The idea of anti-colonial translation—choosing works and approaches to those works that resist or examine the effects of empire—has gained influence among English-language translators and publishers. This is a godsend for English-speaking readers.
Consider three books – none of which are from the same continent and which not only were written in French but also deal, at a glance or in depth, with French colonialism. Mutt-Lon’s The blunderwhich takes place in Cameroon, satirizes the racism and white saviorism of the last wave of French colonizers; pina, by Tahitian novelist Titaua Peu, is set in French Polynesia and depicts the intense disempowerment inherent in life in a 21st century colony; and Thuận Chinese district is a poetic monologue tracing the journey of a woman from Vietnam to Soviet Russia via France. Read together, these three novels, totally divergent in their styles and attitudes, are a powerful testimony to anticolonial translation, and a demonstration of the wide variety of literature such an attitude can bring to our shelves.
The blunder by Mutt-Lon, translated by Amy B. Reid
In the 1920s, a French army doctor named Eugène Jamot set out to fight sleeping sickness in Cameroon, which had recently moved from German to French colonial control. One of his supervisees changed his treatment protocol, blinding more than 700 Cameroonians. No one has been held fully responsible for this so-called “blunder”, which is rarely taught or discussed and which is the starting point of Cameroonian writer Mutt-Lon’s novel. In The blunder, this wholesale blindness triggers a revolt; the book’s protagonist, a French doctor named Damienne, is enlisted in a doomed comic plot to forestall intertribal strife and prevent a “rejection of doctors [that] could quickly explode into a total rejection of the white man.” At the end of the book, Damienne realized that she had no right to “play savior”, and yet her racist condescension towards Cameroonians around it barely fades.
Mutt-Lon writes with a bracing mix of candor and humor, evoking intensely discriminatory attitudes with, as Amy B. Reid writes in her translator’s note, “a wink and wry distance.” Yet he never creates enough irony to soften the discomfort; that would be too easy, and The mistake, no matter how fast and funny it gets, is an intensely complex novel, full of nuanced characters and difficult stories of colonial and inter-tribal prejudice and conflict. It can be difficult to find satirical fiction that doesn’t flatten the events it satirizes, which Mutt-Lon never does. The blunder is an excellent model of franchise laced with sophistication – and, as such, an excellent and infuriating read.
pina by Titaua Peu, translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman
Postcolonial family novels are a major mode of modern and contemporary fiction, ranging from the magico-realist classic of Gabriel García Márquez A hundred years of loneliness to the tranquil, barbed wire of JM Coetzee Disgrace. Chez Titaua Peu pina belongs to this tradition, but, above all, it takes place not in a former colony but in Tahiti, in French Polynesia, where independence is a permanent effort and debate. Peu evokes Tahiti with raw, unsentimental grace; Jeffrey Zuckerman, who has translated writings from French speakers around the world, translates talkative prose with strength and fluidity. pina itself is a free-flowing, sprawling novel, telling the freewheeling story of a Tahitian family whose “fates run in every direction, almost no details in common”. In theory, its protagonist is Pina, the second youngest daughter, but its interiority is more of an organizing principle than anything else. She is, however, a compelling character: a 9-year-old girl who cares for two of her eight siblings, is supernaturally wise and empathetic, and yet “she’s no fairytale. fairies,” wrote Little. “This girl knew how to hate with her whole being.”
Indeed, hatred is Pina’s birthright, inherited from a father, Augustus, who becomes deeply embittered on becoming of age in a society “where men [of] his race, of his land, were never to be masters again, not even of themselves.” Augustus withdraws into himself, drinking and abusing his wife and children until his house becomes a place of utter chaos.Little writes brutal scenes with heartbreaking immediacy, though she never lets the reader forget that the truest sources of violence in pina are colonization and poverty. Ultimately, she maintains a narrower understanding of this idea than the plot, which goes so far and so fast that it can be difficult to stay invested in the events of the novel. Yet investing in its characters, Pina in particular, is impossible to avoid.
Chinese district by Thuận, translated by Nguyen An Lý
by Thuận Chinese district opens in the Paris metro, where an anonymous woman waits, her son sleeping on her shoulder, for her train to resume its journey after metro workers discover a suspicious package. His mind wanders rapidly above ground and into his past, sending him into a reverie that intertwines his childhood in 1980s Vietnam with his upbringing in Gorbachev’s Russia; his brief marriage to Ṭhuy, his high school sweetheart, whom his parents despise for his Chinese heritage; and her current life in Paris, including bits of a story she is writing.
Although she often thinks of her son, the driving forces of the novel are her longing for Ṭhuy and her anger at the powerful anti-Chinese sentiment that limits her opportunities – no life is “difficult as it is for a Chinese -Vietnamese,” she wrote – and eventually broke them both up for good. It is also in constant conversation with the legacy of French colonialism, much like the novel itself: Thuận explicitly puts Chinese district in tension with Marguerite Duras’ the loverwhich fictionalises the story of Duras’ affair with a Chinese-Vietnamese at the end of the French colonial period.
Like Duras, Thuận is an intensely poetic writer. She relies so much on repetition that Chinese districtThe text of often seems to have refrains, as would a ghazal or a villanelle. In the hands of many writers, this strategy could be deadly, but Thuận excels at creating momentum through language, and Nguyen An Lý translates that momentum beautifully. Chinese district exerts a quasi-tidal attraction on the reader. I swallowed it in one gulp.
Lily Meyer is a writer and translator living in Cincinnati, Ohio.
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