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Telling Truths with New Words: Jeffrey Zuckerman on Translating Mauritian Literature

By Ariel Saramandi

Jeffrey Zuckerman’s translations of Ananda Devi’s The Living Days (The Feminist Press) and Shenaz Patel’s Silence of the Chagos (Restless Books) were both released this week. Through this work (and the magic of Twitter) he became friends with Mauritian writer Ariel Saramandi, and the two spoke about how he came to translate Devi’s work and the particularities of translating Francophone Mauritian literature.


Ariel Saramandi (AS): It was back in 2016, while traipsing around Foyles in London, that I spotted Ananda Devi’s Eve Out of Her Ruins, beautifully displayed and—much to my surprise—in English. I wasn’t aware that the book—part of the Mauritian canon, emblematic of our literature at its very best—had been translated, and I had no idea that, very shortly afterward, other Mauritian novels I adore would also be translated into English by the likes of you and Geoffrey Strachan. I had assumed that Americans in general had no idea that Mauritius existed, and so I have to ask: what drew you to Ananda’s novels, and how did you start translating Francophone Mauritian literature?

Jeffrey Zuckerman (JZ): That bookseller at Foyles has had his little blurb there for two years now! It really warms my heart to hear that the book is one of their steady sellers. How I first came across it is pretty straightforward: after finishing college, I emailed a French grad student I’d known years before and asked her about books that somehow hadn’t been translated yet. She said there was one book she’d read as an undergrad that had blown her head apart, Ananda Devi’s Eve de ses décombres. Some months later, I finally read the first two pages, and I immediately thought, “How does this book not exist in English?” So I mustered up my courage to email Ananda, and the rest is history.

What made me fall in love with Eve was the language, the raw energy of the characters inhabiting it. It was only later, after I’d done a first draft, that I thought I might do well to learn more about the island on which it was set, and any other writers from there. And then, later, another Mauritian author, Shenaz Patel, happened to be in the United States just as I was delving into her work. I started researching more and more, and translating various texts. By the time I finally got to visit Mauritius, four years after writing to Ananda and two years after the book’s publication, I’d fallen in love with all it had to offer.

Usually I have to work and rework a text until it rings true, and the voice in which it finally speaks is nothing like mine. 

AS: It was such a pleasure showing you around the island when you came to visit for a week. While even a month wouldn’t have been enough time, I was happy that you were able to see some emblematic places: the vibrant, bustling Port Louis; the temples set in stanzas of sugarcane fields; quaint seaside bungalows with thatched roofs and stone walls; our beautiful, haphazard towns with multicolored houses built in various styles; and our exuberant flora all around. I so enjoyed introducing you to my friends, and to the diversity of Mauritius and our history. How did you feel during the trip, what struck you the most, and how did your visit impact your work as a translator of Mauritian literature?

JZ: The entire trip was honestly a huge highlight of last year! Since I’m all the way on the other side of the globe, and Mauritius is still underrecognized in the Western world, there were moments when my work felt quite lonely; I didn’t know anyone in New York from Mauritius. So to connect with someone my age who felt just as keenly that there was a wealth of literary riches that had yet to be brought into English was incredibly heartwarming. And having you as a friend on the ground there made it possible for me to visit the parts of the island that these books are set in.

What struck me most about visiting Mauritius was, of course, the small things: that every single official sign, from the highway markers to the fire-exit signs, was in English, while everyone actually talked in French or Creole. That it was so easy to get incredibly fresh pineapples at one of the roadside stalls, and that you could just drive around a corner and suddenly be confronted with the unbelievably blue sea. And it became so much easier for me to visualize the Troumaron neighborhood Ananda Devi invented for Eve Out of Her Ruins, or the piers of Port Louis that are a focal point of Shenaz Patel’s Silence of the Chagos.

I knew intellectually that Mauritius was a welter of cultures and histories, but it never felt so clear as when we were driving through Port Louis or Tamarin and saw wooden houses abutting brand-new apartment structures. And the Hindu temples that were everywhere to be found—it was because of this visit that, when I did a draft of one of Carl de Souza’s novels and came to the line “little hills prickling with traveler’s palms, pale fields, sun-bleached temples,” I had a perfect image in my head and I knew exactly how to convey that in English.

And now I’m translating Mauritian novels that aren’t set in Mauritius, which is a wholly new yet delightful challenge . . .


AS: The Living Days, another Devi classic! What was it like to translate such a deeply British story? And what was the process of working with Devi like?

JZ: Very strange, to be honest! I had been to London once, eight years earlier, and I hadn’t wandered up and down Portobello Road, or explored Brixton, or really mingled with anyone living there. So I almost had to rediscover London, even though that’s a world more broadly recognizable to me than Mauritius. That said, while the setting was unfamiliar, it was nice to see that the prose wasn’t at all.

I’ve always been amazed at how fluid my experience has been when translating Ananda’s texts. It’s true (if illogical) that I never discuss the ins and outs of whatever I’m translating with Ananda until I’ve finished a first draft. That was certainly the case with The Living Days. Part of it is that she’s always looking forward, toward what she’ll be writing next, and she prefers not to look back until she’s cleared some time and mental space to do so. And so whenever I needed a big-picture perspective, I’d read some of the interviews she’d done. During the process of translating and editing, I’m immersed in the book on a sentence level, sometimes on a word level. It’s only after a first draft that I can pull back and see the forest rather than the trees. I’ll reread it, draw up a list of questions, and await her answers. Then I send her a draft with that input incorporated, and she suggests changes (which have on the whole been extraordinarily helpful and thoughtful), and then I keep fine-tuning the draft with my editors.

There are not many authors whose voices come easily to me in English. Usually I have to work and rework a text until it rings true, and the voice in which it finally speaks is nothing like mine. With Ananda, for whatever reason, the way in which she naturally writes in French so closely mirrors the way I naturally write in English that it feels like an actor being asked to play his real-life self on stage. This was the case even for The Living Days—it’s set in London, and the French original has a particularly British inflection to it. I would have been worried about how to replicate that as an American had my editor not told me that she wanted my American perspective to be the slight foreign element coloring the otherwise British prose. It’s these sorts of strange coincidences that make me so incredibly grateful that we get to work together.

For you, that’ll be an interesting book, since your background is both British and Mauritian. Given that duality, I’m interested to know how you came to champion Mauritian literature in your own way, even in essays that aren’t explicitly about the country’s literature (I’m thinking about that piece in the LA Review of Books, where you speak of Mauritian toxic masculinity, and the way authors such as Devi and Appanah have written about the subject, too).

It’s so exciting to be able to write to an author and ask, “How would you like your book to shine in this new language?”

AS: I’ve never really felt like I was championing anything, just giving Mauritian authors—and Mauritian culture—their due. It’s a complex country, abundant in stories. No novelist writes the same way, and every Mauritian novelist is singular. You’ve done a formidable job championing our literature in all its diversity, and I’m truly grateful—it’s because of you, after all, that two Mauritian novels are coming out in America on the same day this November: The Living Days and Silence of the Chagos. I’m excited about both, obviously, but I’m especially interested in the way Silence of the Chagos will be received.

JZ: Oh, I’m really curious about that, too! I knew about Shenaz purely as another Mauritian author, and I was just about to sit down with one of her early books when a colleague in Boston told me she would be in the US. I sent her an email out of nowhere that exact night, and she very graciously replied and sent me a copy of Le Silence des Chagos. I read the book in a single night—it’s so short and so compressed that I couldn't stop turning the pages. Then we met during her visit to the US and talked and she shared a lot of background, and I said I would send her a short sample translation. A few weeks later, she wrote back, “Alors voilà, I've read your translation. Everything is there. The images, the voice, the rhythm. And the readability. Oui, je suis très favorablement impressionnée.”

The poetry mattered, of course, but I knew this book needed to come out in English out of political necessity: it was about Diego Garcia, an island in the Chagos Archipelago that had been used for coconut harvesting, and because of its location deep in the Indian Ocean, it was an ideal military base for global superpowers. So when Mauritius negotiated its independence in the mid ’60s, the British insisted on taking the Chagos for itself and then leasing it out to the United States as a place to hold submarines and the bomber planes that would be used in the Iraq War and the endless war of the last two decades. In order to prepare the land for such a lease, they forcibly uprooted all the people living there and dumped them on Mauritius and the Seychelles. These dispossessed peoples, the Chagossians, were left to fend for themselves as their former homeland became a pawn in international intrigues. It’s a story about political injustice on so many levels, and it gives a voice to those who were deliberately kept from ever having one.

This battle is still playing out in the international courts, and for the most part, it’s flown under the radar—which is why making this story more widely known is so important.


AS: And Shenaz’s voice as a journalist is so essential to that story’s force. On that theme: every novel is singular, but are there any particularities in translating Francophone Mauritian literature that you don’t necessarily encounter elsewhere?

JZ: Well, novels written by Mauritian authors have an uphill battle to fight in the first place; all French books, or just about, come out from Paris publishing houses and so their editors have a deeply French perspective on the matter. Books from outside mainland France are said to be from “la francophonie,” and critics and readers often push for a “domesticated” French that minimizes particular idioms and regionalisms to “local color.” Ananda, having been trained as an anthropologist and having lived outside Mauritius for decades, is able to write with that relatively “smoothed-out” French when it helps her story to reach a wide readership. So she knows how to use that to her advantage, and it made my job easier at the outset.

But because English-language readers are more accepting of various “Englishes,” there’s an exciting challenge in asking of a book whether or not it can draw on the English language’s broader vocabulary and wider variety of lexical registers. When I was working with Shenaz Patel on Silence of the Chagos, for example, she was—rightly—very insistent that I not over-domesticate her text. There are snippets of Chagossian Creole everywhere, and we kept nearly every instance. This Creole would have been somewhat understandable to French readers but utterly impenetrable to English-language readers, so we talked about how to insert stealth glosses. For the foods, Shenaz was willing to let me expand out the descriptions for Western readers (“fricassee de gros pois” became “fricasseed butter beans in tomato sauce”), but some of the most important words stayed in Chagossian Creole, or even in French: “Memory is a hook digging into your skin . . . But you will never stop coming back to that scar. Never ever. Because that’s where your whole life throbs. You see, my child, it is even more alive than memory. We call it souvenance.”

And now that I’m really delving into books by other authors—like Carl de Souza, a deeply insightful yet side-splittingly hilarious chronicler of the island’s peoples—I feel much more comfortable stretching English further than the original French. For example, de Souza’s The Kaya Days has a lot of Mauritian Creole words, but they’re Frenchified—and now that I’m done de-Frenchifying his Creole, I’m trying to slip even more Creole into the English translation: “You kuyon son of a pute. Tell me you’re happy now, go on, say it. You baise-ou-maman Kreol pilon, spitting up blood and dying on me? Look at the beze you got me in . . . Who here’s gonna bury your pi corpse now?”

It’s so exciting to be able to write to an author and ask, whether directly or through the sentence-by-sentence queries that I pose, “How would you like your book to shine in this new language? How can we allow it to tell its truths with new words?” It’s this endeavor that makes translating books from this vibrant corner of the Indian Ocean such an energizing enterprise and one that I’m committed to for the long run.


Jeffrey Zuckerman’s translations from the French include Ananda Devi’s Eve Out of Her Ruins and The Living Days, Shenaz Patel’s Silence of the Chagos, and Jean Genet’s The Criminal Child, and he has contributed to the New Republic, the Paris Review Daily, the White Review, and VICE. He is a founding member of the Cedilla & Co. translators’ collective, has served as a judge for the PEN and NTA Translation Prizes, and is Digital Editor at Music & Literature Magazine. He is a recipient of a PEN/Heim Translation Fund grant for his ongoing work on the stories of Hervé Guibert. 


Read Jeffrey Zuckerman’s translation of Ananda Devi’s “Kari Disan”

Read WWB’s May 2012 issue, Writing from the Indian Ocean


Published Nov 7, 2019   Copyright 2019 Ariel Saramandi

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