Friday 14 August 2020


Jamaican writer and academic Elizabeth “Betty” Wilson ranks among the first modern translators in the Caribbean region, translating both poetry and prose, from French and Spanish to English. Her trail-blazing role is receiving new attention in 2020, particularly as the publishing sector pledges - once more - to include more diverse voices.

Scholar and translator Betty Wilson.
Wilson’s works include the novels Juletane, by the late Guadeloupean writer Myriam Warner-Vieyra (Heinemann, 1987); Exile according to Julia (L’Exil selon Julia) by French-Caribbean author Gisèle Pineau (CARAF, University of Virginia Press, 2003); and Aunt Résia and the Spirits and Other Stories - the first collection of short fiction in English by the acclaimed Haitian writer Yanick Lahens (CARAF, 2010).

When The Caribbean Writer journal devoted a special bilingual issue to “Ayiti/Haiti” in 2011, Wilson translated Raymond Mair’s poem "Haiti 200" for the volume. This followed several earlier publications, such as the translation of poems by Francophone Caribbean writers from Guadeloupe, Haiti, and Martinique, for a special issue of The Literary Review in 1992.

Wilson is a former head of the Department of French at the University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica. Now retired, she taught French language and literature as well as translation at UWI’s Department of Modern Languages and Literatures. She was also an adjunct lecturer in the Department of Literatures in English for five years, in charge of the graduate course “Women, Gender and Fiction”.

With her sister, the author Pam Mordecai, Wilson edited Her True-True Name (Heinemann, 1989), the first anthology of writing by Caribbean women. In addition, she served, for many years, as a member of the French Examining Committee of the Caribbean Examination Council, including being Chief Examiner for French at both the secondary and advanced levels.

Juletane, by Myriam Warner-Vieyra,
translated by Betty Wilson.
Wilson lives in Jamaica, where she remains active in supporting Caribbean literature. Her translation of 19 poems by the Cuban poet Dulce Maria Loynaz, with colleague Ileana Sanz, is awaiting publication, and she continues to work on Warner-Vieyra's short stories, Femmes échouées, and on poems by Mauritian poet Édouard Maunick. The following interview was conducted by email.

SWAN: When did you first become interested in languages, and how / where did you learn French, Creole, and Spanish?

WILSON: I've always loved languages. I started learning French and Spanish in high school. I am bi-lingual in Jamaican Standard English and Jamaican Creole but, unfortunately, I do not speak French Creole fluently. I was blessed to have great language teachers, and literature and languages have always been my favourite subjects.

SWAN: When did you start translating, and why?

WILSON: I did Latin in secondary school for seven years. It was taught very traditionally, and we always had to translate, which I liked. I enjoyed working out the puzzles and getting the message just right. My first published translation was the novella Juletane (Heinemann). At the time I was working for Heinemann Publishers in Jamaica and they found out I was fluent in French. They asked me if I would consider translating the book which they wished to publish. I found I really enjoyed the project. Two years later I was asked to do translations of poems by Edouard Maunick from Mauritius for the literary journal Callaloo. I had said I would never translate poetry.  It was much more challenging, but I found it very satisfying.

SWAN: How important is translation to Caribbean and world literature, especially now?

WILSON: Very important. Otherwise most people would only have a window into their own world and not be able to experience other cultures through great texts like War and Peace, Don Quixote, Senghor's poetry, Wide Sargasso Sea or A House for Mr. Biswas. I have had good feedback from friends who do not read French about the importance to them of my translations. It is especially important now for us to appreciate one another's cultures and world view.

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

A novel by Gisèle Pineau,
translated by Betty Wilson.
WILSON: For starters, the publishing industry could pay literary translators more appropriately; right now, it is a labour of love. "Professional" translators generally won't touch literary assignments. Writers could recommend books they have read in translation or in the original to their publishers for translation and publishing and seek avenues to have their own works translated.

SWAN: What is your opinion on the state of language teaching in the Caribbean?

WILSON: Language teaching has come a long way though we are still far behind Scandinavian countries and regions like Africa and India where English is not the first language. Most French teachers in the Caribbean are pedagogically trained, but more language teachers need to be trained. The Department of Modern Languages at UWI now offers several languages, but the departments of Education have largely not kept pace in terms of offering professional training in methodologies. In some countries active language teachers' associations - like JAFT (French) in Jamaica - attempt to fill the gap with workshops and seminars.

SWAN: How can people in the literary sphere help to bridge the linguistic "divides" in the region?

WILSON: Departments of literature (in English) could offer more texts in translation in their course offerings. Public readings could also be encouraged, as well as interviews with writers. Films like Sugarcane Alley, based on the Martinican novel by Joseph Zobel (La rue Cases-Nègres) or films like Strawberry and Chocolate (Senel Paz, Cuba) or Like Water for Chocolate (Laura Esquivel, Mexico), as well as "foreign" film festivals have done a lot to promote the literatures of other countries. Literary festivals like Calabash in Jamaica have also introduced and promoted writers who do not write in English.

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

August is Women in Translation Month, a programme launched in 2014 by blogger Meytal Radzinski. #WITMonth

Saturday 1 August 2020


Reading is, of course, a way to travel, so here are our picks for memorable journeys even as the Covid-19 pandemic keeps most of us physically at home.


The Belle Créole contains all the literary ingredients for which Maryse Condé is acclaimed: a gripping narrative, troubled characters, lavish descriptions, and a slow, simmering political backstory, set in the Caribbean.

The Guadeloupean author, who won the New Academy Prize (or alternative Nobel) in Literature in 2018, delivers a tale marked by tumult, love and desperation, skilfully translated from the French and Creole by Nicole Simek. The work, Condé’s 12th of 16 novels, starts with the “spectacular” acquittal of 22-year-old Dieudonné Sabrina, a gardener who is accused of murdering his employer - and lover - Loraine, a wealthy white woman descended from plantation owners, a “békée”.

Readers gain insight into Dieudonné’s past through a series of flashbacks from different points of view; we see the accused wretchedly wandering the city of Port-Mahault and finding sanctuary in a decrepit sailboat, La Belle Créole, while his homeland experiences strikes, violence and social disintegration. Condé makes us feel the “suffocating” heat of the city, an “inferno” that portends “further abominations”, such as “furious rains” and hurricanes. In contrast, there's the compelling beauty of the sea, although it, too, can be treacherous, as we see when Dieudonné sails away.

Apart from the main character and his “crime, the story is a portrait of an island struggling with the legacies of colonization and inequality, while facing a future where the only certainty might be climate change. Nothing is clear-cut - not relationships, motivations, politics, or personalities. As Dawn Fulton writes in the afterword, the figures that Condé creates in her novels are “famously not heroic, yet they unfailingly speak to us, draw us in, incite our compassion, frustration, fear, and empathy.” This book will leave some dissatisfied because of the characters’ “contradictions and incongruities”, but in the end, it’s well worth the read. (University of Virginia Press)


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“There are few places more puzzling than Jamaica” states the jacket flap of Orlando Patterson’s The Confounding Island: Jamaica and the Postcolonial Predicament.

Over the next 346 pages, the Harvard University sociologist attempts to explain the puzzle: why an island with more churches per square mile than any other country can also have one of the highest homicide rates in the world; how a place that produces numerous stars in the arts and sports spheres still struggles with an “anaemic” economy and fragile infrastructures. And so on.

What, then, are the answers to this long-lasting enigma? Patterson investigates the history and culture of his homeland and offers pertinent explanations for what drives Jamaica and its people. In doing so, he reveals that the island is not so mystifying after all.

Many former British colonies are grappling with similar issues of colonial heritage, inequity, and globalization; but Jamaica’s “hypervisibility” (a word everyone likes to throw around at the moment) makes for a special case, and the island’s history naturally explains its present. From Spain’s’ “genocidal destruction of the once-abundant indigenous Taino population” to the brutality of British plantation slavery, Jamaica has a past that is “drenched in blood, like no other place on earth”, Patterson writes.

Some people will disagree with his assessment, and the book may not be everyone’s idea of “summer reading”, but it is written in an accessible, engaging style, with flashes of Patterson’s acerbic wit. Each chapter (except for the final one) poses a question. Why Do Policies to Help the Poor So Often Fail? Why Does Globalization Not Produce Cultural Homogenization? And so on. The responses are based on extensive research and also on the writer’s personal policy experiences. This is a must-read for anyone interested in postcolonial history… and in why poor children can run, sing or write their way to international renown. (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press)


That Hair, by Djaimilia Pereira de Almeida, takes readers to different continents - travelling by hair. Okay, enough with the puns.

Described by its publisher as an “autobiographically inspired tragicomedy”, the book is a coming-of-age story seen from the perspective of Mila, a biracial character growing up in Lisbon, the daughter of a black Angolan mother and white Portuguese father.

The exploration of her “curly hair” is a quest for identity that “intersects with the story of at least two countries and, by extension, the indirect story of the relations among several continents: a geopolitics”, as Mila herself puts it.

The main themes relate to belonging, colonialism, migration, feminism, and the issues that arise from eternally being considered an outsider – even in one’s own land. Translated by Eric M. B. Becker, the writing is rich and evocative of place, past and present, and the book is a worthy addition to our reading list, no matter the season. (Tin House)

Follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale.