Thérèse en mille morceaux
As close as their nation is to our shores, and as much as its issues are involved with our politics, most Haitian writers are virtually unknown to most American readers. That situation persists both despite and because of the nature of Haitian linguistic culture, which is incredibly fertile but, at least from the Anglophone point of view, almost completely obscure.
The spoken language of Haiti is Kreyol, a fusion of French vocabulary and African syntax that developed as a means for African slaves and French masters to speak to each other when today’s Haiti was a French colony, Saint Domingue. As a 1940s manual has it, Kreyol is the language one would expect to develop if a lot of Africans had been required to learn to speak French by listening to it, but without being told any of the rules. Today’s Kreyol is still a young language, no more than a couple of centuries old, still in a process of defining itself, in delirious flux, as rich, vital, and unpredictable as was the English of Shakespeare’s time. It is an ideal medium for song and story, and for the orations of Haiti’s priests, prophets, and politicians. For a written Kreyol literature, there is a big catch; at present some 80 percent of those who speak this language are illiterate.
A Kreyol literature does exist, alongside a mildly politicized movement to promote it. A great barrier to increasing literacy in Haiti is that the official language of the nation was French until 1961, when Kreyol was also named an official language, along with French. The language of education, both de jure and de facto, was also French, to the point that schoolchildren were routinely beaten for speaking their native Kreyol in the classroom. The Haitian Revolution, whose success isolated Haiti from the European colonial powers when it ended in 1804, preserved, as if in amber, the French of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment in its most pure, most rigorous, crystalline form —a form quite opposite to the creative anarchy of Kreyol, despite the large overlap of vocabulary. To be educated in the French of Voltaire is certainly an enlightening boon, but never accessible to more than a few.
As a result, most Haitian authors who want to reach a wide audience (for example, Frankétienne, Yanick Lahens, Gary Victor, Evelyne Trouillot, Dany Laferrière, Ephèle Milcé, Kettly Mars, Georges Castera, Rodney Saint-Eloi) produce at least part of their work in French, often the greater part. Though many of these works are extraordinary, bringing them to an American audience is not easy. Cultural exchange flows very powerfully in the other direction, out of our American language and into the others. Texts in translation from French, let alone Kreyol, have a long way to go up a very stiff stream.
Traduire c’est trahir. An English translation of this phrase—“to translate is to betray”—reinforces the idea expressed by abolishing the alliteration, rhyme, and rhythm of the original. For a Haitian writer …