George Lang, The Rule of François Duvalier in Two Novels by Roger Dorsinville

Preface by George Lang

The Rule of François [« Papa Doc »] Duvalier in Two Novels by Roger Dorsinville

There are probably as many strategies of translation as there are well-wrought translations, but there are grosso modo two principles to choose. The first is to reflect as transparently as possible the content of the original text, expunging any trace of alterity or otherness, so as to convey with minimal interference its unadorned or naked substance. Ironically, this known as the path of « la belle infidélité » [beautiful disloyalty]. The reader is left comfortable, untroubled, firm in the belief that a window has opened into another world which might be his or her own.

Jerome, the patron Saint of translation, had a rather military view of this first strategy, one betraying the imperial Roman culture he inherited. « The translator, » he wrote, « considers thought content a prisoner [quasi captivos sensus], which he transplants into his own language with the prerogative of a conqueror [iure victoris]. » [1]

There is indeed something appropriate in Jerome’s simile to this translation of two novels (Mourir pour Haïti and Les Vèvès du créateur) by the Haitian writer Roger Dorsinville. By all evidence, Dorsinville came to think of himself and his compatriots as captive to an alien power, that of « Papa Doc » Duvalier, and was poignantly aware of how he had, for a short while, been the conqueror’s unwitting translator. This is not the course he came to embrace.

The second strategy seeks a deeper degree of loyalty. While engaging the reader, the translator stands apart from the text, highlighting his diplomatic role as intermediary, and reminding us that there is much which escapes translation, a swarm of fugitives and refugees, as it were. In fact, Roger Dorsinville’s novels date from the exilic, diplomatic period of his career, and were the esthetic transmutation of his captivity and flight, one in many ways Babylonian, but with a concrete Haitian logic of its own.

Max Dorsinville’s translation balances equidistant from these two poles. The text succeeds at captivating the reader, who is invited to plunge into the narrative and determine his own insight into its darkness. But Max Dorsinville offers a parallel sub-text and a critical apparatus whose aim is a degree of mediation the author himself sought as he came to terms with his death and rebirth as a writer. This dialectic is explicit in the movement from the first realist novel (The Mad King), to the second magical realist one (The Creator and the Mad King), titles which are the translator’s, not the novelist’s. Like the novelist, the translator keenly felt the need to digest and recast the essence of his encounter, because untempered experience does not suffice, rather begs commentary and explanation. Readers, even Haitian, should be grateful. In fact, the « truth » of the years of Papa Doc and for that matter those since the overthrow of the Duvalier regime and thereafter is far from transparent, even to those on the ground. Both the novelist and the translator knew that reality is never unmediated; only in the labyrinth of interpretation and visionary revisiting can it be transmuted into negotiable coin.

But glancingly in his introduction and notes does Max Dorsinville employ the critical buzzword « postcolonial, » though this translation will inevitably be slotted into that academic niche. The time frame of postcolonial studies has so far been confined to the second half of the twentieth century, the prefix « post » itself implying that something is over and done with, the gist being that the West alone perpetrated its preliminary phase. There is a modicum of truth in this view of things but, strictly speaking, the postcolonial history of Haiti begins with its Revolution and liberation from direct French control, which transpired only slightly after the American and French Revolutions. The cast of characters then became more complex, one might say Shakespearean. Nor does it help to revert to the alternative term « neo-colonial, » although the heavy hand of European and American imperialism continued and continues to weigh. Mad kings spring up everywhere. No culture has a monopoly. The issue, agonizingly Roger Dorsinville’s personal drama, is how we come to recognize and deal with the moral dilemmas of their irrepressible appeal. Ultimately, the subject of postcolonial studies is the nature of power itself; we cannot begin to dispel its obfuscation as long as we take « theory » to be in and of itself a sufficient charm.

This returns us to the nature of translation and the groundedness both imaginative fiction and translation of this sort provide. Transparency and general, as opposed to applied, theory are the mad king’s way. As Roger Dorsinville shows, just when we think we are the most transparent, we unwittingly obscure. Likewise, the murky minutiae of background fact and event, recorded in the two introductions which follow are, if at first tangled and tortuous, the dark backdrop against which illumination can shine. The false emancipatory promise of the mad king, which founds his power, is buried in those archival folds.

I was fortunate enough to meet Roger Dorsinville twice. The last time was in 1989 on the verandah of his home halfway up the hills above Port-au-Prince, symbolically sited, one might say, midway from the slums and Presidential Palace in the city itself, and the alarm-protected, air-conditioned, bougainvillea-breezed enclaves of Pétionville. He was already blind and ailing, but remembered in some detail the previous occasion we had met, anonymously on both sides. That was in 1968, at Cuttington College in upcountry Liberia, where he was serving as cultural attaché, and was the active proponent of the « tribal » cultures of the Americo-Liberian colony. He was in his prime, robust, articulate, generous, and just slightly mocking of the jejune academic I was. I had no idea he bore within the wounds of his idealistic past in Haiti, nor the seeds of his spiritual, literary self-healing. Two different qualities of light, both of which glow through the novels before you.


1. Saint Jerome, cited by Hugo Friedrich, « On the Art of Translation, » in Rainer Schulte and John Biguenet, eds., Theories of Translation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992): 12. [return to text]

Cette « Preface » de George Lang a été publiée pour la première fois dans The Rule of Francois (« Papa Doc ») Duvalier in Two Novels by Roger Dorsinville: Realism and Magic Realism in Haiti. Trans. Max Dorsinville. Lewiston, N.Y., Mellen Press, 2000: pages v-viii. Elle est reproduite sur Île en île avec permission.

© 2000 George Lang



mis en ligne : 21 novembre 2003 ; mis à jour : 29 octobre 2020