfamiliar to readers in France.

Translation theorist, Shoshana Blum-Kulka, writes of the risks of explicating (or ‘interpreting’) in this way, claiming that the resulting ‘redundancy’ of the text may be problematic. Professor Leak explained that this becomes even more intrusive in the instance of first-person narratives, such as that used in Victor’s text.

However, he argued that something interesting is happening here in the didactic tone that this authoritative explication gives the narrative, which takes an important function in the rewriting of the text. He explained that, while it is understandable that Victor should wish to re-orient his text to an international audience – and, indeed, to re-emphasise the political points of the novel – what is important is the way in which he chooses to do this.

The 2003 rewriting also includes a glossary containing 31 definitions, many of which concern Vodou and Creole. Professor Leak gave examples of how the authoritatively didactic tone of narrative again comes into play here, as all definitions are presented as infallible, whether they are defining clear Haitian objects or more complicated concepts such as the “chimère”, a word that has both a traditional Creole meaning and a modern usage. The cumulative effect of this is to reinforce the exegetic authority of both the author and the narrator. The foreword added to the 2013 edition can also be seen to function as a kind of authorial endorsement of Eric’s narrative.

The effect on the reader of this additional bolstering of the narrative’s authority is a willingness to trust the narrator’s statements on the political situation in Haiti under its recent leaders. Indeed, when asked about the book’s reception, Professor Leak stated that it was received more like a news article from Haiti rather than a work of fiction, despite being completely fantastical.

At this point in the lecture, Professor Leak brought in the context of the early 2000s, explaining that one aspect of the opposition to Aristide’s regime was a well organised propaganda machine, and argued that intellectuals (such as Victor) featured as a fig leaf for the G184 – a ‘civil society’ group that was itself a front for Haitian business elites opposed to Artistide. The novel can be seen as one drop in the bucket of propaganda that prepared France and the rest of the world for the events of February 2004, when Aristide was overthrown in a coup.

Professor Leak argued that translation theory can help one appreciate the textual journey of works such as Victor’s. It can apply not only to interlingual translation, but also to postcolonial writing. Of course, economic drivers are worth considering, in terms of the incentive to publish to an international audience and for the text to have a life (and income) outside of its tiny homeland. An excess of explication can indeed be unacceptable from a literary standpoint but, in this instance, the loss is compensated for by the gain in narrative authority, and the transformation of the author into a peritextual authority.

One of the most intriguing points made by Professor Leak was during his references to Boisrond Tonnerre’s preamble to the Haitian declaration of independence. Drawing on the work of Sybille Fischer, he explained that revenge against previous oppressors (in this instance the French colonialists) need not always be achieved through outright physical violence. Since writing was previously prohibited under French colonial rule, he argued that it is in the very act of writing their own name, ‘Haiti’, that the erstwhile slaves could reduce their former masters to a bag of bones.

Find out more about the UCL Translation in History Lecture Series.

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