Sunshine Abroad

The trials and rewards of French translation and beyond


Don’t let anyone ever say that literary production in Madagascar is minimal, doesn’t exist, isn’t up to snuff.

Maybe there aren’t as many publishing houses as in a Western country, maybe printing books is sometimes prohibitively expensive, maybe there are extremely few people who can live off of their writing alone.

Let me tell you, none of that matters. Malagasies are just as creative and impressive as people all around the world.

Case in point? SLAM POETRY.

On Friday, I went to a 2-in-1 event organized by CRAAM, a cultural organization, and Madagaslam, which is pretty much what it sounds like: the premier association for slam poetry in Madagascar. There was a writing workshop at the university in the early afternoon, followed immediately by an open slam. HOLY CRAP IT WAS AWESOME.

First, the workshop. One of the Madagaslam organizers was going to give a whole history of slam (in and outside of Madagascar), but we started late, so about two minutes in he went, “Should we just write?” Resounding yes. So we came up with seven topics we could write about: education, politics, nose, love, money, friendship, and travel.

Most of these people were there for the first time. And believe me when I tell you that they got roughly one piece of advice: it doesn’t have to rhyme. The end results?? HOLY CRAP THESE PEOPLE CAN WRITE. We had about fifteen minutes, and a couple people presented at the end, and what they came up with was astounding. Not just the content, but the rhythm, the repetitive sounds in some cases. I went up to two of them to exchange contact info, asking if they were writers. They tried to brush me off.

I’ve been in workshops and situations like this before, where people come up with some amazing piece of art in an extremely limited window of time. But this is just proof that so-called “third-world” or “developing” countries are not actually lagging behind the US or France or any other “developed” country in terms of artistic prowess. They lack some resources, sure. But not skills. Even without any formal training. Humans everywhere have amazing capabilities.

Then, the open slam. I was simply blown away. There will probably be video up soon on the Madagaslam Facebook page. I was going to record a few people’s performances (with their permission), just to have for myself, especially the ones in French, in case I wanted to try translating them. I was thinking, to preserve my phone battery, to give each one a few seconds and then stop if it wasn’t amazing.

I recorded every single one in full. Even the ones in Malagasy. I can’t explain the power these poets have, standing in front of their peers, declaiming at the top of their voices the problems with their country and the great things about life.

This is art. Just because they’re not in a hip little cafe in NYC doesn’t mean these people aren’t extremely talented artists. Just because a good percentage of the books published by Malagasy authors are printed either with thinner paper covers or in France doesn’t mean the literature isn’t amazing.

And isn’t that why we translate? I’m only one person, so I can only do so many things. But this is why translation exists and is a good thing. Let’s allow everyone to enter the global cultural conversation. Everyone has good and important things to say.