Monday 3 May 2021


Marleen Julien speaks with infectious passion when discussing Haitian Creole. A  specialist in interpreting and translation, with some 15 years of experience, she describes herself as an advocate who’s dedicated to promoting the language and culture of Haiti.

Currently based in Paris, France, Julien worked for the Haitian government and the United Nations for more than a decade, and during that time, she “witnessed an alarming and widespread issue regarding the quality of Haitian Creole materials,” she says.

The experience led her to focus on helping Haitians access information in their mother tongue, and she set out on a mission to improve the Haitian Creole translation industry's standards, she told SWAN

In 2004, Julien founded Creole Solutions (in Chicago) to provide translation services and support to organizations that serve Haitian communities. For her, this was more than just a new business venture; rather, it was her “life's calling”, she says, as she recalls building the business “from the ground up”.

She says she is continuing to expand Creole Solutions' capabilities, ensuring that she “leverages every possible tool available to promote her native tongue”. She translates and publishes short stories that promote literacy and critical thinking among children in Haiti's remote areas, among her activities. Of Haitian heritage, Julien has also focused on development, and her university degrees include a master's in International Development from the Institut d'études politiques de Paris (Sciences Po).

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

SWAN: In 2004, you founded Creole Solutions to provide translation services and support to organizations that serve Haitian communities. Can you tell us about the reasons and the motivation behind this project?

Marleen Julien: I played the role of translator and interpreter for the Haitian Consulate in Chicago since 1998. There was a great need for qualified Haitian Creole language professionals and reliable linguistic resources at that time.

Organizations and individuals were constantly reaching out to me for help with translation and interpretation services. So I started helping pro bono. I eventually became a freelance translator and interpreter for many organizations. There were, however, minimal resources for Haitian Creole translators. In 2004, I founded Creole Solutions to fill that gap.

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

M.J.: Language learning has always been like second nature to me. I grew up in a multilingual and multicultural environment in the United States.

As children, my parents made French music, books, and movies accessible to my siblings and me. I studied French in high school and college.  When I moved to Paris for my graduate studies, that allowed me to take my French to the professional level.

My parents also made sure that we were fluent in Haitian Creole. My mother only spoke in Haitian Creole with us. My father always bought whatever materials he could find in Creole because he wanted us to read, speak, and write correctly. I began to become an expert in Haitian Creole when I worked for the Haitian Consulate.

SWAN: How did your interest in translation begin?

M.J.: I would say I have been practicing translation since childhood. My family moved around a lot, and every few years, I had to adapt to a new linguistic and cultural environment. I was already interpreting for family and friends by the time I was in the sixth grade.

SWAN: You've translated and published "short stories that promote literacy and critical thinking amongst children in Haiti's remote areas". Can you tell us more about this?

M.J.:  I have two boys. I wanted to teach them Haitian Creole as early as possible. One of my biggest challenges was finding Creole books for their age. So I started translating children's stories to read to them.

In 2020, I started sharing the stories with a not-for-profit organization based in Haiti to use as a part of their literacy program. These stories are valuable resources for the children because I have adapted them to the Haitian language and culture.

SWAN: You've also worked on adapting international fables into Haitian Creole. What are some of the linguistic challenges of such adaptations?

M.J.: In all of my adaptations, I incorporate Haitian expressions and proverbs. So one of my biggest challenges is finding the correct adage to relay the message. I recently translated the Panchatantra (ancient Indian fables) story of the Mice and the Elephants. The lesson was: a friend in need is a friend indeed. I incorporated the Haitian saying "Zanmi lwen se lajan sere", which means that friends who are far away are wonderful for a rainy day.

Another challenge is envisioning the fables for a contemporary audience. When I translated the (Brothers Grimm) classic Four Clever Brothers, I replaced the dragon with a gangster who kidnapped a wealthy landowner's daughter. Children in Haiti are not familiar with dragons, but kidnapping is something they are familiar with because it's in the news.

SWAN: How important is translation for today's world, and especially for schoolchildren?

M.J.: In Haiti, the schools do not have many resources. Furthermore, most of the limited resources they have are either outdated or in the French language. This lack of resources is a significant barrier to learning. From my experience, translating and adapting for students in their language and culture allows them to understand the concepts better.

The translated and adapted materials prepare them to become better students and empower them not only for themselves but also for their country and the world.

SWAN: In the Caribbean, as in other regions, it sometimes feels as if countries are divided by language. How can people in the literary and education spheres help to bridge these linguistic "borders"?

M.J.: No language medium is shared universally by all Caribbean peoples. However, we have a shared history and identity. I began to appreciate Jamaican Patois better when I learned how its syntax was very similar to that of Haitian Creole. Both languages have roots in the Fon language. With translation and education, we will realize that we have lot of in common. This realization will lead to a desire to learn more about each other's languages.

SWAN: How do you see your translation projects evolving to reach a wider audience?

M.J.: I'm glad you asked that question. I'm working on a project that I'm very excited about because I know that it will achieve this exact purpose. It's a transformational project that will not only enlighten, educate and empower people, it will also serve to bridge the linguistic gap by sharing our common human experiences across the globe.

It's my latest book, and I'll be launching it this summer. I'm looking forward to sharing it with the world. – SWAN

Photos: Marleen Julien by Walter Aleman Photography and Events; the cover of one of Julien’s translations into Haitian Creole. 

Follow The Caribbean Translation Project on Twitter: @CaribTranslate.