Monday, October 4, 2010

It's All about Translation

At some point, I had to post about language, translation, and meaning.  As some of you recall from an earlier post, I've been reading Rebecca Solnit's compelling book about the socio-political impact of disaster, A Paradise Built in Hell.  Combining, among other disciplines, philosophy, psychology, and the sociology of disaster, Solnit masterfully explains the way disasters, despite the devastation and anguish wrought, can create community, solidarity, and, however, briefly, utopia.   Suffice to say, that the mutual aid and altruism often exhibited during disasters is transformed through initiative into a democratic participation, empowering enough to threaten and even change governments.

The only part of my visit to Haiti more frustrating than the incompetence, tone-deafness, and indifference of the international disaster recovery leadership to the experience of the Haitians on the ground has been my inability to pick up Haitian Creole.

Now some would say that if had been sitting in a classroom five or six hours a day to learn the language of the people of Haiti, I might be functioning pretty adequately now.  The first week I was running around with an NGO and interpreters or speaking English (or Spanish or French).  Given that I had severed my day-to-day ties with the organization whose work induced me to travel to Haiti, the next week I was pondering whether it made any sense to continue my stay, since I no longer had a platform to interact with people who interact with other people in international organizations.  How could I interact directly with the stricken Haitian people or even Haitian activists or NGOs trying to make a difference?

The last week, my third, was one where two American activists I had contacted would be arriving in Haiti.  Both included, if not featured, communication among their skill sets, including fluency in Creole.    At least I had to remain until I had a chance to speak with them, to meet the people behind the websites.  I had been poring through the websites learning about Haitians who were taking matters into their own hands, making decisions, and building the community that would be needed to break through the inertia that has settled over the country like smoke over Port-au-Prince.

What do Rebecca Solnit's take on disaster and activist-advocates and Creole have in common?    In reading an op-ed from Sunday's New York Times, "Found In Translation" by Michael Cunningham, author of The Hours, I learned that while many novelists have been honored to see their works translated into other languages, the novel itself is a translation from the planned book that lives only in the writer's brain to the actual book that winds through a process of cutting, condensation, and compromise before it ends up in print.

The opportunity that many Haitians and their advocates and allies see to build the Haiti that has been deferred since the triumph of the revolution in 1804 involves translation of that idea, updated to 2010, into a reality.  While the symbols of that finished work might include still and moving images, dance and other nonverbal communication, the heavy lifting will be done through words, and those words have to be in Creole.  Unfortunately, I don't know enough Creole to quote poetry, folk wisdom, and even jokes, but I do suspect that a particularly Haitian form of deliberation and democratic participation couldn't occur in translation.  Maybe a kind of Whorfian hypothesis applies here - in a nation that overthrew slavery and colonialism, the language used by the rebels must have been one of the keys to success as it influenced cognitive processes.

 I'm glad that I have essentially finished Paradise (since I'm most of the way through her account of Hurricane Katrina, the last of the disasters Solnit details) in order to translate her point into the work-in-progress that is the earthquake recovery.  And, now I've translating the frustration at the conditions here in Haiti to the patience needed to learn Creole.

1 comment:

  1. Russell,
    I agree that in the midst of such frightening circumstances, stability and comfort for the victims comes from the people connecting genuinely with each other. I saw a similar sense of community and sharing among strangers in Los Angeles immediately after the 1994 Northridge earthquake. Hang in there, you're doing important work.
    - JoAn