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.