Haiti / Interview / Translator

In Conversation with Kaiama L. Glover, Professor and Translator of Haitian Literature

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Kaiama L. Glover is a writer, translator, sometime-TV host, and Ann Whitney Olin Professor of French and Africana Studies at Barnard College, as well as founding co-editor of archipelagos.

Alongside writing about Haitian Spiralists in Haiti Unbound (Liverpool University Press, 2011) and unruly female protagonists in A Regarded Self (Duke University Press, 2021), she also co-edited The Haiti Reader (Duke University Press, 2020).

Somewhere in and amongst, she also found time to translate some of the most important names in Haitian literature too. Namely, Ready to Burst by Frankétienne (Archipelago, 2014), Dance on the Volcano by Marie Vieux Chauvet (Archipelago, 2017) and Hadriana in All My Dreams by René Depestre (Akashic Books, 2017).

At the moment, she’s at work on two new translations – Sweet Undoings by Yanick Lahens and the memoir Black is the Journey by Maboula Soumahoro – as well as a collection of essays that her mum would want to read. (Honestly, the fact she found time to talk to me is astounding.)

Here, we discuss getting her best scholarship out of translation, the publishing power of Edwidge Danticat, and the difference between translating Black French writers and Black Haitian authors.


Lauren Cocking: What drew you to Haiti as a scholar?

Kaiama L. Glover: As an undergraduate, I studied French and African-American cultures as two separate concentrations, but my mentor and professor – Henry Louis Gates, chair of the African-American Studies Department at Harvard – encouraged me to think about them together.

He pointed me in the direction of Josephine Baker and, while doing my research in Paris, I stumbled across this bizarre situation wherein she was getting a lot of flack because she had been named ‘Queen of the Colonies’ for the 1931 Colonial Exhibition. Crowning her was absurd, obviously, because US Blacks were not and never had been colonised by the French.

It turned out that one of the groups that most loudly objected to this misrepresentation were the surrealists. They wrote and circulated a pamphlet, unambiguously titled “Do Not Visit the Colonial Exhibition,” specifically refuting the idea that Baker could stand in for the colonial subjects of France, who were victims of the brutality of colonialism, whereas she was the beneficiary of the wonders of being a Black American.

That incident with the surrealists ultimately led me to Haiti. Following the trail down the rabbit hole, I learned that they had gone to Haiti during the 1940s to escape Vichy France. And it just so happened that the veritable leader of the group, André Breton, gave a speech in Port-au-Prince in 1945 that ended up indirectly and inadvertently becoming the catalyst for a social revolution that overthrew the existing Haitian government.

I found that peculiarity of history, that movement from Josephine Baker in the US to the surrealists in France and then back across the Atlantic to Haiti, to be fascinating. And honestly, I didn’t look back after that. Intellectually, I stayed focused on Haiti.

LC: And how about as a translator?

KLG: I didn’t go looking to become a translator. I was approached by Archipelago Books, a small press publisher that I, like many others, have been enamoured of, who publish beautifully rendered, exceptionally thoughtful and carefully selected translations. Archipelago had already been on my radar as a reader and then the head of the press, Jill Schoolman, came to me and said: “we really want to translate Frankétienne. Would you be interested?” So it was actually a commission.

LC: Did translation then become more of a focus for you?

KLG: Whenever I speak about translating, it’s kind of as this wonderful valence of my academic life that I feel very fortunate to be able to do. But it’s also much more than that. Although it’s by no means my principal vocation, at this point I’m almost never not translating – for selfish and less selfish reasons.

Less selfishly, I really am so overwhelmed with happiness at the response from Haitian Americans in the US, who – through translation – perhaps access their own literary patrimony for the first time because they were born and raised in this country and speak English (and Creole, if they’re lucky), but don’t necessarily speak French. Though I’m not Haitian, being able to facilitate this cultural offering for Haitians in diaspora makes this feel very, very worthwhile as an endeavour.

And then selfishly, I get my best scholarship out of the intimacy of translating a text. I had written a book about Frankétienne prior to translating his work and there are things I found through translating that I wish I’d known when I was writing my book. The fact of sitting with language and linguistic choices in that way is something I think is a truly unique privilege of translating.

LC: You’ve described translation for you, variously, as a passion project, scholarly pursuit, and your way of introducing alternative narratives to new audiences. Do you still stand by those assessments of your relationship to translation?

KLG: Oh, absolutely, in all respects. It’s hard for me to say no to a translation because the very principle of breaking down some of the linguistic barriers that I see in the Pan-African world as being the legacy of colonialism feels like something I really want to be doing as much as possible.

And as I mentioned, I’ve often learned more (and more quickly) from translating work, as opposed to just being a reader.

LC: Why do you think people are reluctant to – and even aggressive about – excluding Haiti from the umbrella of Latin America?

KLG: To be most pithy or blunt, it’s primarily a matter of race and racism, with a side of certain persistent colonial realities.

I think, for better and for worse, Haiti is identified and has identified itself as a Black nation throughout its history as a republic. The very fact that the country was founded in not just a phenotype of Blackness, but an ontology of Blackness, an ethnicity of blackness, and a politics of blackness, presents an arguably more insistent and more absolute understanding of the racialized subject than the ambivalence that proceeds out of Latin America.

And so I think that the fact of Blackness – as presented by Haitians, and then imposed in a pejorative way onto Haiti as more aligned with Africa than with Europe and therefore more barbarous, uncivilised, illiterate – means that Latin America doesn’t necessarily claim Haiti. And I wouldn’t say that Haitians necessarily, with any adamance, claim Latin America, either. Haiti claims Haiti.

And Haiti is also grappling with different kinds of imperialism than the kind that exists in Latin America, [such as] the former colonial power that was France, as well as dealing, absolutely, right now, every day with US imperialism in that kind of relentless proximity, is again another isolating factor vis-a-vis Latin America as we tend to think of it, meaning more Central and South America.

LC: It makes me think of a piece by Rosalind Harvey in which she wrote about the triple erasure of Latin American women in literature. It feels like Haiti has a similar triple level of erasure or oppression where Latin America is concerned, due to its French language, overt Blackness, and geographical position in Caribbean.

KLG: Historically, Haiti played an enormous role in the early days of Latin America’s formation, helping with independence movements in Colombia, Venezuela, Chile, the Dominican Republic, and Bolivia. However, the aftermath of Haiti’s own revolution has been such that the ways in which it’s been intentionally isolated and cut off commercially, culturally, economically, and politically from the region has turned it into a cautionary tale of what happens when sovereignty from Europe is seized too unthinkingly.

There’s been this concerted effort to close Haiti in on itself and point to it as an experiment in freedom gone wrong. Haiti exists in space of exception.

LC: Absolutely. Thinking about history, I saw a quote from you which reads: “I’m very conscious of who is in the position of power to tell the story. Matters like race, class and gender so often determine which stories get passed down in history – and which don’t.” I feel like this is something that can be applied to literary translation. What do you think?

KLG: To be very honest – and not to be in any way dismissive, but more resigned and sad – this is not unique to translations. This describes literary culture more broadly. If you think about what voices are represented even in regional languages and then narrow this down to the minute and tiny piece of that literary institution that is translation, I think it’s to scale. The same sort of gatekeeping and homogeneity that reigns in literature more broadly, in terms of circulation and access to the publishing industry, is also the case with translation.

Anecdotally, of the six translations I’ve done, five of them were commissioned and only one of them was something that I was able to put forward. I was an established translator, and it took me over two years to find someone to take on the project.

It’s just such an uphill battle that’s a scaled down version of the uphill battle it can be to get non-white North Atlantic voices into print in the first place.

LC: And which book was that?

KLG: Hadriana in All My Dreams by René Depestre, and when I made that statement you mentioned, I was maybe in the middle of trying to get the project off the ground.

As an author and globally significant socio-political actor, René Depestre had been my eureka moment of why I wanted to focus on Haitian literature, so this was really something where I felt like: “I’ve found my moment, it’s all coming together!”

LC: Yeah, for sure. I wonder if you have an opinion on why there are so few Black translators working within literary translation?

KLG: Yeah, that’s a fabulous question. I don’t know but I can speculate. One, and this is not to generalise, but there’s not really any money in translation. It’s a really hard thing to support oneself with, and I would argue, anecdotally, that we, people of colour, are not necessarily encouraged to take on passion projects, to do things that aren’t going to be remunerative, that aren’t going to be secure. So, I think that the already niche world of translation, which is embedded in the larger niche world of literary publishing, isn’t necessarily going to be your first go-to.

And then if you’re a Black person or a person of colour interested in translating work by people of colour or Black people, you have to ask yourself: “Well, is there space or desire? Is there a market for that work?” And clearly the answer is: not so much.

Inasmuch as there are a fair amount of us who are translators and scholars, there’s not a huge valuation on translation as an academic pursuit. I didn’t start translating until after I was awarded tenure.

So, there’s not really a significant enough non-precarity in literary translation to make people of colour – women of colour, in particular – say: “OK, I’m going to spend time, energy, and other resources on this translation business.”

And if there are few Black translators, there are few representatives of the possibility of that being a thing one might do as a Black person. We need to see people of colour in a broad swath of professions and possibilities in order to make those professions and possibilities imaginable for others.

LC: Definitely. You’re not the first person to mention tenure as a key factor in being able to translate either. Am I right in thinking that you’re writing a book about Blackness in French, based on your essay of the same name?

KLG: I meeeaaaan, it’s going to be a book. (Laughs.) It’s early days. I wanted to try my hand at writing a book my mother might want to read, and so I’m thinking of this more as a collection of essays that depart from the idea that there’s no word for Blackness in French and that asks what it means to want to be Black in a country that cries colour-blindness.

Because it’s not possible to translate the word Blackness from English to French, so French Afro-descended people themselves will oftentimes just use the word Black, with a French accent, to connote all the things that Blackness means in English.

This is for a couple of reasons, but the most pertinent is that race is not an admissable social category in France; it isn’t a part of the protections of the Constitution, it’s not a category that the census is allowed to measure. Of course, this has meant that it’s very difficult for people of colour to express grievances that clearly have to do with phenotype and ethnic origin.

That’s the point of departure for the book, although some of the essays do come out of translation because that article was a response to the book that I couldn’t get published without Edwidge Danticat.

LC: I love that you’re writing it with your mum in mind! I know you lived in France for a while. How did you find it? I’ve never actually been!

KLG: I was disabused of some of the myths of France. African-Americans since time immemorial have come to France expecting or hoping for the race-blind haven and escape from white-supremacy-Yankee-style, but France has its own troubles when it comes to race, of course.

One of the things I found particularly poignant in this book that I just translated, Black is the Journey (Polity, 2021), was that the author, Maboula Soumahoro, makes the point that every nation has its own Blacks that it hates, but has loved Blacks from other places.

As a Black American in France, my Americanness made me exotic and attached me to a lineage that included WWII heroism, Josephine Baker, jazz musicians and all the things that are cool about American Blackness, without making the French confront African Blackness, which is colonialism, enslavement, immigration and migration.

LC: Absolutely. Just to home in on another of your translations, you’ve talked about Dance on the Volcano not been your favourite Marie Vieux Chauvet book. How do you deal with translating something that you don’t objectively love?

KLG: First, it made it harder for me to know how to translate, because I wanted to fix some of the things that I didn’t love about the book, and that’s a no-no. So, for the first time, I found myself reaching out to my editor and saying: “can you help me be okay with remaining faithful to stylistic dimensions of a book that I don’t really think are great?” And all I needed from her was that permission to not rehabilitate the writing.

Once I had that, the second thing that happened was that I came to love that book. It’s like how you love all your kids, even the problematic ones – and this particular novel just showed me how limited I had been perhaps in my expectations when coming to Chauvet as an author. Being kind of forced to think about this author by way of something that didn’t resemble some of her other work really got me to appreciate what she could do.

Also, if you’re a scholar you can love grappling with any book. When you put your mind to detecting those inner workings and thinking of them as a puzzle that the writer cracked and that you also have to crack…well, if you’re a geeky person who loves literature, that becomes pleasure.

LC: Are you reading anything from Latin America that you’d like to recommend?

KLG: I don’t get to read much for fun outside of the summer, so I’m currently reading something that I will translate. It’s a book by Haitian author Yanick Lahens, Douces déroutes, which I think I’m going to translate as Sweet Undoings.

LC: I know you also translate French writers. Do you find there’s a difference between translating Black French authors and Black Haitian authors?

KLG: Yeah, 1000%. There’s not even a caveat to that, although the one caveat I probably should mention is that I’ve only translated Haitian fiction and I’ve only translated Black French non-fiction.

I haven’t yet grappled with some of the particular realities that come out of having to translate a Black French author’s literary fictional voice versus a non-fiction prose narrative. I would still insist, though, that Haitian French is Haitian French. It has a syntactical, lexical and melodic particularity to it.

LC: Are there any other translators working with Haitian literature that you want to shout out?

KLG: I want to shout out a marvellous translator named Nathan Dize.  He is someone who makes space for Blackness in translation and I just provided an afterword to his recent translation of a Haitian novelist Je suis vivant (I Am Alive) by Kettly Mars [forthcoming from the University of Virginia Press].

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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