H-Haiti Blog: Vodou in Translation: A Roundtable on the English-Language Translation of Vodou (with Patrick Bellegarde-Smith, Kaiama Glover, Carolyn Shread, and Kate Ramsey)
A powerful conversation is now up at the H-Haiti blog:
Vodou in Translation: A Roundtable on the English-Language Translation of Vodou
Introduction: Haiti and Matters of Translation
By Siobhan Marie Meï and Nathan H. Dize
It is important to begin by thinking about why translation matters. While translations have always been integral to cultural systems— to the shaping of new ideologies, politics, and philosophies and as a historical form of resistance to cultural hegemony and processes of censorship— translations in Western literary traditions have historically been understood prescriptively, as projects and products largely defined as “linguistic transpositions;” literary recreations derived from an original, “authentic” source. In the field of translation studies these perspectives have shifted greatly, particularly in the past fifty years, as translation is increasingly perceived as “an ethical, political, and ideological activity, rather than as a mechanical linguistic exercise.” In her 2006 article “Translation: Ethics, Ideology, Action,” Maria Tymoczko draws on the genealogy of translation studies to illustrate the ways in which major world historical events (such as WWII and the Cold War) coupled with the advent of descriptive, cultural, and postcolonial studies in the academy, have permanently shifted the ways in which translations are studied and perceived within cultural systems. Translations are no longer conceived of as merely the products of a transfer of meaning between two linguistic codes, but are now understood to be embedded in ideological and socio-cultural contexts and shaped by the agency, perspectives, and interpretations of translators and their publishing institutions. Thinking critically about translation as a process that is inherently shaped by ideological factors is important because it draws our attention to the story beyond the story— to the grammar of translator agency, to the ideologies that shape institutional exigencies, and to the narratives perpetuated about what the market supposedly demands.
In the context of translations of Haitian literatures into English, an attentiveness to the story of translation is key, particularly given that representations of Haiti in the global theatre remain, to use Gina Athena Ulysse’s phrasing, “rhetorically and symbolically incarcerated”— restricted by the persistence of stereotypes that simultaneously alienate and victimize the nation and its communities. Michel-Rolph Trouillot attributes these stereotypes in part to the production of history itself, in which the social process of history is consistently privileged over narratives about that process. This privileging and subsequent establishment of “historical fact,” becomes possible “because theories of history rarely examine in detail the concrete production of specific narratives.” Trouillot and Ulysse along with numerous other artists, scholars, musicians, educators, and writers have worked and are working to challenge stereotypes through the production and circulation of “specific narratives” of and about Haiti: Ulysse’s trilingual English-Kreyòl-French text, Why Haiti Needs New Narratives, traces her public engagement on the issue of representations of Haiti in the media, poet laureate of Boston, Danielle Legros Georges, has released multiple collections of poetry that negotiate her identity and life in Boston as a Haitian-American, and scholars such as Leslie G. Desmangles Kate Ramsey, Michel DeGraff, Elizabeth McAlister, and Millery Polyné have publicly attended to the problematic spelling of Vodou as “voodoo” in both popular and academic contexts. These are but a few of the interventions that constitute a tradition of engagement with the public in an effort to challenge damaging and restrictive representations of Haiti in North American and European popular media.