Haiti in Translation: Translating Kannjawou by Lyonel Trouillot, an interview with Gretchen Schmid
Less than two years before the Haitian government called on the US and other international allies to send troops to help secure the country's infrastructure in the wake of President Jovenel Moïse's assassination, the United Nations brought an end to their 15-year occupation. MINUSTAH (UNITED NATIONS STABILIZATION MISSION IN HAITI) began under the guise of peacekeeping following the ouster of President Jean Bertrand Aristide, continued in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, and ceded power in 2017 to a scaled-down UN mission called "United Nations Mission for Justice Support in Haiti" (MINUJUSTH), which formally ended on October 15, 2019. Though the two UN missions purported to support "stabilization" and "justice," to Haitians and anyone paying attention to the malevolent impact the missions had on the country's citizens only one word amply describes the nature of the UN involvement in Haiti: Occupation.
The lived experience of Haitians living in downtown Port-au-Prince during the UN occupation is central to the plot of Lyonel Trouillot's 2016 novel Kannjawou, which was translated into English by Gretchen Schmid and published by Schaffner Press in 2019. Over the last year, I had the chance to discuss the English edition of Kannjawou with Gretchen Schmid. During our conversation we talk about her journey to becoming a translator, the importance and impact of translating literature from Haiti, as well as some of the ways that Kannjawou urges English readers to reevaluate the way we view the NGO economy and the notion of "peacekeeping." I hope you'll enjoy our conversation.
Nathan H Dize: Since this is your début book-length translation, would you be able to present yourself, your background, what other works you've translated, and how you got started performing the work of literary translation?
Gretchen Schmid: Of course. My main job is working in publishing: I’m an associate editor at Viking Penguin, part of Penguin Random House. But before I worked at PRH, I was an assistant agent at The French Publishers’ Agency, which is the New York office of the BIEF (Bureau international de l’édition française). They work with French publishers to try to get the English-language rights to their books sold to American publishers. It was a perfect job for me because I had majored in French literature at Columbia, and this was one of the rare jobs outside of academia that actually required me to speak and read in French. (Nice to have an answer to questions like, “French literature, huh? What kind of job does that get you?”)
Working at the FPA is how I started translating. Because there are so few American editors who can read French, our pool of potential editors for French books was very limited. In an effort to mitigate this problem, I started working after-hours on translating short samples from the books so that non-Francophone editors could still have something to consider. One of those sample translations, for a gorgeous and lyrical book called 78 by Sébastien Rongier, was published by the Brooklyn Rail, which was very exciting and encouraged me to continue.
Kannjawou actually wasn’t my début book-length translation! At the FPA, one of my colleagues had sold a book called La Sagesse du Petit Prince—a biography of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry that aimed to draw connections between his life and his most famous work—to an editor at Skyhorse Press, and that editor was in need of a translator, so my colleague recommended me for the job.
NHD: Oh, my apologies for missing that translation! How did you come to translate Kannjawou, a novel whose title evokes a sentiment of celebration, by Lyonel Trouillot? Were you the person who selected the novel? Did this emerge from an interest in French Caribbean and/or Haitian literature? What motivated you to take up this exciting project?
GS: My translation of Kannjawou is once again thanks to the FPA, and to Tim Schaffner, who is doing the Lord’s work over at Schaffner Press in Arizona. My former colleague Alice Tassel, who’s now the director of the FPA, read the book in 2015, just before it came out in France, and fell in love with it, but she struggled to find an American publisher willing to take it on. That year, I went to BookExpo America in Chicago to meet with publishers on behalf of the agency and met Tim for the first time. He was a delight, and interested in our Kannjawou pitch, but didn’t have quite the level of French required to properly evaluate the book. I felt sure that it would be the right fit for his list of international novels, and I wanted to try to translate it, so I put together a comprehensive reader’s report and sample translation for him to consider. It worked! I’m so grateful for that. He decided to buy the rights to the book and bring me on as the translator.
Anyway, those are the logistics of how I came to translate Kannjawou, but you also asked what motivated me to do it. Well, first of all, Trouillot is a literary master. What an absolute honor to be able to engage with his work on such a deep level, and to play a part in bringing it to a new audience! The previous translator of some of Trouillot’s books, Linda Coverdale, is a legend in the literary translation community, and it’s frankly astonishing to me that I would be able to follow in her footsteps in some small way.
I’m also particularly excited, both as an editor and as a translator, about publishing Francophone authors from outside of France. I love a Parisian love story as much as anyone else, but there’s so much more to Francophone literature than that. Haitian literature in particular is so little-known in the United States, aside from perhaps the works of Edwidge Danticat. But presses like Archipelago, Deep Vellum, and SUNY Press have been publishing brilliant Haitian novels in the U.S. for years, and I was happy to play a small role in contributing to that effort.
NHD: This novel has quite a few layers! Depending on the reader's familiarity with Haiti's history and the geography of Port-au-Prince, this novel could be quite challenging. The majority of the novel takes place on Rue de l'Enterrement (Burial Street) and in the neighborhood surrounding the Grand Cemetery and Sylvio Cator Stadium and, though the novel is set in the 2000s, there are constant references to the first US Occupation of Haiti (1915-1934). I felt like you handled these aspects quite well. Was it difficult for you to find your way into this novel as the translator? What type of research did you have to perform in order to handle the references to the first US occupation of Haiti and the geography of Port-au-Prince?
GS: I’ll be the first to admit that, like most Americans, I was largely ignorant of the history of Haiti before embarking on this project. Reading Laurent Dubois’s Haiti: The Aftershocks of History before I began translating helped immensely, but I also had to look things up on the Internet often as I encountered them in the book—everything from maps of Port-au-Prince to the infamous photograph of Charlemagne Péralte, distributed throughout Haiti by the Marines via airplane during the first Occupation as a warning to those who resisted.
In other words, I lacked experiential knowledge, and so I tried to compensate via extensive research. I enjoy this type of research; to me, it’s one of the most rewarding parts of translating. I feel very lucky to have the entire Internet, in addition to books and other written resources, at my disposal. I wouldn’t have been able to do the book any kind of justice without it.
NHD: The novel might be described as a sort of journal novel in which the narrator provides a first-person account of life in downtown Port-au-Prince in the twenty-first century. I found some of the narrator's most poignant, poetic observations related to the status of the NGO occupation of Haiti –– what some scholars have called "the NGO Republic"–– and the power dynamics that privilege foreign, rather than local actors. These passages were beautifully rendered by you as well. Do you see this novel, particularly in English translation, as an instructive tale for observers of Haiti today? What does this novel have to offer someone who is unfamiliar with the country and its history, or perhaps a reader who might not understand how humanitarian missions and "well-intentioned" organizations can cause harm?
GS: I’m glad you called that out, because that particular message—about the futility, and often downright harmfulness, of many humanitarian missions—is what I found most compelling (and, yes, instructive) about the book as an American. I think it’s easy for well-meaning, privileged white people to view the citizens of poorer countries with a mix of pity and condescension, and to try to ease their discomfort with their own relative privilege by “helping” via humanitarian missions. But in Kannjawou, that dynamic is completely flipped: the narrator views Sandrine (one of the NGO officers) with pity and condescension, and it’s quite clear that she and the other officers in Port-au-Prince provide no real “aid” whatsoever (other than maybe the money they’re willing to pay to party at local bars). In fact, their petty dramas and sloppy partying only make things worse for the locals charged with cleaning up after them. The NGO officers we meet in this book are naïve and self-centered at best, cruel at worst, and they make no attempts to interact with the people around them, even as they congratulate themselves for
changing the world.
It is not lost on me that I, a white, upper-middle-class, leftist American, have much more in common with Sandrine and the other NGO officers than with the narrator of the novel. For that reason, it was a little uncomfortable for me to read—but uncomfortable in a good way, the kind that means that by the time you finish the book, you will see the world a little differently.
All that said, I don’t think Trouillot intended this novel to be an “instructive tale,” as you say, for people like me. I don’t think he wrote it with a privileged white audience in mind.
NHD: In an attempt to avoid spoilers, let's just say that the novel demonstrates the importance of stories, but especially books, in helping people imagine hopeful futures. In a sense, fiction allows us to see people, places, a world beyond the oppressive realities of colonialism and occupation as folks experience it today. Is this how you would interpret the role of stories and books in Kannjawou?
GS: Sure, I think that’s part of it: the narrator’s love of literature allows him to escape his circumstances, albeit temporarily. But stories are also what bring some of the characters together. Trouillot’s own words can explain this better than I can:
“Novels. It’s one of the things that connect us. Him, an almost-rich man who in his childhood had the luxury of choosing which of his two parents he liked better, who lives in a neighborhood where flowers still grow, in a two-story house with a guestroom, who possesses a car he rarely uses and a library in which there are more books than there are tombs in the first section of the great cemetery that encloses our street. And me, a little guy from Burial Street who had only his brother Popol for a parent, who has never eaten to satisfaction, who has never been taught the art of holding a fork. In his childhood, he read to appease boredom. For me, it was often to appease hunger. The truth is, whether you’re a nobody’s son or a notary’s son, you need a lot of sentences and characters in order to build up a sort of land in your head, filled with hiding places and refuges. With all due respect to Wodné, who hates when people move, our heads are full of travel. The little professor and I—he in his bedroom belonging to the son of a notary, where his mother would come in to tuck him in and turn out the light, and I on my sidewalk curb or in the little house without a shower of a bathroom that I share with Popol—we have been, on occasion, swordsmen and astronauts, rebellious and passive, inventors, knights in shining armor, prison escapees, poets and mercenaries. It doesn’t matter if our reasons are different; the little professor and I have walked far in the world of books, where we’ve met many people whose destinies have haunted us, just like those of the living.” (18–19)
Wow—typing that out, I’m spotting all sorts of edits I wish I could make.
NHD: I'm wondering if we could shift to a few questions about the book as an object. In a way, we might think of the book's physical appearance and presentation as the first act of translation that readers encounter. How did you and Schaffner Press approach the translation and marketing of a book with a title in Haitian Creole? Who are the imagined readers of this book and how did you seek to attract that readership?
GS: As an editor at Penguin, I think about these questions a lot, but as the translator of this book I left them mostly to Tim Schaffner. When I originally pitched this book to him, I did have a readership in mind—the readers of other gorgeously written and highly political novels in translation such as Ananada Devi’s Eve Out of Her Ruins (trans. Jeffrey Zuckerman) or Négar Djavadi’s Disoriental (trans. Tina Kover), as well as readers of Haitian classics like Edwidge Danticat’s Breathe, Eyes, Memory. But I also hoped that it might appeal to a broader readership. It is “A Novel of Haiti,” as Tim marketed it, but it’s also a coming-of-age novel about a group of friends, and the power of stories and parties and dancing to help us through.
The cover is great, isn’t it?! I had no input in that process, but when Tim showed it to me I was delighted to see that it was designed by Evan Johnston, a New York designer I’d actually met before through a previous job. It wasn’t at all what I was expecting, but I love that it conveys the sense of a big party, a kannjawou, as well as the outsider status of the main character. It’s eye-catching but manages to retain a sense of longing, too.
NHD: Although I wasn't expecting the novel to have the illustrations from the cover carry through into the text itself, I quite liked the way that they were interspersed throughout. They meshed well with the playful tone of the book. Was this a choice you helped make as a translator and an editor in your own right? What do these illustrations seek to impress upon the reader? Did you consider other illustrations, such as a map of the area of Port-au-Prince in which the novel is set?
GS: I wasn’t expecting it, either! Again, this was all Tim’s choice. A map would have been a good idea, but it never came up in conversation.
NHD: I noticed that Madison Smarrt Bell blurbed Kannjawou, praising the novel and its author by likening Trouillot to Leo Tolstoy, Gabriel García-Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, Robert Stone, and Russell Banks. Since Kannjawou openly discusses matters of literary taste––the narrator and the little professor notably disagree about the literary merits of Giorgio Bassani's The Garden of Finzi-Contini and Marie Chauvet's Daughter of Haiti––how do you interpret Smartt Bell's choice to relate Lyonel Trouillot to an exclusively male group of writers who many would consider part of a world literature canon? Translators obviously do not write their own blurbs or necessarily have a role in commissioning endorsements, but I'm wondering about the impact of this gesture, especially when women authors and women translators often still struggle to achieve equal footing with their male contemporaries. Would you be willing to weigh in as the novel's translator and as a woman translating a male author?
GS: As a woman, it did not occur to me to feel offended in any way—merely grateful to Madison Smartt Bell for providing such a detailed, rich, and selling blurb. I think if you ask most people today, “Who is Russia’s most famous novelist?” you will get answers that range from Tolstoy to Chekhov to Dostoyevsky to Pushkin—maybe Nabokov or Bulgakov. All men. Is this because there are no incredible Russian women writers? Of course not. It’s because we have not yet had enough time to really transform the classic literary “canon” into something less white and male, at least not in the minds of most people. Calling Trouillot the “Teffi” or the “Petrushevskaya” of Haiti wouldn’t have had the same impact. But ask me again in one hundred years, and hopefully I’ll have a different answer for you. In the meantime, I highly recommend Teffi’s Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea.
NHD: As mentioned before, Kannjawou is a Haitian Creole noun meaning "party" or "celebration," and it is one of many Haitian Creole words used in the novel. How did you approach the translation of these terms? I noticed that the novel carries a glossary at the end with the Francographic forms of the Haitian Creole terms. Did you consider transcribing these terms into the current Haitian Creole orthography rather than leaving them in the French form? What informed your decision to choose the spelling "voodoo" instead of "Vodou," the official spelling of the word by practitioners of this Haitian religious faith?
GS: Trouillot wrote this novel in French, choosing to keep certain terms un-translated from Creole, and the French publisher included a glossary at the end of the book for those terms. I translated all the French to English and left the Creole as is, including the glossary. My decision to use “voodoo” was based purely on the fact that it is the most common American spelling.
Reading between the lines of your question, I think you are calling out a blind spot in my translation, which is my lack of knowledge of Haitian Creole. And I think you are right! If I were to translate another novel of Trouillot’s, I would seek out a Creole speaker to consult. This is one of the interesting things about literary translation—that translations are rarely edited by someone who reads the source language and is able to consult the original source while editing. The onus is on the translator, or the author, to seek out this kind of editing on their own. It’s much like how fact-checking is not usually a part of the book publishing process, either.
NHD: In closing, we always ask translators to share with our readers one piece of advice you have for folks who are aspiring or early-career translators. What would you say to someone who wants to get involved in professional translation or the publishing of literature in translation?
GS: As an early-career translator myself, I feel ridiculous giving advice. But I suppose I can say: find a day job, or learn to translate technical material that’s more in-demand (contracts, software manuals, etc.). Very few people can make a living from literary translation alone.
As an editor, I would say that your pitching and networking skills are just as important as your translation skills, at least when it comes to getting your translations published. If you want to translate books for a trade press, you are the one who is going to need to take the initiative to reach out to editors and convince them to take on your project, especially if you aren’t well known as a translator. And remember that editors are often disinclined to publish translations: they’re more expensive, and they’re often harder to publicize, unless the author speaks the target language. Find out which editors publish translations, and what types of books they tend to publish; keep an eye out for trends in the marketplace and bestselling or award-winning books that might travel well; and develop relationships with publishers in both your source and target language so that you can effectively serve as a liaison between the two.