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Montclair Students Preserve and Translate Haitian Poetry

Posted in: Homepage News and Events, World Languages and Cultures

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Beginning in Spring 2022, students in Dr. Elizabeth Emery’s 19th-century French poetry and translation class embarked on a project called Les Phares Haitiens, endeavoring to create a digital repository of translated 19th-century Haitian poetry. The project’s name, which translates to “Haitian lights,” is a nod to the Haitian poets who, as the repository states, served as “literary luminaries.” The name itself holds a double meaning, as the word “phare” can be used both literally to refer to light sources or metaphorically, to mean a leader or guiding light. “In French, a ‘projet phare’ is what we call a flagship program, leading the way for others,” Emery explains.

The repository is entirely open to public access, and poems are being translated from French to English, Spanish and Creole. The significance of translating the poetry to Creole runs deep in Haitian culture. Before the Haitian revolution against French rule, French was the language of the plantation owners who denied education to those they enslaved. Creole developed as a way for those groups to communicate locally, and today is the one language most Hatians speak and understand. Emery notes that a number of the poets spoke Creole, but composed poems in French to learn the language and communicate internationally. Today, however, not all Hatians understand French or read either language. “Having Creole and French text as well as recordings provide accessibility to multiple audiences,” Emery explains.

Emery said the idea of focusing on Haitian poetry came about because of the amount of students with Francophone backgrounds in the class. Students’ backgrounds ranged from West African to Belgian to Haitian, and Emery wished to showcase work from each of their countries. Even though the class has ended, several students continue the translation process and add to the project. Bertange Severe, one of these students, emphasized the hard work that Dr. Emery has done in this project, as she guided the students throughout the “Les Phares” project.

Severe translated Coriolan Ardouin’s poem “Floranna la Fiancée,” or “Floranna the Fiancée.” She notes the melancholy passion of this poem. “Sadness has been Ardouin’s fate, and he never hesitates to use his pen to express his feelings. In this poem, he takes the reader to his native land Hispaniola, where they can admire the beauty, naivety and gentleness of Anacaona, a long-lost ancestor,” says Severe.

Laetitia Zicchinella, another student working on the project, specifically mentioned Coriolan Ardouin’s poem, Le Départ du Négrier. The title translates to “The Slaver’s Departure,” and is about the African women who were brought to Haiti as slaves. “Innocent women that were taken away from their countries, their culture and their language. There is a lot of sadness and despair in this poem,” Zicchinella says. By translating these poems, Zicchinella had the opportunity to learn more about Haiti and its history, as well as Haitian culture, and hopes that these poems will bring this experience to others. “I am sure that while reading these poems we translated, people will be transported to the beautiful nature of Haiti, and they will feel all the emotions the poets were able to transcribe about the culture of the Haitian people.”

Anastasia Bonney, who also worked to translate these poems, highlighted the new perspective that translation provides. As she translated Le secret d’être heureux, Bonney found herself empathizing with both the poet and the English audience she was writing for. “It made me understand how to select the right choice of words and translate in a way that not only keeps the original form and style, but captures the meaning and understanding in its translation.” Bonney also notes that the poems provide prospective French students with a good gateway into a deeper understanding of the language. Another student, Michelle Kiefer, also muses that “art and literature help us connect with the experiences of others, and we as readers are enriched by encountering a variety of voices from different backgrounds, cultures, and eras.”

As for Dr. Emery, she struggles to pick a favorite poem, but she highlighted the simplicity of Ignace Nau’s Pipirites and the complexity of Virginie Sampeur’s L’Abandonnée.

In an interview with the Haitian Times, Danielle Legros Georges, a Haitian-born American academic, essayist and poet, praised  Les Phares Haitiens.  “The project brings to Anglophone readers lesser-known but important foundational Haitian voices, and leaves a trail for future scholars and translators.”

Until Les Phares, only Langston Hughes and Edna Underwood have extensively translated this era of Haitian poetry, making this project a landmark in Haitian translation.

You can read poems and find out more about Les Phares at Digital Commons. The project is also open to anyone who wishes to translate a Haitian poem in the public domain to English, Spanish or Creole. If you are interested in helping this important endeavor, please contact Dr. Elizabeth Emery.


Written by Faith Monesteri, Fulcomer Intern