Best Translated Book Awards Spotlight: The Millions Interviews Linda Coverdale

Linda Coverdale’s translation of Patrick Chamoiseau’s novel Slave Old Man won this year’s Best Translated Books Award in fiction. Shortly after the prize was awarded, Coverdale and I sat down to talk about Chamoiseau’s work and the importance of conveying tone and style in translated works.

The Millions: When did you first encounter this book? It’s the first work of Patrick Chamoiseau’s to be translated in over two decades. You translated him before, Creole Folktales (1995) and School Days (1996). Texaco was published in 1998. What happened then? Was he someone you wanted to continue translating, and it just wasn’t working out?

Linda Coverdale: The first Chamoiseau I ever read was Chronique des sept misères (1986), for a reader report, and I fell instantly in love with this astonishing unknown voice coming bang out of the blue, so when Carcanet Press offered to buy it if I would translate it, I was miserable saying no, but an honest translator knows when she is overmatched, and I wasn’t anywhere near ready to jump into Martinique. When the late and very great André Schiffrin offered me Au temps de l’antan (1988), however, I knew that I could begin to learn to handle both the language and the terroir with that one, so to speak. The New Press published it as Creole Folktales in 1995, and that was the first time Chamoiseau appeared in English. Baby steps in Creole-inflected text for me, with children’s stories, but they are clever tales of survival in a colonized land, already imbued with the mystique of the storyteller that colors all Chamoiseau’s writing, both in fiction and his essays. The Creole storyteller on the slave plantation becomes a secret agent in enemy territory, where his words must carry out their soul-saving mission in disguise…I started amassing my now huge stashes of books, notes, glossaries, Xeroxes of things Caribbean, all grist for the mill when the translator sets to work.

Then I moved up a notch with Chemin d’école (1994) for School Days in 1996. The word scratcher was born. He would carry his world and Creole tongue into the French empire of language while holding fast to his “inky lifeline of survival”—and he would beat the French at their own literary game. Ten years later, to my joy, the University of Nebraska gave me back that first Chamoiseau crush, Chronicle of the Seven Sorrows (1999), and I was ready: each time the bar is higher, but the terrain is more familiar, so the challenge can again be met and the beauty of the original in its humanity and wisdom can survive.

I’d read L’esclave vieil homme et le molosse when it came out in 1997 and it was breathtaking, a creation myth of such heart and purity. But it had already been bought over here, so that was that. Every once in a while I’d try to find out why it hadn’t appeared in English, but I could never learn the answer. Then The New Press returned from a buying expedition with L’empreinte à Crusoé (2012) for a reader report, but a casual remark revealed that L’Esclave vieil homme et le molosse was back in play after almost 20 years (my second second chance at a Chamoiseau treasure!), so I pounced on it. The New Press acquired it, and then the fun began.

TM: Has Chamoiseau been involved in the translations? If so, to what degree did you work together?

LC: I do sometimes contact an author, either for answers to nagging questions or—if the author speaks English—to ask what she or he thinks of the translation, and in a few cases, as with an author’s first book, we’ve worked together to remedy a few flaws in the original text, and that is always a happy experience.

Patrick Chamoiseau, however, is not only an accomplished novelist, he’s a prolific theoretician, one of the founders of the 1980’s literary movement of Créolité, and he has amply explained his views on this valorization of the Caribbean experience as a reclamation of life-affirming values imperiled by deep remnants of plantation slavery. He has famously championed the essential mystery and multivalence of his language and been sparing in his specific textual explanations, but his translators receive a basic glossary, and whenever I have contacted him, as I did with School Days and Chronicle of the Seven Sorrows, he has helped me with difficult interpretations. My m.o. has always been to do absolutely as much as I can on my own before “bothering” an author, and Chamoiseau, who is now well-known and busy in a million ways, wrote L’Esclave vieil homme et le molosse over 20 years ago.

So I definitely bless the internet: Fighting through that jungle while working on this short novel over many, many months honed my research skills to the point of tracking down even the author’s own recondite sources, and I can honestly say that at length—great length—I finally found the answers to my gazillion questions and then called it quits.

I trust that Chamoiseau is pleased to have had this novel be a finalist for a 2019 National Book Critics Circle Award and a winner of both a French-American Foundation Translation Prize and a Best Translated Books Award in 2019. And I’m delighted.

TM: What is your background with Creole, or with Martinique? It’s clear from the language, the copious notes, and your afterword that this translation is thoroughly researched, but it also feels like lived experience.

LC: My “background” with Creole is simply the love my family has had for languages and books: The idea was to read early, read widely, and read beyond your years. My parents spoke French, I learned French as a child in France, studied German on my own because my mother spoke it, studied Latin and Spanish in school, tried to learn Russian on my own, earned a doctorate in French literature, studied Italian (messed up by my Spanish), and failed risibly at Dutch (screwed up by German and English). Before the Internet took hold, I think I knew the location of every little library in New York City with a dictionary of any French Caribbean Creole, and translating works by the Haitian authors Lyonel Trouillot and René Philoctète gave me more background. I also translated the Martinican writer Raphaël Confiant, whose magisterial dictionary of Martinican Creole is itself a teaching tool of unparalleled complexity.

If you love languages, you get a feel for them and instincts that can’t be measured but which operate as if on their own, and despite the hazards of sometimes-chaotic spelling and regional variations—if you keep at it, you can track things down. I searched for the meaning of one word for months, off and on, and finally found telling clues in a Polish Ph.D. dissertation on School Days that quoted a passage including the word, and my vestigial Russian told me only that the word was an obscenity, but that was enough to dissect it into separate Martinican Creole words, allow for the optional adhesion of the definite article to a noun, in its diminutive form, and bingo: I had my word in English. Confirmed by an amused native speaker.

And NYC is full of Caribbeans: I found Martinicans delighted to help my sleuthing, even relatives of Édouard Glissant who were invaluable in their discussions of his often gnomic writings. In short, this translation was a major adventure, one that at times confounded me but in the end came out just as I had hoped.

As for the “lived” experience, I’ve often gone to the Caribbean, and over the years have been to most of the Guadeloupe Islands: Basse-Terre, Grande-Terre, Les Saintes, Marie-Galante, La Désirade, and along with the rain forests of Costa Rica in particular, they’ve been models of sensory overload: sunlight shattering through the lush tropical overstory, standing inside a massive hollow silk-cotton tree listening to the invisible life all around—these things take root, branch out into words, and imagination takes things from there.

It may seem strange, but I no longer really want to go to Martinique after all these years. I’ve grown used to the island in my mind.

TM: In addition to your afterword and endnotes, you open the book with a translator’s note. These are all valuable and interesting additions to the book, and I was happy to have them. What do you see their role as? Are they essential for a reader, or additional?

One of the things that makes Slave Old Man stand out is the original used both French and Martinican Creole. The French itself is not “standard” either, is it? In your opening note, you explain the biggest translation choice you made. The Creole is mostly left in the original, where context explains, or you use combinations, like “djok-strong.” For the most complicated words, you use the endnotes. In between is where the more unusual choice is: “once there was an old back man, a vieux-nègre, without misbehaves or gros-saut orneriness or showy ways.” So words are glossed, almost doubled. It works. It keeps the reader aware of the boundaries of Creole and French, and it fits the tone, where there is already repetition, variation, quick hits of commas, and lists. Did you consider or even try out other routes? What really made this one win for you?  

LC: My approach to translating has always been based on trying to make the English text reflect not just what the French says, but also what it means to native French-speakers, who are immersed—to varying degrees—in the worlds of their language, a language that has ranged widely in certain parts of the real world. Francophone literature is dear to the French, and the writings of Marguerite Duras, for example, born and raised in French Indochina, have more dimensions in their eyes than they do in ours. Unless we do our homework. But who does, before picking up a book?

As a translator, I’m responsible for providing information encoded in the text that is, or might be, more easily accessible to a French reader, and to do that as discreetly as possible. Slave Old Man is a short but extremely complex and dense text. The creolization of the text was so widespread that it had to be maintained without disrupting the story, and frankly, you’ve already outlined the reasons why I did what I did: individual words could either remain untranslated, like gnomic little lumps in the text, or be translated into English, in which case they would simply vanish (not an option), or they would have all been translated in a huge glossary, which would have been a royal pain for the reader. Therefore, they were dealt with in situ, and as you said, this was (literally) fitting.

As for the translator’s note and endnotes, I found them necessary, but any reader is free to ignore them, although ignoring the endnotes would leave big lumps everywhere. The publisher then suggested that I add something about Chamoiseau and Glissant, and that became the afterword—again, optional, but very helpful in context. Here I might add that The New Press could not have been more supportive of my take on this translation, and dared to publish a most unusual text. Because even the “straight” French is quite like an idiolect: Chamoiseau writes in…Chamoiseau.

TM: This is a book that lives or dies on tone/style. The man at the center is a fascinating figure, but it’s the mythical tone, the unique combination of a sort of detached perspective and an immediate, pressing urgency, that makes this a special translation. A significant portion of the book is a mastiff, with an almost magical aura, chasing a slave, who is painfully human, but also already almost a legendary figure, both to other slaves and his master. Are there places in the novel, moments, lines, recurrences, that helped you lock this tone down? The full introduction of the mastiff was one for me, as a reader.

LC: Every reader reads a different story, and will react in a personal way to the text, but my interpretation is locked to the French. And that belongs to Chamoiseau. I try to match his tone, his style, and there’s no strategy to that: I try to stay out of the way. Read; write. I do have favorite moments, of course, they’re everywhere, but as an example of something modest but telling in the seismic balance of the novel, I’d cite page 13, at the end of the first chapter, where the plantation is introduced, its inhabitants sketched…and suddenly chaos sets in. For hours, the master is at a loss, cudgeling his brain, when like a Fate emerging from the shadows to announce the arrival of Destiny, “a clairvoyant négresse advances to tell him, in the sunny flash of her teeth, ‘It’s that one who’s escaped his body, oui.’” That’s it, that’s all, that is her one moment in this tale: the old slave has escaped, the master comes out of his trance—and realizes that the mastiff has been howling for hours! A howling that in Creole (défolmante) is “dis-in-te-gra-ting” the master’s world. The black crone speaks “dans l’embellie de ses dents”: an embellie, in French, is when the sun breaks through clouds, and the author uses the word five times in this tale. On page five, after announcing that the Master adores the savage mastiff because it always catches runaways, Chamoiseau tells us that “The sudden sunshine of his smile [embellie de sourire] breaks through only for this beast.” And a few pages later, we find the tables are turned, as the lowest of his slaves bares her teeth at him in a “sunny flash.” His smile, her teeth: that’s the plot in a nutshell. The second chapter now returns to the beginning, to tell the story from inside that mythical space you described. All a translator has to do is follow Chamoiseau’s lead, carefully, and it’s up to the reader to pay attention.

TM: Now, call it a spoiler if you want, but eventually, the novel switches to first person. The balance between mythical distance and realist immediacy shifts. Both elements are still there, but in a different way than before. It’s a masterful change, by both Patrick Chamoiseau and you. Even the way Creole is used after seems to be a little different. Did you find this a particular challenge, or something that came with your overall conception of the translation?

LC: Again, Chamoiseau leads, I track him, I follow. The moment when the narrative voice shifts to “I” for the runaway is dramatic, but the dog and its master are shifting as well. This book is infused with the spirit of time, and holocaust, and man’s inhumanity to man, and the heroism of great souls in surprising places, and the sacredness of art that, like the Stone, keeps life alive even in death. All the faults, injustices, oppressions, and destructions our species embodies flourish in the institution of slavery, and when the old slave breaks free to run back in time and into nature to shelter in the Stone he becomes, with all his imperfections, a lightning flash of hope, the “crystal of light” the amazed mastiff glimpses on page 90. Slave Old Man has the sublime arc of a rainbow, which leads not to a treacherous pot of gold, but to the Stone, a vision of chaos, acceptance, and redemption.

TM: Do you feel any pressure with role or responsibility translating from cultures with colonial histories like Martinique? And what should readers know about Creole and literature? Where is the movement now? This year the longlist had a book from French and Martinican Creole and one entirely from Haitian Kreyòl, Drézafi. You even discuss the latter in your note.

LC: As I said in the afterword, there is a vision of language and the world that sees the Caribbean as a self-creating model for justice and beauty, to push back against colonialism and imperialism in the widest sense. Control, exploitation, oppression—these are elements of our daily life, really, and they’re writ large in misogyny, racism, all the prejudices we harbor. I haven’t translated a single book that was all sweetness and light; six of my 80 translations were about genocide. Not including the ones about the two World Wars. My responsibility is to the French text, and as long as I’m attuned to this text, and familiar with its terrain, that takes care of everything.

That said, the extreme situation of colonialization still affects much Caribbean literature, for the local slave cultures were exclusively oral, and Chamoiseau makes no bones about his devotion to the orality and the potpourri nature of Creoles, born of the mix of African voices with the particular European language of an island’s white ruling class. His mantra: “I sacrifice everything to the music of the words.” A codicil might well be: “Screw the gaze of The Other: I wander where I please!” So did Shakespeare and Rabelais, and the more the merrier.

And Caribbean Creoles, looked at in their origins—the rubbing together of languages that create new ones—are a model of how language itself lives on. There are only 26 letters in the English alphabet, but the possibilities are infinite. I don’t teach anymore, and would never presume to speak about “Creole and literature,” but I think it’s safe to say that once-marginal voices all through our societies are speaking up, and loudly—some of them, at least—for tolerance and the opening up of all the world’s cultures, which is a welcome and wonderful thing. And we read constantly about the fading and death of languages around the globe, so any books in any Creoles are welcome saviors of the fragile worlds they sustain.