From the Desk of Betsy Wing: Translating Édouard Glissant

Betsy Wing is the translator of Édouard Glissant’s novel Mahagony (Nebraska, 2021). Her previous translations include Glissant’s The Fourth Century (Bison, 2001)The Overseer’s Cabin (Nebraska, 2011), Poetics of Relation, and Black Salt, among the works of many other writers.

“I wrote it once. Now you write it.”

I think of these as the last words the Martinican writer and philosopher, Édouard Glissant, spoke to me, but I know that literally they are not. They are, however, the most memorable. From the moment I first began to translate his works I have used them as my guide. What they mean to me is that his writing has been a translation from the beginning. It is solid, but it is permeable. The just published novel, Mahagony, like other Glissant works that I have translated—the novels (The Fourth Century, The Overseer’s Cabin), the poetry (Black Salt), and the theoretical essay, Poetics of Relation—translates what went on in a remarkable mind that was formed in a particular time and place: post-war, post-colonial Martinique. When Édouard passed a book on for me to relate it came with his words: “Now you write it.”

When Édouard put his trust in me (a person from a different time and place) it was a direct expression of his theory of Relation—a call for the necessity of changing oneself through an exchange in which neither person (place, thing, animal, vegetable, mineral) loses its integrity. And I came to understand his idea that intuition was a “science”—a way of knowing not to be confused with Science but to be respected on its own terms.

Intuition for Glissant is an active intelligence that relates to the changing world around it. Certainly it is formed by what we know but, being at least as active in taking in what is unknown as it is in producing the known, it can escape the traps of prejudgment. Intuition provides the affirmation that empowers the characters in Mahagony. It as an act of great bravery for the 18th century slave to take his life in his hands by practicing the skill, punishable by death, of reading and writing as he records on bits of bark and canvas the freight of ships coming and going from Fort Royal. He does so in part to taste for himself the wealth of his masters and, doing so, to assert his right to know the world. Later in the intertwined narratives of Mahagony, when the 20th century character seeks answers to the disappearance of a friend, she also finds her way to happiness. She does so by trusting her own perceptions despite the complications and grief she encounters.

Mahagony circles around the old tree that stood as witness to the history composed of stories and memories passed around in tales told in the barbershop or over cookfires at night. It stands rooted there in the midst of the forest where each of the runaways, the maroons, will make their lives. History is in its rings and the character/narrator, Mathieu, knows this and revisits it, as do others.

Mathieu, the narrator of Mahagony has a convoluted relationship with Glissant. He both is and isn’t Glissant, the author. He complains about the fixity imposed on him in earlier novels by the author and now tells the stories (and acts in them) on his own behalf. He has been a witness to the complex changes that have taken place on the island of his birth and has written them into his novels. Sometimes he is elated, sometimes in despair but always he is present, senses alert for what is happening now and what is said to have come before.

In his theoretical essays Glissant exhorts his fellow citizens of the whole-world to know who and where they are before they make changes through exchanges with the Other. He insists on what we have in common, our “common-places” which he does not define as banalities. He insists also on the importance of geography, the necessity for being grounded where we are. These are qualities that are perceived through the senses.

Glissant’s early poetry is filled with the physical sensations (tastes, smells, sights, sounds) that he most deeply knew—and lacked in France, where he had gone to pursue his studies. There he learned that he was not as French as he had been taught and began to see how destructive the fallacy of that assimilated self-definition could be. He knew and began to write about what was his real ground, the geography that made him. In that poetry and in his fiction the concrete detail of his theory of Relation began to be defined and made clear. The characters are solidly themselves and fixed in their relationship to the island’s geography. They are a people who have been there, away from Africa, for four centuries. They have their own deep stories, recounted down the years since the forcible importation of the island ancestors from Africa. Though not a part of the official record, these stories form a history where their origin in Africa is neither their saving grace nor to be blamed for all their problems. All the characters who are contemporary with the narrator of Glissant’s novels are familiar with the unrecorded history of their people, the emphasis it places on those who escaped the world of the Registry of who owned whom, and later those whose lives were considered of so little account that their deaths went unrecorded. The very fact that there were some among them who lived and died on their own terms was empowering.

Through his fiction we know that for Glissant Relation was not some hazy abstraction; it was not flou. (I leave this untranslated, for emphasis.) The fact that we don’t always understand everything, that not everything or everybody wants to be understood—compris, taken in, assimilated is an important aspect of Glissant’s work. He refers to it as the right to opacity. And through his fiction we see that nothing is a direct line, an either/or but it is a matter of tangled roots, common places like those shared by the mahagony and ebony trees.

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