Haiti in Translation: Nathan Dize Interviews Emma Donovan Page

By Nathan H. Dize

Readers of Haitian literature in translation are often accustomed to reading novels, but seldom do we see works of non-fiction translated into English. This is why I was delighted to have the chance to speak with the translator of Wandering Memory, Emma Donovan Page, about grief, genre, and the task of translating Haitian literature today. As Haitian citizens continue to face violence in the wake of president Jovenel Moïse’s assassination and editorial boards of US newspapers call for a level of US intervention unseen since the 2010 earthquake, perhaps it is best to turn to literature, particularly to memoirs like Wandering Memory, which reflect on the personal impact of widespread violence.

When Jan J. Dominique published her memoir Wandering Memory in French in 2008, eight years had gone by since her father’s assassination. On April 3, 2000, Jean Léopold Dominique was gunned down in front of the radio station he owned and operated since the 1960s. The New York Times reported on Dominique’s death, a state funeral was held, and Haitians living in the country and abroad went into a period of collective mourning. People’s grief was apparent, visible, and palpable, yet what was left unseen was the private grief of Dominique’s family, including his daughter, the author, journalist, and radio host Jan J. Dominique. Wandering Memory was her attempt to cope with the loss of her father as well as a chronicle of her growth as a writer forced to flee her country in the face of death threats. Wandering Memory was just released in March 2021 by the University of Virginia Press, translated by Emma Donovan Page with the same level of intimacy and care as invested in the original.

Nathan H. Dize: What brings you to the work of literary translation?

Emma Donovan Page

Emma Donovan Page: My parents owned a bookstore, so I grew up reading a lot and always knew I wanted to work with books. I took Spanish and French classes at school from a pretty young age, and they were my favorite classes. When I was in high school, I had a Spanish teacher and an English teacher assign us the same short story by Jorge Luis Borges one semester. That was the first time I read a text and thought consciously about the choices the translator had made, and the fact that there was someone behind the English versions of my favorite Russian and Japanese and Spanish novels other than the author. I was hooked from that point on, so I did a degree in Comparative Literature with a focus on translation at Wellesley College, spent a year abroad studying translation at the Université de Montréal in Quebec, and ultimately ended up in England where I got my MA in Translation. Now I translate for a living, and although I don’t work on literary texts as much as I would like, it’s still my favorite thing to do. I find it’s the most intimate, focused way to read any book, and such a satisfying challenge to bring it to life again in English.

NHD: I think many readers of Francophone Caribbean and Haitian literature are used to reading fiction in translation, but here we have non-fiction and, more specifically, memoir. How did you first learn about Jan J. Dominique’s Wandering Memory? What brought you to translate this book, in particular?

EDP: I first heard about Dominique from a professor of mine at Wellesley, Dr Lesley Curtis, who studies and translates Haitian literature herself. I was looking for something that combined my interest in writing from Quebec with Dr Curtis’s interest in Caribbean Francophone writing, and ideally by someone who hadn’t been extensively translated into English already. Dr Curtis’s colleague Dr Laura Wagner recommended Jan J. Dominique, and Wandering Memory fit the bill perfectly. It’s a beautiful book about Haiti, of course, but also about Montreal, where Dominique has lived on and off for many years. I personally read and enjoy a lot of contemporary autofiction by women, so this is also just the kind of book I would pick up and read in English. As soon as I started reading it, I knew it was something I wanted to translate. I knew very little about Dominique and honestly about Haiti when I started working on it, so it was a real learning experience. But that’s one of the wonderful things about Wandering Memory and Dominique’s writing in general – she’s so compelling and welcoming, in such a way, that you can’t help but want to dig deeper and find out more about who she is and where her stories come from.

NHD: You’ve spoken a little bit about your journey as a translator and to this text, it’s quite poetic because this book, in part, tells the story of how Dominique journeyed back into a writerly practice after vowing to write no more after her father Jean Léopold Dominique was killed on April 3, 2000. What were some of the challenges with translating this memoir? Did you feel like you had to retrace Dominique’s steps, in a sense, to convey the gravity of her prose? 

EDP: I think there’s something fundamentally challenging, or at least intimidating, about translating a memoir. The author’s voice, and the fact that she is speaking, is such a fundamental part of the book’s impact. Add to that the fact that, as you say, it’s a book about Dominique re-discovering her own voice as a writer, and it becomes more vital than ever to preserve and convey that voice in English. Dominique’s prose is fairly spare and direct, especially for a Francophone writer, so I think it actually lends itself to English translation. Her style relies heavily on unconventional narrative structures to convey her journey, which also helps it work well in translation. I think the trickiest part was holding back from over-explaining things like who the people in her life are, or the historical and cultural significance of certain events and places. There are a lot of scenes which take on a different meaning depending on how familiar the reader is with Dominique’s story, but I wanted to be very conscious of the intentional ambiguities and unanswered questions she often creates. This book is in some ways an attempt to separate herself from her legendary father and claim her biography in her own right, and it works equally well whether you come to it with a lot of context or a totally blank slate. I had to respect those choices, even if it sometimes meant producing translations that I knew might be disorienting or opaque to many English readers.  

NHD: I also came across this book for the first time in the last five years. As you say, it’s such a compelling text; a memoir, at times autofiction, and other literary forms. It’s also a book whose themes (migration, exile, literature as escape/pleasure, memory, among others) feel so resonant in the present day, even though Wandering Memory was written nearly 13 years ago. A few lines that always strike me are: “I need well-being to write, and to write better I need happiness, even bliss. I don’t trust people who claim they can write when they’re in pain” (28). What do you think this book has to offer readers, especially in terms of dealing with grief, creative expression, and caring for oneself? 

EDP: It does feel strikingly contemporary, despite very much taking place in the 1990s and early 2000s. I love that she is brutally honest about losing her creative drive when faced with grief. That’s something a lot of people have been through in the past year, discovering that grief and suffering can’t always be processed into art, no matter how much we might want to do so. She really captures the way grieving and creativity are both non-linear processes, as well as how seemingly mundane or inconsequential events can suddenly trigger new experiences of both creativity and mourning. I also love the book as an exploration of middle age and womanhood. Coming of age and forming one’s identity is often treated as something that happens in your teens or 20’s, but Dominique writes so eloquently about how things like her parents dying, menopause and her son becoming an adult all force her to come to a new understanding of who she is. She speaks about experiences which are so often invisible, in a way that is at once raw and deeply relatable.  

NHD: In Wandering Memory, Dominique explains that she only considers herself a writer after she published her third book Inventer… La Célestine, which was released just months before Jean’s death. Toni Morrison, like Jan J. Dominique, always said that she too only thought of herself as a writer after the publication of her third novel, Song of Solomon. What is it about the third book, do you think that makes Dominique say that she is a writer? Where do you think this hesitancy comes from on the behalf of Morrison and Dominique, who both held onto careers in publishing and journalism, to identify as writers only after their third book is published? 

EDP: It’s an interesting question, and one I can relate to. This is my first published book-length translation, and even though I translate every day and have produced a fair amount of “literary” material, I sometimes hesitate to claim the title of “literary translator” myself. I think for Dominique specifically, she struggled so much with existing in her father’s shadow that it took three books before she could silence the voices – both internal and external – that said she was just riding on his coattails. I also think that for journalists, like commercial translators, it can be hard to claim the title of an artist after years of being considered more of a professional or almost a technician when writing. 

NHD: To move onto a more technical question about translating this book, how did the glossary come about? I find it extremely helpful for understanding the idiomatic and socio-historical references Dominique makes in Haitian Creole throughout Wandering Memory. As a translator of Haitian literature, I, too, often struggle with the idea of when and where to footnote or gloss words. What was your process like? 

EDP: Two key realizations about the book guided me when considering how to handle the instances of Haitian Creole: The first was that it was primarily a work of literature rather than a historical or academic text. I avoided footnotes because I feel they can distance the reader from the text and make it feel like an object to be studied rather than art to be enjoyed and contemplated. The second realization was that the original was clearly intended, at least partially, for a non-Haitian audience. It was published in Quebec, and Dominique always includes enough context or explanation for Creole words that a reader unfamiliar with the language can understand and enjoy the book. Adding a glossary felt like a way to allow readers the original experience of the book, with only the context Dominique gave, while also giving them an option to explore more deeply. This book was very much my gateway into contemporary Haitian literature and history, and I hope the glossary can act as a steppingstone for other readers to discover the culture and context that gave rise to Wandering Memory

Dr Laura Wagner, who works on the Radio Haiti Archive at Duke University, helped me extensively with the glossary. In addition to speaking Haitian Creole, she is close friends with Dominique herself and has spent years immersed in the history of Radio Haiti. She helped me make sure I was really understanding the text on a deeper level, and neither the glossary, nor the translation as a whole, would have been possible without her help. The glossary is my way of passing her knowledge along to readers, in the hopes that it will give them a fuller understanding of the book.

NHD: Now that the translation for Wandering Memory has been published, are there any other literary projects that you’re working on?

EDP: I’ve just finished a very different literary project, translating a couple of French graphic novel adaptations of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books into English. The original stories are English, of course, but the graphic novels were adapted quite freely from the French translations, so that project involved a lot of interesting cultural back-and-forth. I had to maintain the snappier, more modern pacing of the graphic novels and fit the text into the space available, while also restoring the original character and place names and the classic, mid-century English flavor. That project will hopefully be the first of many similar ones, as in September I’ll be starting a PhD in Translation at the University of Reading, with a focus on contemporary children’s literature.   

NHD: Do you have any advice for aspiring translators who are hoping to get their start in literary translation? What were some of the lessons that you learned while translating Wandering Memory?

EDP: As an aspiring or emerging literary translator, the most important things are networking with people who are doing what you want to do and translating regularly. Join groups of literary translators, online and/or in-person. Go to workshops, talks and summer schools (I highly recommend the British Centre for Literary Translation Summer School!), or do an MA in translation if that’s feasible. Make a blog, enter contests, translate samples, submit to journals. The more you get your name and face out there, the more likely it is that someone will take a chance on you or your project. Worst case, you’ll get to know lots of brilliant translators and improve your craft. 

One of the most important things I learned from translating Wandering Memory is that it’s crucial to match the project to the publisher and the market. Dominique isn’t exactly a household name in the US, but for a publisher like UVA Press specializing in Francophone Caribbean literature, her work holds a really strong appeal. Rather than pitching far and wide, if your goal is to get published, focus on finding projects where your unique expertise suits the text, and the text suits the publisher (or literary journal, etc.)

I also learned that no translation is ever a solo project. Wandering Memory never would have happened without the help of Dr Laura Wagner at Duke University, who gave me all kinds of personal, historical, and linguistic context. Likewise, I had great professors, including Dr Lesley Curtis and Dr Charlotte Baker, who helped me enormously with early drafts of the translation while I was at Wellesley College and Lancaster University. Finally, I attend a monthly ‘Translation Surgery’ with a group of local literary translators, and everyone in that group contributed to the final version of Wandering Memory in one way or another. For so many reasons, literary translation is a community endeavor.

Nathan H. Dize is a reader, researcher, and translator of Haitian literature. Translator of three Haitian novels The Immortals by Makenzy Orcel (SUNY Press, 2020), I Am Alive by Kettly Mars (UVA Press, forthcoming), and Antoine des Gommiers by Lyonel Trouillot (Schaffner Press, forthcoming). He is also a founding member of the kwazmanvwa collective, which amplifies the work of emerging Caribbean authors, and a member of the Editorial Board of Reading in Translation. He teaches French at Oberlin College.

One comment

  1. Really lovely interview! This memoir sounds intriguing — thanks for bringing it to my attention!

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