Sunshine Abroad

The trials and rewards of French translation and beyond

Don't Worry, I'm Not Here to Steal Your Literature

Things are starting to happen fast here. Last week at this time, I was in Fianarantsoa. Between then and now, I’ve talked to two journalists, both interviews have been published, and there’s a third hoping to do a TV interview soon. I’m...turning into a minor cultural celebrity? This is a very strange thing, especially for someone who actively despises the idea of ever being famous.

But hey, people are interested! And that’s a really really good thing -- not for me, but for Malagasies. Because if I can be the hook, the attention-grabber, the reason that people here start paying attention to their own literature, then that can help the authors and editors and publishing houses here who are fighting to find readers, to create readers from a population that is no longer really accustomed to reading.

And apparently, I must be doing something right, because the first interview even attracted some critics. None that I found out about myself, because they’re all writing in Malagasy, but some friends here were good enough to translate for me. The basic gist was: “Oh, so now we have to listen to a vazaha about our literature, too? Just like we already are about everything else?”

Obviously, there’s no point in giving any sort of official response. But here’s the unofficial one:


Of course not! You don’t have to listen to anybody.

Sorry to disappoint you, but my primary purpose in translating is for American readers, for other readers all over the globe who speak English and know nothing about Madagascar. I’m working for them, to teach them things, to help them discover new books and new worlds. My goal is and always has been to diversify literary offerings for Americans, not to launch the careers of Malagasy writers.

However, it’s a mistake for anyone to try to close themselves off from the rest of the world. If we share art and culture and, yes, literature with each other, our lives can only be enriched. We Americans, we need Rabearivelo just as much as Malagasies need Shakespeare.

And I would never tell a Malagasy author what to write. That’s up to them, always. All I can do is take their text and try to render it as faithfully as possible into English.

But...if my work happens to help Malagasy authors along the way, too? That’s awesome! If my presence here means that Malagasy authors get more attention? Brilliant! If I can share what I know about marketing and distribution with Malagasy publishing houses, so that they can do their job more effectively and find more readers and sell more books? Win-win-win-win-win. If I can bring a new perspective to the already-rich conversation on how to increase the literacy rate here, that would be amazing, especially for those people who will be able to learn to read and write.

It’s ultimately up to Malagasies to fix the problems here in Madagascar. I can’t do anything about that, and I wouldn’t presume to waltz in with *the thing* that will *obviously* solve everything. Similarly, it’s my responsibility to work on problems in the States. But sharing information with each other makes everyone’s jobs easier.

Plus, I like these people. Why wouldn’t I want to see them succeed?