In 1979, Octavia Butler’s widely read novel Kindred was published in the United States. The novel tells of a young African-American woman living in California in 1976 who travels back and forth through time. Toggling between 1976 and the years preceding the Civil War, she gives us a fresh look at the brutal racism of the American South. It’s a landmark novel that defies categorization and provides a complex and deeply moving historical account, drawing connections between past and present and stimulating reflection on, among other things, our notions of race, family, and identity. Nevertheless, it was not until 2000—twenty-one years later—that Kindred was translated and released in France by Éditions Dapper as Liens de sang (Bloodlines).
This is just one example of the way books of exceptional merit can be lost between one continent and another, one country and another, one language and another. Fortunately, since the appearance of her first work in 1971, the novels of this outstanding African-American novelist have been translated into more than ten languages. As a Haitian author who writes in French and Creole, my own experience with translation has been much more episodic.
It would be naive to speak of editorial decisions without taking into account power relationships and established patterns of prejudice that undergird the publishing industry, like any other. For in fact the question of which texts are to be translated refers us back to the more general question of the initial selection criteria. Even among books published originally in English, authors of color are in the minority. According to an article published by the New York Times in December 2020, although American publishers have shown more diversity in their editorial decisions during the most recent years, white authors still dominate to a striking extent.1 While non-Hispanic whites constituted 60 percent of the US population in 2018, writers from that segment accounted for 89 percent of published books within the sample considered by the article’s authors. The publishers’ choices reflect ideological and aesthetic leanings, which are informed by racist attitudes that predominate in the society. Texts requiring translation undergo a similar selection process, but other aspects must be considered, in particular the intervening power relationships between the countries involved and their respective languages.
Sadly, it’s easy for publishers to fall into the trap of publishing texts that spread hastily formed impressions of a country and its people and unquestioningly recirculate damaging stereotypes.
Some Anglophone publishers have no interest in offering their readers texts that present a view of the diversity and complexity of the world. For those sincerely interested, on what basis do they choose the books to be translated? Do those publishers have access to books produced outside of a handful of great Western metropolises? Or do they consider only books originally published in places like Paris, Milan, or Madrid?
The hierarchy of nations affects the selection of books to a degree that should not be overlooked. Currently, at least in the case of Haiti, publishers generally choose from the corpus of books by Haitian authors published outside the country, specifically in France or Canada. In no way do I minimize the value of books published beyond Haiti, but I would simply like to underscore the limits of such an approach. Indeed, we can ask ourselves a number of questions. Do the choices of Anglophone editors reflect my country’s literary trends, given that those choices fall almost entirely within the range of Haitian works published elsewhere? To what extent are the literary dynamics present in a book’s country of origin taken into account by Anglophone editors? Typically, such an editor characterizes the translated work as a representative specimen of the country of origin’s literature, when in fact the editor sometimes has no inkling of the literary landscape in question. By way of example, I cite the case of the writer, poet, and playwright Frankétienne, who was long ignored by Anglophone publishers. He was translated into English for the first time in 2003, more than thirty years after his first publication.
After the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, which claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, a number of Haitian books were translated. The catastrophe drew the eyes of the literary world toward Haiti and its writers. Translations, publications, and conference invitations multiplied. The tragedy automatically became an “added value” for Haitian literary production. Very often, publishers’ choices follow in that manner the wave orchestrated by the media after a disaster or a memorable event involving a given country. After the quake, the leading French publishing houses seemed determined to rush works by Haitian authors into publication. Sadly, it’s easy for publishers to fall into the trap of publishing texts that spread hastily formed impressions of a country and its people and unquestioningly recirculate damaging stereotypes. In that regard, books that abound in superficial references to vodou and pile up images of violence and deprivation seem to attract some editors, conveniently reinforcing their narrow perception of the Haitian reality.
It takes a conscious commitment to diversify the array of translated books and to include non-Anglophone Black authors without trying to confine them to pigeonholes. Publishers that prioritize the literary quality of non-Anglophone Black authors more readily avoid the pitfall of creating “special” collections of their works. There’s a great risk that collections so labeled will lead readers to perceive a pecking order, to the detriment of Black authors, as with Gallimard’s famous “Collection Noire,” whose series title pertains not to a type of book but to the countries of origin or the color of the authors’ skin. Despite the fact that this collection has introduced a number of Francophone authors from certain regions of the world to a larger readership, we should still reflect upon the perception that such a segregation engenders.
The translator represents another important element. Their approach to otherness, their command of the target language, their capacity to continually deepen their knowledge of the language and culture of the country of origin: all these are, in fact, fundamental to the translator’s ability to render the nuances of the text. In leaving an imprint on the work, the translator is to some degree involved in the reception of the translated text. The translator’s collaboration with the author affects this process, as well. Obviously, such teamwork is not always attainable, but it facilitates a sensitive and vigilant translation, even though the target language edition remains a rewriting of the initial text.
As a Black, non-Anglophone Haitian woman writer, I write about my personal world in my own languages (Creole and French) in order to move toward other people. With no concern for what a prospective Anglophone editor might think of my texts. Furthermore, the published book no longer belongs to me, and translated, my hold on it loosens even further. And my writings, stemming from my lived experience and my aesthetic and social vision for a more beautiful and just world, are presented to readers who are not always acquainted with my reality. It’s the same for other writers who, like me, are translated into English or other languages. Our words become conduits, bridges, walkways that transport meaning. It is to be hoped that these writings reach new readers in their full integrity and without distortion in a form conducive to candid and fruitful encounters. Respecting the diverse roots of creativity.
© Évelyne Trouillot. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Paul Curtis Daw. All rights reserved.
1. Richard Jean So and Gus Wezerek, “Just How White Is the Book Industry?” New York Times, December 11, 2020.↩