Books in Translation: Three Tales of French Colonialism

The idea of ​​anti-colonial translation—the selection of works, and approaches to those works, that defy or examine the effects of empire—has gained increasing influence among English-language translators and editors. It is a great boon to English speaking readers.

Consider three books, none from the same continent, all not only written in French but also dealing casually or extensively with French colonialism. Mutt-Lons The mistakeset in Cameroon, satirizing the racism and white saviorism of France’s last wave of colonists; Pina, by Tahitian novelist Titaua Peu, is set in French Polynesia and depicts the intense disempowerment inherent in life in a 21st-century colony; and Thuậns Chinatown is a poetic monologue that traces a woman’s journey from Vietnam via Soviet Russia to France. Read together, these three novels, utterly different in style and attitude, are a powerful testament to anti-colonial translation and a demonstration of the wide range of literature such an attitude can bring to our shelves.

The mistake by Mutt-Lon, translated by Amy B. Reid

In the 1920s, a French army doctor named Eugène Jamot set out to fight sleeping sickness in Cameroon, which had recently transitioned from German to French colonial rule. One of his supervisees changed his treatment protocol, blinding over 700 Cameroonians. No one has been held fully responsible for this so-called “mistake,” which is rarely taught or discussed and is the starting point for Cameroonian writer Mutt-Lon’s novel. in the The mistake, this all-encompassing blinding sparks a revolt; The book’s protagonist, a French doctor named Damienne, becomes embroiled in a comical, doomed plot to prevent inter-tribal conflict and a “rejection of doctors.” [that] could quickly turn into an outright rejection of the white man.” By the end of the book, Damienne has realized that she has no right to “play the savior” and yet her racist condescension towards the Cameroonians around her is hardly waning.

Mutt-Lon writes with a stimulating blend of directness and humor, and with what Amy B. Reid writes in her translator’s note, evokes “a wink and wry detachment” of highly discriminatory attitudes. Yet he never creates enough irony to mitigate the uneasiness; that would be too easy, and the mistake No matter how fast and fun it gets, it’s an extremely complex novel full of nuanced characters and difficult stories about colonial and inter-tribal prejudice and conflict. It can be difficult to find satirical fiction that doesn’t flatten the events it satirizes, which Mutt-Lon never does. The mistake is an excellent example of bluntness mixed with sophistication – and as such an excellent and exasperating read.

Pina by Titaua Peu, translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman

Postcolonial family novels are an important mode of modern and contemporary fiction, beginning with Gabriel García Márquez’s magical realist classic A hundred years of loneliness to JM Coetzee’s still, prickly shame. Titua Peus Pina is part of that tradition, but most importantly, it’s not taking place in a former colony, but in Tahiti, French Polynesia, where independence is an ongoing struggle and debate. Peu evokes Tahiti with raw, unsentimental grace; Jeffrey Zuckerman, who has translated texts by French speakers from around the world, translates garrulous prose with vigor and fluidity. Pina itself is a flowing, sprawling novel that tells the free-roaming story of a Tahitian family whose “destinies stretch in every direction, scarcely sharing a detail.” In theory, her protagonist is Pina, the second youngest daughter, but her inwardness is more of an organizing principle than anything else. She is a compelling character, however: a 9-year-old caring for two of her eight siblings is preternaturally wise and sensitive, yet “there’s nothing fairytale about it,” Peu writes. “This girl knew how to hate with all your being.”

Indeed, hatred is Pina’s birthright, inherited from a father, Auguste, who becomes deeply embittered as he grows up in a society “where men [of] his race, his country, should never again be masters, even over himself.” Auguste turns inward, drinking and abusing his wife and children until his household becomes a place of utter chaos. However, Peu writes brutal scenes with harrowing immediacy. She never lets the reader forget that the real sources of the violence are in Pina are colonization and poverty. Ultimately, she keeps that idea tighter than the plot, which moves so far and fast that it can be difficult to stay invested in the events of the novel. Still, investing in its characters, especially Pina, is inevitable.

Chinatown by Thuận, translated by Nguyen An Lý

tuna Chinatown opens on the Paris subway, where an unnamed woman with her sleeping son on her shoulder waits for her train to move on after subway workers spot a suspicious package. Her thoughts quickly wander across the earth and into her past, sending her into a reverie that blends her childhood in 1980s Vietnam with her education in Gorbachev’s Russia; her brief marriage to Ṭhuy, her high school sweetheart whom her parents despise because of his Chinese origins; and her life in Paris today, including parts of a story she is writing.

Although she often thinks of her son, the novel’s invigorating forces are her longing for Ṭhuy and her anger at the strong anti-Chinese sentiment that limits his possibilities – no life is “so hard as for a Chinese Vietnamese,” she writes – and eventually separates the two for good.She is also in constant conversation with the legacy of French colonialism, as is the novel itself: Thuận expressly states so Chinatown in tension with Marguerite Duras’ The loverwhich fictionalizes the story of Duras’ affair with a Sino-Vietnamese man at the end of the French colonial period.

Like Duras, Thuận is an extremely poetic writer. She relies so heavily on repetition that Chinatown‘s lyrics often seem to have refrains, as a ghazal or villanelle would. In the hands of many writers, this strategy could be crippling, but Thuận excels at creating dynamism through language, and Nguyen An Lý translates that dynamism beautifully. Chinatown exerts an almost tidal pull on the reader. I swallowed it down in one gulp.

Lily Meyer is a writer and translator based in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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