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Chamoiseau and Matura: Translators and Translations

Moya Jones
p. 61-70


La traduction anglaise du roman Texaco est le point de départ de cette étude. Les traducteurs ont-ils réussi à rendre l'ouvrage de Patrick Chamoiseau accessible au lecteur anglophone, et si oui, comment ? De la même façon, l'écrivain trinidadien Mustapha Matura a-t-il su adapter, ou "traduire", une pièce irlandaise, afin de faire passer l'expérience caribéenne ? Ces questions nous obligent à examiner aussi le rôle de l'auteur en tant que traducteur, et le lecteur lui-même, qui traduit le texte en fonction de ses propres expériences.

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1An American-English translation of Patrick Chamoiseau's Goncourt-winning novel Texaco problematizes aspects of translating the Caribbean experience at a linguistic level, but as with all literary translations, at the inter-, intra- and para-cultural levels, perhaps more problems are raised than are solved. Starting from the English translation, this paper will examine, in select detail, with what success the translators have managed to make both the book and the culture from which it springs more accessible to a wider readership. The discussion will be extended into a consideration of Mustapha Matura's Caribbean version of the Irish colonial experience. His rendering of one colonial adventure in terms of another, in his "translation" of J. M. Synge's The Playboy of the Western World, offers some interesting contrasts, and also poses similar questions regarding the role of translation, and the translator — the author as translator and the reader as translator.

  • 1 Toni Morrison, BBC, entretien radiophonique, hiver 1987.

2"The reader is snatched, yanked, thrown into an environment completely foreign [...] snatched just as the slaves were from one place to another [...] without preparation and without defence". This is how Toni Morrison talked about her narrative technique in Beloved1 and her comments are very pertinent to the general arguments presented here.

3We all speak and write from a particular place and time, from a history and a culture that is specific — all discourse is "placed". But when we talk about text and try to analyse it, and of course in the context of "translating the literature of the Caribbean" this is at the very heart of our proposals and propositions, we cannot allow ourselves to forget that, when struggling with the "meaning" of a text, the reader completes its meaning or meanings by reading it. As the reader decodes a text then different perspectives arise and potential meanings are actualized. It seems to me that some autobiographical intrusion here will help to make the proposals outlined a little clearer.

  • 2 Daniel Pennac, Comme un roman. Paris: Gallimard, 1992.

4When Texaco was published in 1992, I was eager to read it — but I found that I couldn't. I suspect that this depended on a number of different circumstances at the time, but I just could not get into it and so I exercised my reader's legitimate prerogative, as identified by Daniel Pennac2: I laid the book to one side.

5Suspecting that part of my problem had been that, although my command of French is excellent, as an Anglophone, I just had not been able to penetrate it, or to cope with the language, when it was published in translation earlier this year I was doubly stimulated to pick it up again. I was grateful first of all that someone had made my reader's task easier for me. But also, as one whose profession is language, working as a translator and interpreter and as a language teacher, who also teaches translation, I was intrigued to find out whether the translators had done a good job. This led me on to reflecting once again on the nature and role of a translator. Is he or she anything more than a facilitator? Is it possible for a translator to do "a good job" in terms of language and of culture when he tries to convey meaning? In despair I have sometimes thought that it is not possible. Any translation will only ever be a kind of second best, an inferior, watered-down, paler version of a text, passed through the filter of the translator's understanding, and that may be faulty or imperfect. But then again, perhaps this frustration is the price to be paid, so that by using the translator as a tool we can gain access to texts that would otherwise be locked up as far as a large percentage of potential readers is concerned. In that case, perhaps translators are unacknowledged heroes: it is fitting that Gilbert Adair's name should be on the front cover of A Void, his translation of Georges Perec's La Disparition.

  • 3 L'Infini, été 1992, cite dans Lire, octobre 1992.

6But to return to Texaco, I realise now that what I could not cope with on first approaching the novel is the fact that the language is the text — and this text is a spectacular performance. This became evident because of the fact that the novel had been translated, and because of the obvious struggle that the translators had. It is not the translation itself but the translating, which revealed the key, which hinted at the clue to the solution to my reading problem, and which took me back to the original text. Texaco as text translates itself, and to understand this we have not only to refer to language and the Saussurian concepts of "langue" and "parole" — shared language, in a collective community sense and individual use of language — but take note of Patrick Chamoiseau's position as a exponent of "creolity" and of the inventive, explosive, colourful use that he makes of language — words — sounds and narration in Texaco. This is his original creation, his "francais chamoisise" as Milan Kundera dubbed it." Chamoiseau has not made a compromise between French and Creole by mixing them. His language is French, although it is not transformed, not creolised (no Martinican speaks like that) it is chamoiseaued".3

7The author himself has confessed that, as a schoolboy caught between French and Creole, in order to express himself at school he had to translate mentally what he wanted to say. He has gone on to speak about the paralysing difficulty faced by Antillan writers, which was this dramatic choice between languages. Creole is what structures the imagination and is the language of oral tradition, of tales and spoken history. Creolity was a deliberate, creative choice (cf. Eloge de la créolité) the idea being to find a mode of expression in literature that would mobilise the energies, qualities and values of the oral tradition, which would not produce an imitative literature reflecting mainland France or Europe, but which would reflect the mosaic identity of the Antilles. This creolity is an imbrication of languages and cultures and is vital evidence of the Creole writer's wealth. Knowing several languages and accepting bilingualism or multilingualism as a reality and not as an underlying alternative, he or she can abandon the constraints of an old world: a new language is created for a new world.

  • 4 Jacques-Pierre Amette, "Chamoiseau le magnifique". Le Point, 19 septembre 1992.
  • 5 "Le Goncourt a un ex-visiteur de prison". France-Soir, 10 novembre 1992.

8But this does not make things easy for the reader, such as the complaining Parisian literary critic who finds such inventiveness to be "a serious handicap to reading"4. One perceptive critic however finds it to be "disconcerting but enchanting if you know how to give yourself over at the risk of not understanding everything"5. But this opacity on the part of the author is voluntary and deliberate, and the reader must accept this.

9Through the creolity of Texaco Chamoiseau is attempting to convey a story, a history, and is reflecting the fragmented, unstable mosaic identity of the Caribbean. It could only be a polyphonic account — multi-voicedness is at the source of Texaco. It purports to be a compilation of Marie-Sophie Laborieux's notebooks, which record the words and the story of her father Esternome. Then there is The Urbanist who arrives in Texaco to plan its destruction and is stoned and who listens to her history of the shantytown. He transmits his notes to the Word Scratcher, which is Oiseau de Cham's transcription of the tale; and then there is Chamoiseau himself, both inside the text and outside it. Patrick Chamoiseau's starting point is a language problem, a struggle with language. The translators therefore fall into a double kind of trap. The struggle that the translators have had is that although the work is grounded in French — it was awarded the Prix Goncourt after all — the creolity is present not just in spirit, but also in the play that is made in the gaps or the overlaps between French and Creole. And this is the last voice in the text — the voice that Jacques Coursil paradoxically refers to as dumb, "la muette": speaking in French but identified as Creole.

10In the narratology, the "I" is not predominant and the "We" is rather uncertain and this work which we have named "novel" for the sake of convenience (for it is equally an elegy, an epic poem, an opera...) follows the narrative principles of the Creole tale in its digressions, its interruptions, its multi-levelled meanderings.

11Marie-Jose N'Zengou-Tayo has examined this diglossia and the polysemic idiolect (which is not yet an interlect) produced by the osmosis between the two languages and talks of a text which is apparently French but where meanings and structure are foreign or strange. It must be pointed out however that she means strange to the European mainland francophone reader. Does it then follow that the translation into English seems to be English but that the meanings and structures are strange? I would answer, yes, but not for the same reasons. It would seem that the translators have not always been able to render or transmit some of the linguistic and cultural particularities that they were faced with, often because of idiosyncracies inherent in and proper to the French language. But sometimes this has been due to plain ignorance of language and culture.

12In order to avoid the trap of tediousness, only a few illustrations will be supplied, following Ms N'Zengou's own taxonomy. She examines lexis and syntax before turning to a consideration of the way that orality is marked in the story.

13The translators' range of possibilities is fairly limited, however when they are faced with these problems and particularities. As far as orthographic transcription of standard French words goes, it is only rarely that they attempt to render this ("milates" = "milatoes"). Otherwise they just opt for a straight translation ("fouette" (fouet) = "whip"; "neg" (nègre) = "black". They occasionally make brave attempts at translating Creole words ("sandopi" = "tiny"; "zinzoler" = "hisshissing") and words that are specific to culture, flora, fauna, etc. However, they quite often mistranslate French words with a Creole meaning. ("virer" = "revenir" but is rendered as "turned"; "bagage" = "chose" but is translated as "baggage / luggage". These words are missed, passed over like hidden secrets.

14Lexical constructions, either in authentic use or forged by the author, are not translated consistently. Techniques such as suffixation ("instructionné" = "instructed"), agglutination ("nègresclave" = "blackslave") and truncation ("bitation" = "plantation") are rendered more or less successfully.

15Translation of syntax proves to be even trickier. A negative construction in French is still negative even when, in the spoken language one of the elements is omitted ("c'est pas le travail" = "it's not work"). Similarly, it has not proved possible to render effects such as the juxtaposition of two verbs ("elle prit courir du lit" = "she ran out of bed") or the change in grammatical category ("aucun calculer ne leur fut... nécessaire" = "they didn't have to do much thinking"). However, marks of orality are nicely respected, "oui" at the end of a sentence, as well as other oral pivots ("comme ça" = "you know").

16There is an afterword from the translators, who are Rose-Myriam Réjouis, a Franco-Haitian living in the USA for the past eight years and her husband, Val Vinokurov, who speaks no French, and in their afterword they express the fear that maybe they overtranslated Texaco. I would disagree, except for the superfluous glossary which includes items which are perfectly translatable: C.R.S. (riot police); alizé (trade wind); A.N.P.E.; D.D.A.S.S.; E.D.F.; etc. The English version seems to be undertranslated, if anything. Excessive footnotes jostle with those which are part of the text; translation is inconsistent ("vieux rhum" = "old rum" / "dark rum") and when the "Institut de Géographie de Paris IV" is rendered as a linguistic and cultural hybrid, the "Institut de Géographie at the Paris Fourth District Campus" (not, for example, "The Geography Institute at Paris IV University") it seems quite legitimate to question whether these translators, or any translators, are well placed to do the task that they are set.

17In all likelihood, Patrick Chamoiseau did not compose Texaco with the foreign reader in mind. The work was received with enthusiasm in France, although not entirely unmitigated, while the Antillean readership was rather more divided.

18It is true that it is a very dense text. Produced along generative (Chomskyan) lines, the highly cultivated (cultured) French / Creole reader will probably gain the most from reading it. But to paraphrase Umberto Eco, when a text is taken up by readers that it has not postulated then the text either becomes unreadable or else it becomes another book. This is the case here: Texaco in English has inevitably become another book. It is not unreadable though, because, for all the quibbling, the translators have largely fulfilled their remit and acted as guides to Chamoiseau's writing, and thereby to the Caribbean, opening them up and making them available to the foreign reader. This text will never be transparent though, because of the author's project of deliberate opacity. What the translators have done, ultimately, is to give an interpretation of the baroque quality of the text and to transmit a certain idea of Caribbeanness.

19The fragmentation of the novel, whether we speak of it in its original form or in the "Englished" version, is a reminder of the fragmented identity of the Caribbean and its inability to assume a stable identity, whether we talk about the Caribbean islands as a whole or just refer to the island of Martinique. Translating the Caribbean, on a level other than that of language (and therefore literature), implies two ways of thinking of cultural identity. On the one hand, the idea of one shared culture presupposes a oneness underlying all the other more superficial differences. This concept of the essence of Caribbeanness has played a key role in all post-colonial struggles, and Stuart Hall claims that it lies at the heart of negritude.

20However, the second possibility, the other side of oneness, points up the ruptures and discontinuities that are as typical of Caribbean geography as they are of its history and its people. The uniqueness of Caribbeanness depends just as much on critical points of deep and significant differences as it does on similarities between peoples, islands, economies, languages, etc. But there is a paradox here: the two vectors that frame Caribbean identity — namely, similarity/continuity and difference/rupture—, are operating simultaneously. There is a sameness and a difference in between, say, Martinique and Trinidad, the home of Mustapha Matura, but before we examine and compare the way Matura has conveyed his sense of Caribbean identity in "translating" J. M. Synge's The Playboy of the Western World, we must look at the way the characteristics of Caribbean identity and Caribbeannesss are conveyed in order to understand how Matura's recension works, and how much his work resembles and is different from that of Chamoiseau.

21This is a complex topic to tackle, however. Antonio Benitez-Rojo despairs of any intellectual venture directed towards investigating Caribbeanness because he feels that it is doomed to become an unending search. His geographical reading gives us some clues as to how we, non-Caribbeans and post-industrial discoverers applying our own references, might try to seize some kind of understanding of this essence. He interprets the archipelago as meta-archipelago, a marginal system, with no direct communication but where there are bridges (language, myths, history, economy), a non-linear system, unpredictable and chaotic, full of noise and opacity.

22There is a system of binary opposition in place, especially in the relation between the Caribbean and elsewhere, "over there", whether the other place be Europe (France and Britain in these cases), Africa, Asia or even America. Caribbean difference or otherness is expressed in terms of the marginal, the periphery, the rim, the underdeveloped. In Texaco this is reflected in the industrial power of the oil company and the neat, well-organised urban layout of the city of Fort-de-France. The shantytown of Texaco, however, is on the outskirts, having grown organically, chaotically. The township is structured like the language, but the word is stronger than bricks and stones. After all, it is words that convince the Urbanist to think again, not the stone that greets his arrival in Texaco, knocking him unconscious. It is the strength of words, which is the narrative principle behind Creole tale telling, and the spectacular nature of Caribbean narrative is reflected in Texaco and Playboy of the West Indies.

23There is a desire to set up the story-telling as a total performance and the text that we work with is a stage, just like the Texaco neighbourhood, a space for spectacular presentation. The protagonists in these pieces are excessive, baroque and grotesque, and the texts out of which they speak are the same way — especially when seen from Europe. The West's idea of the Caribbean is a product of centuries of bungling and mistakes in identifying. The masquerade that the Caribbean discourse puts on confuses more than it clarifies. Behind the masks lie codes that only Caribbean people can decipher. It would seem that Chamoiseau and Matura, far from decoding these have in fact re-encoded the discourse. While hoping for a good, quiet story, easily penetrated and understood, yet nevertheless suspecting that what seemingly keeps on being a Western text is one which is working in a different direction, away, the non-Caribbean reader can only ever perceive a glimpse of something more. In its desire to reinterpret in some fashion the fragmented identity of the Caribbean self, the text looks for itself in its own mirror, observing, questioning, narrating and erasing itself.

24But the voyage towards Caribbean identity and Caribbean self can only ever be undertaken from elsewhere, from Outside (Europe, Asia, Africa, America) and, if culture is collective memory, as Bakhtin says, then it is quite normal that clashes and encounters should result, arising from the meeting of languages and traditions which have made the voyage. The aesthetic experience is one that is remembered in terms of dream or vision, and it is quite understandable that the Caribbean writer should feel in need of European languages and traditions. They are indispensable to him but insufficient for the narration of the carnivalesque context that surrounds him, where dismembered signs from all over the world coincide and collide.

25Why then does Matura apparently bind himself into writing within the confines of a white, European framework, when he adapts J. M. Synge's play about Irish peasants, and turns it into a Trinidadian story? Quite simply it is because the Caribbean is more than a system of simple binary opposition. As we have noted, there is an omnipresent paradox. The seemingly clear duality between the Caribbean as colonised people and territory as opposed to the colonising influence of Europe or Africa vies with the underlying "multiplexity" of a mixture of heritages, roots, cultures and traditions. Difference, between the Caribbean and the old world, or between two islands, is not just expressed in terms of Otherness. It is also expressed as a challenge to the fixed binaries, which stabilise meaning and representation. Matura's adaptation is much more complex than might first be suspected.

26Matura has taken J. M. Synge's 1907 play and transplanted the action from Mayo in western Ireland to Mayaro in the east of Trinidad in the 1950's just before independence. Matura has re-read and rewritten the play, adapting it to the social, historic and cultural context that he has chosen for his version. Mayo and Mayaro are both small communities, fairly isolated by their poverty and their geographical situation on the periphery of the British Empire.

27Interestingly, the play begins with the arrival of a stranger in the village. He confesses to having killed his father but, far from being rejected or reviled by the villagers, he is hailed as an outlaw hero, the symbol of their potential revolt. The unexpected arrival of this Redeemer named Christy by Synge, renamed Ken in Matura's version, is paralleled by that of the Urbanist, whom the people of Texaco take for Christ. In both cases collective and individual identity is examined, and strengthened by the arrival of the outsider.

28The redeeming Christ is associated in both accounts with violence. The Urbanist, who heralds prospective violence and the destruction of Texaco, is stoned. Christy/Ken believes himself guilty of his father's murder, struck down by a loy (spade)/machete. Brutality and violence, historic violence, is a problem that remains constant in the Caribbean, and in Ireland for that matter. Discovery/conquest/slavery/colonialism have contributed irrefutably to the instability and uncertainty, which give Caribbean literature its particular kind of "being". Any chosen rubric is never one's own.

29But it is clear therefore that Matura is not just adapting a story or piece of literature to a local context. According to W.B.Yeats, (Synge's fellow Irishman and contemporary) all literature, in every country is derived from models, and after foreign models. Matura, just like Chamoiseau, is dealing in universals, to borrow from Chomsky again, while making them specific. He is telling an old story and old truths: the theme of rebellion, the revolt of the poor and oppressed, the son rising against the father, with all the Freudian undertones that that entails.

30Matura has not in fact bound himself into a confining framework, then, unless we reconsider this at a linguistic level. He has put himself in the situation of having to establish himself within the patriarchal law by means of the English language, and we have already noted that this point about writing in the colonizer's language is critical. Matura's solution is also to opt for a creolity, in lexis and in syntax, in order to convey the Caribbeanness of his work. He also introduces passages and dialogue that are not present in Synge’s play and omits others. Nevertheless he remains true to the spirit of Synge in that the dialogue is based on real speech patterns and the action remains true to the psychic state of the locality. It is because the foundation is solid and realistic that it can sustain the extravagance of the action and the language.

31This excessive character is perceived in the paradoxes and oscillations of culture and language that we have detailed. Oscillation between linear realism (imposed European master-codes) and non-linear Caribbean form reminds us that instability in identity, culture, or language reflects the inherent instability of meaning.

32And so we return to the heart of the matter: can a translator or a translation ever tell us what a text means — what it wants to say (veut dire)? Meaning is never finished or completed but keeps on moving, encompassing other additional, supplementary meanings. It is the reader who completes the meaning of a text by reading it, and of course then different perspectives arise, depending on a multitude of circumstances. In his decoding, the reader actualizes a text, so texts belong as much to the future as they do to the past.

33There is a tension in Caribbean literature because it refers simultaneously to two main sources of legitimation, but the tension is a form of syncretic dynamic, because elements from the master-codes have been knowingly appropriated and by creolising them or translating them, especially at the linguistic level they have been dismembered and rearticulated. This hybridising tendency, especially in language, as applied by Chamoiseau and Matura, decentres, destabilises and carnivalises the linguistic domination of French and English, but it is a creative process. A Grace Nichols poem sums this up very neatly:

I have crossed an ocean
I have lost my tongue
From the root of the old one
A new one has sprung

34I am forced to conclude that translators and translations will always have a function, not as a key to unlocking or explaining the mysteries of a text but rather more as a bridge, spanning differences, straddling the turbulence and the grey areas and the frustration, and easing the reader's task.

BENITEZ-ROJO, Antonio. The Repeating Island. (traduit par Maraniss James), Durham et Londres: Duke University Press, 1996

BERNABE, Jean. CHAMOISEAU Patrick, CONFIANT Raphael. Eloge de la créolité. Paris: Gallimard. 1989.

CHAMOISEAU, Patrick. Texaco. Paris: Gallimard, coll. Folio, 1992. CHAMOISEAU, Patrick. Texaco (traduit par Réjouis, Rose-Myriam et Vinokurov, Val) Londres: Granta Books, 1997.

COURSIL, Jacques. Césure, Revue de la Convention psychanalytique, n°11, La commotion des langues. Paris, 1996.

MATURA, Mustapha. Playboy of the West Indies. New York: Broadway Play Publishing, 1988.

N'ZENGOU-TAYO, Marie-José\ "Littérature et diglossie/Créer une langue métisse ou la 'chamoisification' du français dans Texaco de Patrick Chamoiseau." TTR, Le Festin de Babel, IX, 1: 1er semestre 1996.

SYNGE, J.M. The Playboy of the Western World. (1907) Londres: Ernest Benn. 1975.

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Document annexe

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1 Toni Morrison, BBC, entretien radiophonique, hiver 1987.

2 Daniel Pennac, Comme un roman. Paris: Gallimard, 1992.

3 L'Infini, été 1992, cite dans Lire, octobre 1992.

4 Jacques-Pierre Amette, "Chamoiseau le magnifique". Le Point, 19 septembre 1992.

5 "Le Goncourt a un ex-visiteur de prison". France-Soir, 10 novembre 1992.

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Moya Jones, « Chamoiseau and Matura: Translators and Translations », Palimpsestes, 12 | 2000, 61-70.

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Moya Jones, « Chamoiseau and Matura: Translators and Translations », Palimpsestes [En ligne], 12 | 2000, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2000, consulté le 19 février 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/palimpsestes.1637

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Moya Jones

Moya JONES est maître de conférences à l'Université Bordeaux III. Agrégée d'anglais et auteur d'une thèse sur le théâtre alternatif en Grande-Bretagne, elle s'intéresse à la civilisation britannique contemporaine. Ses travaux portent aussi sur la production culturelle des minorités sociales britanniques et des cultures dites alternatives. Elle a publié des articles sur Joe Orton, Stephen Frears, Hanif Kureishi et Victor Headley. Elle réside temporairement au Pays de Galles et travaille à l'Université de Swansea.

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