Translation as Testimony: On Makenzy Orcel’s “The Immortals,” Translated from French by Nathan Dize

By Jennifer Boum Make

You immortalize all the whores of Grand Rue, taken away by this thing.

Makenzy Orcel, The Immortals

Makenzy Orcel. Nathan Dize. Two writers who have tasked themselves to transform the stories of others as they create language that allows the rendering and relaying of the voices of those who are too often made invisible. In September 2010, the Montreal-based publisher Mémoire d’Encrier released Les Immortelles (The Immortals), Orcel’s debut novel bearing witness to the multi-faceted lives of the sex workers of Grand Rue, Port-au-Prince, amid the earthquake that struck Haiti on January 12, 2010. The novel has also been published in France by Zulma in 2012, before being translated into English by Nathan Dize. The Immortals, published by SUNY Press in November 2020, offers the possibility for Anglophone readers to tune in to the stories, the struggles, and the desires of the many women whose lives have been shattered by a so-called natural disaster. In fact, with this newly accessible translation, Anglophone readers find themselves in the position of the listener, in the same way as Dize and Orcel. Originally, Orcel embeds within the text a writer figure who listens to the stories recounted by an anonymous sex-worker from Grand Rue, stories that are then transposed and circulated into written form, then heard and translated by Dize.

In The Immortals, the figure of the writer is reminded of his responsibility of “immortaliz[ing] all the whores of Grand Rue, taken away by this thing” (35), as an unnamed sex worker from Grand Rue recounts the scattered memories of women she lived and worked with, demanding the stories of those buried in the rubble to be archived. In particular, she tells the story of Shakira, a fellow sex worker, that she had introduced to the world of Grand Rue, the profession, and the street. Shakira, the “little girl,” as the anonymous woman storyteller calls her, disappeared in the devastating earthquake, leaving behind her “treasure,” her son, whose exact location and name remain unknown, as well as her handwritten journal found in her bag before it happened. Glimpses of Shakira’s tormented memories of her parents, especially her mother, and dreams of escape (signaled in italics in the text), open up spaces for shaping individual and collective voices, all intermingled through the fragmented structure of the text.

Orcel’s novel not only ensures that stories of marginal voices, such as the women of Grand Rue, are passed on, but also reminds us of the catastrophe of forgetting and what writing can do about it. As the anonymous sex worker says, “No, I don’t want to forget. I must tell it, this never-before-seen story of a brief phenomenon. I must tell you my own little Niña-Shakira” (76).  There is urgency in unearthing and empowering the voices of those who, directly or indirectly, call into question a tendency to erase or dismiss the presence of the marginalized. In a conversation with the translator of The Immortals titled, “The Urgent Act of Translation” hosted by Georgetown University in November 2020, Dize insists on the possibility to counterbalance, through writing, the rhetorical and physical effacement of the marginalized, by giving them a presence in the world. This work initiated by Orcel in Les Immortelles is expanded through the act of translation performed by Dize. In fact, Dize stresses that The Immortals is the first novel about the 2010 Haiti earthquake translated into English, revealing a fragile translation culture in a North American Anglophone context.

At this point, framing and shaping stories that defy views of Haitian society in the Western imagination becomes of essential importance. While the literary stereotyping of Haitians often relays unflattering and distorted images used to justify exclusion (Dash), Orcel’s prose, as well as Dize’s through his translation, digs into the private lives of the women of Grand Rue, bringing to light the complexity of their existence, and therefore carefully curating the memories that would otherwise remain buried. In this way, the act of translation demonstrates a full and active participation in the testimonial project that narration can support.

With The Immortals, a cycle of testimony is initiated with the anonymous woman narrator who, by making a deal with her client when she discovers he is a writer: sex in exchange of writing, tells the story of Shakira, of the little girl’s mother’s search for her daughter, and of other fellow sex workers who have disappeared in the quake. The writer then writes down the words of the anonymous narrator, arranging the fragments of these women’s lives, transforming spoken words into written words. And finally, Dize’s translation joins in the cycle of testimony by reassembling the text into a different language (English), ensuring that the voices of the women of Grand Rue occupy other language and cultural landscapes. From the spoken to the written and translated, testimony takes on different forms and is endorsed by a succession of figures, reaching a momentary conclusion each time the story gets told and coming alive again each time the story gets picked up. Or as the anonymous sex worker says, “Let’s begin. I’ll talk. You, the write, you write. You transform”(5).

Just like for the cycle of testimony, the act of translation is here profoundly polysemous and is being passed on from the anonymous narrator, to Orcel, the writer, to Dize, the translator. In The Immortals, memorialization of silenced voices demands translation: the anonymous narrator tasks herself to recount the lives of her fellow sex workers that disappeared in the quake, transforming her recollected experiences and memories into spoken word; the writer then must find the correct formulations to relay the words of others; and the translator finally grapples with the subtleties of the original text to compose his own version of it. Does translation end there? Similarly, does the cycle of testimony conclude with the telling in English of the stories of the women of Grand Rue?

The choice to translate such a critical text shedding light on rarely told stories responds to, at least, a twofold imperative: first, to place the novel into a new context and readership, opening a window into the lives of sex workers before and in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake; and then, second, to make debut novels and writers known to a broader audience. Dize’s translation develops a pedagogical approach that seeks to make the story accessible and legible to a wide audience beyond academic circles. While The Immortals is published by a university press, the prospect of an inclusive readership calls for translation choices that allow readers to actively engage in the story being told by having the possibility to become first-hand listeners without having their attention momentarily summoned by indefatigable footnotes.

By translating Les Immortelles into English, Dize cultivates not only the visibility of marginal bodies and voices, in particular those who have disappeared in the 2010 Haiti earthquake, but also that of debut writers whose imaginaries can travel across languages and cultures through the mindful intervention of the translator.

Orcel, Makenzy. The Immortals. Translated by Nathan Dize. SUNY Press, 2020.

Jennifer Boum Make is Assistant Professor in the Department of French & Francophone Studies at Georgetown University. Her teaching and research include a focus on migration, and representations of otherness and hospitality in contemporary Caribbean and Mediterranean contexts. Her broad areas of interest include: Francophone postcolonial theory; Caribbean and Mediterranean Studies; ethics; as well as questions of mobility and circulation of people and cultures. She has published or has forthcoming publications in Crossings: Journal of Migration and Culture, Contemporary French and Francophone Studies: SITES, Convergences Francophones, Nouvelles Études Francophones, and Francosphères, among others.

Works Cited

Dash, J. Michael. Haiti and the United States: National Stereotypes and the Literary Imagination. Palgrave Macmillan, 1997.

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