Meet Madagascar's 27-Year-Old Literary Ambassador

While most people associate the country with the animated movie of the same name, Madagascar also has a rich literary scene. Translator Allison Charette is trying to introduce it to the rest of the world.

by Ilana Masad
Nov 24 2015, 6:00pm

Photo by Guille Faingold via Stocksy

Twenty-seven-year-old Allison M. Charette is the only active translator of Malagasy literature—writing out of Madagascar—today. She grew up in a conservative suburb of Chicago, started studying French in junior high, and just kept going: She studied French at NYU and taught English in France, where she translated poetry by a local bookstore owner, and for the first time began to consider taking up translation as a career. On December 1, her translations will be featured in online magazine Words Without Borders' Madagascar issue, in which she translated seven out of the nine featured stories by contemporary Malagasy writers, including stories by David Jaomanoro, Naivo, and Cyprienne Toazara. Charette is also working on a co-translation of Malagasy author Andry Andraina, one of the rare writers whose work in Malagasy is considered classic, with Mialy Andriamananjara.

The latter is unique, in that it was actually written in the Malagasy language; Andriamananjara translates literally from the Malagasy to English, while Charette creates the literary out of the literal. Most of the literature from Madagascar is written in French; the country was a French colony until its independence in 1960, and many of the urban, functioning schools are still funded by the French government. Charette is working on learning Malagasy—although it uses the Latin alphabet, the consonants and vowels were adapted to the Malagasy spoken language from either French or English, which makes it extraordinarily difficult to read—but most of what she translates is in a French that frequently makes use of Madagasy words and culture.

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Currently, Charette is working on translating Malagasy author Naivo's Au-delà des rizières, which will be the first novel from Madagascar to be translated into English. We talked to her about how she discovered Malagasy literature, the literary scene in Madagascar's capital, Antananarivo, and the barriers to bringing it to the rest of the world.

Charette at a Professional Union of Malagasy Writers in the French Language literary salon in Antananarivo, September 2014. Photo courtesy of Allison Charette

Broadly: When and how did you discover Madagascar and Malagasy literature?
Allison M. Charette: It was almost exactly two years ago, while I was still in grad school, and it was just late enough into my academic career that I didn't want to change my thesis. I stumbled across a blog called A Year of Reading the World by Ann Morgan. The problem that she ran into with a lot of smaller countries who don't speak one of the "bigger" languages as a national language was that there were books coming out of those countries, but they hadn't been translated into English or didn't have a publisher. She did a lot of emailing [to find] people in the country who could translate some of these books for her.

Madagascar was one of the countries where she had an issue. No one at that time was working on [a translation of] a [Malagasy] novel, so she had to go outside of her guidelines. The only thing that had been translated from Madagascar was a bilingual anthology, French and English on facing pages, of short stories and poetry by a bunch of different authors [called] Voices from Madagascar. There aren't any novels published in English from Madagascar.

That was fascinating to me as a translator who speaks French, because I am translating from one of the most widely spoken languages in the world. There's this love affair in the States, especially academically speaking, with post-colonial, Francophile, "African" literature, but even in [academic] French circles Madagascar is hardly mentioned.

Authors are automatically campaigners for literacy.

People seem to be totally unaware of Madagascar as a real place; their associations with it are either the movie franchise or lemurs.
Right! But Madagascar is a huge island, the size of Texas, and there are [more than] 22 million people there. This is not a tiny country. As a translator I thought, let me go find some of this literature and see if I can do anything with it. I basically abused the Inter-Library Loan System and I got a bunch of novels and short story collections in French. I started reading [them], and I thought, this is fantastic!

Was your enjoyment of the work what made you want to translate it?
Part of my fascination with this literature was that it's really well written. The other part was that no one else knows about this, and that should change. So it's partially just the reaction I get when I read any author or novel that hasn't been translated before, which is: More people should read this, because it is awesome and tells a really good story; let me do something with it so that more people will read it.

But part of translating is knowing what it is that you're translating. You have to understand every single word, every single reference, everything that goes into that text in order to be able to translate it accurately. So living or spending any length of time in whatever country you're trying to translate from is so important, because that's how you learn those references.

But you were finding Malagasy literature from France?
Essentially, yes. The only stuff that is at all findable in the States—or in France for that matter—by Malagasy authors is stuff that has been published in France. There are two publishing houses in Madagascar [that] are trying to change that, and you can start getting their books abroad now. But one of them is so new that when I was looking two years ago they weren't [shipping] outside of Madagascar.

During my last semester of my master's, along with writing my thesis, I started playing around with a couple of short stories from Madagascar because I thought they were fascinating, and I'd never read anything like it. I found out that I was in completely over my head.

How come?
I had so little knowledge about Malagasy culture that I couldn't actually translate the stories. One of the reasons I like translating so much is because it's this wonderful paradoxical combination: You can have stories that are set in completely different parts of the world, but there's always something recognizable about it, whether it's on an emotional level, the way families work, or some sort of love story. But there were also a ton of Malagasy words that were inserted into all of these stories. I had zero idea what was going on. I didn't have contact with any of these authors, and I didn't know anybody who spoke Malagasy or was from Madagascar. So I thought, I should go to Madagascar. And then I laughed for about a half an hour and forgot about it.

No one else knows about this, and that should change.

About two months away from being done with school, one of the non-profit organizations that I had been doing volunteer translation for contacted me about translating their newsletter, which said they'd partnered up with another organization in the capital city of Madagascar. I immediately emailed the founder and asked whether they had anyone on the ground in Madagascar, because here's this little interest I have in it now, and I would love to go there. He responded saying, "Well, actually, we have a problem because we don't have anyone on the ground in Madagascar right now, and other organizations have been trying to partner with us, and we have no way to vet them. So if you would like to go to Madagascar, partially as our representative, we can pay for part of your flight. One of our interns in France is Malagasy, and her family is willing to host you, and they can guide you around the country, and we'll set up meetings for you with these other organizations, and then you can spend the rest of your time doing whatever you want." And I was like, OKAY!

I turned in my thesis on August 1 that year, and three days later I was taking a 30-something hour trip to Madagascar, where I stayed for six weeks.

How did you discover the literary scene there? How did you get involved with the authors?
When I arrived in Madagascar I had exactly one literary contact; I had been trying to contact at least ten authors for six months to absolutely no avail. What I realized when I got to Madagascar is that email and the internet aren't ubiquitous [there]. The way people connect with each other is by talking face to face, on the phone, texting; everyone is reachable by phone, or by walking down the block and knocking on their door. The whole idea of word-of-mouth is alive and well, which was incredible and really fun to watch; in the kind of world I operate in, there's a set of rules and standards for how you get an introduction to somebody, especially if it's someone who's seen as some sort of higher level then you. There is none of that in Madagascar. You just ask around. The network of contacts is so wide and so tightly knit that you can find anybody.

Because there is such a high rate of poverty and such a high rate of illiteracy, the world that I was [working] in was automatically reduced to a much smaller number of people. Three quarters of the people who live in Madagascar are illiterate. Authors are automatically campaigners for literacy, and so a lot of these publishing houses that people are starting up have these amazing literacy campaigns to go into schools.

By the time my six weeks were done, I ended up meeting over two dozen authors, because I would talk to somebody and they would say they knew the sister of an author I was looking for and they would set up a meeting. And the authors I started meeting would say that they knew these other people and helped set up meetings with them. I ended up getting involved in the local writers' association, the Professional Union of Malagasy Writers in the French Language—that's basically the translation of it.

Were the authors you met in Madagascar interested in being translated into English?
The grand majority of them thought it was the coolest thing. News that there was this American girl who was interested in translating their stuff and giving them a wide audience spread really quickly, and I started getting calls on my Malagasy cell phone from random authors, some of whom I was trying to track down and hadn't managed to find yet.

Does anyone make a living as a writer in Madagascar?
There are two Malagasy writers I can think of who make a living off their writing, and they lived in France for decades. One still lives just outside of Paris, and the other, Michèle Rakotoson, moved back to Madagascar and has made it her cause to check in the new generation of Malagasy writers. She's running a literary salon in the capital, and her big thing now is getting other people to where she is, essentially.

How are you planning on moving ahead with this?
In practical terms, I had a kind of phase one in terms of Malagasy literature, which was getting anything out there at all, which is most easily done with short stories. Phase two is getting the novels translated. I'm still in talks with one place, a small press, about the book that I got the PEN grant for, Naivo's Au-delà des rizières. We're currently hashing out a contract for me to do the translation. Assuming that that happens in a reasonable amount of time, I would say that that novel could be expected to come out sometime in 2017.