- One Word at a TimeSifting through Debris, Uncovering Memory
In memory of my father, Jean-Léon Salvodon
Maladi pa tombe sou bèt (“Illness befalls humans”) is a Haitian proverb that foregrounds the precariousness of human life and acknowledges our vulnerability to illness and death. Sayings use few words to express a great deal. As I reflect on the translation of Rosalie l’infâme by Évelyne Trouillot, this saying comes to mind precisely because my translation into English of this evocative Haitian novella coincided with the Haitian earthquake in 2010.1
This is why I've been sifting through both words and debris. During the winter and spring of 2010, I spent months in Boston poring over words that captured, in vivid detail, the dreadful conditions under which the enslaved women, men, and children lived in eighteenth century Saint-Domingue. By that summer, I was clearing rubble in Léogâne, the epicenter of the earthquake. The rubble’s material characteristics began to take on a visceral quality, its coarse brittleness infusing my words, thoughts, feelings.
The presence of rubble was overwhelming. It was everywhere, a constant reminder of the lives lost. Working in rubble and handling rubble connected me to the destruction: I looked at it, I touched it, I pushed it around with my feet, I carried it around in a wheelbarrow, the contents of which I would dump by the side of the road, away from the site. I stepped over it and around it to reach a friend’s house. Rubble became mine to consider, to cry over, to break into small pieces, to transport, imagining its reuse for new roads, for [End Page 1] new housing, and for filling landfill in the new Haiti. Each piece of rubble was haunted by the absence of the human beings who had lived in that home.
Literary translation demands faithfulness to the source text, and for me, a Haitian American living in the aftermath of the earthquake, the act of translating Rosalie l’infâme incited a double consciousness of memory, an additional fidelity. This translation impelled me to bridge the lives of the three hundred thousand women, men, and children who perished in the earthquake and those lives of the millions of Yoruba, Ibo, Mina, Congo, Mandingo, Nago, Wolof, Hausa, and Arada peoples captured, transplanted, and enslaved during the transatlantic slave trade. The triumph of Rosalie l’infâme lies in its powerful evocation of these human lives, which dramatically alters the perception of the enslaved as merely anonymous masses of people, devoid of identity. Names are important: proper names, nicknames, and the names imposed on enslaved people through renaming. With the term soeurs de bâtiment (“ship sisters”), a genealogy is created that defines the new familial relationships forged on ships headed for the colonies. This term encapsulates the experience of the protagonist Lisette’s mother, grandmother, great aunt, and the other women who were seized and held in barracoons before being placed on ships. “Ship sisters” captures the force of women’s shared experiences on The Rosalie and beyond.
My work shoveling rubble, moving debris, pushing heavy wheelbarrows, and breaking up concrete with pickaxes connected unequivocally to the work of translating Rosalie l’infâme. Sifting through debris, I discovered remnants of houses formerly inhabited by people of Léogâne, whose lives had ended abruptly, violently. Sifting through words in French and English, I encountered a revolutionary history of Saint-Domingue through Lisette, the novella’s empowered female narrator-protagonist. With each piece of debris, I unearthed, with each word choice I made, I remembered the experiences of the people whose lives return like ghosts to haunt us. Against the mythic landscape of Haitian mountains—Dèyè mòn gen mòn (“Beyond mountains, there are mountains”)—my journey led me across the turbulent eighteenth-century ocean aboard Rosalie l’infâme to the brittle rubble lining the littered streets of Léogâne, creating a new topography and language in my heart and mind: Anba dekonb, gen moun (“Beneath rubble, there are people”), and Anba chak mo, gen lavi (“Beneath each word, there is a life”).