Interview with Allison M. Charette about "Beyond the Rice Fields" by Naivo
This semester, in my World Literature & Translation class, we’re reading twelve translations from 2017-18 and talking with almost all the translators, including Allison M. Charette, who is responsible for the publication in English of Naivo’s Beyond the Rice Fields. Over the past few weeks, we conducted this conversation through email about the book, and I thought it would be of interest to some of our readers. In terms of Allison’s background, she’s a University of Rochester MALTS graduate, founder of the Emerging Literary Translators’ Network in America, ALTA board member, translator from the French, and devotee of bringing Malagasy literature to American readers.
Beyond the Rice Fields by Naivo, translated from the French by Allison M. Charette (Restless Books)
Chad W. Post: As is stated in the jacket copy, Beyond the Rice Fields is the “first novel from Madagascar to every be translated into English.” I know that you started investigating Malagasy literature when you realized that nothing had been translated from there, but why did you/Restless decide on Naivo’s book specifically to be the first one translated?
Allison M. Charette: The English-speaking world got well into the twenty-first century without being able to read any novels from Madagascar, so whichever one got translated first would have to serve many purposes. First and foremost, it had to be an excellent book, great literature, of course. But it would also be most Anglophones’ first exposure to real Malagasy culture (sorry, no, the Dreamworks movie doesn’t count), so it would also necessarily serve as a primer to the Malagasy people. And Beyond the Rice Fields did one better by serving as a history lesson, too. Naivo’s book was also an excellent choice to translate because the original French novel is already very translation-like. Naivo had several audiences in mind when writing Beyond the Rice Fields, including a French readership from France, so a lot of the work of balancing the original unfamiliar culture of a book and making it accessible for an American/British/etc. audience (i.e. domestication) had already been done. We made some different choices for the English translation, including taking all the original French footnotes and putting them in a glossary at the end, but there were a lot of general translation decisions that I made by just asking Naivo what his thought process had been while writing.
Now, Beyond the Rice Fields wasn’t the only novel from Madagascar I was (or am) trying to get published in English, but on a practical level, it was helped along by several things: mainly, I received a PEN/Heim grant for it in 2015. That really kick-started the whole publishing process, and it’s how Restless found the book. It also helped that Naivo lives on this continent and speaks English very well, so he’s been very active in not only the translation process, but doing publicity for the English book, as well.
CWP: One of the things that struck me about the book is how, despite all the cultural differences in the book, that the plot and story are very recognizable. (Although the ending—NO SPOILERS—might set this apart from your average American novel.) I assume that Malagasy literature grew up alongside French literature, but are there particular authors or trends that sort of laid the basis for Malagasy writing? Or, in other words, what is the history of the country’s literature? (In brief, obviously.)
AMC: Briefly, yes: Malagasy literature was mostly oral until the colonization period, when Malagasies were exposed to French literature. Several writers at the turn of the twentieth century adopted the structures of French romantic, modernist, and surrealist poetry—Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo is the greatest example of this. The Malagasy novel was born mid-century, again following the structures of French novels. Much of this writing is an attempt to make Malagasy ideas fit into and subvert French/Western structures at the same time, with subversion increasing as time goes on. Obviously, this is a very simplistic overview, and is directly the result of colonialism: students get educated in a French system, get taught that there’s a “proper” way to write, so they’ll write like that; add in the desire to get read by a wider audience and validated by other great (Western) authors, and this is what you get. However, there have been many authors who are really talented at writing a very Malagasy-feeling story in the French language and using Western novel structures, especially starting in the renaissance period of the 70s-80s. Naivo is one of them; he follows in the footsteps of authors like Michèle Rakotoson and Charlotte-Arrisoa Rafenomanjato.
(Funny story about the ending of Beyond the Rice Fields: it’s such a trip that I actually forgot about one of the major players’ deaths when I was first pitching this book. I chalk it up to having read 30+ novels all in a row and trying to keep their plots straight, but . . . I did have to email one editor who had specifically asked about the ending to say “Whoops! Sorry, no, it’s the opposite of the way I told you. That changes things, doesn’t it?!?”)
CWP: That’s a great story! And I can totally envision certain editors or presses wishing they could just tweak the ending a bit . . . One specific choice that I was wondering about: Did the setting of the book (early 1800s) impact how you translated the dialogue? Was the idea that certain words “couldn’t” be used, or that characters should “sound” like they’re of the time even a concern for you?
AMC: Well, of course it did, but not very strictly. I never drew up any draconian rules for what characters could or couldn’t say, and sometimes the humanness and personality of the characters took priority over making them sound perfectly Victorian. Making this novel sound really contemporary would be doing it a disservice as historical fiction, but there were times, like when Fara becomes a teenager and is trying to figure out love and sex and all that, when I slipped in a few more modern-sounding turns of phrase.
The more interesting consideration with the dialogue was making the Malagasy characters sound Malagasy, even though you’re reading a book in English. Naivo used a lot of calques in the characters’ speech: direct translations of common Malagasy phrases, especially the oft-repeated proverbs, into French, which I then would take directly into English. They definitely sound weird, but they add so much richness and authenticity. One of my favorites is a really strong curse in Malagasy: “By my father’s incest!”
CWP: How familiar did you feel like you had to become with the customs of Madagascar before translating this book, or did you just let the text guide you? I personally didn’t realize there was a glossary in the back until I was about halfway through it, so there were a few things that confused me (like the role of Ranaka in society), but most everything was made clear by the context.
AMC: It’s rather relieving to hear you say that most things became clear through context, because there was a lot of research and conversations I had to get through before finishing the translation. In fact, the reason I originally went to Madagascar in 2014 was to learn what I could about Malagasy culture and customs, because I couldn’t get through a short story translation without feeling horribly lost. Naivo’s a good writer; between his writing and the glossary, I could easily have just let the text guide me, but there were a fair amount of things in my early drafts that almost bordered on fetishization—without a full understanding of the customs, if I was translating what I saw on the page, the English text became something between an oversimplification and a parody of the customs being described. The more Naivo explained to me, the better I understood the customs, the more I was able to depict them with the proper elegance and distinction, instead of playing into the rather awful trope of assuming that any culture different from ours is “primitive” or “backward.”
CWP: Beyond the more direct explanation of customs (like the dancing competition), there’s the much larger historical context, and Madagascar’s place in the world in relation to foreign countries and allowing foreigners (and their ideas) into the country. As a result, the book sort of balances a number of different goals—a fairly epic love story, an investigation of the impact of progress on Madagascar, and a retelling of a horrible massacre—in a way that’s supposed to be both satisfying to Malagasy readers, while also looking outward towards readers in France and the rest of the world. How do you feel that Naivo accomplishes this in the book itself, and did these various goals ever impact your decisions as a translator?
AMC: It is a lot to accomplish (which is probably why the book is so long!). Naivo is very good at balancing the personal and the politics, mostly by showing how the big historical decisions affected the lives of specific individuals. Tsito occasionally gets somewhat close to some of the major players of the era (Queen Ranavalona, Prince Rakoto, Laborde), but most of the time it’s just proclamations being handed down, witch hunts being encouraged and carried out (literally), even slave traders complaining about higher regulation. It’s the historical told through the personal. The dual narration also helps—because of the fact that it’s from two characters who (spoiler alert) fall in love with each other, their narration keeps refocusing on each other every time the politics start encroaching. And while yes, Tsito does get swept up in the larger political discussion and starts to learn how the French and British are affecting the Malagasy leadership, Fara has zero idea about all of that, just living a simple life in a village for the most part. Their different perspectives help keep things balanced.
The attempt to please both Malagasy readers and the rest of the world happens on a smaller scale in the writing, with Malagasy words being dressed in a Western context. What if a Western reader sees an unfamiliar phrasing, like the oft repeated “All this occurred in the nth year of the Sovereign King’s reign”? Well, it always occurs within a familiar structure, closing out a chapter or major section. And all these proverbs about transplanted rice and setting suns? Sure, they’re unusual, but they’re all talking about love and power and other fairly universal concepts.
My perspective is necessarily that of the rest of the world, and I can only speak to how satisfying the book is for Malagasy readers based on what they tell me. I’m an outsider. Fortunately, any English translation of this book is also primarily for outsiders, so I was generally able to just do the translation from my perspective. There’s always something familiar for an American/other Western reader to grab on to, so I just had to make sure not to erase or smooth over the elements that I found very jarringly unfamiliar—they exist for a different audience. And there are plenty of Malagasies in the States who were going to read the English translation, so even if I can’t know what their perspective is, I couldn’t just breeze over the elements of the book that are for them. Besides, those unfamiliar things can teach us Americans a thing or two.