Haiti in Translation: General Sun, My Brother and In the Flicker of an Eyelid by Jacques Stephen Alexis, An Interview with Carrol F. Coates (by Siobhan Marie Meï)
Siobhan Marie Meï, University of Massachusetts Amherst
Welcome to another installment of “Haiti in Translation”! I am so pleased to be contributing to this project. I first discovered “Haiti in Translation” this summer as I was preparing a rationale for my comprehensive exams concerning the circulation and reception of Haitian novels in the anglophone-US American context. I am thrilled to share here my conversation with Professor Carrol F. Coates, a scholar of French and Francophone literature as well as the translator of celebrated authors such as Jacques Stephen Alexis, René Depestre, Assia Djebar, Mariama Barry, and Ahmadou Kourouma.
Our discussion focuses on Coates’s translations of two of Jacques Stephen Alexis’s three novels: General Sun, My Brother (Compère Général Soleil) and In the Flicker of an Eyelid (L’espace d’un cillement), the latter translated in collaboration with Edwidge Danticat. Alexis (1922-1961), a descendant of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, was an international labor rights activist and is a prominent figure in Haitian and Caribbean literature. As a member of the Parti Communiste Haïtien (founded by fellow novelist Jacques Roumain), Alexis was a leader in the protests against president Élie Lescot during the “1946 Revolution”—a political movement that aimed, in part, to protect free speech and the holding of open elections. After the ousting of Élie Lescot, new president Dumarsais Estimé was elected with the help of the military junta—a body that opposed Haiti’s Communist Party. Alexis and other members of the Parti Communiste, such as René Depestre, left the country for Paris. During this time, Alexis wrote prolifically and traveled widely in Europe, South America, Russia, and China. In 1958 Alexis founded the Marxist “Parti d’Entente Populaire” and in the same year helped to organize the Union Intersyndicale Haïtienne—a trade union that soon became targeted by the Duvalier regime. Following the successful coup and rise to power of Fidel Castro, Alexis traveled to Cuba in 1961, from where he then departed for Haiti in an attempt to overthrow the Duvalier government. Upon arrival, Alexis and his associates were caught and likely tortured and killed by Duvalier’s military faction, the Tonton Macoutes.
Coates’s masterful translations of Compère Général Soleil and L’espace d’un cillement bring not only the vibrancy and richness of Alexis’s prose to life in English, but also highlight the historical importance of Alexis as an author and activist who spent and ultimately lost his life advocating for the working people of Haiti.
Siobhan Marie Meï: I’d like to start our conversation—perhaps unsurprisingly— by thinking about introductions. You have translated numerous books by Haitian authors, among them Jacques Stephen Alexis and René Depestre. One of the many things that strikes me when reading your translations is the richness of the paratextual materials you offer readers— the introduction to General Sun, My Brother for example provides not only a brief biography of Alexis but also contextualizes the novels’ themes and central characters within histories of Haitian politics and culture. While some English translations of Haitian literature do include these materials, many do not. As a translator and a scholar of translation, could you comment on the role paratextual materials such as an introduction or an afterword play in introducing Haitian literature to an anglophone-US American audience?
Carrol F.Coates: Concerning intended readership for the two Alexis novels (General Sun... and In the Flicker...), I anticipated that a significant number of my potential readers might be younger Haitians not schooled in French. The validity of these expectations was at least moderately shown when I was invited to present the translation at the Embassy of Haiti in Washington, D. C., in March 2000. A number of Haitian parents asked me to autograph a copy for their children so they could read an important writer from their own culture. Secondly, I expected that a certain number of Haitianists who are not fluent in French might be interested. I have never assumed (although I might have naive hopes) that a general anglophone readership would appear.
Are the paratextual materials (introduction/afterword, bibliography, glossary, footnotes) useful to readers? On occasion, I have received complaints by purists (even among Haitian scholars) who want only the translation of the text, with no added materials to distract their reading. From my first translation, however, I have always assumed that readers who do not read French (or Kreyòl and any other non-English languages) may not have knowledge about the social, literary or historical background. Looking back over my presentations (introduction/afterword) now, I am inclined to think that I included too much background information. It would probably have been better to shorten the presentations and leave to curious readers the effort of informing themselves more about the socio-political background.
I make no apology for the glossaries–non-Haitians would not usually have the multilingual facility of the educated Haitians of Alexis’s time and I would not expect that U.S. readers have Kreyòl-English dictionaries lying around the house. Besides, finding certain terms (especially birds, plants, or proverbs) might be difficult with a traditional dictionary. Edwidge Danticat has been extremely skillful in inserting Haitian words or phrases along with English translations into her anglophone fiction. In his novels, Alexis footnotes occasionally, but footnotes interrupt reading, and they are more expensive for a publisher. The readers can ignore appended glossaries and historical presentations if they choose. The glossary immediately follows the text of the novel in both General Sun... (pp. 291-297) and In the Flicker... (pp. 237-240). For the later translation, elements of the "Brief Guide to Kreyòl Pronunciation" were incorporated at the head of the Glossary (p. 237).
I particularly appreciate Alexis’s keen awareness of historical background. Each of Alexis’s three novels is inscribed in a specific socio-political setting. The principal action of General Sun... is 1937, under Pres. Sténio Vincent; in Les Arbres musiciens we are under the presidency of Pres. Élie Lescot in 1941, shortly before Pearl Harbor; In the Flicker... takes place in 1948, at a moment of worker unrest in Haiti and Cuba, under the presidency of Dumarsais Estimé.
SMM: To retrace our steps a little bit, but to stay on the topic of introductions, how did you first become interested in Jacques Stephen Alexis’s work?
CC: In January 1985, I returned from three years in a dual role as director of Binghamton University’s junior year abroad at the Université de Provence (Aix-Marseille I) in Aix-en-Provence and as exchange lecturer in the Modern Language Department (French). There, I was working solely with French literature–primarily 19th-century novelists and 17th-century theater and poetry.
Back in the United States, I continued teaching Québec literature alongside my regular French courses, but found fewer students interested. I began to read Haitian writers, first René Depestre and, by association, Jacques Stephen Alexis. At Binghamton, we had quite a few Haitian students in the later ‘80s and then the ‘90s, so I began to organize courses on Haitian literature. From 1989 through 1995, I presented a number of papers at national and international meetings on Haitian writers (René Depestre, Marie Vieux-Chauvet, Lilas Desquiron, Paulette Poujol-Oriol, Franck Fouché, Franketienne, Massillon Coicou, et al.). Although I have forgotten when I first read Alexis, I presented a first paper on him at the meeting of the Haitian Studies Association in Montrouis (Haiti) on All-Saints Day, 1996.
SMM: I first discovered Alexis via your translation of L’espace d’un cillement, which was taught as part of a graduate course on Caribbean Literature at UMass Amherst this past semester. As a class, we spent time discussing Alexis’s prose, which has a poetry-like thickness: small moments, expressions, emotions, colors, are expanded, stretched out, are made to blossom over several paragraphs or even pages. Your translations capture the complexity of the ways in which poetry and politics mingle in Alexis’s writing—could you comment on translating Alexis’s style and perhaps the ways in which you see his political activism as connected to the richness in imagery and language his fiction offers?
CC: Politics, writing, and theater were important aspects of daily life in the Alexis family. There was pride in the activities of ancestors (Dessalines was among Jacques Stephen’s ancestors). Stephen Alexis, Jacques’s father, arrested more than once, was at once a journalist, a novelist (Le Nègre masqué, 1933), and a playwright. Communism was considered as a promising political program by a number of Haitian intellectuals, including Jacques Roumain, founder of the Communist Party of Haiti. It is hardly surprising that, in 1945, Jacques Stephen became a student leader in the protest movement against President Élie Lescot. This led to the ousting of Lescot in January 1946.
This abbreviated glance at the political history of Haiti toward the middle of the 20th century is simply intended to suggest that politics and poetry (literary art, theater) were essential and inseparable in the thought of Haitian intellectuals. Jacques Stephen was highly talented, but he was not exceptional in making politics and history an integral part of his literary thought. Maybe it is not exaggerated to see each of his major protagonists, such as Hilarion (Compère Général Soleil) and El Caucho (L’espace d’un cillement), as metaphors for an integrated, even heroic stance toward the rigors of life in Haiti at that time.
SMM: I think your use of the word “heroic” in reference to the roles of El Caucho, Hilarion, and even La Niña Estrellita (L’espace d’un cillement) as representatives of the Haitian working class is intriguing, as I think this brand of heroism is distinct to Alexis’s writing. For example, though each character is engaged in their own struggle against economic and social systems of exploitation, this struggle manifests itself destructively in their own actions: Hilarion engages in misogynistic acts of violence against his wife, La Niña Estrellita is dismissive and occasionally cruel to those she works with at the Sensation Bar. In Alexis’s prose these characters’ humanity—flaws and vices included— seem to be intrinsically connected to the sense of heroism and thus agency you mention.
CC: You point toward a central element of L’espace... in mentioning La Niña’s role. Her search for meaning in her own life remained an unrealized dream at the end of the novel. Alexis foresaw a sequel entitled L’Eglantine that he never completed. A fragment, “Dieu Premier,” was published posthumously in La Nouvelle Revue Française (No. 235) in July 1972. I forget the details now, but La Niña and El Caucho were to meet again and renew their truncated romance.
SMM: In addition to the richness of Alexis’s writing there is also the difficulty of translating the complex linguistic landscape of Haiti, one that includes not only French and Kreyòl, but also Spanish, Latin, and occasionally English. What are some of your strategies for addressing this linguistic diversity in your translations? In addition, I noticed that while General Sun includes a glossary for Kreyòl terms, In the Flicker does not—did your approach to treating Kreyòl in translation shift between these novels?
CC: By the time I was working on the draft translation of In the Flicker..., I began trying to reduce the number of footnotes even more severely and to limit terms included in the glossary.
I always chose to italicize the foreign terms in the translation. Alexis also italicized many terms, but often left simply the un-italicized French word, when it was also part of the Kreyòl vocabulary. It should be noted that Kreyòl had no generally accepted orthography before the 1980s, so Alexis, like other Haitian writers, spelled according to his own sense. In my two English versions of Alexis’s novels, I chose to convert all Kreyòl words and expressions to the more recent standard orthography developed by Haitian linguists. This standard orthography is used in the Haitian Creole-English Bilingual Dictionary (project director Albert Valdman) published by the Creole Institute at Indiana University, but it was not available to me when I was working on the translations.
More recently, I have found texts in which the non-English terms were not italicized and it struck me that the italicization is not really necessary.
SMM: General Sun, My Brother and In the Flicker of an Eyelid were published by Gallimard within four years of one another, 1955 and 1959 respectively. Your translations of these texts were published by University of Virginia Press within a similar timeline with just three years between them (with Edwidge Danticat joining you for In the Flicker…). I wonder if you could comment on what life was like for you— perhaps both professionally and personally— during the years you spent translating Alexis’s prose?
CC: At first, I had enjoyed the raucously erotic political humor of René Depestre in The Festival of the Greasy Pole (1979), but I soon tired of his “géo-libertinage,” which was perhaps as much personal as it was literary, and I leave it to others to reconsider his work. As I progressed in reading Alexis, I began to appreciate his overall strategy of presenting 20th-century Haitian history with a concentrated focus on specific critical moments and Haiti’s place in an international context and I still consider him as a more important writer in the realm of modern Haitian fiction.
I published a couple of excerpts from Alexis’s second novel, Les Arbres musiciens, in journals but became distracted by the project of translating the shorter third novel, In the Flicker..., in collaboration with Edwidge Danticat. Les arbres..., the longest of Alexis’s three novels, is important because it depicts President Élie Lescot’s clandestine collaboration with the United States (1940-1941) to expropriate peasant lands for the cultivation of Cryptostegia grandiflora, the “rubber plant,” imported from Australia for the production of latex for the U.S. war effort. It is a story that bears remembering.
Like many colleagues, I was teaching two or three courses per semester during all the time I was working on the Alexis translations. Following the advice of a former Vice-President of Academic Affairs here at Binghamton (the late Norman Cantor), I began getting up at 5:00 a.m. to do my own work before breakfast and departure for the day at the University. With whatever time I managed to take from academic duties and family, I “lived” with Alexis in Haiti–history, political developments, natural resources, traditional wisdom (including Kreyòl and Vodou). In spite of that, I don’t think my students suffered, but my wife and two daughters probably found me distracted at times.
SMM: On the subject of strategies for translating Haitian novels and perhaps francophone Caribbean texts more generally, what advice would you have for a translator of these literatures who is not from the region?
CC: I am reluctant to offer advice from my “advanced senior” standpoint, especially since I am no longer translating in the Caribbean area. In my own case, I did my best to familiarize myself with everything Haitian–Vodou culture, print literature, history, geography, flora and fauna, etc. It strikes me as natural and necessary to immerse oneself in the culture of the people whose literary works I am striving to translate (or to teach) and to do my best to make that existential and intellectual background available to readers or students. In the ‘90s, my participation in the meetings of KOSANBA (the Congress of Santa Barbara, founded by Claudine Michel, Patrick Bellegard-Smith, and Leslie Desmangles gave me a broader understanding of Vodou.
SMM: I know that I often feel the most connected to my field (Comparative Literature) when I am translating, though I sometimes feel discouraged from pursuing longer translation projects due to pressure to produce other forms of scholarship such as articles or reviews. Could you discuss how literary translation has and continues to enrich your work as a scholar and professor?
CC: In an ordinary sense, I have been a long-time translator. I was trained in translation and interpretation (Russian) at the Army Language School (Monterey) during the calendar year 1955, during the Cold War. There were some exceptional Russian instructors at Monterey, including the late Professor Vladmir Markov (a young poet exiled from the USSR) and Professor Marianna Artemevna Poltaratskaia, who left California to help the University at Albany develop a Russian program and collaboration with Moscow University.
After spending 1 1/2 years translating various documents (mostly from Russian and German) in a military intelligence unit in Frankfurt am Main (1956-1957), I applied to Yale University to do a Ph.D. in French. Although I took a couple of graduate courses in Russian at Yale, I moved largely toward French literature and began full-time teaching in French at Ohio University in 1960. I actually taught elementary and intermediate Russian at Ohio and, once more, at Binghamton University in the first years, but gave that up because I realized that I was losing touch with the language and culture when my attention was devoted primarily to French language and literature.
For years, I also left translation aside. It was somewhere in the late ‘80s that Marilyn Gaddis Rose (whom I had met on the Queen Mary in September 1952 as we headed to France with a Fulbright scholarship) invited me to work in Binghamton’s Translation Studies Program. Roughly at that time, I undertook my first published translation (Depestre’s Le mât de Cocagne), followed by my two Alexis translations and a couple of West African francophone novels.
From the late 90s to the early 2000s, I took over the series editorship of CARAF Books (translations from Caribbean and African francophone literatures; University of Virginia Press) from the founding editor, A. James Arnold. This was an interesting task, but it involved a measure of occasionally intense work for no reward except for copies of the published translations and the satisfaction of seeing the finished product. Working with the translators had its delights and moments of tension. Some of the translators were highly competent and conscientious about their work. On one occasion, however, I had difficulty in seeing the project to its conclusion. I was dealing with a younger, academic translator who knew only French and English, while the novel in question had a number of expressions in an African language. The translator became indignant that I expected a conscious effort to deal with the third-language expressions rather than simply leaving them as they were, with no note or explanation.
Let me mention in passing that I consider translation and interpretation hard work. A translator/interpreter can, exceptionally, make a good living when working in a secure position with the government or a large enterprise with international dealings. Literary translators, however, would not usually have beans on the table everyday if they depended on their translation for income. Only an exceptional person, with some luck as well as skill, becomes an internationally renowned and financially-rewarded translator. I mention these details of personal history in testimony to a kind of occasional and circumstantial involvement in the career of translation. I find myself to be an interloper in the field, guilty by occasional fits of serious translation activity, but never wanting to pose as an ordained or theoretically indoctrinated “translator.”
Now, in an unsanctioned incursion back into Russian, I have been reading the Basni (verse fables) of Ivan Andreevich Krylov, published under the early 19th-century regime of Tsar Aleksandr I. Translation of these fables has become a tool used in hope of uncovering some unnoticed details of the Krylovian genius for satirical poetry. It is curious to me that I have followed such a long and drawn-out path leading me to a serious mode of poetic inquiry where translation is essential, but not a literary goal in itself
Works by Jacques Stephen Alexis
Compère Général Soleil, Paris: Gallimard, 1955 (General Sun, My Brother, trans. & introd. Carrol F. Coates, Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1999).
L’espace d’un cillement, Paris: Gallimard, 1959 (In the Flicker of an Eyelid, trans. & introd. Carrol F. Coates and Edwidge Danticat, Charlottesville: Univeristy of Virginia Press, 2002).
Les arbres musiciens, Paris: Gallimard, 1957.
“Vodou:... The Soul of the People,” an excerpt from The Musician Trees. Trans. Carrol
F. Coates, Callaloo, 27, 3 (Summer 2004), 621-628.
“An excerpt from Les Arbres Musiciens,” Trans. Carrol F. Coates, Callaloo, 29, 2
(Spring 2006), 274-288.
Romancero aux étoiles, Paris: Gallimard, 1960 (“The Enchanted Second Lieutenant,” trans. Sharon Masingale Bell, Callaloo 20, 3, summer 1997: 504-15.)
“Du realism merveilleux des Haïtiens,” Présence Africaine, June-Nov. 1956, 8-10: 245-71.
“Dieu premier,” La Nouvelle Revue Française, No. 235 (July 1972), 48-67. (Posthumous
publication of an excerpt from Alexis’s unfinished novel, L’Églantine)
Additional Translations and Scholarly Works by Carrol F. Coates
René Depestre, Le Mât de Cocagne, Paris: Gallimard, 1979 (The Festival of the Greasy Pole, trans. & introd. Carrol F. Coates, Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1990).
Carrol F. Coates, “Translating the Haitian Novel: Problems of Caribbean Discourse,” Pp. 253-257 in Keystones of Communication. Proceedings of the 34th Annual Meeting of the American Translators' Association, October 6-10, 1993. October 6-10, 1993, Medford, NJ: Learned Information, Inc., 1993.
Carrol F. Coates, “The Political Subtext of Translation: Examples from Francophone Literature,” Pp. 215-223 in Marilyn Gaddis Rose, ed., Translation Perspectives IX, Binghamton: Center for Research in Translation, 1996.
Siobhan Marie Meï is a PhD student in Comparative Literature at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She received her BA from Mount Holyoke College and her MA in Comparative Literature from La Sorbonne Nouvelle. Her translations and original poetry have appeared in carte blanche, The Adirondack Review, Transference and Asymptote. Siobhan translates French, Haitian, and Belgian poetry and is currently co-translating a collection of poetry by North Korean defector Imu Baek. Her research interests include Caribbean and African diaspora literature, translation theory, and women’s writing in early modern France and England.