David and Nicole Ball


What is "Francophone" literature, or la francophonie? The very official "Francophonie" website run by the French Ministère des Affaires Étrangères (1) informs us that French is one of the few languages spoken all over the world—over 169 million French-speakers, mainly in Africa and Europe, but also in America, Asia, and Oceania. (Since France has over 60 million people, that would mean that more than half the French speakers in the world live outside of France.) In North America, 9.6 million people speak French in Canada and 290,000 in Louisiana; in sub-Saharan Africa, 39.5 million; 33.4 million in the Maghreb; in the Middle East, especially Lebanon, 1.5 million; 375,000 in Viet Nam... Another site, Canadian this time, (2) tells us that French is an official language for fifty-three countries: the official language for Benin, Burkina Faso, Congo-Brazzaville, Ivory Coast, Gabon, Guinea, Niger, Senegal, etc. and one of two for Belgium, Burundi, Cameroon, Canada, Djibouti, Mauritania... The figures are undoubtedly inflated and the list of countries misleading (a recent estimate suggests that no more than five-percent of the population of Senegal speaks French, for example), but the overall picture is clear and true: people from many, extremely different regions and cultures speak French. Our table of contents reinforces the picture, even if it does reflect the luck of the draw (obviously this issue is by no means an anthology.) This is the Francophone world, the French-speaking world, la francophonie. Books are written and sometimes published in many of these places: (3) that's Francophone literature.

But here things become much less clear. "Francophone" literature is usually taken to mean just what the Call for Translations/Papers for this issue of Metamorphoses suggested: literature written in French outside of France, or—we pushed the envelope just a little—"work by writers and poets living in France, but whose work reflects their post-colonial heritage." Whereas French literature from France (presumably source, model, mère des arts) is something else. (4)

The concept is not only unclear, it's suspect. In what sense are the "French" canonic authors Jean-Jacques Rousseau (from Geneva), Henri Michaux and Georges Simenon (both from Belgium), for instance, more French than Calixthe Beyala, Andrée Chedid and Abdourahman Waberi, "Francophone" writers in this issue? A look at our list of contributors shows that four of them (Beyala, Chedid, Sebbar, Waberi) have spent much of their lives in France and at least two of them are in fact French. Yet they are often called "Francophone" writers—something no one would say of the poet Saint-John Perse, for example, who was born in Guadeloupe and spent the first twelve years of his life there. Could the distinction between "Francophone" and "French" have something to do with the relative whiteness of the author's skin? It is interesting to note that our Call for Translations/Papers did not exclude "work by non-French Europeans," yet not one single work of this kind was submitted to us. The concept of francophonie is suspect for another reason, too: even a cursory look at the history and function of francophonie reveals a French project to maintain, if not colonial domination, at least cultural and thus political influence (at the very least) and economic penetration in its far-flung former colonies. Considerations like these have led some writers and academics to suggest we scrap the whole notion altogether, and simply talk of "French literatures" in the plural, or "World Literature in French," or "Francography" rather than francophonie. (5)

But there's not much point in decreeing the death of a word or prescribing a new one: "Francophone" and "francophonie" remain in common usage. Moreover, despite their problematic nature, the words designate a concept and a reality that many would not wish to abandon. For French-speaking people in Quebec—and there are close to eight million of them—the notion of a worldwide French-speaking cultural community contained in the word francophonie is a valuable defense against the onslaught of English. The Egyptian film-maker Youssef Chahine feels that way, too: "Francophonie enables us to organize—all of us, Arabs, Africans and other identities threatened by the steamroller of American cultural industries; for alone we would not be strong enough to defend ourselves." (6) Many contemporary North African novelists claim the right to be Arabs and Francophone, against all the nationalist, fundamentalist or pan-Arab ideologies so prevalent in their part of the world. Paradoxically, given their history, today Francophone writers often see French—or imagine it—as anti-colonial, the language of liberty, free from religious and political taboos, the language of a certain humanism. (Combe 73, 77-81.) Given the vicissitudes of history, many Francophone writers live outside the country of their birth, but do live where French is spoken: witness Agnant, Beyala, Chedid, Kama Kamanda, Waberi, and Warner-Vieyra in this issue. One way of dealing with exile is to live in a language, to make it your home, as Edmond Jabès suggested by the very title of Je bâtis ma demeure, a book written in his native Egypt by a Francophone writer who would live the rest of his life in France. The notion of francophonie is one way of imagining that home. As the Haitian poet René Depestre says, "La langue française est un gîte..." (The French language is a shelter, a home.)

Such writers may prize the notion of francophonie or they may reject it, but in any case their view of it will differ considerably from the official one. For one thing, it no longer belongs to France. In Calixthe Beyala's striking formula, the epigraph to her novel Les Honneurs perdus (part of whose first chapter appears below), "Le Français est francophone mais la francophonie n'est pas française." ("The French are Francophones, but francophonie is not French.") It is a view shared by the editors of this issue of Metamorphoses: not only is the work of "Francophone" writers a part of literature in French, but it enriches and changes that literature and its language. As Depestre put it, in a poem in this issue:

From time to time it is right and good
to take the French language
down to the river
and rub her body
with the scented plants
that grow so well upstream
from our dizzying past of maroon slaves

The relationship of the Francophone writer to French is likely to be complex. In the words of the Congolese poet Tchicaya U'Tam'si: "The French language colonizes me, and I colonize it in return. And that finally produces another language." (Quoted by Soubias 131, our translation here and elsewhere.)

Language is a problem for any writer, and it is often a problem thematized in the work itself. The problem is likely to be still more intense for the Francophone writer. The reason for this is simple, the results are problematic. As Belinda Jack points out, "a seemingly obvious but much ignored donné of the Francophone linguistic and cultural space is that it is at least a bilingual, and more often a multilingual space" (Jack 15). Of course no country is entirely monolingual—certainly not contemporary France. But the bilingual or "mulitilingual space" of the Francophone writer is special.

The difference between French on the one hand, the language of the former colonial power and the written language of the Francophone writer, and the write's mother tongue on the other—often a dialect or another language which is itself different from the "new" national language—is typically experienced as a painful split, une déchirure. Why, then, do writers whose mother tongue is not French write in that language? One reason is that they were educated in French, from elementary school in the country of their birth all the way, often as not, to university in France. So French becomes the language of writing, literature, culture. Déchirure, a painful tension once again: does this mean these writers scorn the culture of their native land, that they have assumed the colonial attitude? In any case, a far larger reading public can be found in French than in, say, dialectal Arabic, not to mention Malinke. The same holds true for the infrastructure necessary for the publication and distribution of books.

Besides, we can turn the question around: why not write in French? The Algerian novelist Assia Djebar says that she is often asked why she writes in French, emphasizing that if the question is asked, "It is to remind you that you come from somewhere else." (She was also criticized inside Algeria for not writing in Arabic.) This is linked to the way francophonie is—too often—defined. "Certainly francophonie has a diverse territory, moving and complex. It is also supposed to have a fixed center, where the 'real' French talk, write and argue" (Djebar 7). (7) But the Francophone writer may well be de-centering la francophonie, as Beyala implies in the epigrammatic formula quoted above.

Francophone writers often serve as passeurs, guides or ferrymen between two languages and cultures (or more.) Sometimes this can lead to a pluralizing or splitting of the writing subject, and, as we have suggested, the painful feeling of being torn between two worlds. Yet here too, we see another potential enrichment. As Henri Michaux (8) wrote in 1938: "we are not made for just one self. We are wrong to cling to it. The prejudice in favor of unity. (...) ME is nothing but a position in equilibrium" (Michaux x.)

Apparently, there is indeed a prejudice favoring "unity" in many Francophone writers, but this too is an enriching one, for that very project, the attempt to weld together a split cultural identity, has led to the idea of creating a Francophone literature and langage in which the writer imagines a new unity. It is striking that authors as distant from each other as Léopold Senghor, Edouard Glissant, Abdelkebir Khatibi, Salah Stetié... should use essentially biological images to represent this new creation, from métissage (Senghor et al) to an "exogamic wedding" where one "marries the Other" (Salah Stetié, in Combe 135.) The notion of métissage is particularly important in the Caribbean. For Depestre, the French language itself is "le métier à métisser" (the mixing loom, a loom for miscegenation)—the title of his book of essays—and part of a poetic redefinition of francophonie: "...The destiny of francophonie will be played out at an equal distance from the old Eurocentrism and vengeful third-worldism... Now, even as we denounce all ethnocentrisms! we now can throw all our forces of wonder and creation into the loom to mix the things of life and death (le métier à métisser les choses de la vie et de la mort), that is, the French language in our hands, the hands of a poet and novelist." (Depestre 1998, 18-19) But the concept is not restricted to language, and the notion of "Créolité" proclaimed by three Francophone Caribbean writers (Bernabé, Chamoiseau, Confiant in Éloge de la Créolité, or In Praise of Creoleness) is inseparable from that of métissage, the mixing of races, sensibilities, and languages to produce something new.

Even if the language of many Francophone writers is a French linguistically indistinguishable from that of writers from France—and this is true for the French used by most of the contributors to this issue of Metamorphoses—the sensibility of the Francophone will be different from that of the "French" writer, says the Québecois Gaston Miron (who has two poems in this issue.) "We speak and write in French and our poetry will always be French poetry," he proclaims, but goes on to say that "our tellurism is not French and thus neither is our sensibility, the touchstone of poetry." (Miron 91) The forms of literature in French change too, or assume new importance, in contact with another sensibility, another culture: for example, the written conte, the tale, is a major genre in modern African Francophone literature (as in Kama Kamanda's "The Paddles of Fate" below.)

There are themes common to many writers designated as "Francophone"—at least to the non-European writers who seem to sum up, for American academics, the very meaning of "Francophone." A short list based exclusively on the writing in this issue would include: the violence of the struggle for decolonization and the post-colonial present (Waberi, Tadjo, and one poem of Kurtovitch); misery and poverty of the post-colonial present (Sebbar, Beyala); attraction and repulsion for the country of immigration and one's country of birth (Frankétienne, Pineau)—the condition of the exile or immigrant ("la migritude," which has developed from Césaire and Senghor's "négritude"); and the power of tradition and myth on the one hand (Kamanda, Kurtovitch) like the cult of the dead (Lahens, Tadjo), and modernity on the other (ironized in Beyala, Sebbar and Frankétienne.) Haiti—the poorest country in the Caribbean, but with the richest literature, as the Guadeloupean Maryse Condé pointed out—is a special case. Haiti won its independence in 1804, so it can hardly be called a post-colonial country; but the poverty of the island, a series of tyrannical dictatorships, and American domination (instead of French) have made its situation similar to that of the post-colonial Francophone countries. Misery, violence and repression are common themes in Haitian writing, too (Agnant, Lahens, Frankétienne.) Finally, there is the theme of métissage, discussed above.

* * *

In the center of the multilingual universe of francophonie—that plural, varied universe so lauded by Bernabé, Chamoiseau, and Confiant—there is translation. There is a sense in which much Francophone writing is already a translation, and not only for an author like the Ivorian Ahmadou Kourouma, who says he thought in Malinke and wrote in French, "translat[ing] Malinke into French by breaking the French to find and restore African rhythm." (Gyasi 1) What does this imply for someone who, in turn, wants to translate this "translation" into English? This kind of question was no doubt what led Kwaku Gyasi to call part of the introduction to his English translation of Kourouma's Monnè (Chapter 1) "A. Kourouma and the Impossibility of Translation." Very clever—but he did translate him (and quite well, too, in our view) so it is possible after all.

A less poetic but more accurate statement of the translator's task would describe the effort to find rhythms in English that have the equivalent effect on the English-language readers as those produced by Kourouma's rhythms in French. It is not a question of producing the equivalent text or "equivalency" tout court—what Lefevere and Bassnett dismiss as "the Jerome model" (Bassnett and Lefevere 2-3), since St. Jerome's Vulgate Bible was assumed to be an unproblematic, faithful equivalent of the text he had translated. Rather, it is a question of trying to produce on the reader an effect equivalent to that produced by the original on its readers. Combe usefully sums up the goal from another angle: "To translate is to try to restore in one language... the strangeness of the other, according to a compromise, a métissage. It is as important to avoid ethnocentric appropriation, which reduces the 'othernes' of the translated language, as literal transcription, which defies the genius of the target language. Translation 'deterritorializes' the target language by the echo of the translated language." (Combe 55) Frankly, we're not sure to what extent we can see examples of this in the present issue of Metamorphoses, except no doubt in Nicolas Kurtovitch's poems and perhaps in the translation of Andrée Chedid, where the French-speaking origin of the text comes through quite strongly. Perhaps the best example of a successful realization of this ideal would be texts such as Jean-Pierre Arsaye's translation of Raphaël Confiant's Creole novel Bitako-a into French: Chimères d'En-Ville (Paris: Éditions Ramsay, 1997) where we have the feeling we're reading another French, rich, elegant and powerful, but different from the "standard." (9)

But before we rush to embrace fashionable ideas about the evils of "ethnocentric appropriation" and consequently—to go much further than Combe—the virtues of "resistant translation," it would be wise to review some basic ethical and esthetic concerns that should drive translation and did drive the editors of this issue of Metamorphoses. In an issue devoted to translations of post-colonial writing, it seems to us fitting that a journal of literary translation should make explicit the principles that guided its choice of translations and, frequently, negotiations with translators—particularly when these principles run counter to the mainstream of academic translation theory (although not, we would argue, to the actual practice of literary translators).

The ethical is easiest to define: if Calixthe Beyala writes, as she does, that a bordel served its clients gros rouge, it would be an unethical misrepresentation of her text to transform the liquid into "fine red wine." Translators don't like talking about this basic, grubby aspect of their work, but it is essential, and not nearly as simple as it sounds: languages are vast, complex systems, and learning their nuances, connotations and even denotations is the task of a lifetime. For the translator, it is an ethical imperative.

Just as there is an implicit contract, a "pact" as Philippe Lejeune called it, between the author of an autobiography and the reader (the reader assumes the author of a book called "Autobiography" isn't just making up the story of a life), there is an implicit pact between translator and reader. The reader assumes that translators are not writing their own text, but rendering the original author's text in another language. While it is true that any "translation of a literary work is one way of rewriting a literary text," as André Lefevere states (Lefevere, in Alvarez and Vidal 138), it is a very particular way of rewriting, one that promises something to the reader that is quite different from what is implied by "adaptation" or "version," or "condensation."

The promise goes much further than correctness of denotation. If texts are violent or jarring in the original—like Tadjo's stories or Waberi's poetic prose in this issue—to give them a "nice" feel in English would be dishonest. For one thing, the history of most of the Francophone world is violent and jarring, and this writing reflects that history. If the original is opaquely lyrical, like poems of Gaston Miron below, the English should strive for that quality, too; if its effects are produced to a great extent by the use of regular meter and rhyme, like the nineteenth-century verse fables in this issue, the English should have meter and rhyme if at all possible. This means, of course, that the attempt to produce an equivalent effect in translation is a question of strategic choices and negotiation between two languages: much can be lost by forcing a rhyme, padding out a line, and falling into the many other traps of metrical, rhymed translation. The translator's skill, judgement, and ear all come into play. But now we have moved to esthetic rather than ethical considerations.

The basic esthetic concern about translation is harder to define, but anyone who loves literature can recognize it: if a literary translation is not esthetically pleasing in English (which is not at all the same as "pretty" or "nice" or "easy" or "smooth"), what's the point of the translation? Our vocabulary is intentionally old-fashioned here. "Anyone who loves literature?" Today informed intellectuals know that, as Lefevere and Bassnett put it, literature is really "cultural capital, which should not be equated with capital as it is used in economics, but which makes it easier for people within a culture to gain access to that kind of capital as well... These are the texts the bourgeoisie hastened to read from the seventeenth century onwards because the aristocracy had been reading them..." (Bassnett and Lefevere 7). That is quite true, we believe, but it is not the whole truth. Literature is more than that. Surely the aristocracy, bourgeoisie and all kinds of readers, ancient and modern, enjoyed these texts too, were moved by them, learned from them in complex ways, were shaped by them. What Barthes called "le plaisir du texte" must be present in a translation, too—or why bother?

These are general considerations; there are special problems in translating Francophone literature. For one thing, as we say above (quoting Jack), "Francophone linguistic and cultural space is... at least bilingual, and more often multilingual." That is not true for much of its literary production, but it is true for some of it. How is one to translate a multilingual text? Or a text that is bi- or multilingual in the sense that it uses "non-standard" varieties of French within the French-speaking literary space? How should languages derived from French, such as the various forms of Creole or Cadien, be translated? In this issue of Metamorphoses, the problem is faced, directly or implicitly, by the translators of Georges Baudoux (New Caledonia), Frankétienne (Haiti), fabulists and another poet from nineteenth-century Louisiana, and Beverly Matherne (contemporary Louisiana.)

Here the goal of "producing an equivalent effect on the reader" becomes harder to locate, because the question immediately arises, on what reader? To a Parisian reader, a text in Cadien might seem merely "quaint;" Haitian Creole needs to be translated for the same reader, but should it really be rendered into normative French? In the course of an extremely useful discussion of this problem, Lawrence Rosenwald quotes an 1884 "analysis" of Creole (in an MLA publication, no less) which speaks of the "Negroes of Louisiana's... naiveté bordering on childishness;" this nineteenth-century "scholar" also states that "Their language partakes necessarily of their character, and is sometimes quaint, and always simple" (Alcée Fortier in Rosenwald 229). As Rosenwald says, in his own voice, "The dilemma [of translating a multilingual or multi-dialectical text] is how to do justice to the linguistic facts and preserve the human dignity of multiple varieties of speech" (Rosenwald 232).

Each of our translators has adopted a different approach to the problem. Karin Speedy, who gives herself the special task of translating a pastiche of Creole invented by her author, uses a purely linguistic analysis, along with her knowledge of other, real Creoles, to produce her result. After weighing a number of options, Asselin Charles, faced with the problem of translating the speech of two characters in a play who use two very different registers of Haitian Creole, finally decided, for reasons he explains in his preface, to have the working-class character "make the occasional grammatical faux pas and use the occasional street slang, but overall... left it up to the actor to let his voice and accent reflect his socio-educational background." Faced with the "sticky problem of linguistic register" in translating verse fables in Louisiana French Creole, Norman Shapiro adopted a strategy somewhat similar to Karin Speed's. He explains his choices as follows:

When I brought out my Fabulists French years ago, I had to decide how to treat North African sabir, the Haitian Creole of Georges Sylvain (or the text that he supposedly "borrowed from" in large part), Seychelles Creole, and one or two others. I admit I was a little afraid of making the translations sound condescendingly folksy. Besides, the mere fact that the writers in question were using verse—with rhyme and meter—implied a certain level of sophistication. After much soul-searching I decided that, since the poets themselves were obviously distancing themselves from standard French, I had a right (an obligation?) to do the same with standard English. After all, Grima and Choppin [two of the fabulists in this issue.—Eds.] were very well educated, and they weren't writing in their "native" dialect either. (10)

Shapiro's approach is quite different from Asselin Charles' in his translation of Frankétienne, and the results are still more different. (May Waggoner, facing a somewhat similar problem for a Creole poem of Camille Thierry, takes still another approach.) But the translator's task was not the same, either. The genre (verse fable vs. "realist" play), the tone and intended effect of the works (seductive moralizing vs. political consciousness-raising), the kind and range of language to be translated—all were different. Beverly Matherne, translating both from and into her two mother tongues—English and Louisiana Cadien—uses a whole range of approaches and registers in translating the author, who happens to be herself (with one exception.) There is no one rule for achieving good literary translations.

We hope our readers enjoy the variety of translations as well as the variety of sources in this Francophone issue of Metamorphoses.


Bassnett, Susan and André Lefevere. Constructing Cultures: Essays on Literary Translation. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, 1998.
Combe, Dominique. Poétiques Francophones. Paris: Hachette, 1995.
Djebar, Assia. Ces voix qui m'assiègent. Paris: Albin Michel, 1999.
Depestre, René. "Libre éloge de la langue française," in Anthologie personnelle. Paris: Actes Sud, 1993.
--------------------. Le métier à métisser. Paris: Stock, 1998.
Gyasi, Kwaku. "A. Kourouma and the Impossibility of Translation." Unpublished manuscript.
Jack, Belinda. Francophone Literatures: An Introductory Survey. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Lefevere, André. "Translation and Canon Formation," in Alvarez, Roman and M. Carmen-África Vidal, eds. Translation, Power, Subversion. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters Ltd., 1996, 138-155.
Michaux, Henri. Darkness Moves: An Henri Michaux Anthology 1927-1984. Selected, translated and presented by David Ball, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.
Miron, Gaston. L'Homme rapaillé. Montreal: Presses de l'Universitè de Montréal, 1970.
Rosenwald, Lawrence. "Alfred Mercie's Polyglot Plantation Novel," in American Babel: Literatures of the United States from Abnaki to Zuni. Ed. Marc Shell. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2002. 219-37.
Soubias, Pierre. "Entre la langue de l'autre et la langue de soi." Francophonie et identités culturelles. Ed. Christiane Albert, Paris: Karthala, 1999. 119-135.

1. http://www.france.diplomatie.fr/Francophonie /
2. www.tlfq.ulaval.ca/axl/Langues/2vital_inter_francaisTABLO.htm
3. In addition to Paris, Brussels, Lausanne, Montreal, Beirut, and Tunis remain centers for the publication and distribution of French books, despite hard economic times.
4. "What a strange idea," said James Sacré about this special issue, "Francophone literature without France!"
5. The latter suggestion is made by Roger Little, in, among other places, "World Literature in French, or: Is Francophonie Frankly Phoney?" (Public Lecture, Princeton University, April 3, 2001.)
6. ‹La Francophonie nous permet de nous organiser, nous Arabes, Africains et autres identités menacées par le rouleau compresseur des industries culturelles américaines car, seuls, nous ne serions pas assez forts pour nous défendre... http://www.france.diplomatie.fr/Francophonie/écrivain est parfois interrogé comme en justice: ‹Pourquoi écrivez-vous?› A cette première question banale, une seconde souvent succède: ‹Pourquoi écrivez-vous en français?› Si vous êtes ainsi interpellée, 'est, bien sûr, pour rappeler que vous venez d'ailleurs. La francophonie a un territoire multiple certes; mouvant et complexe, certainement. Elle est en outre censée avoir un centre fixe, d'où parlent, écrivent et discutent des Français dits ‹de souche.› (Djebar 7)
8. Michaux is thought of as a French writer. He was born in Belgium, was twenty-five when he began living in France and became a citizen at the age of fifty-six. Why isn't he a Francophone writer?
9. For discussion of the special problems of translating Creole into English, see the last two pages of this introduction.
10. Shapiro, private correspondence.