Translating as an Act of Care: Interview with Translator Nathan Dize

Nathan Dize in conversation with Corine Labridy

Translators are singularly caring readers. Neither critics nor editors, their task is to tend to every word on the page and ensure that it lives on, as authentically as possible, in the target language. This meticulous practice can become even more painstaking when the original text deals with catastrophic events or traumatic histories. Dr. Nathan Dize joined me to discuss his experience translating historical documents, fiction and non-fiction from Haiti — a nation that has long been misrepresented and mistranslated in Western histories and media. Dize, who teaches French at Oberlin College, is also on the editorial board of the online magazine, Reading in Translation. His many translations include Makenzy Orcel’s Les Immortelles (Mémoire d’encrier, 2010), which was published in 2020 as The Immortals (SUNY Press), and Kettly Mars’s Je suis vivant (Mercure de France, 2015), which just came out with UVA Press under the title I Am Alive [1]. Both novels deal with the aftermath of the earthquake that destroyed Port-au-Prince in 2010.

Corine Labridy: It seems to me that every translator has a good story about how they got started. What about you, what brought you to translation? 

Nathan Dize: It’s true! Sometimes I think we perform many acts of translation before we’re ever really introduced to the formal concept. I grew up in Baltimore in a monolingual household, but as soon as I stepped outside the door, I felt like I needed to translate who I was to people I encountered. I was home-schooled for a little while, I was white in a majority Black city, and the list goes on. I had to translate anything that was outside the norm.

When it comes to literature, I read in translation before I could translate from French. I was drawn to Francophone Caribbean literature and acts of translation by books like Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea and Myriam Warner-Vieyra’s Juletane . Those novels feature protagonists –– Antoinette Cosway and Juletane –– who are linguistic and cultural outsiders, and so always looking to interpret others or translate themselves within complicated spaces. After I began to read Caribbean literature in French, I felt the desire to translate it myself so that I could share stories that I found meaningful. I hope the translations I create help others cope with complex ideas and emotions through reading.

How would you describe your task as a translator? Has your understanding of it evolved over time and what have you learned along the way?

My task as a translator has evolved. Before working on literary texts, I translated historical documents and political pamphlets from 18th century Haiti for a website I created called A Colony in Crisis: The Saint-Domingue Grain Shortage of 1789. We were trying to tell a story through translation, to narrate an episode of colonial economic and social deception that spanned the French Atlantic triangle. So, when I translated those documents, I wanted to strip away metaphors, interpret rhetoric, and provide the reader with a set of guiderails to comprehend the story. Now, as I translate novels, poetry, and poetic writing, I must recreate metaphor, craft rhetoric, and retain the poetic opacity of the original.

I also think that my role has shifted professionally: the further I delve into the field of literary translation, the less time I spend trying to greenlight my own projects. I’m investing a lot more time in networking, mentoring emerging translators, and participating in translation collectives that help translators shine. 

I Am Alive is the second of your translations to deal with the earthquake that struck Haiti in 2010. Many writers at the time grappled with just how difficult it was to represent such a devastating event, both poetically and ethically. Carlos Fonseca, in The Literature of Catastrophe, writes that natural disasters tend to throw language into a sort of crisis. That rings so true. It seems that would make the translator’s task doubly difficult. So what drew you to these two novels and how did you navigate or negotiate these difficulties?

Lara Vergnaud wrote a powerful essay in June 2020 about translating trauma that I think applies here. When translators encounter trauma in their work, how do we render that trauma anew? How does it impact us as translators? When translating The Immortals and I Am Alive I had to bury characters in the rubble of words all over again. I had to recreate scenes where they die on the page. It’s extremely affecting. Sometimes I had to get up and walk away from the computer. You must find ways of coping. At the same time, as Vergnaud writes, you have to translate the scene and you want, to the best of your ability, to get it right. You want to honor the art you are tasked with translating. You want to evoke a feeling with your translation. If you leave the table feeling emotionally raw, then you may have succeeded.

When translating these books, I had to develop strategies for caring for myself. Sometimes that meant walking away, passing the pages onto someone else to read, going out to exercise, or by baking or exploring a new recipe. These routines and coping strategies helped pull me through when it got tough.

Mars and Orcel are both poets and it shows even when they write in prose. How did you go about capturing those moments of poetry?

Although they are both poetic writers, I think they perform their poetics differently, at least in these two texts. The Immortals is essentially an oral history, a testimony conveyed by a witness to a writer. The language is spoken and includes all the breaks and pauses one might make as they struggle to articulate something harrowing or tragic. Replicating those breaks in speech was part of the challenge of translating The Immortals. Sometimes I had to dig deep into personal moments of grief to render these scenes.

I Am Alive, on the other hand, is such an interior text. The novel invites the reader into the minds of ten or so characters who take turns narrating past events that led to protagonist Alexandre Bernier being placed in the care of a psychiatric institution in Port-au-Prince. Each character has their own way of thinking, and seeing that lends a poetic quality to the writing. Take Livia, one of the houseworkers, for example. She is a Christian who loses her husband to complications of HIV/AIDS before the earthquake. The way she rationalizes her husband’s cheating on her, his illness, and the neighborhood’s reaction to their situation is filtered through her faith. Her life takes on the poetics of her station in life as a working, Christian woman. I didn’t have to look far in my own experience to find examples of people who had the exact same outlook as Livia to convey the figurative way she imagines her life.

Imaginaries often explores the kinds of questions that emerge when fiction meets history. For instance, can fiction intervene as a form of document(ary) or testimony? How do authors account for or play with historical time? Mars and Orcel have such original and distinct ways of dealing with time and testimony. How would you describe their approaches and how did that shape your task as their translator?

I recently spent some time revisiting both novels, The Immortals and I Am Alive, for a book chapter on literature of the 2010 earthquake as archival text. The Immortals acts as an oral history in which the anonymous narrator dictates her story of loss to a writer in real time. She details snapshots of the city, emotions that people felt moments after buildings in Port-au-Prince collapsed, and attempts that many made to recover their loved ones.

I would argue that I Am Alive works a little differently. In some ways, it’s a novel about the earthquake and in others it’s a novel about a longer period of time that dates back to the 1950s and 60s, under François Duvalier’s dictatorship. I Am Alive is also forward-looking in that it envisions life after the earthquake and projects a future for the Bernier family at the center of the story. One character, Marylène comes out as lesbian as a “woman of a certain age.” In this way, I feel like Mars is accounting for the presence of queer life in Haiti, anchoring it in time and space. Mars also gestures towards a time in the future, a life that Marylène may lead after the book concludes.

You have also translated non-fiction. I am thinking, for instance, about your translation of one of poet Jean D’Amérique’s op eds, “What it means to be Haitian now?”, which he wrote in the wake of Jovenel Moïse’s death, in July 2021. Was your process different for that project?

The process for translating “What it means to be Haitian now”/ “I can only fill the page with blood” was different from I Am Alive and The Immortals in many ways. In terms of time, I spent two years on The Immortals and six years on I Am Alive. It took a month to translate and publish the translation of Jean D’Amérique’s op ed.

The project came from a different source of motivation, too. I liken the process of translating Jean’s op ed to that of translating a poem by James Noël called “Black Prayer,” about the murder of George Floyd. In both cases I was heartbroken by the writing and felt moved to translate their words. I hoped they could help others cope, heal, and maybe comprehend the moments these poets capture. Translating texts like these can be logistical – you need to translate the piece, but there’s also a sense of urgency in finding a venue that will publish it. As an anxious person, these projects take a toll on me because I have to send out tons of requests, watch my email, and hope that someone wants to publish them. I don’t want the poetry to be wasted by languishing on the sidelines, left unpublished and unshared.

In terms of the words themselves, two moments stand out. In beginning Jean’s piece, I translated “Être Haïtien, c’est attendre sa balle” as “Being Haitian means waiting to catch your own bullet.” I grew up hearing words and phrases like that uttered around me, either grafted from rap lyrics and TV shows or spoken by classmates in school and people on the basketball courts where I hung out with my friends. When I read these lines, I felt like it was my chance to translate Jean’s Haiti through my Baltimore. There’s also a line in “Black Prayer” that goes like this: a prayer that targets // the knees of the police officer // the one who took // Floyd’s neck // as a fulcrum. James uses “point d’appui” rather than “fulcrum,” which lands a double meaning that I wasn’t sure I could replicate in English. “Turning point” didn’t feel right, and “pressure point” didn’t have enough sense of movement. So I chose “fulcrum” for two reasons. First, a joint like a knee can be described as a “fulcrum” and I saw it as another way to introduce bodily language into the line. I also think that it takes some power away from the police officer’s knee and makes Floyd the fulcrum. By the time James authored the poem on June 1, 2020, George Floyd had become the fulcrum for a movement, a revolution. Even if that revolution never fully came to pass, I wanted to pay homage to George Floyd’s legacy and his place in our shared history with this single word.

You are also a professor. Do you often work with translation in the classroom? 

Yes! I often assign French translations of texts by non-Francophone Caribbean writers or Creolophone writers in English or French. I feel like it’s my duty to encourage students to read in translation even if they might be able to read the original. I want to teach them that there is value in translation. I want to avoid imparting harmful lessons about some “essential” quality of the original. There’s always something to be learned by reading in translation. We recently read Roxane Gay’s short stories from Ayiti translated by the Haitian writer Stanley Péan. Students reacted so positively to reading, in French, an author they had only ever encountered in English.

I also offer students the possibility of translating literature rather than writing a traditional essay. In those cases, I require them to write an annotated translator’s note so they make sure to bring a critical aspect to their work. Since I often have creative writers in my courses, this can be an exciting way of meaningfully bridging other coursework with my French class.

Can you share with us what you are currently working on?

I’m currently working on a book chapter on the late Dr. Beatrice Stith Clark and her translations of Mayotte Capécia’s two influential novellas, I Am a Martinican Woman and The White Negress. Many readers only know Capécia through Frantz Fanon’s critique in chapter two of Black Skin, White Masks, but I wanted to go beyond both Fanon and Capécia to explore the legacy and craft of Capécia’s translator, Clark. Clark’s academic and personal journey are spread throughout her translations. I’m interested in how she, as a Black woman, scholar and translator, challenges French studies and the formation of the Caribbean literary canon. Clark spent her entire educational career, first as a student and then as a French professor, at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, studying intersections of race, class, and gender. After receiving a Bachelor of Arts in French from West Virginia State University, Clark conducted one of the first studies of Charles Baudelaire’s mixed-race wife, Jeanne Duval, for her MA thesis in French at Atlanta University. She went on to get a PhD in French from George Washington University while adjuncting at Howard University. Later, Clark published the first article in English on Mayotte Capécia and Frantz Fanon’s (mis)reading of her novels, in a 1973 articles for the College Language Association Journal. To me, Clark’s story and translations have much to tell us today as we revisit and evaluate whiteness, racial segregation, elitism, and other imbalances of power in academia and the professional landscape of literary translation.

[1] Both I Am Alive and Humus, reviewed by Lucy Swanson for this issue, are part of UVA Press’ CARAF Books series, which publishes Caribbean and African poetry, novels and essays translated from French.