10 Questions for Allison M. Charette
- By Edward Clifford
Ambahy—konantitra, I cannot comprehend this power that you wield. . . The power of death's morbid attraction, of the will to turn toward anarchy, toward a world where nothing is sacred anymore, where nothing has more power than its own form . . . I do not know. Intense desire for emancipation from the colonial authority, understanding that returning to a sovereign state would only be returning to royal servitude.
—from "Nour, 1947: Third Night" by Raharimanana, Translated by Allison M. Charette, Volume 63, Issue 3 (Fall 2022)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you translated.
Long before I knew I wanted to be a translator, I took a translation course for my undergrad French degree. One day, we worked in groups to translate Madeline, Ludwig Bemelmans’ children’s story, into French, but there was one couplet we just could not figure out. I had a psych lecture the next period, and I spent most of it puzzling out this one couplet. And I got something in the end: It didn’t scan at all, but I made it rhyme, and it was mine. I was obsessed. (This should have been a clue as to what I should do with my life . . .)
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
After a translation theory class in grad school that tried to make me determine and fix my exact location on the domesticated-foreignized spectrum (thanks, Venuti), I really appreciate translators who share their more nuanced and expanded views of how to translate, and of what our goals are as translators and writers. Jeremy Tiang, Bruna Dantas Lobato, Madhu Kaza, John Keene, Aaron Robertson, Kaiama Glover, Adrienne Perry, Gabrielle Civil, Sawako Nakayasu, Poupeh Missaghi, Yvette Siegert, Katrina Dodson, Yilin Wang, and Corine Tachtiris are part of the list of brilliant people who have written or said things that help to ground me and focus my work.
What did you want to be when you were young?
Actor, funeral director, pastor, president. In that order.
What drew you to write a translation of this piece in particular?
I read Nour, 1947 in 2014, shortly after I’d been to Madagascar for the first time. I was warned before I read it. It’s not an easy book. I didn’t understand it until I got to the end. And in fact, I wasn’t brave enough to attempt a translation of it at first. Then, Jeffrey Zuckerman asked if I was working on it, and insisted I start.
Nour is an epic. In one book, Raharimanana is writing the entire history of Madagascar, from the ancestors through the first major uprising against colonial forces in 1947. The structure is polyphonic and dreamlike, and the emotions it elicits run and cut deep. This book has drawn me toward it; I can’t not work on it. I’m trying to be extremely cognizant of how to responsibly translate this book, how to honor and highlight all the ways it is different from the classically Western idea of a novel without making it sound negatively exotic, overly magical or too primitive. Because it is one of the deepest, lushest, most nuanced books I have ever read.
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
When I translate pieces from Madagascar, I always see the places I’ve lived in and visited there, and I try to bring that same life and energy to my translations.
Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
I have to listen to music, otherwise my brain gets too distracted. But the music can’t be distracting, either: No lyrics, not too loud or too soft, no jazzy saxophones or fuzzy guitars or 80s synth. (Why those specific things? No clue. Brains are weird.) I have enormous playlists I’ve curated from pregen’d lo-fi or indie folk channels on streaming services, and I love them. They are downloaded onto every device I have, just in case the Internet goes down.
Who typically gets the first read of your work?
I have reading exchanges with a few friends who are translators and/or writers, and that beta read is invaluable. I don’t submit anything anymore without at least one other pair of eyes on it first.
If you could work in another art form what would it be?
Oddly enough, I just started something new: pottery. It was a midnight, can’t-sleep, try-to-avoid-doom-scrolling, I-need-something-new-in-my-life-NOW kind of decision. It’s the first new thing I’ve tried where I not only don’t worry about making mistakes, but I actually genuinely enjoy it! I’ve been making a lot of hilarious mistakes, and there’s always someone very nice in the studio to teach me to fix them. I just got my first work back from firing. I’ve never really made tactile physical art before—I’ve had this part of my identity that believed that I suck at that realm of art. It has been magical to prove myself wrong.
What are you working on currently?
Pitching and parenting, in laughably unequal measures. I’ve now got six novel translations out on submission, including Nour. Then, afternoons are for playing with my preschooler and snuggling with my newly-minted first-grader, who’s a little overwhelmed by the start of the school year.
What are you reading right now?
Anton Hur’s translation of Love in the Big City, by Sang Young Park. IT’S SO GOOD. “Dickmatized” is the greatest word.
ALLISON M. CHARETTE translates mostly fiction by Malagasy authors Michèle Rakotoson, Johary Ravaloson, Naivo, and others. She founded ELTNA.org, a networking and support group for early-career translators, and has received both an NEA Literary Translation Fellowship and a PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant. Her other translations include graphic novels and children’s books.