Sunday 20 December 2020


Cuisine formed a notable portion of the latest inscriptions on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, with hawker food in Singapore and couscous traditions in North Africa being celebrated.

The two were among 29 elements inscribed when the intergovernmental committee for the safeguarding of the world’s Intangible Cultural Heritage met virtually Dec. 14 to 19, hosted by Jamaica and chaired by the island’s Minister of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sport, Olivia “Babsy” Grange.

“This year … the experience that we all had in sharing and experiencing the cultures of different countries made us realize that in spite of the pandemic, in spite of us being apart, we were still able to share in each other’s culture, and what it did for all of us was to bring us closer together,” Grange said at the end of the meeting.

The inscription of Singapore’s “hawker culture, community dining and culinary practices in a multicultural urban context” marks the first time that the Southeast Asian island state has an element inscribed on the List.

Hawker culture is “present throughout Singapore”, with these food centres seen as a kind of “community dining room”, officials said. Here, people from diverse backgrounds dine and mingle, in an atmosphere of conviviality and enjoyment of the scents and flavours on offer.

Hawker centres grew out of street-food culture, housing cooks who provide meals in a bustling communal setting with different stalls. The centres have, however, seen closures and fewer customers because of the Covid-19 pandemic, making the 2020 inscription a bitter-sweet one.

The couscous submission - which focused on the knowledge, know-how and practices pertaining to the production and consumption of the dish - was made by Algeria, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia, and it naturally sparked an online debate about the absence of other countries that are known for this food, and about favourite recipes.

The inscription encompasses “the methods of production, manufacturing conditions and tools, associated artefacts and circumstances of couscous consumption in the communities concerned,” according to UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization).

Originating from the Berber culture of Algeria and Morocco, couscous is now eaten around the world, accompanied by a variety of vegetables and meats - depending on the region, the season and the occasion.

It comes “replete with symbols, meanings and social and cultural dimensions linked to solidarity, conviviality and the sharing of meals,” UNESCO said.

Food was also indirectly highlighted with the inscription of “Zlakusa pottery making, hand-wheel pottery making in the village of Zlakusa”. This comprises the practice of making unglazed food vessels that are used in households and restaurants across Serbia, originating from a tiny village in the west of the country. 

Some gastronomes claim that dishes prepared in Zlakusa earthenware have a unique taste, and the pottery’s “close association with the village of Zlakusa and its environs reflects its close link with the natural environment,” the inscription stated.

Away from food, several music and art practices were also inscribed, and the meeting saw three elements added to the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding, while another three were added to the Register of Good Safeguarding Practices.

The latter “facilitates the sharing of successful safeguarding experiences” and “showcases examples of the effective transmission of living cultural practices and knowledge to future generations,” UNESCO said. Elements inscribed this year include the Martinique yole (a light boat), whose tradition goes back several centuries in the Caribbean.

The committee stated that a “spontaneous movement to safeguard these boats developed while they faced the threat of disappearing” and that the safeguarding programme has grown over the years. The main purpose is to “preserve the know-how of local boat builders”, transmit expertise on sailing, and create a federation to organize major events.

In a year that has seen the cultural sector hit hard globally by the Covid-19 pandemic, the inscriptions brought some cheer to the 141 countries attending and the more than one thousand people participating in the virtual meeting. During an online press briefing on Dec. 18, committee chairperson Grange noted that Jamaica was of course also affected by the health crisis, but that the population was very “resilient”.

“It impacted aspects of our culture, primarily the entertainment industry, and also various sectors in the creative industry,” she said in response to a question. “It has impacted the economy … and our creative people who depend on their creative works to earn an income. However, we were still able to take our music to the world, through technology.”

Grange said that hosting the huge virtual meeting of the Intangible Cultural Heritage committee posed some technological challenges, but nothing that could not be overcome. She said it showed the importance of working together, of sharing cultures, and of finding ways to overcome obstacles to “ensure that we continue to use culture to unite the world.”

This year saw the highest number of multi-country nominations - 14 inscriptions “testifying to the ability of intangible cultural heritage to bring people together and promote international cooperation,” Grange said.

“These are great achievements for all of humanity,” she declared, recalling her country’s pride and the global celebration when reggae music of Jamaica was added to the List in 2018. - SWAN


1. A Malay hawker prepares satay (seasoned and skewered meat grilled over hot charcoal). © Mohamad Hafiz, contestant of #OurHawkerCulture photography contest 2019, Singapore, 2019

2. Couscous © Centre national de recherches préhistoriques, anthropologiques et historiques (CNRPAH), Algérie, 2018

3. Olivia “Babsy” Grange, Jamaica's Minister of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sport. Photo: SWAN

Thursday 3 December 2020


By Dimitri Keramitas

American Dirt, Jeannine Cummins’ controversial bestseller about Latin American migrants, human traffickers, and narco lords, was back in the news recently, thanks to France.

The novel was nominated for two prestigious French literary awards, the Prix Médicis and the Prix Femina étranger, and although it won neither, it generated renewed discussion about cultural appropriation, exploitation, and mainstream publishers’ omission of certain writers while glorifying others.

This debate will doubtlessly be with us for a long time, as more books with related themes get released. American Dirt is in fact one of two recent high-profile novels about migration – the other being the critically acclaimed and award-nominated Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli.

Initially, several critics in the United States also lauded American Dirt, with Oprah Winfrey praising it on her show. Only after the marketing machine kicked in, hyping both book and author, did a backlash occur. Latinx writers and others pointed to “the lack of complexity of this immigration story, and the harm this book can and will do” - in an open letter to Winfrey (also signed by Luiselli). At the same time, however, there have been detractors of Luiselli’s novel, for self-indulgence and off-putting postmodern playfulness.

I don’t wish to rehash the public debates, but to examine the differences in the approach of both novels, especially given the French embrace of American Dirt, which publisher Philippe Rey calls “a poignant hymn to the dreams of thousands of migrants who risk their lives every day”. (French literary prizes too are under the spotlight. The International New York Times recently reported that in France’s “top four prizes, there is one non-white juror among 38”.)

Meanwhile, Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive (Archives des enfants perdus) is seen in France as the story of “a continent” and “an attempt to document life… and the present”.

While one can appreciate both novels, each is flawed in different ways. Cummins wrote an afterword, expressing unease at being a non-Mexican author of a novel about migrants. (In fact, most of the migrants portrayed aren’t Mexican but from Central America.) At the same time, she felt a degree of identity because her grandmother was Puerto Rican. In addition, her Irish husband was an undocumented immigrant for several years. Yet, she has also stated that she identifies as white.

Luiselli is of Mexican nationality, but her name reveals her part-Italian heritage. She comes from a diplomatic family, spent most of her upbringing outside Mexico and lives in New York City.

Alongside the debate and the concerns about the publishing industry’s shortcomings, it is important to focus on genre when discussing these books. Cummins writes social melodrama: work that covers a large swathe of society and addresses a topical social problem, often with considerable research. Unlike the naturalistic novel, the social melodrama uses the classic archetypes of melodrama: the plucky heroine, the villainous antagonist, the pathetic victim. 

The presiding genius of this genre is Charles Dickens, but in America the authors who have had the most success at it have included Harriet Beecher Stowe (Uncle Tom’s Cabin), Grace Metalious (Peyton Place), Jacqueline Susann (Valley of the Dolls). The social melodrama can be hugely successful (as American Dirt is) but is frequently subject to merciless criticism. Sometimes such works can have a real impact, as Stowe’s novel did (Lincoln told her only half-jokingly that her novel had caused the Civil War). Cummins’ novel may have raised additional awareness about the dangers of migration but not in a way that her critics consider helpful.

While some reviewers have compared American Dirt to The Grapes of Wrath, it’s not an epic but a social melodrama, depicting the flight of innocents from evil malefactors, in this case drug lords. Immediately after a family massacre at the start of the novel, Lydia, who has lost her husband, flees with her son Luca. Realizing they aren’t safe anywhere in Mexico, Lydia decides that they will head for the US. The conventional way, via airplane, could result in their being traced, so mother and son join a group of migrants being smuggled across the border. The anonymity of being part of a poverty-stricken flock provides an ideal cover. 

As it happens, Cummins is adept at the mechanics of this genre. After opening the novel with a bang - many bangs in fact, in a scene worthy of Scarface - come chases, near-misses with bad guys, hair-raising stunts on migrant-ferrying trains, and a surprisingly calm denouement. The last is the only surprise. The plot beats are slick and efficient, but we’ve seen it all before. The melodrama is straightforwardly Victorian. Those who focus on the tropes are judging the novel as realism, which it isn’t, despite all the well-rendered detail. The melodramatic plot keeps the reader riveted, as the narrative barrels its way to a close.

The language of the novel is off-kilter at first, like a sailor awkwardly treading land with his sea legs. It does begin as realism, but this isn’t the writer’s forte. There are phrasing clunkers and mixed metaphors a-plenty, and Spanish tossed in indiscriminately like chilli flakes. Yet Cummins’ research on life in Acapulco seems authentic (her acknowledgements seem to bear this out). She appears to be faking her assured style, but as the narrative progresses, the reader becomes absorbed in the breakneck plot and engages with the protagonists - Lydia, the bookstore owner whose journalist husband’s exposé triggered the massacre, and precocious Luca - but also numerous vividly drawn characters, migrants and those who aid or exploit them. 

Startlingly, a human trafficker is depicted as almost heroic. He’s doing a job but does it with genuine dedication, and has the interests of his charges (or his cargo) at heart. Cummins doesn’t imply that the character is typical of his trade, and he’s not sentimentalized, just humanized. Even the narco-lord who is the chief baddy is portrayed as having a good side. This seems more facile, contrived both-sides-ism that reinforces the archetype of the dashing villain who puts the heroine through an emotional wringer before getting his comeuppance.

Cummins’ heroine is both conventional and unconventional. She’s in the social melodrama tradition of heroic women with a good heart, able to outwit the (male) villain. Classwise, she is neither poor nor a usurped aristocrat, two conventional archetypes. Instead she’s middle class: a bookstore-owner married to a journalist, with an Americanized son. The author has been criticized for creating an unlikely protagonist, but she’s in a distinct tradition found in various genres, such as the thrillers of Alfred Hitchcock: the ordinary person thrust into an extraordinary situation. It’s one reason for the book’s popularity with some readers, if not critics.

Luiselli’s novel seems at first to be the diametric opposite of Cummins’, in both form and content.
American Dirt is straight-ahead narrative, interrupted by flashbacks to the protagonist’s relationship with her husband and her narco-lord friend, and also by news magazine-style tidbits about migration. The subject of Lost Chldren Archive overlaps that of American Dirt: a family’s road-trip intersects with the plight of migrants, specifically a group of children who are lost and wandering the desert. But while Cummins’ middle-class protagonists are plunged into crisis, Luiselli’s remain at a distance. 

Formally the novel is a bag (or box) of tricks: the main characters, a couple and their two children (each by previous relationships), are unnamed. The characters are based on Luiselli and her family: this used to be called metafiction (now we might say autofiction, or maybe meta-autofiction). The narrative is organized around a series of boxes of archives. Some include lists, fragments or quotes from literary works deemed inspirational to the author. In a nod to Borgesian intertextuality, there’s a book that eerily parallels the story of the lost migrant children.

All of the tricks are effectively allusive. Perhaps the irritation registered by some readers comes from not being familiar with works or persons cited. Or it may be that the playfulness seems trivializing. In the Trumpian age in which the novel is set, of children separated from parents and held in cages, some may not be in the mood for literary Ouija games. What’s curious is that although numerous “archives” are referred to, and the narrative itself is divided into Boxes (as opposed to Parts), these have to do with the narrator-protagonist and her family - there’s no sign of any archive dedicated to the lost children.

The language weaving the texture of the novel, and the world that Luiselli creates, is fluent and poetic. We enjoy the purring language the way we enjoy hearing a piano playing evocative chamber music, so different from the infelicities at the beginning of American Dirt. The language redeems the over-deliberate structure, and makes it seem like the intricacy of certain types of poetry.

Yet, aspects of the novel are problematic. First, the narrative is based on a trope that might be termed the bourgeois saviour. The protagonists are bourgeois of the type which in France is called “bobo” (bourgeois-bohemian). The couple lives in Brooklyn with their children by other relationships, one a “documentalist”, the other a “documentarist”. Snarky fun is made of the contrasting terms, but each collects anthropological data on indigenous people. There is nothing wrong with a character who’s bourgeois - an author has the right to be what she is, to write about what she knows. Luiselli is aware of this and has her character question her motives, but it feels like a pre-emptive strategy, not very different from how Cummins deals with the issue in her afterword.

The novel’s bourgeois family elects to drive cross country - a grand tour typical of certain families with a certain budget - but they also have that edifying mission of recording data on native peoples. Then there are the “lost children” who have become caught up in America’s ideological wars. The migrants in American Dirt, with the narco-lords and law enforcement on their tails, at least had their trafficker guide, while the lost children are supposedly alone. They are in need of rescue; enter the bobo saviours.

There is another phenomenon in play, that of bourgeois appropriation. The narrator and her family playfully take the names of Native Americans. Perhaps this is meant to represent the family embracing their roots, while empathizing with indigenous people. To an extent it is the initiative of the children and evokes the role-modelling typical of growing up. The family is Mexican, after all. But one can’t help thinking of the author’s growing up mostly outside of Mexico, and residing in Brooklyn’s hipster heaven … or, of French royal Marie-Antoinette and her entourage playing at being peasants.

Finally, there is bourgeois virtue-signalling. As the family drives through the American West, the reader is treated to a travelogue of flyover communities and a populace of prairie lumpen, those people left behind and forgotten until Trump came along. At least the author minutely depicts these areas, which most people literally fly over to destinations in LA or Vegas or the Colorado ski resorts, or drive past on the way to the natural parks. But the descriptions tend to be one-note - a dismal note. Perhaps she simply calls ‘em as she sees ‘em, but what’s most grating is her unrelievedly contemptuous tone. The shimmering ambiguity that is her professed credo is lost, replaced by a monolithic sneer. Even when the point of view shifts to the protagonist’s young son, there’s no substantive change in perspective.

In the end, the bobo family will not save the lost children. The author opts for the sentimental pathos standard in certain highbrow fiction. The bourgeois saviour archetype is dashed, yet she does permit herself the comforting resolution of old-fashioned domestic fiction: the parents find their own children, who had strayed in the desert, and the couple resolves the tensions they’d been undergoing. The family is intact and free to deal with the migrant issue another day.

I prefer American Dirt’s ending. It’s in the tradition of what has been called an American favorite: a tragedy with a happy ending. As in Luiselli’s novel, the family will remain intact, though not wealthy or living in Brooklyn. Lydia and Luca have settled into a modest middle-class life in Colorado, but they sleep with the light on, and she occasionally crosses paths with men who may be linked with the narco-gang. In a final irony for readers in lockdown, including those in France with translated novels, Lydia finds personal solace reading Love in the Time of Cholera (L'Amour aux temps du cholera) - which never won a major French prize.

Dimitri Keramitas is a writer and legal expert based in Paris.

Sunday 15 November 2020


Ecuador’s entry for the 2021 Academy Awards’ International Feature section is a surprising movie, highlighting a story that up to now has been little known.

Titled Vacío / Emptiness and directed by self-taught filmmaker Paúl Venegas, the work focuses on how increasing numbers of Chinese migrants have ended up in Latin America over the past 15 years, and it features a cast of mainly non-professional actors – speaking Mandarin, Spanish, English and some Cantonese.

Even viewers familiar with stories of migration will find this an unexpected look at the issue, after decades of news articles about Europe and the United States. The migrants here are Chinese individuals arriving clandestinely in Ecuador and other Latin American countries, trying to make a living while dreaming of going elsewhere, and rapidly having to adapt to the local language and culture.

This is Venegas’ first feature (after producing several documentaries since 2003), and he clearly draws on his own Ecuadorian background as well as his time living in Asia, where he worked in finance in the Philippines and China. Viewers get a sense of both worlds, the one the characters have fled for various personal reasons, and the new one that is merely a way station for some but still filled with peril for the “paperless”, the undocumented.

The film follows Lei (Fu Jing) and Wong (Lidan Zhu) who arrive clandestinely in Ecuador after having met on a packed boat heading to what they think will be a land of opportunity. Lei’s objective is to get to New York, while Wong’s aim is to make enough money working so that he can bring his 12-year-old son from China to South America.

Before long, we see them falling into the hands of a seemingly charming but sinister individual, the bipolar gangster Chang (Meng Day Min), who has his own devious agenda, especially as regards Lei. They will have to figure out a way to escape, helped by friends including a fun-loving, good-hearted young Ecuadorian (played by Ricardo Velastegui) and an older immigrant (Yin Baode), who himself yearns to return to his homeland. Yet, even if escaping should prove successful, perhaps this won’t change their fate of forever having to live in the shadows.

Vacío could have been an unbearably bleak movie, if Venegas hadn't pulled back from leaving the main characters in despair. With his cast, we get a depiction of the many hazards of migration, but also a message of optimism. Lei’s dream could take a long time to be realized; still, she may eventually get to New York and follow the career path she has set herself.

In a videocall, Venegas told SWAN how and why he made Vacío (which had its premiere at South Korea's 2020 Busan International Film Festival in October and has already won awards in Latin America). The edited interview follows.

SWAN: Migration is a universal topic, but your story is special because not many know about this particular movement of people. Can you tell us about the background?

Director Paúl Venegas

Paúl Venegas: Well, Chinese communities have been migrating all over the world since more than 150 years. In Ecuador and Latin America in general, they started arriving about 120 years ago. Lima (Peru) has a huge Chinatown. They were brought as coolies to work on the Panama Canal too. And then there have been waves of immigration to countries in southeast Asia, for instance. I remember in Cambodia, literally in the middle of the jungle, I found a Chinese community that had been there for over a hundred years. They were farmers. They were just hidden somehow.

So, there’s been this spirit of always leaving … something that has permeated the culture.

Regarding the script, my co-writer (Carlos Terán Vargas) studied filmmaking in Cuba around 2005, and he began to write a script about Chinatown in Havana, because in the late 1800s, there were Chinese helping to fight the war of independence of Cuba. So there’s this long history, and when we met in 2008, I was already going back and forth to Buenos Aires, Argentina, for my work, and whenever I went to a corner shop, it was run by an Argentinian. But as the years went by - and starting around 2012, 2013 - all of a sudden around 99 percent of all these mid-size supermarkets, across all neighbourhoods, became run by Chinese, to the point that nowadays you don’t say I’m going to the supermarket. The expression translated from Spanish in Buenos Aires is: I’m going to the Chinese. It’s amazing.

So, I started observing this phenomenon, and seeing the same thing happening in São Paulo, also in Madrid, in Milan, in Valencia. I took inspiration from what’s happening all over the world, and the script developed and changed.

SWAN: And in Ecuador, specifically?

A scene from the film.

PV: Here particularly, in 2008, the government opened up the borders completely. You didn’t need a visa, and a lot of nationalities came in, using this as a transit point for the traditional migration to the United States. A lot of Asians came, and also people from Ghana, Cameroon, Nigeria, and from the Middle East as well. They’ve come in large numbers to Ecuador. They stay a few weeks, and then they go to the United States by land or other ways. But a lot of them will also stay and go to southern cities like São Paulo or Buenos Aires.

In 2008 to 2009, around 30,000 Chinese nationals came to Guayaquil (the second biggest city in Ecuador) especially, and it’s said that around 20,000 of them stayed, and they began to enlarge the already existing Chinatown - which had been there for generations but without the name. Last year it was recognized that there is a Chinatown, but even today, when you speak to people from the city about this, they say: What? Where’s the Chinatown? What I mean to say is that Chinese migration is very low-profile. It’s not marginalisation. They arrive under different conditions (from other migrants), and they arrive to already existing economic networks. So, it’s very silent, but it’s very permanent.

That is the interesting fact, I think, about the film - that people don’t realize … because they’re more aware of the terrible conditions of other migrations, with all the tragic things that we know. Still there are a few Chinese nationals now being caught at the border between Mexico and the United States, but not in the numbers compared to Latin Americans.

SWAN: How did you find the members of the cast?

PV: The casting process was one of the most interesting experiences I’ve had with this film. I’ve worked with natural actors before on projects with other directors, and it was always a good result. But it wasn’t my original idea for this film. I started out aiming to co-produce with China, so I went through the process of the Beijing International Film Festival Pitch Forum. I applied there in 2014 and the film won “best project”.

After this, many producers came on … so I started doing casting with professional actors, but they just demanded so much money - half a million dollars! After ten times of going back and forth to China, I gave up. It became so difficult. I said to myself, I’m gonna go for natural actors and do a casting in the Chinese community in Guayaquil. The first thing that we did is that I got in touch with the Chinese immigrant associations in Guayaquil. This was around Chinese New Year in 2017, and they invited me to take part in their celebrations, at big banquets in restaurants. There we were presented in society, and the casting director and I went up to the podium and talked about the film.

Lei, the lead female character in the film.

So, the word got out and the Chinatown doors opened to me. They used social media to announce the castings … and we did six months of castings and eventually we found the right people. They all have very interesting stories. I interviewed them extensively, and this gave me a deep insight into what human beings they were and what happened to them when they migrated to Ecuador or somewhere else. We rehearsed a lot, every day, and we watched a lot of Wong Kar-wai films - I do take a lot of influence from him, I like his cinema a lot.

The cast gave me feedback about things, too, about how to say certain things. So, we adapted the script, and I adapted the story to their personalities. (The natural actors include a teacher of Mandarin and a miner.)

SWAN: Coming back to the story, the ending is not as sad as one might expect. It could have ended in a much worse way, particularly where the women characters are concerned. You seem to have pulled back from that. Why?

PV: Well, the female character that I try to portray is, to me, this liberated, empowered woman of the new China that is basically somehow escaping chauvinism. It’s clear that she does what she wants, and she manipulates males, in a good way as I see it, to get what she wants. I wished to portray this character as someone that keeps going, even when she has all these things that could stop her. To me, the transition at the end is a metaphor, it’s not complete disappointment, but she is empty inside.

SWAN: It’s probably a good choice because we know of the other story, other endings.

PV: Yes, I didn’t want to fall into the typical abuse story. Actually, there are other films that have done that, by a director in France, for example, where the Chinese migrant character ends up in a prostitution ring. I know this happens, but I don’t see migration like that. It was not my point for the story I wanted to tell. I’ve migrated a lot during my life and I’ve gone through a lot of the emotions, and I’ve seen people go through the emotions. So, that’s what I aimed to do with the film. The criminal aspect is there but that’s not the main point.

SWAN: What do you want the audience to take from your film?

PV: To reflect on the harshness of migration, on these journeys that we go through, the emotions that we go through. I like to say that migration is like jumping into emptiness: you really don’t know what’s going to happen, so you take a jump into a hole, basically. And perhaps what I want to say to people is that: before you take that jump, to think about it, about whether you’re going to be better off in your home country with your own people.

I also think audiences will see that you don’t just migrate for economic reasons, you migrate for existential reasons too. And it’s hard, no matter where you go.

SWAN: And the Academy Awards? How do you feel about the film being selected as Ecuador’s entry?

PV: Of course, I’m very happy about that. It raises the value of the film for distribution and gives more awareness to my film career and to filmmaking in Ecuador. Hollywood is not my thing, and the film is a small film and probably has little chance of making the shortlist. But it gives the story a higher profile. And I’m already in the game, so I have to play the game.

Vacío / Emptiness is an Ecuador-Uruguay coproduction. Distribution: Helderland Films

Thursday 5 November 2020


If you’re looking for works by Haitian writers translated into English, it’s highly likely you’ll come across texts by American translator Nathan H. Dize, a rising voice in the field. His translation of Les Immortelles (The Immortals) by novelist and poet Makenzy Orcel is being published this month by SUNY Press, and while this is Dize’s first book-length publication, he has translated poetry and fiction by many other Haitian writers, including Kettly Mars, Charles Moravia, James Noël, Néhémy Pierre-Dahomey and Évelyne Trouillot.

A PhD candidate in the Department of French and Italian at Vanderbilt University, Dize is also the content curator, translator, and co-editor of the digital history project A Colony in Crisis: The Saint-Domingue Grain Shortage of 1789. With Siobhan Meï, he coedits the “Haiti in Translation” interview series for H-Haiti. On Nov. 12, he will be in conversation with Jennifer Boum Make of Georgetown University, Washington, DC, for a presentation titled “The Urgent Act of Translation”.

The following interview with Dize, conducted by email, is part of SWAN’s series about translators of Caribbean literature, done in collaboration with the Caribbean Translation Project.

SWAN: You speak several languages – English, French, Haitian Creole and Spanish. Where and how did you begin learning languages?

NATHAN H. DIZE: I started learning French during my second year of high school in Baltimore at the age of 14. At my school we were required to take Latin in the first year, and at the beginning of the second we had a choice between French, German, and Spanish. Many of my friends decided to take Spanish because they had already started in middle school and others took German because it was not something they had encountered before. I chose French because I wanted to be a little different and I liked the way that it sounded.

I remember that year very well because in October and November we started studying the unrest in Paris when Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré were electrocuted to death while running away from the police. Our teacher was from France via Guadeloupe and her teenage son was in my class. She was distraught and the Foreign Language Dept. started teaching about the unrest. From there, we studied Caribbean writers like Aimé Césaire and Maryse Condé as well as Léopold Sédar Senghor. Although I couldn't yet read their work in French, I retained these names until I enrolled at the University of Maryland (UMD) for my undergraduate studies. In my first term at UMD, I took a class on Francophone African and Caribbean writers with Dr. Valérie Orlando that I will never forget. The reading load was intense, and we read work from writers who I still consider some of my favorites like Myriam Warner-Vieyra, Ferdinand Oyono, and Frantz Fanon.

Nathan H. Dize

After taking that class, I immediately started to enrol in every Caribbean and African diasporic literature class on campus until I decided that I needed to major in English, French, and Latin American/Caribbean Studies. Most of the courses I took were taught, at least initially, in English translation, but it was clear to me that I needed to continue taking French to learn more about the work that hadn't yet been translated. After a particularly discouraging French grammar class, I was all but ready to give up until my English professor, who happened to be Merle Collins, encouraged me to give French one more shot. And, I haven't looked back since. 

In the last five years at Vanderbilt University, I've been learning Haitian Creole and coordinating language clubs and programming with Haitian students there. I suppose I came into the study of language at the right time. It's been the defining characteristic of my life since I was 14.

SWAN: How did your interest in translation begin?

NHD: My interest in translation came at the same time as my interest in French, which is to say in high school and college. In high school, we had the International Baccalaureate program and our junior year was dedicated to World Literature. We read works by Haruki Murakami, Bao Nihn, Ariel Dorfman, and Isabel Allende that year. The next year, we read Wide Sargasso Sea and Jane Eyre and was transfixed by the way French, Dominican Creole, and English played out in these novels and I developed a thirst for linguistic confrontation, code switching, and marronnage via language.

Building on my impressions of Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea from high school, I started reading a lot of Guadeloupean and Martinican women writers at university. I felt that the narrative voices of writers like Maryse Condé, Myriam Warner-Vieyra, and Simone Schwarz-Bart carried the traces of Rhys's writing that I loved the most as she wrote back to Charlotte Brontë. Though I loved Warner-Vieyra and Schwarz-Bart, not all of their writing existed in translation and their contemporaries like Michèle Lacrosil and Jacqueline Manicom were (and still are) only available to read in French.

So, I consumed all that I could in translation, knowing that I had to rely on it until I had enough of a handle on French to continue undeterred. These translations felt urgent and necessary because in many cases the French editions were either out of print or difficult to find; for Warner-Vieyra, Manicom, and Lacrosil, this is still the case. I'm delighted to learn that Cajou by Lacrosil is being translated into English and that Elizabeth Wilson is working on the translation of Warner-Vieyra's short story collection Femmes échouées. (See the first article in SWAN's series on translators.)

From there, I went on to do an undergraduate thesis on two novelettes by Myriam Warner-Vieyra, Juletane and Le Quiboiseur l'avait dit..., and translation was something that I was eager to practice as well as critique. Looking back on it, I was far too harsh on the translators. I didn't know how to read translations with the sensibility of a translator, and I insisted that I myself translate the passages I wanted to work from. Professor Collins agreed, knowing that it would be a worthwhile exercise and that it would teach me to be patient with translators. It did that and much more.

SWAN: You’ve translated poetry and fiction by Haitian writers. Can you tell us more about this?

NHD: I've been quite fortunate to translate a number of living Haitian writers - Kettly Mars, James Noël, Makenzy Orcel, Néhémy Pierre-Dahomey, and Évelyne Trouillot - these last few years. I'm most motivated to translate a writer after reading them. Often times, it's that first time reading a book that sticks with me, and I cannot shake it. It was this way for all of these writers and the works of theirs that I have translated.

When I was living in Lyon, France in 2014, I recall reading Makenzy Orcel's The Immortals on a cold, rainy day. I had just come home from the visa office and had the day off, so I read the book in one sitting. The novel takes place in one room in Port-au-Prince after the 2010 earthquake. It's a conversation between a writer and a Haitian sex worker about her deceased protégé who she wants to immortalize by having the writer transcribe her story. It's a transformative thing to be reading alone in your tiny dormitory room about someone who believes that books have the power to immortalize someone, especially a beloved friend. I didn't know it at the time, but when I was struggling to continue my studies four years later, I returned to The Immortals and started translating it in 100-word portions by night. It became my little ritual that kept my spirits up. Now, I'm delighted to be able to share this novel with readers in English and I hope it will impact people in ways that they do not yet know.

Makenzy Orcel
As for the poetry I've translated, these were some of my first published literary translations. In 2017, I translated a poem by the Haitian poet, playwright, and diplomat Charles Moravia, called "President Wilson's Vision," about the late response to World War I by the United States. 

It's not a poem that many people will remember because it was printed in the Haitian daily Le Nouvelliste in 1918, but I just thought he was so courageous, especially as a diplomat in DC, to stand up to the president of the United States while Haiti was currently under a US occupation. I'm particularly fond of Évelyne Trouillot's poem "Tremors" because it expresses so much beauty and pain with so few words. It's another poem that I remember reading in Lyon as I walked home from the bookstore on the banks of the Rhône. For years, I returned to the poem on January 12, the anniversary of the 2010 earthquake, as a source of comfort. One year I translated it and sent it to some friends, thinking it might help them understand what happened that day on an emotional level and they encouraged me to try to publish it. With the blessing of Évelyne and her publisher, Meridians printed it last fall.

SWAN: How important is translation for today’s world?

NHD: Translation is critical for our world today and we must make sure that communities have access to translation and interpretation services, that those providing those services are compensated for their labor, and that translation is more than just a service rendered. Translation can be an act of imagination, an act of empathy, a crossing into someone else's world… translation can be so many things, if it were only valued the way that it should be.

SWAN: What can writers and the publishing industry do to support and promote translation, especially of under-represented literature?

NHD: There are many things that can be done, small intellectual coups that cost nothing, but do require a slight shift in perspective. For instance, writers who are commissioned or who volunteer to write reviews of works in translation could make the space in their review to acknowledge the influence of the translator on the translated text. Some reviews of books in translation are written as though the book magically appeared in another language. I read one review of the reissued version of Simone Schwarz-Bart's Bridge of Beyond and the reviewer claimed that the novel was newly translated even though the same translation was issued in the 1970s and the translator, Barbara Bray, had passed away three years prior. There are some venues that encourage reviewers to acknowledge the translator like World Literature Today and, but it is sadly still standard practice by many reviewers to ignore the translator.

Another thing that writers can do, especially polyglot writers, is to ask to do reviews in English of a book (that is written) in another language. I've done this before with SX Salon for books by Jacques Stephen Alexis and Emmelie Prophète. Many academic journals already do this, but until you've tried to pitch a translation to a publisher you don't realize how critical trans-lingual book reviews can be. They unburden the translator and they help the folks at the press decide whether the book might be an appropriate fit.

As for the publishers, the question is more complex. In December, I recall reading an article in The New York Times called "The Ferrante Effect: In Italy, Women Writers are ascendant" and I asked myself, what might it mean for any given island in the Caribbean to have a wave of translations (or publications for that matter) appear on the US book market due to the momentum of one writer? I only say the US because that's where I'm based, but the question would hold for any major book market. Can we speak of an "[Edwidge] Danticat Effect," a "[Julia] Alvarez Effect," a "[Marlon] James effect," and so on? I'm being provocative to a degree because of course writers like Danticat, Alvarez, and James have paved the way for new voices from the Caribbean to access global literary markets. All you need to do is look at how many books by Haitian authors Danticat has prefaced or blurbed to understand her impact. At the same time, the work that she is doing is not always written about in the same terms as a writer like Elena Ferrante is.

SWAN: In the Caribbean, as in other regions, it sometimes feels as if we're divided by language. How can people in the literary sphere help to bridge these linguistic "divides"?

NHD: This is a pertinent question as well. As a translator, I try to keep audience in mind as much as possible because it helps me know who I'm translating toward and who I might be translating away from. For example, when translating a text from a Haitian author from French into English I often try to engage with a Haitian diasporic audience by placing Haitian Creole words into the standardized Haitian Creole orthography rather than leaving them in a "Frenchified" creole. While this may seem like a minor adjustment, I've spoken with heritage speakers of Haitian Creole who when they see their home language in print it fills them with an immense sense of pride. I think we've learned to think about translation in terms of loss, but there is much to be gained in carrying out the work of translation in a thoughtful manner.

SWAN: What are your forthcoming projects?

NHD: My first book-length translation, The Immortals by Makenzy Orcel just came out with SUNY Press in the Afro-Latinx Futures series, edited by Vanessa K. Valdés. Although it was just released, it still feels like it is forthcoming in a way and I'm eager to hear what readers think about it. Recently, I've been collaborating with Siobhan Meï, Jonathan Michael Square, and others on an Instagram-based project called Rendering Revolution: Sartorial Approaches to Haitian History that visually documents the way that fashion and clothing constructed notions of freedom during and after the Haitian Revolution. My role has mostly been as a translator for the project, translating English captions into Haitian Creole. Siobhan and I have also translated two chapters for a forthcoming Routledge volume on Anténor Firmin edited by Celucien Joseph and Paul Mocombe.

In addition to these projects, I have an advance contract with the University of Virginia Press and their CARAF series (Caribbean and African Literature translated from French) for an English translation of Kettly Mars's 2015 novel Je suis vivant (I Am Alive). It's a translation that I've been working on ever since the novel came out and I'm excited to see it come into being.

(Editor’s note: Les Immortelles has previously been translated into English by Annie Mathews for readership in India, published by Under the Peepal Tree.)

This article is part of SWAN’s translator profiles, in association with The Caribbean Translation Project (Twitter: @CaribTranslate), an initiative to promote the translation of literature from and about the Caribbean.

Wednesday 7 October 2020


The graphic biography Frantz Fanon hit bookshops this autumn, in a year that has seen a renewed focus on colonialism and the combat for equality, which the Martinique-born writer, philosopher and psychiatrist spent much of his life exploring.

Written (in French) by Frédéric Ciriez and illustrated by Romain Lamy, the volume is a lavish production - beautiful to look at and to hold - and comes at a time when Fanon’s work is more “relevant and crucial than ever”, as the Paris-based publisher Editions La Découverte puts it.

Fanon died in 1961 at the age of 36, but his importance hasn’t dimmed for scholars and the general public. Last July, for instance, the Caribbean Philosophical Association held a 20-day online symposium titled “Fanon at 95”; the purpose was to “celebrate both Fanon’s life as well as the lives of those for whom he combatted, the damned of the earth,” according to the Association, referring to one of their subject’s best-known books.

The conference attracted scholars and writers from around the world, discussing Fanon’s thought and work on decolonization, and examining his enduring global significance. In 2020, he seems to be one of the most cited intellectuals, as struggles for equality and social justice continue in the United States, Latin America, Western Europe and other regions.

It is against this backdrop that the new graphic biography has been published. The book takes as a starting point Fanon’s 1961 meeting in Rome with French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who agreed to write the preface to Les Damnés de la terre (The Wretched of the Earth) - the searing book about the dehumanising consequences of colonization.

Over three intense days of talks with Sartre and his companions Simone de Beauvoir and Claude Lanzmann, Fanon tells his life story, recalling his youth in Martinique, being a World War II soldier, studying in France, writing Black Skin, White Masks, working as a doctor, and joining the Algerian revolution.

The latter, among many momentous historical events, is the focus of the book, along with Fanon’s wider role in movements to throw off colonial yokes. Readers also see the price he paid for his activism - threats, censorship, assassination attempts, and loss of health.

We’re pulled into the history of human-rights and anti-colonial struggles, with descriptions of events such as the 1st International Congress of Black Writers and Artists (1er Congrès international des écrivains et artistes noirs), held in Paris in 1956.

The narrative has Fanon remembering the congress, with illustrations of some of those who attended: organiser Alioune Diop - the founder of journal and publishing house Présence Africaine; writers Aimé Césaire and Édouard Glissant; poet and politician Léopold Sédar Senghor; and author and historian Amadou Hampâté Bâ. And, not to be missed, there’s an image of James Baldwin, looking over his shoulder at the reader on page 146. (Baldwin wrote about the congress in the essay “Princes and Powers”, taking issue with some of the tenets of Négritude.)

Numerous other events and issues are detailed in Frantz Fanon, alongside the Algerian war for independence and European colonialism and racism. We see Fanon in Tunis, Accra and Conakry, meeting with anti-colonial fighters and future statesmen, for example, even as his health worsens.

The book ends with his death in a Washington hospital on Dec. 6, 1961, and with Simone de Beauvoir breaking the news to Sartre - who replies: “non … Frantz est vivant”.

He certainly lives on in this well-researched, imaginatively written and colourfully illustrated book, which gives a solid introduction to his life and ideas, especially for those who might be unfamiliar with his writing.

This is an intellectual and political biography, as the publisher states, but some readers may still miss the personal aspect of Fanon’s story: as a partner to the mother of his first child, as a husband - to his French wife Josie (a “revolutionary woman herself”) - and as father to two children, who’ve worked to continue his legacy. - SWAN

Follow SWAN on Twitter @mckenzie_ale.

Friday 25 September 2020


Chéri Samba has a sly sense of humour, both in person and in his work. Standing in front of his 2018 painting “J'aime le jeu de relais” (I Love the Relays) - which criticizes politicians who cling to power instead of passing the baton - Samba is asked about the resemblance of one of his subjects to a famous statesman.

“Oh, I was just portraying a politician in general. I didn’t really have a particular person in mind because they all have certain characteristics,” he responds. Then he adds mischievously, “Isn’t it me though? Doesn’t it look like me?”

In this case it doesn’t, but the Congolese artist sometimes depicts himself in various guises in his paintings. Visitors to the current exhibition in Paris featuring his work and those of two of his equally acclaimed countrymen will have fun trying to spot him on canvas.

The show - Kings of Kin - brings together the work of Samba, Bodys Isek Kingelez and Moké, known affectionately as the kings of Kinshasa, as their art is closely linked with the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, their home and work base. All three have participated in numerous exhibitions around the world, in group and solo shows, but this is the first time they're being shown together in galleries.

Kings of Kin is being held jointly at the MAGNIN-A and the Natalie Seroussi galleries (running until Oct. 30) and features some 30 works, including Samba’s latest paintings. He is undoubtedly the star attraction with his bold, massive canvases commenting on social and political issues in Africa and elsewhere, but the others command attention as well.

Samba also is the only surviving “king” as Moké died in 2001 and Kingelez in 2015.

On a recent unseasonably hot afternoon, the artist is present at the MAGNIN-A gallery, speaking with a visitor who’s wearing a mask, although he himself is without one. He says he came to Paris in January, then got caught in the lockdown as the Covid-19 pandemic spread in France. He has used the time to complete several paintings in the current show.

Asked if he doesn’t miss the “inspiration” that Kinshasa provides, Samba replies that all artists should be able to produce work wherever they find themselves.

“I live in the world, and I breathe as if I’m in Kinshasa,” he says. “In my head, I want to live where I can speak with people and where they understand me. I travel with the same brain. I would like to be in Kinshasa, but this doesn’t prevent me from creating. The world belongs to all of us.”

His new paintings fill the entry and the main hall of the MAGNIN-A gallery, with bright greens, reds, blues - inviting viewers into his mind or current state of world awareness. 

The first work that strikes the eye is “Merci, merci je suis dans la zone verte” (Thank you, thank you I’m in the green zone), which depicts a man - the artist - seemingly caught in a vortex of some sort. Painted this year, the painting reflects the current global upheavals with the Covid-19 and other ills.

Another equally compelling work features the faces of six girls of different ethnicities, produced in acrylic with particles of glitter, and titled: “On Est Tout Pareils” (We’re All the Same). Samba says that his daughter served as the model and that the painting is a call for peace, equality and the ability to live together without discord.

The oldest of his paintings on display dates from 1989 and reveals a very different style, with softer colours and intricate workmanship, as he portrays a Congolese singer – the late feminist performer M’Pongo Love - wearing an attractive dress. Here the broad strokes are absent, and the designs on the dress are meticulously captured.

He says that although viewers may notice variations between his earlier output and the new works, he tends not to take note of such differences.

“All the paintings are like my children,” he says. “I can’t make distinctions between them.” 

In contrast to Samba, the paintings by Moké comprise softer hues and have a more earthy feel, but they also compel the viewer to see into the lives of those depicted.

Moké’s subjects nearly always elicit a certain empathy, a certain melancholy, and sometimes hope - whether these subjects are performers or an older couple simply having dinner together.

Moké lived for only 51 years, but his output was impressive - dating from the time he arrived in Kinshasa as a child and began painting urban landscapes on cardboard. He considered himself a “painter-journalist” and portrayed the everyday life of the capital, including political happenings. One of his paintings from 1965 depicts then-general Mobutu Sese Seko waving to the crowds as he came to power in Zaire (the previous name of the DRC).

In the Paris show, Moké’s paintings depict boxers, performers, frenetic city scenes, and portraits of women staring out with expressions that are both bold and solemn.

Meanwhile, the work of Kingelez takes viewers into a sphere of colourful towers and other “weird and wonderful” structures with a utopian bent, as he imagines a world that might possibly rise from the ravages of colonialism, inequity and bad urban planning.

The first Congolese artist to have a retrospective exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (“City Dreams” in 2018), Kingelez used everyday objects such as paper, cardboard and plastic to produce his first individual sculptures before creating  whole fantastical cities.

His futuristic urban settings, which also address social issues, thus form a perfect companion to the “surreal earthliness” of Samba and Moké in Kings of Kin.

“These are artists who worked because of deep necessity, because they had something to say. It wasn’t about the art market or commerce,” said French gallery owner and independent curator André Magnin, who first encountered their work in the 1980s in Kinshasa.

The author of several books on Congolese art, Magnin said he hoped visitors to the exhibition would discover the unique artistic richness of the Congo region as exemplified by the “kings”. As for “queens”, he said that there weren’t many women artists working at the time, but that more are now becoming known and will be the focus of coming shows.

Dorine, a French art student of African descent who visited the exhibition, said she admired the artists and particularly Samba because he “speaks of African reality”.

“Their work is very interesting, and the message is extremely strong,” she told SWAN.

Monday 7 September 2020


(This is the second article in SWAN’s series on translators of Caribbean literature.)

Laëtitia Saint-Loubert is a French translator and an early-career researcher whose much-anticipated book on Caribbean literary translation is being published this fall. Titled The Caribbean in Translation: Remapping Thresholds of Dislocation, it explores 20th- and 21st-century Caribbean literature in translation and aims to shine a new light on a range of works, while promoting a “rethinking” of translation theory from a Caribbean perspective.

The book is based on Saint-Loubert’s doctoral dissertation which won the Peter Lang Young Scholars Competition in Comparative Literature.

Book by Laëtitia Saint-Loubert.
The award came as Saint-Loubert completed a PhD in Caribbean Studies at the University of Warwick, in the UK, in 2018, after two Master’s degrees in literary translation at the Université Michel de Montaigne in Bordeaux, France - where she “came to develop a passion for Caribbean literature”.

Her current research “continues to investigate Caribbean literature in translation and focuses on bibliodiversity and non-vertical modes of circulation for Caribbean and Indian Ocean literatures”, she told SWAN.

She has translated a number of Caribbean texts, including a short story by Guadeloupe-based writer Gisèle Pineau and an essay on Puerto Rican impressionist Francisco Oller for a trilingual project (Spanish, English, French). The Pineau story - "A Little Fire of No Consequence / Un Petit Feu Sans Conséquence" - appeared in the journal Vernacular: New Connections in Language, Literature & Culture based at the University of Tennessee.

Saint-Loubert said she’s also in talks to translate a novel by a Jamaican writer into French, and she’s interested in working with Caribbean-based publishers to promote intraregional circulation of Caribbean literature. The following interview was conducted by email and telephone.

SWAN: You speak English, German and Spanish, in addition to your mother tongue French. How did your interest and proficiency in these languages develop?

LAËTITIA SAINT-LOUBERT (LS-L): I grew up in a fairly monolingual, French environment but have always loved other languages and cultures. When I turned 16, I left France to participate in an exchange programme in the US, where I studied and lived with a host family for a year. This experience was crucial in a number of ways, as it opened up whole new horizons that allowed me to start conceptualizing and dreaming (of) the world differently.

I started learning German in middle school and later did an Erasmus year abroad in Germany, before completing two MAs in Literary Translation in France, one in English and one in German.

I came to Spanish much later, as an adult. I was very fortunate during my PhD at the University Warwick to be given the opportunity to attend classes in the Department of Hispanic Studies, and to later conduct a research project in Puerto Rico, where I was completely immersed in the local culture and language. This was my first time in the Caribbean.

I have since been based in La Réunion, in the Indian Ocean, where people speak French and Reunionese Creole. Unfortunately, I do not speak any French Creoles fluently, but have a basic understanding of Kréol rényoné and Kreyòl ayisyen (Haitian Creole).

Scholar Laëtitia Saint-Loubert.
SWAN: What motivated you to study translation, and how would you describe your university experience of focusing on literature from other countries?

LS-L: I always wanted to live “in translation”. When I was in high school, I wanted to become an interpreter. Years later, when I studied conference interpreting, I realized that it wasn’t for me. I was more of a literary person and decided to major in literary translation to combine my two passions, literature and translation.

I started developing an interest in postcolonial literature during my year abroad in Germany, where I concomitantly studied GDR literature and art movements. It was then that I started familiarizing myself with writers of French expression from the Caribbean, writers that I had never heard of before in my country, despite my initial background in literature. When I returned to France, during my second MA in Literary Translation, I began working on the French translation of a Jamaican novel for which I felt the need to further immerse myself in Antillean writing to try and do the text justice.

I would say that my interest in literature from other countries, including the various Francospheres, comes from a profound love of cross-cultural encounters and a deep need to interrogate the power differentials in transnational literary circulation. This is one of the reasons why it was important for me to do a PhD in Caribbean Studies and in a different academic setting - in this case, the UK. I wanted to keep shifting my referential framework and look at translation and literature from a somewhat different angle and location. This is also the reason why I felt it was essential to carry out research in the Caribbean to address issues of (in)visibility and access in the circulation of Caribbean literature in the region and beyond.

SWAN: Your doctoral dissertation explored 20th- and 21st-century Caribbean literature in translation. Why did you choose this topic?

LS-LThe Caribbean in Translation: Remapping Thresholds of Dislocation was born out of a desire to work at the intersection of Caribbean and translation studies. I wanted to look at the transnational circulation of contemporary Caribbean literature from a comparative lens, across the region’s multiple languages, cultures and literary genealogies. To do that, I chose the theoretical concept of the threshold which I connected to Glissantian theory and transoceanic theoretical concepts from the Pacific and the Indian Ocean to explore the aesthetic, sociocultural and political aspects of Caribbean writing in translation. My aim was to challenge vertical models of global literary traffic and to invite readers to envisage alternative pathways of cultural exchange from archipelagic latitudes, beyond a binary North-South axis.

SWAN:  What do you hope readers will gain from this work, especially as regards the sphere of translation globally?

LS-L: For readers with little knowledge of the region, its diaspora and their literary production, I hope the book somewhat contributes to placing the rich, multilingual field of Caribbean literature on the world map. For those who are more familiar with Caribbean texts, I hope the book helps bring into focus the need for more interdisciplinary studies to initiate further cross-cultural and cross-linguistic dialogues.

With regards to the sphere of global translations, I hope that looking at transnational literary circulation from a Caribbean perspective contributes to increasing translations from and into minoritized languages, and to addressing asymmetrical flows in global literary circulation, so that we can all engage in more equitable and sustainable modes of exchange.

Saint-Loubert translated an essay on Puerto Rican artist Oller.
SWAN: How important is translation to Caribbean and world literature, now?

LS-L: Translation is foundational to Caribbean and world literature. Without translation, we would not be able to access works originally written in a language we are not fluent in. In that sense, I see translation as not only a part of the afterlife of a text, but also as part of its making and its genesis, even. After all, any form of writing is the translation of inner thoughts and ideas put down into words. With regards to our day and age, I think that untranslatability is an indispensable part of translation, something that ought to be stressed in the globalized world we live in, so that translation is seen as a driving force of linguistic and cultural diversity. This is why I believe that rethinking translation theory and practice from a Caribbean perspective is essential.

SWAN: France is one of the countries with the highest number of translated books. What, in your view, are some of the reasons for this?

LS-L: France has a longstanding tradition of translation that can be explained by its strong literary culture. Nowadays, French literary translators can benefit from professional support and guidance from the Association des Traducteurs Littéraires de France and publishers can also obtain funding for translations, which I think contributes to the presence of translated books in the French literary market. That said, translation is still perceived as an additional cost, which a lot of publishers can’t afford, and that makes it even more difficult for less visible texts and writers to enter the French literary scene. If there is indeed a number of translated books in France, especially when we compare figures in the US and the UK, most of these translations are still carried out from European languages, and mostly from English, thereby confirming inequalities in the transnational circuitry of literature.

SWAN: What can writers, scholars and the publishing industry do to further support and promote translation?

Writers / presenters at a literary festival in France.
LS-L: Writers, scholars and the publishing industry could work together towards organizing more literary events to democratize translation and make it more visible to readers. I think incentives like the Festival VO-VF, which has been held every year in Gif-sur-Yvette since 2013, is an excellent platform for translated fiction and translators, for example. (ED's Note: the biennial Festival America also showcases translated literature.)

SWAN: What advice would you give to students who wish to become translators, and what are the main challenges in the field?

LS-L: In all honesty, I’ve found it very difficult to earn a living as a literary translator. I’ve had to diversify my skills and work as a freelance and in-house translator for various companies, doing technical and commercial translations and learning how to use CAT tools, which eventually led me to doing more literary translation. To students who wish to become translators, I would say, however, that with a good deal of perseverance and hard work, all good things come to those who wait.

SWAN: You are currently in talks to translate a Jamaican writer’s novel into French. How do you approach the translation of Creole?

LS-L: I’m very excited about this project which I started working on many years ago as an MA student. At the time, I knew less about Caribbean literature, and going back to this translation makes me approach the original quite differently.

From the beginning, I did not wish to transplant the original Jamaican voices onto another French regional soundscape, let alone silence them. It was equally important for me not to turn Jamaican patois into an ethnolect that would be based on the systematic elision of r’s at the end of words or syllables, a contentious strategy that has been used in French translations to “imitate” black speech patterns. Rather, I’ve come to look at the presence of Creole and the oral dimension of the original as features of a unique Caribbean voice, one that has its own idiosyncratic characteristics, but that also dialogues with other Caribbean voices, with which it shares commonalities. The idea, with this translation, which I hope will be published in the Caribbean, is rather to recreate a sense of pan-Caribbean linguistic and literary continuum. In so doing, I hope francophone readers can get a sense of the polyphone and porous nature of the “French” voice in the translation.

SWAN: How do you regard the current increased interest in translation, and what are your plans for future projects?

LS-L: I’m very pleased to note a certain interest in translation and hope that Caribbean literature and Caribbean Studies at large will benefit from this trend. I would certainly be very happy to continue contributing in any way that I can to the circulation of Caribbean texts in the region and beyond. I think that this is particularly important for the circulation of Caribbean theoretical texts, for instance. Otherwise, besides doing a joint-translation of a Reunionese novel into English with a friend of mine, I am currently working on a new research project that examines the book industry and/in the Caribbean ecosystem from a decolonial perspective. (Copyright SWAN)

This series is being done in association with The Caribbean Translation Project, an initiative to promote the translation of literature from and about the Caribbean. (Twitter: @CaribTranslate)