Art Talk with NEA Literary Translation Fellow Allison M. Charette

By Rebecca Sutton
Black and white photo of woman with bangs
Allison M. Charette. Photo by Devon Rowland Photography
Earlier this year, Allison M. Charette’s translation of Beyond the Rice Fields by Naivo became the first Malagasy novel to ever be published in English—a distinction which Charette noted is shocking given the size of the country and how much of its literature is written in French. With support from her new NEA Literary Translation Fellowship, Charette plans to continue her one-woman crusade to introduce the English-speaking world to Malagasy literature with her translation of Lalana by Michèle Rakotoson, which follows a man with AIDS during his journey to see the ocean for the first time. The fellowship will also support a return trip to Madagascar, where Charette hopes to take Malagasy language classes, with the eventual goal of being able to translate from the island nation’s indigenous language (she currently translates from the French, which is the country’s second official language). We recently spoke with Charette about how her interest in Malagasy literature took shape, her goals as a translator, and why translation isn’t just a matter of language. NEA: How did you become interested in Malagasy literature? ALLISON M. CHARETTE: When I was doing my master's degree at the University of Rochester, I came across a blog by a woman named Ann Morgan. She's a British woman who works in publishing, and she realized like many of us do that all she was reading were Anglophone authors. So she set herself the challenge of reading one novel from every single country around the world in a year, which is mind-blowing. As a translator I got interested, and I was looking at what she chose for Francophone countries. Madagascar was the only country she couldn't find a novel from. Nobody was working on one; nobody had one unpublished that she could read. It just didn't exist. Both as a person and as a French translator, I thought that was dumb—that knowledge from Madagascar just didn't exist in English. It's a rather large country—about 22 million people—and a lot of authors in Madagascar write either exclusively or mainly in French, which is a very common language. It seemed incredibly strange to me that nothing existed. So I started reading all these novels and short story collections from Malagasy authors [in French], and obviously realizing that there's some extraordinary literature here. That snowballed into trying to translate a couple of short stories and realizing that I had no idea what I was doing—the culture was so very different from anything that I had experienced. That in turn snowballed into, “I guess I should go to Madagascar.” So I up and went when my master's degree was done. I ended up meeting about two dozen authors when I was there, and gathering books and books and books. That was about three-and-a-half years ago, and I've been working on all of the literature that I've gathered ever since. NEA: You said that you felt like you needed to go there in order to properly translate this work. Can you talk about how experiencing a country can be necessary to the translation process? Because I think many people think translation is just a matter of language. CHARETTE: I really feel like it's the translator's job to understand every single possible thing in a book in order to rewrite it. Yes, you can study a language, you can study a culture academically. That will get you a lot of the way there. But it's so much easier to go live there and experience everything for yourself, and not have it filtered through someone else's eyes, or through someone else's time period. It's so much easier to see other cultures, especially if the customs and the practices are further away from what you're used to. When you're an American going to a country like Madagascar, it's a number of steps removed. It's very easy to oversimplify if you're trying to explain it to somebody else in an article or a book or something like that. So being there and living with a family and meeting all these people and experiencing as much as I could of actual Malagasy culture instead of staying in the Westernized areas with French hotels—that makes it so much easier. A day of being there is worth a year of studying in books. NEA: One of your goals as a translator is not to lose any of the author’s culture or idiosyncrasies. How do you go about preserving these? CHARETTE: The cop-out answer is you take it on a case-by-case basis and see what you can do. It's a lot of trying to balance. When you do a translation, you have to keep your audience in mind—your audience is not the same audience as the original. At the same time, my job with the Malagasy books can be easier because a lot of authors from Madagascar already have a dual audience in mind when they're writing, because they're trying to write both for their fellow Malagasies and a Western, French audience as well. Michèle does this a lot in her work, especially Lalana. There are a lot of Malagasy words that are inserted, but they're all explained as you go along. This is part of why she's such an amazing writer: she has the ability to teach about Malagasy words and culture through her writing without making it sound like some sort of dull history lesson, without taking you out of the narrative. It's just all woven in as you go along. When I don't have that help from the original work, that's the same kind of thing that I try and do. I don't like footnotes because they take you out of the story, but I like stealth glossing. We obviously don't know what “ranonapango” is, for example. But if instead of saying, "They drank ranonapango after a meal," I say something like, "They drank the savory ranonapango tea after a meal," then suddenly you have something familiar that you can latch onto, while still knowing that it's not your normal chai Indian tea. NEA: Why do you think Lalana in particular is an important work to bring into English? CHARETTE: Lalana is Michèle Rakotoson's most masterful novel. She herself says it's her most beautiful; every reader, every critic has hailed it as her best work. Part of it is due to the subject material. Madagascar had a huge AIDS crisis in the 90s, like many places, including America. But she was essentially the first artist to directly approach the AIDS crisis in Madagascar. This was a shocking revelation, because it was something that everyone knew was going on but nobody would talk about. Already that's something that just astounded people, that she would so blatantly tackle these awful issues. She was able to do that because she wasn't living in the country at the time. But also the prose that she's able to achieve and the way she's able to tell the story is just incredible. She is an absolute master at telling a Malagasy-style story. They have a very old, oral storytelling tradition, and they have very particular ways of doing it. Obviously oral stories are completely different from written stories, but somehow she's able to make a written story in French feel like an oral story that's being told in Madagascar. So all of her Malagasy readers were enthralled by that. For a Western reader who has no idea what a Malagasy oral story sounds like, [the book] has this very particular rhythm that is just intoxicating. The other part is one of the themes of this novel is the tension between traditional Malagasy beliefs and contemporary society. Pretty much all authors working today in Madagascar at some point in their career tried to tackle the subject of, "How do we reconcile our traditional beliefs with the colonial society that was forced on us and then the modern, global society that is now being forced on us?" As with many formerly colonized countries, they've been forced to evolve and progress very quickly. There’s a lot of tension with that. So the way that [Rakotoson] is able to reconcile those two parts of her own identity, and then help her country reconcile that as well, is really astonishing. NEA: You brought up this tension between traditional and contemporary Malagasy culture. Of course, language is a part of that tension. French was the language of the colonizers, and there's been back-and-forth in Madagascar about which languages are official, which are taught in schools, etc. Does that come into play at all in your work as a translator? CHARETTE: It does, necessarily. I don't speak Malagasy—it's not related to French at all. But all the French literature that I've dealt with so far has Malagasy in it. So for me personally, a lot of that work [of reconciliation] has been done for me because the authors themselves are the ones wrestling with that. Most of these authors that I'm working with, including Michèle, also write in Malagasy. A lot of what they do is write certain stories and certain novels in French and then write others in Malagasy. All of them have their own reasons for doing that, and their own choices that they make. So by the time this literature reaches me, there's not much more of that reckoning that I have to do, because the authors have basically done all that for me. Related to this, Michèle is dedicating most of her time to championing the new generation of Malagasy-language writers. She has successfully started her own publishing house for Malagasy-language works—that's possibly the second or third publishing house in Madagascar. She also runs salons and workshops and conferences for new and established writers. NEA: Can you walk me through your actual translation process? CHARETTE: My translation philosophy is essentially I want to write this book as the author would have if they had originally written it in English. That means if there's something in the French that's a standard grammatical structure, then I want to make that a standard grammatical structure in English. If something's a really weird-sounding sentence in French, then I want to make that a really weird-sounding sentence in English. When I work on these Malagasy authors, that's a really interesting challenge because a lot of what they write is extremely standard-sounding French that all of a sudden gets turned on its head. With the first Malagasy novel I worked on, Beyond the Rice Fields, the author would essentially directly translate Malagasy expressions into French. So they would sound real weird in French. But that way of structuring a phrase tells you so much about the culture that I would have to figure out how to recreate that in English, making it something that you would stop and think about without pushing it so far that you get so confused that you don't want to read it anymore. That's what I like about translation—those types of challenges of how to finagle these interesting linguistic puzzles. Wordplay is the bane of my existence and also the coolest thing I ever do, and what I look forward to. It's so challenging to bring something equivalent over into a new language. I'm also very much a perfectionist. The first couple of drafts I do of any translation, I use brackets to insert a bunch of different options for many words, many phrases, many ways of saying things. So the drafts are hilarious and essentially illegible. They have all the different ideas that I can cram into them, and then I pare it down from there. Which is fun when you're doing a novel that's 400 pages long. The draft stopped loading on the computer after a while. NEA: How much or how little do you work with the authors themselves? CHARETTE: I tend to work with them as much as possible. I've had access to really generous authors, and Michèle is no different. She's extremely generous about answering all the questions I have. A lot of them tend to be about the particulars of Malagasy culture that I don't understand enough of. As with any culture, people think different things about them—there's not one official version of a country's culture that everyone believes in and practices. So if there's a character in one of her books that approaches things differently, then it's something to check with her to make sure I'm understanding it correctly so I don’t shoehorn that character's experience into my own experience of Madagascar. With Beyond the Rice Fields, I was very, very fortunate with Naivo. He lives in Canada and has lived there for 15 years now. So he has a good command of English, although also fortunately is not one of those authors that translators tell horror stories about that because they speak a language, they think that they can translate into it. He was very clear that I was the translator and I was the English writer. But because he had that knowledge, we were able to dive much more deeply into linguistic questions. He's actually decided now that he's going to release a new edition of his original French novel that more closely matches some of the changes we made in the English translation, which is kind of astonishing to me. NEA: You’ve spoken about how Americans tend to refer to “African literature.” How do we as a society begin removing dismantling that very broad definition of African literature? CHARETTE: Part of the reason I'm focusing on translating as much literature from Madagascar as I possibly can is because there needs to be more of it. The more books that are out there, the easier it is to categorize further from something that's thought of as African literature, which is a terrible category. Right now, as English speakers, we have one example of Malagasy literature that we can look at. It's great to have that representation, but that's just a first step. We need to get to a point where we can start intelligently talking about literature from all around the world as their own individual, distinctive things.