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The Rage Letters: ‘I believe that every choice made by a translator is a form of creolization, ripe with political potential’

On November 21, Metonymy will be releasing its first translated work—The Rage Letters by Valérie Bah. In this post, translator Kama La Mackerel shares what stood out to them about this work (which was published originally in French as Les Enragé·e·s by les Éditions du remue-ménage, as part of the Martiales collection) and the nature of the collaboration that brought this new version to life.

‘I think what surprised me the most at the time was that I had not yet read a work of literature in French where Blackness and queerness are both written in such an unapologetic manner’

In reading just the first few stories, I felt seen in ways that I had never experienced through a francophone literary work before. Sure, it was about these characters who reminded me of myself, my friends, and my communities—us learning to love, to resist, to stay alive while running anti-oppression workshops during the day and working call-centre jobs at night. But more than that, there was something happening with the language: it felt haunted, as if a ghost was attempting to manifest itself in between the words. It felt like it wasn’t exactly fully French, but at once something more and something less. It was clear to me that Val had managed to address the power dynamics inherent to the French language; they had managed to shape the language into being unapologetically Black and queer.

It was only after my first couple of readings of the book that I started delving deeper into the linguistic and literary form that Valérie Bah had composed. I found out that Val had actually first birthed versions of these stories in English, before roughly translating them into French, and then working with and within the language. This amazed me. It turns out that my writing process in French is very similar: even though I am a native French speaker, my first drafts of anything—be it creative writing, love letters, or grant applications—are always in English. It is as if when I attempt to conjure my feelings and thoughts in French first, I stumble on my words. Writing then becomes a demanding exercise in drafting, moulding, and sculpting the language. In English, however, my third language, there is a sense of freedom and permission that I seem to have right from the outset.

I didn’t know anything of Valérie Bah’s writing process when I first read Les Enragé·e·s, but it was still palpable to me that the French language had been “creolized,” which compelled me as both a reader and a translator. We often think of the work of translation as an activity tied to purity: that of being able to transpose the content and form of a work of art from the purity of one language into the purity of another language. There is a long lineage of translation theorists who claim that a translator should always erase themself in the act of translating, that they should not leave any trace of their presence within the translated text. I, on the other hand, believe that translation is a recreation in which the translator injects their subjectivity into the literary voice of the author. Translators are always faced with the question of choice: which expression best represents, captures, and carries the weight, meaning, aesthetic, feeling, impact, rhythm, etc. of the text being translated. I believe that every choice made by a translator is fundamentally “impure,” it is a form of creolization which, I further believe, is ripe with political potential.

Although I had only translated literary works from English to French so far in my practice, I thought taking on Les Enragé·e·s as a translation project into English would be a rather exquisite challenge. What I did not know yet is how arduous the process would be. Throughout, I was enwrapped in doubt as to whether I was fully capturing all the nuances of Valérie Bah’s literary language. I was also constantly faced with the question of relevance regarding certain literary choices in French that I found revolutionary, but not so much once I started reconstructing them in English. (In English, there are already more rooted lineages of Black, racialized, and LGBTQ+ writers who have written and continue to write against the empire.) I felt haunted by the creolité of a language that I was trying to capture and express in another language (both colonial), and where most of the time, I felt like I was failing.

A project like this one required that I reimagine my task as a translator, that I unlearn everything I thought I knew in order to find my way to a different translation process. Valérie Bah soon joined me in co-developing the manuscript in English. We spent countless hours pondering the initial choices I had proposed, whether these captured Val’s original intentions, whether my choices were leaking into new aesthetic and semantic spaces, and whether the latter supplemented or impaired the integrity of the text. In addition to Val, Esi Callender, and the co-publishers at Metonymy Press, Oliver Fugler and Ashley Fortier, also sank their teeth into the text. By the end of it, even though my name is featured as “the translator” of this work on the cover, it was really our ten hands together that massaged this text into being. As I now look at the final version of this work in English, I cannot help but think that the translation of a literary text like this one could only be honoured through a collective, hybrid, and creolized process.

(excerpted from Kama La Mackerel’s full translator’s note, published in The Rage Letters, out November 21, 2023).