In this blog post, Charles Forsdick – James Barrow Professor of French at Liverpool and AHRC Theme Leadership Fellow for ‘Translating Cultures’ – presents The Glissant Translation Project. This is a collaboration between Louisiana State University and Liverpool University Press that he currently co-directs with Alexandre Leupin. With the first three volumes in the series due next month and his own translation of Mémoires des Esclavages in preparation, he explores what it means to translate the Martinican author and intellectual Edouard Glissant – and also reflects, more generally, on the importance of translation in an age of confinement.
To translate – and to reflect on translation – in our current context of confinement is to sense, in often unexpected ways, the expansiveness and interconnectedness with which, as Edouard Glissant makes clear throughout his work, the practice is inevitably associated. A wide-spread perception of invisibility of the translator is to be associated with a perception of the isolation that translating is seen to demand, i.e., the complementary loneliness of the translator. Yet physical isolation does not necessarily entail cognitive seclusion. Indeed translating Glissant reminds us that the opposite is often true, not only as a result of the inherent subject matter of the author’s writings as they explore the multidirectional, dynamic interrelations of the ‘Tout-Monde’ [Whole-World], but also because of the work that translation requires. Translation depends on research, of course, but is also a form of research in its own right. The translator is obliged to connect with the multiple contexts – historical, social, cultural, intellectual – in which the writer and thinker operated. Also, Glissant’s thought was elaborated over an interconnected series of texts produced across six decades. It contains a recurrent critical lexicon, necessitating dialogues – implicit and explicit – with others who have translated his work, among whom are some of the finest critics of his work. And at the same time, to translate Glissant is to be drawn into his own complex reflection on translation – and to seek to emulate that in your own practice. In a recent review of Nathanaël’s 2020 translation of Sun of Consciousness, Matt Reeck notes: ‘Every translation brings forth a new book that bears a relation to other books: either other translations of the same source-language text, other translations of other books by the same author, or books with some other imminent, volcanic relation. At the same time, each translation redefines the entire set through the new possibilities that it brings.’
By elaborating, across several of his later works, the concept of the ‘Tout-Monde’, Glissant consolidated his reputation as one of the key thinkers of globalization at the turn of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In her 2011 obituary of the author, Celia Britton has defined ‘Tout-Monde’ as ‘a view of the whole world as a network of interacting communities whose contacts result in constantly changing cultural formations’. The idea represents in this way the culmination of Glissant’s lifelong reflection on the ways in which cultures interrelate and then navigate these interrelations with a range of strategies that amplify or mitigate the power dynamics embedded within them. Glissant is, however, one of those authors who tends to be cited more than he is read – and cited selectively in ways that flatten the richness and complexity of his writings. The influence of his work in fields such as postcolonial studies and world literature is well-established, but an impact is now increasingly apparent in other areas such as cultural and visual studies. At a time when we are impelled to reflect on the links between the individual and the social, the local and the global, the isolated and the interconnected, being able to read Glissant seems more urgent than ever.
For anglophone readers, translations of his work are readily available. These tend to privilege his essayistic writing over his ‘creative’ work (poetry, novels, theatre), although in Glissant’s oeuvre that distinction is largely redundant. La Lézarde [The Ripening], the Renaudot-winning novel that thrust the author into the critical limelight in 1958, has benefited from two translations – by Frances Frenaye in 1959, and J. Michael Dash in 1985. Another of Glissant’s eight works of fiction, Le Quatrième siècle [The Fourth Century], was translated by Betsy Wing in 2001. English versions exist also of his collected poetry (produced by Jeff Humphreys in 2005; earlier translations exist of Les Indes [The Indies] and Le Sel noir [Black Salt]) and of the remarkable play Monsieur Toussaint, based on the final days of the leader of the Haitian Revolution (again translated twice, by Joseph G. Foster and Barbara A. Franklin in 1981, and then by J. Michael Dash in 2005).
More influential, however, has been Le Discours antillais, a collection of essays published in 1980 containing work written following Glissant’s return to Martinique in 1965 (he had been banned from travelling by de Gaulle in 1959, the year he co-founded the Front Antillo-Guyanais to campaign for the independence of the French DOM-TOMs). Parts of this book were translated by J. Michael Dash in 1989 as Caribbean Discourse, a volume which, along with Faulkner Mississippi (a reflection on opacity and cultural interconnectedness of what Martin Munro dub the ‘American Creoles’ that link the Francophone Caribbean and the American South) remains free-standing in the author’swider oeuvre. These books do not belong to the core cycle of Glissant’s writing, the five volumes of his Poétique [Poetics], of which the first three are available in English-language versions: Poetics of Relation was translated by Betsy Wing in 1997, followed by Poetic Intention and Sun of Consciousness (both translated by Nathanaël and published by the excellent Nightboat Books in 2010 and 2020 respectively).
At first glance, this appears to be an impressive corpus of material circulating in English translation, although on closer inspection it becomes apparent that all these works (with the exception of Faulkner, Mississippi, from 1996) were first published in French before 1990. They fail to represent as a result the thinking I have associated elsewhere – following Edward Said’s reflections on ‘late style’ – with the ‘late Glissant’. The last two decades of Glissant’s life, straddling the turn of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, are characterized by a remarkably rich corpus of critical and theoretical writings. There was one final novel, Ormerod (2003), but Glissant’s energies were otherwise concentrated on a series of seventeen essays, books of interviews, manifestos and anthologies that reflected the conclusion of a lifetime’s reflection on questions of culture, language, memory, history – and the creation of knowledge in and about the Caribbean and beyond.
The three translated texts gathered loosely under the generic label of the essay – Soleil de Conscience, L’Intention poétique and Le Discours antillais – contain in embryo the strands of the author’s later thinking on poetics, diversity and relation, but it was in works published in his final twenty years that Glissant’s intellectual contribution would be broadened, deepened and amplified, reaching wider audiences on both sides of the Atlantic and elsewhere. This flourishing of activity can be mapped closely onto a major shift in Glissant’s career, his move to Louisiana State University as Distinguished Professor in 1988, followed by his taking up a final post of Professor of French Literature in the Graduate Center at City University of New York in 1994. This period in the USA was one of intense activity, including for instance a collaboration with Jacques Derrida, Salman Rushdie and Pierre Bourdieu in the establishment of the International Parliament of Writers in 1993. At the same time, his international visibility was in the ascendant, with a number of colloquia devoted to his work and nominations for the Nobel Prize for Literature.
The Glissant Translation Project, launched at Louisiana State University, is an attempt to present to wider audiences the rich and complex thought evident in works from these final two decades of the author’s life. In collaboration with Liverpool University Press, the initiative is committed to making these writings available for the first time in English translation. The first three books are scheduled for June 2020: The Baton Rouge Interviews, translated by Kate Cooper, is a collection of conversations from 2008 that captures the core strands of Glissant’s thought on language and poetic engagement, and reveals the breadth of reference on which he drew in his reflections on decolonization, creolization and the task of the writer; secondly, Introduction to a Poetics of Diversity, translated by Celia Britton, is made up of four lectures, followed by discussions and six interviews with Lise Gauvin – it covers a similarly wide range of subjects, but recurring themes are creolization, language and langage, culture and identity, monolingualism, migration and the ‘Chaos-world’; and then finally, Treatise on the Whole-World, again translated by Celia Britton, analyses the contemporary world, fashioned by globalization, migration and the afterlives of colonial empire, understood as a multiplicity of different communities interacting and evolving together. Across all three texts, Glissant argues against all attempts, political and philosophical, to impose universal or absolute values, and argues instead for the existence of the ‘Whole-World’, unpredictable, chaotic, creolized, in which identities are neither fixed nor self-sufficient but formed in ‘Relation’ to each other. The aim of these translated volumes – and the others that will follow – is to challenge received ideas about Glissant’s thinking (in part generated and perpetuated by the relatively limited range of translated titles in circulation) and to extend understanding of the importance of his work among English-language readers across a wider range of disciplines and sectors.
As part of this project, I am currently preparing the translation of Glissant’s Mémoires des esclavages [Memories of Enslavements]. The text began as a 2007 report, commissioned by then French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, on the establishment of a ‘Centre national pour la mémoire des esclavages et de leurs abolitions’. This is nevertheless a deeply poetic text, resonating with its author’s other writings, in which practical recommendations relating to archives and institutions are juxtaposed with reflections on the recovery and revalidation of the painful memories of the black Atlantic. As I grapple with Glissant’s labyrinthine syntax, with his semantic experimentation and resort to neologism, I try to imagine a new (anglophone) readership for this text amongst those activists and scholars committed to the urgent memory work linked to transatlantic slavery and its afterlives. Mémoires des esclavages emerged from a distinctively French and Francophone context, but its content has more general applicability for wider debates in this area. As such, I find myself reflecting increasingly on the potentially reparative functions of translation itself: its commitment to the purposeful circulation of new knowledge and ideas both in unanticipated contexts and to new practical ends. Such an approach is implicit in Glissant’s own thinking on translation, which he understands as a creative relating and activating of linguistic and cultural systems initially and superficially seen as distinctive. In The Baton Rouge Interviews, Glissant notes that translation is ‘one of the most important arts of the future’, a nexus of imagination, creolization and unpredictability. ‘Translation is therefore’, he concludes, ‘one of the most important kinds of a new archipelagic thinking. It is an art of the flight’ – un art de la fugue.
Charles Forsdick, James Barrow Professor of French at the University of Liverpool and AHRC Theme Leadership Fellow for ‘Translating Cultures’