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