“Playing Catch-Up”: A Conversation with Allison M. Charette on Translating Fiction from Madagascar

Allison M. Charette translates literary work from the French, with a growing interest in the literature of Madagascar. Her translation of Naivo’s Beyond the Rice Fields was long-listed for the Best Translated Book Award in 2018. Among her many accomplishments: an NEA Fellowship in Literary Translation and a PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant. She visited SUNY Potsdam to give a talk on translation and Madagascar in March 2018.



Rick Henry: Why Madagascar?

Allison M. Charette: When I was doing my master’s degree I was looking up literature from France. I had gotten a bunch of books last time I was there, but, one day, I stumbled upon this blog by a woman named Ann Morgan. It’s called A Year of Reading the World. Basically, she works in publishing in the UK and she had this realization that ninety percent of the stuff she was reading was Anglophone, US and UK. She set herself the challenge of reading one novel from every country in the world in a year, and blogging about it while she was holding down her day job. But, obviously as a translator I was thinking, “I wonder what she read from all these Francophone countries. Do I know the books?”

Then she got to Madagascar. Instead of starting the blog as you know, “I read this novel by this author, here’s what I thought about it,” it was, “well, Madagascar was hard because it turns out no novels have ever been translated from this country.” I asked around. She had gotten all these contacts of people and couldn’t find anyone who had been working on a translation that she could read, unpublished, couldn’t find anything besides this bilingual anthology of short stories and poetry called Voices of Madagascar, that Ohio University Press had put out. That was

As a French translator, I never thought that I would be discovering an entire country. You assume that if you want to have a specialty, you’re gonna do OuLiPo, or you’re going to do women writers, or you’re going to be a really good comic book translator. I never thought about there being an entire country before.

It just snowballed very quickly. I think I read her blog for the first time in November/December and by February I had gotten a bunch of books from inter-library loan and started reading them, started working on a couple short stories. That’s when the realization came of “I am completely out of my depth, I have no idea how to properly translate these stories. I can do the words that make sense, but I don’t know what all these things are talking about because I don’t have any basis for Madagascar.”

What I found out later was that Madagascar works by word of mouth. Email exists, but if there are these random people emailing you out of the blue … it’s not a way to get a hold of someone. At the same time, I was doing volunteer translation work for a nonprofit in Switzerland. They’re a children’s rights organization called Humanim. They had just announced a new program that they were opening in partnership with an organization in Madagascar. They had started partnering with organizations in India, and then expanded to different countries from there.

And so of course I emailed my contacts. They had a couple of former interns who were Malagasy, whose families were all still in Tana. They said, “we could probably set you up with a host family.” I had booked my flights by May. In the beginning of August I turned in my thesis and three days later I was on a plane to Tana.

RH: Incredible.

AC: It was insane. It wouldn’t have worked any other way, really.

When I landed in Tana—Tana is Antananarivo, the capital city—when I landed there I had one author contact, whom I had actually exchanged messages with on email, and that was terrifying because I had no idea if anything was going to happen in the five-and-a-half weeks that I was there. But once I landed and once I was a real person, everybody started talking to everybody, especially the literary community. Almost everybody knows each other, or everyone has connections.

I started getting all these meetings. I started getting all these emails from people. I started getting people calling my Malagasy cell phone randomly, including Michèle Rakotoson, who is one of the great masters. She’s the one whose book I’m working on for the NEA fellowship. I didn’t even know she was living in Tana. I thought she was still in France. She had moved back to Madagascar a couple years prior and nothing on line had said she had returned to Madagascar.

I got in touch with the The Professional Union of Malagasy Writers in Tana and Tamatave, where I went to visit. By the end of the time there, I had met with over two dozen authors and I had forty books to take home in my suitcase, and a second suitcase that got closed with duct tape—because otherwise it would not stay closed. Somewhere in that trip I knew that that’s what I was going to be working on for a number of years.

My primary project is just helping, essentially helping fiction from Madagascar play catch-up because you’ve got this body of Algerian writers, and you’ve got this body of Tunisian writers, and all of these Francophone writers who are not French. Even to get enough representation so that readers have more than one or two books to choose from, I think is important. Most people who have been published are published in France. There’s not really an infrastructure yet. It started in the last five or ten years.

Essentially, if you want to get published, you’re going to get published in French and in France. The idea of a literary community is on the writing end as opposed to on a publishing end. There’s the professional organization. There’s starting to be a bunch of readings and salons and workshops and day-long conferences.

RH: Why did you choose Beyond the Rice Fields? You came back with a collection of forty novels, and you started with that.

AC: It was in my top five. Beyond the Rice Fields has such a good balance of the familiar with the unfamiliar. It’s a fascinating look at a piece of history that I had no idea about. But, truthfully, I had to whittle the books down to get some place to start. It got into the top five because I absolutely loved reading it. There are infinite criteria that you can use to define good literature, but when I’m faced with a mountain of books and I have to choose a couple of them to start with, I just go with what I like, because if I’m going to be translating these things, and if it’s not a project that somebody else is hiring me for, I have to like what I’m working on. Otherwise, there’s no point in doing what I do and being a creative who gets paid very little, if I don’t like my job.

I slowly started feeling that this was a good one to start with because it would be an easier sell, both because Naivo (Naivoharisoa Patrick Ramamonjisoa) speaks English, and because it’s this really broad look at Malagasy culture. It teaches both the actual facts of history, but also the culture of the time, its traditions. And, there are the familiar points to hang onto—it’s that familiar “we came in and colonized everybody” narrative from the other side. But gives this different perspective of how it affected the people that who were already there.

RH: Why did you choose Rakotoson’s Lalana?

AC: ‘Lalana’ is a Malagasy word. It means ‘the road’ or ‘the path.’ I chose this one because it’s a contemporary novel about a young man in the capital city who’s dying of AIDS. It is extremely powerful from the subject matter and the way that it’s written, the language that she uses. They start in the capital in this festering, squalid hospital. He wants to see the ocean before he dies. He’s never seen the ocean before and wants to live on an island. So his friend springs him from the hospital, borrows a car, and they take this road trip to the ocean.

It’s not just her descriptions of the hospital and then the road trip in the forest, but her narration. Everything shifts drastically from setting to setting. It’s one of Michèle’s most critically acclaimed books, one of her most popular books. It is a really, heavy emotional trip, but it’s also one of the most gorgeous things I’ve ever read. So I get to work on that now, and she is going to take me on the road trip that inspired her writing this, so that will be an experience. It’s the quintessential translator-author relationship, and I’m very much looking forward to it. She’s the one who has received the Grande Médaille de la Francophone, the grand prize essentially of Francophonia from the Académie française. Most of her early publishing was in France.

The Eighties and Nineties in Madagascar were not a very good time for people who were speaking out against the government, so many authors in that time moved to France. Some of them are still there. Michèle has come back since. She essentially started writing in French because that’s how she could get published. Since her return to Madagascar, she’s been writing more and more in Malagasy, but also more and more autobiographical, travelogue kinds of things in French about her return to Madagascar. She’s written a couple of kid’s books, a couple things that could be considered young adult, if such a genre exists in Madagascar, but they’re for older kids. She has also written plays and had a couple performed in the States in the Nineties. So, she’s been here before.

RH: Whether Malagasy or French, how does the language shape Rakotoson’s work? Is the language asking you to think or phrase things in one way rather than the other?

AC: You’d have to ask her. She really is a masterful writer. She does it in such a way that it doesn’t feel awkward. It feels completely natural that the French language should be dressing up these Malagasy ideas. She has a lot of actual Malagasy language in her books as well. I haven’t figured out how I’m dealing with that yet. It’s going to be a completely different approach than the Malagasy language in Beyond the Rice Fields, because Beyond the Rice Fields is essentially a history lesson. Part of the reason it’s written is to teach people. A lot of the Malagasy is to educate people, but that’s not how it’s used at all in Michèle’s work.

It’s songs. It’s poems. It’s the things that cannot be said in French that are said in Malagasy, with the knowledge that some of her readers will not be able to understand it. I’m sure that most of it is just going to be left as is. But I know there are other things I’m going to be able to do with it and have to do with it. It’s just a matter of what happens with each individual instance of it.

RH: What principles do you bring to your translation?

AC: My guiding philosophy in translation is to give the English readers the same experience as the French readers. Sometimes that means they’re just not going to get it. It’s there for flavor; enjoy it the unfamiliarity. Let it wash over you, bathe in it. That trickles down to a lot of different things, but the idea of doing an “exact translation,” that’s not what I’m going for because you can explain everything about it so that you understand every single nuance that the author was going for. But, to me that goes into the realm of literary criticism, because you can do the same thing with English works. You don’t understand necessarily everything about a book when you read it, especially if it’s older, especially if it’s from a culture that you’re not familiar with.

What I’m doing as a translator is being an author. My advisor in my master’s program said something that has stuck with me: “As a translator, you are trying to write the book how the author would’ve written it if they wrote in English.” That can open up an entire spectrum of different things, of course.

If you’re talking about literature, you’re talking about something creative that has been, for lack of a better word “created.” But if you’re talking about a creative work that has been produced in another language, then you have to use the same degree of creativity, the same amount and hopefully ability of creativeness in a new language. It’s a completely different story when you’re talking about translating commercial stuff, legal documents, financial documents. Those things can be much more of a one-to-one relationship, of this word means this and this word means this.

When you get to creative things, there’s so much more that goes into each word, that it’s rarely just ‘what does this word mean?’ It’s ‘why is this word being used?’

RH: Ezra Pound just takes so many liberties….

AC: Right. There’s a spectrum that runs from you know, very literal translation all the way into adaptation. I don’t like either extreme. I think adaptation does have its place, but… I guess going back to the original question of ‘authoresque,’ I am an author walking in the shoes of the original author. When I am translating, I am not a separate author in my own right. I could rewrite stuff that George Sand has done, but that’s a different kind of work. That’s adaptation, that’s rewriting. To me, that is not translation.

That’s the funny thing about reading people like Ezra Pound’s translations. They’re great stories. But you know they are wildly divergent from the original work. It’s a very interesting question to see how much of your own authorship you have put into this. It’s always a spectrum because every translator will always translate things differently, because in translation you start with being a very close reader of the work. Every reader has a different experience of the book. Since translators are very close readers, every translator is going to have a different experience of the book, and thus is going to translate it differently.

Deborah Smith, who’s the translator of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, which won the Man Booker Prize, actually came under attack from Korean scholars for the differences between her translation and the original. There was a very large debate about it. And, there have been the conversations about how her editor told her to do that. There are all these things that go into translation of course. She recently gave an interview to The Guardian, which has become her official response to all of this. One of the things she says is that she doesn’t believe a definitive translation of something can exist. Which, I completely agree with.

In the States we don’t have this concept of translators as authors quite yet, like Poland, where so much literature being published is in translation. There is one translator of Tolkien in Poland who has become the quintessential translator of Tolkien. People seek out his books specifically. That is a circumstance where the translator is recognized as the author.

Suffice to say that is a case of recognizing that specific translator has their own way of translating Tolkien. And, people have decided that they like that the best.

RH: How many projects do you have going on at once?

AC: Right now I’m working part-time because I have a young son. That’s part of the funny thing with Beyond the Rice Fields. I took maternity leave during the drafting process of that book. The residency that we got at OMI, that was when my son was six months old, and that was the first time I was away from him. That was an experience, but that was the way the book got done, because I had this other part of my life of parenting that I’m trying to balance. So, right now I’ve found a very nice balance of times of day and days that I am a parent and times of day and days where I am a working person, a translator.

So, as a freelancer, how do you define number of projects? I’ve had these active things that I’m in the middle of, and these things that are on the back burner. I’m still doing interviews for Beyond the Rice Fields, clearly. I’m pitching four other books right now. Those are in various stages, but the publishing industry moves slowly. They’re in various stages because some of them have started the pitch process a year ago.

I’m working with an agency that does comic books that I get projects for every so often. I’ve got the children’s book that’s possibly happening, but is on hold for the moment, so who knows. I’m working with Emerging Literary Translators Network in America (ELTNA). I’m tangentially attached to the mentorship program at American Literary Translators Association (ALTA). And then, just everything else that I want to do. There’s some short stories that I’ve been working on that I want to finish up and get going with the submission process. It’s a creative person’s life, with all these things that are in random stages. It’s a kind of juggling, but some of the balls just float for a while.

I read a book, and then I start working on it. The first draft is a flood of getting all of the ideas possible on the page. In my first draft, I just put different options for different words or sentences in brackets in the text of it, so it’s basically unreadable to anyone who’s not me.

I try to go back and forth with a passive edit that’s just looking at the English version on its own, and a passive edit that’s comparing again the French to the English and making sure it’s still ‘faithful’ and correctly representing the French. I just tend to go back and forth on that a little bit.

I love beta readers. I love having other people take a look at things. Being in Rochester is really nice because there’s enough of a literary translation community. We get together usually once a week or once every two weeks and go to a bar and workshop somebody’s thing. If there’s something I get stuck on from the English, perspective I bring it in. There’s ideas thrown out and of course it’s over alcohol so people feel much freer to say, “yeah, this sentence sucks, try it this way.” There’s research and questions and everything all at once.

I am a perfectionist at heart. I tell people I’m a translator for a reason. I would be a terrible interpreter doing oral things or simultaneous interpreting because I want to get the very best word. Even when I’m just talking to people, even in my native language I will sometimes just stop, looking for the right word and it’s not there, and I can say it different but I know there’s word. I would be a terrible interpreter.

It’s the curse of any artist. It’s never really done. You’re just forced to finished it, forced to be finished with it at some point, and send it off. Honestly, deadlines are nice for me because I have to let go of it at some point, whereas there are a couple short stories that I’ve been working on for over a year now that I haven’t submitted anywhere yet because I don’t have that external deadline saying “you really need to be done with it now.”

RH: Are there things within a work that you’re translating that you cannot translate?

AC: Well, the easy answer is “no.” The longer answer is, I’ve translated Holocaust memoirs….

RH: I was going to ask about Return to Efurt.

AC: That is the difficult part of my job. Essentially I can hypothesize that there would be things that are gruesome, that are difficult, that I would not choose to translate, but…. The way I see it for the things that I have translated so far is that these hard things are necessary. They’re necessary for art to deal with, and they’re necessary to be out in the world, and they’re extremely necessary stories to tell.

With Return to Efurt, the Holocaust memoir, I was working on that in 2012 and 2013. It’s hard. It’s emotionally taxing. It’s hard to talk about. Whenever you’re faced with something that shows you the worst sides of human nature and human ability, it’s not a walk in the park.

I believe that it is necessary to know these things in order to have that learning from history aspect of it, to bring these traumas out into the open, to tell people that they’re not alone. If readers have experienced them, then you know, it’s part of a psychological thing. You’re not imagining things, this happens to people, this is real, to give something to readers to identify themselves in.

With something like a Holocaust memoir, it’s a lot of, “don’t you dare let history repeat itself. This has happened. There are stories. Don’t you dare be a Holocaust denier because this happened.” Also, it’s a reminder that the Holocaust was not the last genocide to occur. There have been genocides since, there continue to be to this day genocides in the world including pretty close to home. As far as literature is concerned, especially having a written record of these things makes it so much easier to point to and say, “this is proof. This happened.”

I am happier now that I worked on that, and that it is out in the world now since the 2016 elections, and the wave of far rightism that is taking a hold in a lot of western countries. There are plenty of genocides that have been happening, Rwanda and Myanmar and all of these different things, but to remind people that the people who are most familiar to them, the people that are closest to them, Europeans have done this thing. You can try to say, “oh, this doesn’t happen here,” but it’s not true.

Practically speaking, it is the kind of thing where I have to plan out which day I’m going to work on the tough stuff, and I have to make sure that I give myself both the time to translate and the time to heal. It is mentally taxing work. Honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Part of that, obviously, is the language, part of it is the subject matter. I think it’s just important to have all experiences represented in literature or in any art, but literature happens to be the one that I’m in.

RH: There are, at least, redeeming qualities in the Holocaust memoir. There is humanity there…. By the end of Beyond the Rice Fields, I don’t feel much humanity, much hope.

AC: Quite frankly that’s the point. At the end of Beyond the Rice Fields, it’s the slow decline where things are going to get worse before they get better. The persecution of Christians turns into such a far reaching, for lack of a better word, “witch hunt” that, it’s not just Christians, it affects everyone and that’s just the beginning.

Not only that, it’s the beginning of the European influence becoming much more of a controlling factor. It’s the beginning of the end of independent Madagascar. There’s not a lot of things to hope for at that point.

The British and French externally had been arguing about Madagascar, because, of course, they think that it’s their right as opposed to the Malagasies’ right. At a certain point they literally exchanged “control.” They exchanged dibs on Zanzibar and Madagascar, so the French got Madagascar. This is before either of them were officially colonized. The British said, “oh yeah, we won’t do anything else in Madagascar, if you, the French, agree not to do anything else in Zanzibar.” I think it was less than ten years later that Madagascar was officially colonized. The queen went to exile in Algeria and there you go. That’s that. Sixty some-odd years of colonization.

Madagascar has a bit of a different colonization story than some of the other former colonies. The biggest problem is economic. Well, there’s a million problems, but today the biggest problem is still lingering economic ties to France. When they declared independence, France was like, “okay, but now you’re in debt to us for x million francs because we did so much for you.”

RH: Is this an undercurrent running through the novels, your top five or the forty that you brought back?

AC: It can be an undercurrent or explicit as in the other novel by Jean-Luc Raharimanana. It’s called Nur 1947. 1947 is an important year in Malagasy history because that was the uprising and bloody quelling of the first real revolution. What happened was Malagasies were drafted to fight in the French army in World War II. They were educated in weaponry. They were taught to be soldiers. They were also treated as soldiers. Not quite equals depending, but they were treated as people. Then they went back to Madagascar after the war was over, and they were expected to be colonized, colony people—yes, colonized again.

Revolutions happen for a million reasons, but there was enough organization, there was enough ability, and there was enough sentiment of “wait, why are we colonized still?” that they rebelled. The uprising was extremely bloody. The French didn’t really even fight them themselves, they brought in a bunch of Senegalese troops.

Because that was the beginning of the end of colonization, and because of the way history is taught, there’s not a lot known in Madagascar about even that it existed in a lot of places. Or, there’s this reputation that Senegalese have that they’re the bad guys. A lot of Malagasies have a grudge against Senegalese.

So one of the things that Raharimanana was trying to do was to say, “hey, this is our history.” But that book has literally everything in it. That is the most Malagasy-feeling book I think I’ve read, and it brings in a bunch of different voices. It brings in a narrator from the Arabic influence in Madagascar, which was roughly the 800s to 1100 or 1200. It brings in a couple of narrators from the missionary times, it brings in a couple narrators from from the times of Malagasy legend, and it ties all of that together to be its own story.

Rick Henry’s most recent books: Snow Fleas (Another New Calligraphy, 2017), and Then (Another New Calligraphy, 2015). In addition: Chant: A Romance (BlazeVox); Lucy’s Eggs and Other Stories (Syracuse UP); and Sidewalk Portrait: Fifty-fourth Floor and Falling (BlazeVox). He has been editor of Blueline, a literary journal devoted to ‘the spirit of the Adirondacks’ and co-edited The Blueline Anthology (Syracuse UP). Find him at rickhenry.net.

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