Corine Tachtiris is a literary translator and assistant professor of translation studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her latest manuscript, Translating Race, uses the lens of critical race studies to explore translation practice, and to destabilize the construction of race through language. In this interview, she talks to us about her work, including her translation of Frieda Ekotto’s Don’t Whisper Too Much (Bucknell University Press, 2019), the first Francophone African novel to feature women loving women in a positive light.
How did you first become involved in literary translation and translation studies?
I was fortunate to be introduced to both translation theory and practice as an undergrad more than 20 years ago at Earlham College in an amazing joint faculty-student project. We read some introductory theory and then started translating L’espérance-macadam, a novel by Guadeloupian author Gisèle Pineau. We even had funding to bring Pineau to campus.
Earlham is a Quaker college, and though we translated a couple of pages at a time in pairs, the translation as a whole was edited by consensus. Getting nine people to agree on translation choices takes a lot of discussion and negotiation! But it was also a great insight into all the different possibilities and considerations that go into translation.
I continued working on the translation with the professor, Aletha Stahl, and a few other students as an independent study, but eventually we heard that the book was being published in someone else’s English translation. Though that project never came to term, from the very beginning, it introduced me to some of the issues I’m still working on today: translating work by women of color, translating different racial taxonomies, Black diasporic Creoles, and differing attitudes toward sex, sexuality, and gender.
What prompted you to use critical race theory to look at translation practices?
Though I wrote an essay on the translation of the word “nègre” some years earlier, it was really the uprising in Ferguson that made me think about how inadequately translation studies has engaged with the issue of race. There was a Black Lives Matter march on the Hampshire College campus the same day I was teaching Amitava Kumar’s introduction to World Bank Literature, a text that brings together literary studies and social justice activism in a concrete way. At the same time, I was also teaching a course on African literature at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and one of my Black students asked me to cancel class for a university-wide read-in she’d helped organize in response to the failure to indict in Ferguson as well as some racist incidents on campus. I felt the urgent need for my courses—and then, by extension, my research—to speak to my students’ experiences and that current moment.
I ended up abandoning the book project based on my dissertation to take up the question of race in translation. Six years on, more attention is being paid to this issue in the translation community, but we’re still due for a real reckoning. Translation studies has had its postcolonial, feminist, and queer turns; it’s time for the critical race turn.
We need to contest the tendency for literature by White authors to be viewed as non-racialized and “universal,” while literature by authors of color is usually described in racial terms … We also tend to expect that literature by people of color, especially formerly colonized people, will serve some political or ideological function, and this influences which books are published in translation.
More specifically, when and why did you start developing your book manuscript Translating Race? Could you talk a little about the focus of this research?
My book manuscript Translating Race deals specifically with the translation of words that designate racial identities, and I use practices from racial justice activism as frames for thinking through this problem: translation as allyship, translation as civil disobedience, and so on. I also look at what I call the timidity of the White translator in dealing with race by turning to neoliberal forms of confronting—or rather not confronting—racism, like “colorblindness” or multiculturalism. My aim is to draw on critical race theory to articulate an ethical practice of translating race as well as to bring more attention to the question of translation in critical race studies. In critical race studies and racial justice activism in the US, there’s often a tendency to privilege US-American understandings of race and racism.
What constitutes an “anti-racist” translation practice? Practically speaking, how can translators ensure they are taking an anti-racist approach in their work?
I think one key point is that just because a text is written by an author of color doesn’t make it an anti-racist text, and also that just because someone is a translator of color and/or translating a work by an author of color, that doesn’t make it anti-racist translation. Anti-racist translation should actively disrupt racism, whether that’s discursive racism, structural, economic, linguistic racism, and so on. That might be by translating into a racialized English that challenges the White mainstream norm, or by selecting texts that undermine racist stereotypes of other cultures, especially racist formulations that are meant to come off as positive. One of the ones I hate about Haiti, for example, is “oh, they’re so poor but their culture is so vibrant.”
I think we also need to contest the tendency for literature by White authors to be viewed as non-racialized and “universal,” while literature by authors of color is usually described in racial terms. To use an example not from translated fiction, Marlon James’s Black Leopard, Red Wolf is referred to as a Black fantasy novel, but it’s not like people call The Hobbit a White fantasy novel, even though Whiteness shapes that book as much as Blackness does James’s. We also tend to expect that literature by people of color, especially formerly colonized people, will serve some political or ideological function, and this influences which books are published in translation. It’s also a political move for literature by people of color to not overtly address colonialism or racism or oppression or politics. As many Black authors and literary critics have been pointing out recently, we shouldn’t just be reading work by Black authors to “learn” something in our own personal anti-racism progress narrative. Let’s translate Swahili romance novels as well as the quote-unquote great novels of the postcolonial condition.
The ultimate goal, then, is not to “save” women of color from the racism and sexism of the translation publishing sector but to save the translation publishing sector from its provincializing racism and sexism. In this way, it’s not just about helping individual women of color authors to get published; it’s about forcing a larger reckoning in the translation publishing sector with its exclusionary practices and structures.
In your essay Allyship and Intersectional Feminism in Translation, you talk about how white women translators can leverage their relative privilege to challenge the marginalization of women authors of color. But you also talk about the danger of the “white savior” trope, and the risk of white translators co-opting or speaking over the voices of authors of color. For our readers, what does your notion of “allyship” look like in practice?
For me, it’s helpful to frame the exclusion of women of color authors from the translation sector this way: though the problem primarily harms women of color authors, it’s not their problem—it’s the publishing sector’s problem. The ultimate goal, then, is not to “save” women of color from the racism and sexism of the translation publishing sector but to save the translation publishing sector from its provincializing racism and sexism. In this way, it’s not just about helping individual women of color authors to get published; it’s about forcing a larger reckoning in the translation publishing sector with its exclusionary practices and structures.
One thing I’m thinking through is how to balance allyship in translation with the increasing push for the recognition and visibility of translators, including the idea that translators are the authors of their translations and that, in some way, the translation “belongs” to them (in the legal form of copyright, for example). The translator’s visibility and proprietorship sits uneasily with the idea of allyship, because, in our example, it could mean centering the voice of the White woman translator rather than that of the woman of color author. While I think that translators should indeed be advocating for their artistic and economic rights in our current system, we also need to grapple over the long term with the way that concepts like intellectual property and copyright are based in Western racialized capitalism.
We have to fight the chauvinist tendency to treat translators of color whose first language is not English as native informants rather than translation artists in their own right. We have to do away with the unspoken notion that the typical reader of literature in translation is White, educated, and middle- or upper-class.
In Allyship and Intersectional Feminism in Translation, you also note that while women translators outnumber men, translators of color make up the smallest demographic in the US translation profession. In what practical ways do you think that this disparity could be addressed?
First, those for whom translation is not a major source of income should not take translation jobs below market rate. This undermines those who are trying to make a living from translation, and people of color, especially Black US-Americans, have statistically lower generational wealth, which means they can’t undertake translation as some “labor of love.”
We also need to facilitate other pathways into the profession, particularly for heritage speakers and immigrants of color who might not follow the typical university pathway. There are an increasing number of mentorships for translators of color, and I think this is an important step. But we can’t just be training translators of color how to play the game, so to speak. We also need to change the rules of the game; that is, we need to evaluate and reform the ways in which the literary translation sector upholds racist inequities and exclusion, the ways it upholds White supremacy.
We have to fight the chauvinist tendency to treat translators of color whose first language is not English as native informants rather than translation artists in their own right. We have to do away with the unspoken notion that the typical reader of literature in translation is White, educated, and middle- or upper-class. We also need to reflect on the racist underpinnings of what we consider good literature—or even literature—to be, and we must be open to modes of translation that differ from the Western norm. This also means moving away from a market-based paradigm where translation publishing decisions are made based on a notion of what will sell. In sum, there needs to be a radical reconception of who translates, who reads, what is worth translating, how translation happens, and how it finds its audience.
I believe that any translation choice is as inherently political as it is aesthetic in that it reinforces or resists unequal power structures to varying degrees, so I try to reflect on the implications of translating certain texts and not others.
As a literary translator, how do you personally select the pieces you work on?
Translation isn’t my main source of income, so I’m able to exert my own choices more than if I had to rely on commissions—this is also a form of privilege. I believe that any translation choice is as inherently political as it is aesthetic in that it reinforces or resists unequal power structures to varying degrees, so I try to reflect on the implications of translating certain texts and not others. From the start, I’ve focused almost exclusively on work by women authors, and I look for texts with a feminist outlook, but one that challenges White US-American feminism as “universal” feminism. Especially when I’m working on Caribbean or African literature, I’m also careful not to select texts that play into existing stereotypes of what those places are like or what writing from those places is like. That said, I don’t favor any particular style. I’m working on two projects now: one is really experimental, and I suppose some might call the other middlebrow, though I dislike the patronizing way that term gets used. And I do have a soft spot for work with a sense of humor, especially a dark or wry one. Give me a good satire any day!
Your translation of Frieda Ekotto’s Don’t Whisper Too Much and Portrait of a Young Artiste from Bona Mbella (Bucknell University Press) was published last year. Could you talk a little about how you came to work on these works?
Frieda Ekotto was my professor at the University of Michigan and asked me if I’d be interested in translating her work. Other professors had told her they’d like to teach the book in their courses, if it were available in English. In my essay on allyship, I talk about White women translators leveraging their relative privilege for women of color authors, but instances like this show the relationship is actually more complex. I was a grad student who’d only had a limited number of short translations published, whereas Frieda is a well-established figure in scholarly, literary, and filmmaking circles. She has access to funding that ensured I was paid with or without a publisher, and she also has clout with academic presses and secured the publisher herself. I certainly benefitted from the ways she leveraged her own privilege.
Aside from these practicalities, Frieda is someone I adore personally and whose work I really admire. Don’t Whisper Too Much is recognized as the first Francophone African novel to portray women loving women in a positive light, and she followed it up with the short stories in Portrait of a Young Artiste, which are more biting and sometimes humorous. What I think is so significant about Frieda’s work is the way she refuses the anthropological lens through which African literature tends to be read in the West. Her meditations on silence and her use of lyricism and abstraction in the novel deny the reader complete access to the inner life of her characters, to “understand” them. This might seem to go against the purpose of literature, but formerly colonized people were treated as objects of knowledge rather than subjects in their own right. Frieda’s writing serves as a retort to this, and you can see the influence of thinkers and writers like Ama Ata Aidoo, Jacques Derrida, Edouard Glissant, and Gayatri Spivak.
Can you leave us with another book recommendation by a woman author in translation?
One of the books I’m reading right now that I’m quite enjoying is Janet Hong’s translation of Ha Seong-nan’s Flowers of Mold published by Open Letter. I think this book fits into anti-racist translation because it’s not intended to be a “window onto the world” of Korean culture for Western Anglophone readers. It’s a collection of delightfully creepy understated short stories where something is always not quite right, a little uncanny, just on the verge of horror but remaining dialled down, which makes them all the creepier. That’s one of the successes of Hong’s translation: to maintain this sort of mood requires a careful pacing of the prose. These aren’t long, dreamy sentences; they’re relatively short and direct, which makes it seem like everything is as it should be when it’s not. And the word choice is precise enough to call the scene to mind and produce a visceral reaction but also vague enough to allow for that eerie indecision about what exactly it is that is going on. Maybe ill-advised, but I like to read one story a night before bed.
Interview by Salwa Benaissa