Rebuilding the Room, Letting the Light Shine Through: An Interview with Translator Conor Bracken about No Way in the Skin without this Bloody Embrace by Jean D’Amérique
by Nathan H. Dize
As translators, we need to allow that opacity, that uncertainty, to live, too.
For the past few years, Jean D’Amérique has been one of the most productive and interdisciplinary Haitian writers. Between 2015 and 2022, D’Amérique published a novel, four collections of poetry, two award-winning plays, and a collection of songs on YouTube. He has brought together diverse interests in prose, poetry, theater, and song to carry on a successful career as a novelist, playwright, poet, and rapper. The expansiveness of D’Amérique’s poetic imagination not only speaks to his precocious personality, but also to the depth and consistency of his vision: to sound the depths of language and speak to the vulnerable realities of our times. Translations from French to Kreyòl and French to English have been indispensable for sharing D’Amérique’s vision of the world.
I recently had the chance to talk with poet and translator Conor Bracken about his translation of D’Amérique’s collection No Way in the Skin Without this Bloody Embrace, which was shortlisted for the 2023 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation. In our conversation we weigh the challenges and implications of recreating poetry in translation – how to “recreate the mystery” of the original while respecting the author’s right to opacity and interpretation. Reworking poetry through translation is no simple task, but as Bracken reminds us: “if natural light is important to the room you’re rebuilding, but you can’t put the window where it was initially because of a load-bearing column or a nearby building, you can find another spot to let the light in.”
Before we dig into your translation of Jean D’Amérique’s No Way in the Skin without this Bloody Embrace, I’m curious to know what brought you to poetry, and later to translating poetry from French?
My first exposure to poems was through my grandfather, a career Marine who loved Robert Service and would pen “Roses are reds” of his own devising in birthday and holiday cards. They were funny, occasional, and occasionally vulgar. We always looked forward to them. But poetry with a capital P really came into my life in my last year of high school, when we had a project to study then read aloud a poem to our English class. I wasn’t a good student then, so didn’t pay attention to the poem I’d been assigned until I showed up the morning of the reading: Countee Cullen’s “Incident.” I don’t think a teacher would assign it today (it hinges on a racial slur), but I remember being shocked awake by the power of the poem, how it balanced the light-hearted metrics of a nursery rhyme and the airy tone of a youthful travelog with a searing memory of racism. I didn’t take poetry lightly again after that, and ended up diving deep into it in college.
As for translation, I’d always been exposed to French–my father used it in his work for the US government overseas, and I studied it all my life, living in and out of different francophone nations. In graduate school, I took a translation seminar where I worked on Mallarme’s juvenilia. After graduating, I sought out more contemporary, visceral, socially-oriented work, in part to still do poetry without having to keep churning out my own. Pierre Joris was really helpful as I located a project that hit those three points–Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine’s first book, Soleil arachnide, which was my first full-on project.
In your translator’s note, you mention an encounter with Kenneth Koch’s poem “A Schoolroom in Haiti,” which you explain might be labeled “an earnest poem of witness.” But as you point out, Koch’s poem stops short of a nuanced portrayal of Haiti because the author, like the United States, “pretends that he isn’t a factor in Haiti or its story unless the outcome is positive” (111). In what ways is D’Amérique’s poetry different? Do you think of his work in this volume as “poetry of witness”?
I don’t think I’d qualify Jean’s work here as poetry of witness. Carolyn Forché might, who says, in her landmark anthology, Against Forgetting, that “poetry of witness is born in dialectical opposition to the extremity that has made such witness necessary,” and makes “claims against the political order […] in the name of justice.” But, despite Forché’s best intentions and thoughtful analysis and curation, poetry of witness has always shaken out to me as a poetry with very specific, and very available, ideas about what should be done or thought in response to the event at hand. Jean doesn’t offer us that. He doesn’t pre-chew the food for us, as it feels like Koch does. This isn’t to dismiss the entirety of Forché’s anthology or the many poems that take clear stances–this is, of course, inherently valuable.
But there is, in the way Forché has grouped things together, a reductiveness, where the poem is a document ready for submission to a juridical process, and not a sinuous and shifty bit of testamentary work whose ambiguities are as galvanizing as its snapshots of injustice. Jean’s poems, in addition to taking as their subject postcolonial subjectivity, economic and natural and sociopolitical disasters, and reclaiming a complex positionality from the stereotyping gaze, also invite readers to participate more directly than many poems of witness, because they are animated as much by skepticism and playfulness as they are by denunciation and observation.
Can translation perform the act of witnessing? For you, what would a translation practice of witness entail?
In the way that we might say Jean’s work is? I’d like to think so, though maybe with different terms. When I translate, I try to do what Idra Novey has said about translating Clarice Lispector: “tr[y] not to explain or interpret […] but to recreate the mystery.” Of course, there’s no way one can’t help but explain or interpret here or there, especially with idioms and metaphors that require some extra finessing to live in the target language, but as a goal I think it’s a necessary one. (And any ‘failures’ to adhere to the original aren’t failures, in my eyes, so much as another reason as to why more versions, not fewer, are the way to approach translation. The mystery has many ways of being conveyed, each translator using their own methods of dis- and reassembly.)
A relevant example comes to mind. About two-thirds of the way through the book, in the section dedicated to “a being mixed with my own,” the speaker says they are “témoin de ta tempête pubienne,” which I translated as “I am witness to the whirlwind in your lap.” Lap is not as erogenous a word as ‘pubienne,’ as you might guess, but I went with it because the gender of the addressee in this poem isn’t explicit (which can be a very calculated thing in the French language) and, after consulting with Jean about it, isn’t necessarily explicit either in his own understanding of the poem. That kind of ambiguity seemed important to conserve and convey, as well as the more stately and erotic tone, which I think “pubic hurricane” would not have done so well.
All of this to say, leaving similar spaces for the reader in the poem that the poet was constructing as well. This practice seems to me part of what Édouard Glissant is talking about in his right to opacity, and that to respect someone doesn’t necessarily mean we need to have access to their deeper internal recesses and experiences. As translators, we need to allow that opacity, that uncertainty, to live, too.
I’d like to ask you about rhymes and what you call “sonic clusters.” D’Amérique has a background in slam poetry and rap, so sonic registers are essential components to his writing. His rhyme schemes also vary, sometimes falling at the end of a line or contained within a single line of poetry. Like this:
mon étoile dans les flaques
j’ai mal à la lumière
alors je laisse passer le diamant
pour parler dans la poussière
my star in the puddles
the light inside me aches
so I let the diamond slip by
to chatter in the chaff
How do you choose which rhyme to emphasize if you cannot replicate both? Are there other examples that come to mind where you faced a similar challenge?
When it comes to Jean’s work, I’m in total agreement–sound and sonic registers are indispensable. To the degree, in my mind, that the semantic content of a phrase is sometimes secondary to the sound itself. And so, whenever I encounter clear attention on his part to sound at the end and/or within a line, I strive as hard as possible to approximate it.
One place comes immediately to mind, in the first section of the poem, which starts “solitude fait sa fête.” On its own, it’s a tricky passage, because Jean’s playing with the idiom “faire la fête” (party on, more or less) and “faire sa fête à” (to thrash someone/go to town on violently). He’s great at this, and another of the reasons that draws me to his work is how its wit highlights language’s chance and arbitrary similarities, which here highlights a certain arbitrary violence. But what complicates this moment some is that the following line rhymes “échec” (failure) with “fête”–a fascinating conceptual contrast/entanglement! This, plus his consonant and assonant repetitions of m, t, long e and short a sounds – a lot is happening sonically, rhythmically, and semantically. So I made some adjustments in my translation of the line to capture as much of the original panoply as possible. The result is this:
solitude has a bawl
my skull a metaphor for null
Bawl and null rhyme, albeit slant, though this does allow for some obvious internal rhyme with skull, and picking up the l sound in solitude. This doesn’t replicate the same m and t sound repetition, but hopefully reproduces a sense of the sonic interlacing that stitches the original together. Here, and in other places, it’s often a game of compensations/refabrications so that similar effects take place, though maybe not in the same exact places. Where placement is important–in end-rhyme, for instance, I stick to it as much as possible, but where placement is a little more slippery, I aim to do the same but elsewhere and nearby, as in the middle section, where I couldn’t get a rhyme for foulée/nouée, and so tried to highlight a slant one between verb/sob/words/blood in the following stanza.
My thought is this: if natural light is important to the room you’re rebuilding, but you can’t put the window where it was initially because of a load-bearing column or a nearby building, you can find another spot to let the light in.
No Way in the Skin without this Bloody Embrace appears to speak directly to a feeling of everyday violence in Port-au-Prince that many Haitians and scholars refer to as ensekirite – insecurity. At the same time, other geographical markers emerge, such as the wider “Caribbean” and Aleppo, Syria. This made me wonder, is No Way in the Skin about Haiti, or do you think of D’Amérique’s poetry as portable? Would it be fair to say that the collection is a politically engaged poem about the 21st century, or does it escape temporal boundaries as well?
This poem seems to me especially rooted in and growing out of relationships–between text and margin, poet and poetry, speaker and language, writer and forebear, and human and intimates. They’re relationships that are most visible on the human scale, but also relationships between larger networks of exploitation, dispossession, and denigration too–the section at the end of the poem dedicated to the speaker’s aunts feels like it could be to aunts in Ethiopia or Mexico or Bangladesh–anywhere that people, especially women, have had to search for factory work due to the forced migration of able-bodied earners that capitalism inflicts upon minoritized populations, this poem feels like it fits there too.
That said, this is a poem that, even if its iconography isn’t explicitly Haitian, is grounded in a vivid and living Haitian tradition, especially due to the dedications to Jacques Stephen Alexis, the writer and public intellectual who was murdered indirectly by the first Duvalier regime for his radical views, and to ‘those united against convention,’ a medley of young up-and-coming Haitian writers. The poem steers a course that many others, in many other places, can steer as well, through the various actual and figurative shipwrecks wrought by colonial depredation, geopolitical arrogance, and extractive industry, and though the map is portable, I think the journey itself is Haitian.
I wish I could say that it’s specifically 21st century, but I fear lines like “The dreams sleep naked so the graves have clothes” will be relevant for too, too long.
You’ve mentioned in your translator’s note that No Way in the Skin without this Bloody Embrace can be thought of as a long poem. Do readers need to start at the beginning, or are there multiple entry points?
The belief is strong! I think it’s definitely possible to see this as a set of poems spliced together as well as being a singular long poem with sections, though I think it’s telling that in the original there is no table of contents to help orient one to different places to dip into/possibly start.
That said, I think each section/poem can live alone, but they gather deeper rhetorical, imagistic, emotional, and psychological nuance when read together, especially when we see the kind of tenderness and sympathy extended to lovers as well as friends, family members, and places, as well as the skepticism that tempers it when thinking of homeplace and others. And I do think it’s instructive to begin the whole collection, however we think of it, with the opening passage, and its assertion that it’s a long way toward hope, and that any prayer that is arrogant is self-serving.
After completing this project, I’m curious to know what you’re working on now. Are you continuing to translate Jean D’Amérique’s poetry, or are there other projects afoot?
Definitely sticking with Jean’s work where possible. I’ve got a full draft of his third collection, Atelier du silence, translated, thanks to support from Cornell’s Institute for Comparative Modernities. And I’ve got his fourth collection, ready to read–Rhapsodie rouge, which is another long poem in sections.
Beyond that, I’ve got a selection of poems by Mamani Abdoulaye, a Nigerien poet and activist from the mid-20th century, I’d like to get started, and a translation-in-progress of a novel by the DRCongolese novelist and artist Sinzo Aanza that follows the daily lives of artisanal copper miners in Lubumbashi, in the form of a raucous, polyphonic day-long radio broadcast, as well as a translation-in-progress of the collected short prose of Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine.
 A translation of another collection of Mohammed Khair-Eddine’s poetry, Proximal Morocco (trans. Jake Syersak), was released by Ugly Duckling Presse in March 2023.
Conor Bracken is the author of Henry Kissinger, Mon Amour (Bull City Press) and The Enemy of My Enemy is Me (Diode Editions). He is also the translator of Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine’s Scorpionic Sun (CSU Poetry Center). His work has earned fellowships from Bread Loaf, the Community of Writers, the Frost Place, Inprint, and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and has appeared in places like BOMB, jubilat, New England Review, The New Yorker, and Ploughshares, among others. He teaches at the Cleveland Institute of Art.
Nathan H. Dize is the translator of three Haitian novels: The Immortals by Makenzy Orcel (SUNY Press, 2020), I Am Alive by Kettly Mars (UVA Press, (Fall, 2022), and Antoine of Gommiers (Schaffner Press 2023). He has written or translated for publications such as archipelagos, Caribbean Quarterly, the Journal of Haitian Studies, LitHub, sx salon, and Words Without Borders. He is a founding member of the Kwazman Vwa collective and, starting fall 2023, Assistant Professor of French at Washington University in Saint Louis.
Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, May 16, 2023