Can the two of you talk about how Beyond the Door of No Return came into the world—first, the germ of the original language, and then the translation?
David Diop (DD): I came across Michel Adanson about fifteen years ago when I read his Voyage au Sénégal (Voyage to Senegal), published in Paris in 1757. It was fascinating to read, in the elegant pen strokes of this young French botanist and future member of Paris’s Académie Royal des sciences, the tale of his travels in a country where I myself grew up, and to observe just how close and how remote his Senegal appeared to me.
From there, I came up with the idea of turning him into the protagonist of a novel. In order to show his open-mindedness, evidenced by the way he occupies himself upon his arrival with learning the Wolof spoken in Senegal, and at the same time his ambivalence about Africans at a time where their societies were devalued by Europeans, I had him fall in love with Maram Seck, a young Senegalese woman consigned to slavery. Michel Adanson and Maram Seck have conflicting relationships to nature: he seeks to claim ownership over it, while she seeks to make peace with it. The love shared between my two characters and thwarted on account of the era’s prevailing racism is a symbol of the missed opportunity throughout history to reach a harmonious understanding between two worldviews that may well remain irreconcilable to this day. My aim was also to shine a light, through the power of fiction, on a series of relationships of domination—not only between Europeans and Africans but also between men and women—that still have relevance today.
Sam Taylor (ST): I think there’s a narrative at the moment that translating a work of fiction is a creative act on a par with writing a work of fiction. As someone who writes and translates novels, I can tell you that that is not true. Every word in the English version of David’s novel is mine, but the characters, the setting, the story, the themes, the research, the personal passions and obsessions that drove him to write it in the first place . . . all of this is his alone. I read his text and translated it into English—an exacting but comparatively simple task.
WWB: What particular translation challenges arose as this book was brought into English? Were they points that the author anticipated, or was there something of a process of discovery in which the author found that the translator shed light on unexpected aspects of the original-language work?
Listen to David Diop discuss Sam Taylor’s translation of Beyond the Door of No Return
ST: Most of the issues concerning the translation were to do with the history behind the novel‚ place names that have changed over time, for instance‚ and finding a balance between giving the prose an authentically eighteenth-century feel while also making it accessible and readable for modern readers.
WWB: While this is not David’s first book in English, it is the first collaboration between the two of you. Sam, I wonder if you could shed some light on what it’s like to take on a translation of a work by a writer who already has a presence in English. How might that affect your approach to the translation?
ST: Obviously, David’s previous translator Anna Moschovakis did a brilliant job, because At Night All Blood Is Black won the International Booker Prize. I feel very lucky that I was chosen to take over as his translator. But I deliberately didn’t read David’s first novel in English until after I had translated Beyond the Door of No Return, because I did not want to be influenced by it in any way. When I translate, it’s just me and the text, and I work quickly, intuitively. If I ever try to slow down or analyze what I’m doing, I lose that sense of flow.
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