In this interview translator Allison M. Charette tells Abhay K., the guest editor of Global Literature in Libraries Initiative for #MadagascarLitMonth about the books of Malagasy authors she has translated so far, why did she choose to translate them, challenges in translating the books and her future translation projects.
Abhay K.- Tell us about the books you have translated and their original authors.
Allison M. Charette- “Beyond the Rice Fields” (“Au-delà des rizières”) is a historical fiction novel that follows two narrators as they grow up, try (not) to fall in love, and puzzle out how to deal with the cultural invasion of colonizing forces as Madagascar opens up to the world in the 1800s. It was the debut novel from Naivo, a Malagasy author currently living in Canada, who is equally at home writing Malagasy proverbs as political intrigue. Structurally, it is the novel form of the classical Malagasy poetry structure called hainteny, which often features two lovers speaking to or around each other, with metaphors swirling around until everything crystalizes into clarity at the very end.
“Return to the Enchanted Island” started as “Les larmes d’Ietsé” by Johary Ravaloson, a contemporary retelling of the Malagasy origin myth through the lens of Ietsy Razak, a privileged and wealthy young Merina man. His crisis of identity as he grows up both mirrors Madagascar trying to find its place in a globalized world and is entirely unique to himself. Ravaloson is an accomplished writer and editor, who started a publishing house called Éditions Dodo vole with his wife, artist Sophie Bazan, to champion dozens of authors from across the Indian Ocean region.
Abhay K.- Why did you choose these books for translation?
Allison M. Charette- Both books were part of my initial haul when I went to Madagascar for the first time in 2014, and they both struck me for different reasons. Briefly: “Beyond the Rice Fields” has so much of the Malagasy language’s musicality and storytelling in it, structured in such a way to be an introduction to the culture for foreigners. Both in form and content, it was a perfect “first” book to be translated into English. As for “Return to the Enchanted Island,” I was attracted both by the intertwining of myth with modern story, and by the very subject of it, with the focus on a very wealthy and privileged main character, which is a perspective of Madagascar that is not portrayed in the media.
Abhay K.- What were challenges and surprises you came across during translating these books?
Allison M. Charette- “Beyond the Rice Fields” is a feat of historical proportion. It is a relief to have real people and events from history featured in a novel, because then the translator can research the anglicized spellings, but it was quite a huge undertaking. This was also my introduction to many of the formal parts of Malagasy culture, such as the way the house is arranged in relation to the cardinal directions, the many ceremonies for the dead, and the extensive and varied fady taboos. There were endless details to get right, on top of the usual challenges in translation. Naivo and I were lucky enough to be selected for the Translation Lab residency at Art Omi: ten days spent sitting in the common room going through the over 500 questions I had in my draft. I’m not sure the translation ever would have gotten done without that.
The biggest challenge in “Return to the Enchanted Island” was how to most responsibly translate the myth sections—the retelling of the original Ietsy story and how humans were created on Madagascar—without sounding too exotic to Western ears. There’s a very fine balance to strike to retain the mystical qualities of an epic myth without going overboard into so much magic that it instantly reads as something “primitive” or even “hooey” to a Western reader, especially if raised in a dominant Christian environment.
Abhay K.- What would you like the readers to know or appreciate more about this book?
Allison M. Charette- It’s been interesting to see readers’ reactions to these books. In particular, “Return to the Enchanted Island” has presented a challenge for many readers who have reviewed it on Amazon or Goodreads. I practically grieve for these readers—they’re expecting a novel told in a linear way, and this is not, but they are missing so much by not letting go, by not letting this tale meander along its own course. Give yourself over to the weaving of stories, the braiding together of myth and man and history, the slight disorientation—the protagonist is wrestling with insomnia, after all. So much beauty can come of it (and so many hilarious moments. Ravaloson just zings sometimes).
Abhay K.- What’s your next translation project? Can you please tell us more about it?
Allison M. Charette- I’m currently pitching four separate novels by Malagasy authors: Johary Ravaloson’s latest novel, two novels by Raharimanana, and Michèle Rakotoson’s “Lalana.” I’ve been working on “Lalana” since 2015, and I’m going to be over the moon when we finally find a home for it in English. It’s Rakotoson’s masterwork, where her prose changes with each new environment to match and evoke the surrounding landscape. For the moment, English-language readers can get a taste of it with excerpts in EuropeNow, the Elemental anthology, and Trafika Europe 22.
Allison M. Charette translates mostly fiction by Malagasy authors Michèle Rakotoson, Johary Ravaloson, Naivo, and others. She founded ELTNA.org, a networking and support group for early-career translators, and has received both a NEA Literary Translation Fellowship and a PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant. Her other translations include graphic novels and children’s books. Shorter work has also appeared in the New York Times, Words Without Borders, The Other Stories, Two Lines, Epiphany, and others. Find her online at charettetranslations.com.
#MadagascarLitMonth is curated by Abhay K.
Abhay K. is the author of nine poetry collections including The Magic of Madagascar (L’Harmattan Paris, 2021), The Alphabets of Latin America (Bloomsbury India, 2020), and the editor of The Book of Bihari Literature (Harper Collins, 2022), The Bloomsbury Anthology of Great Indian Poems, CAPITALS, New Brazilian Poems and The Bloomsbury Book of Great Indian Love Poems. His poems have appeared in over 100 literary magazines including Poetry Salzburg Review, Asia Literary Review among others. His ‘Earth Anthem’ has been translated into over 140 languages. He received SAARC Literary Award 2013 and was invited to record his poems at the Library of Congress, Washington DC in 2018. His forthcoming book length poem is titled Monsoon. His translations of Kalidasa’s Meghaduta (Bloomsbury India, 2021) and Ritusamhara (Bloomsbury India, 2021) from Sanskrit, have won KLF Poetry Book of the Year Award 2020-21.