Haun Saussy

Sounding Translation episode 3

Photo of Haun Saussy in Rwanda by Paul Farmer.


In this interview with Teresa Villa-Ignacio, Haun Saussy discusses his motivation to translate Francophone Haitian poetry, in order to give the American public a more well-rounded and positive outlook on the Haitian community during the 1980s and 1990s AIDS epidemic and refugee crisis. Saussy also discusses the value of Haitian culture and history as well as the poetic styles and literary influences that inspired the poets he has translated, which include René Bélance, René Depestre, and Jean Métellus. Saussy reads from his translation of Au pipirite chantant by Jean Métullus (Maurice Nadeau, 1978), which was published in When the Pipirite Sings: Selected Poems by Northwestern University Press in 2019. This interview was recorded on June 25, 2014, in Chicago.

Saussy, a university professor in comparative literature and East Asian languages and civilizations at the University of Chicago, recountes how his friend, the doctor, medical anthropologist, and global human rights activist Paul Farmer, inspired him to translate the great Francophone Haitian poets René Bélance, René Depestre, and Jean Métellus. The conversation touches on the three poets’ very different life stories: Bélance taught French literature in Walla Walla, Washington; René Depestre had a short-lived career in Haitian politics before he left to live in France; and Jean Métellus was a neurologist who woke at three o’clock every morning to write poetry before tending to his patients for the rest of the day. Their literary influences also emerge: Rimbaud and Surrealists like Éluard and Aragon, whom Depestre befriended in Paris, as well as Négritude poets like Césaire and Senghor.

Comparing the poets, Saussy notes that Bélance “writes in a whisper … whereas Depestre is looking you right in the eye and doing a performance, and all the more Métellus.” At the same time, René Bélance balances “flights of fancy” in his poems with subtle practical suggestions for improving the lives of everyday Haitians, such as making public transportation and health care more accessible. Saussy reads passages from Métellus featuring Ogoun (the Yoruban spirit or god of iron), weapon-making, and war that also figures in the Haitian belief system. In these excerpts, Ogoun remembers how he traversed the Middle Passage with the enslaved and boastfully takes credit for their survival. After reading, Saussy reflects on translation as an opportunity to inhabit voices other than your own and likens translation to possession.

The conversation also turned to Saussy’s study of “abusive translation” of Chinese classical literature, and in particular, Xu Zhimo’s 1920s translation of Baudelaire through the lens of the Zhuangzi, an ancient philosophical text. In Saussy’s view, Xu Zhimo’s “mistranslation” of Baudelaire demonstrates how Xu Zhimo read Baudelaire’s subversion of European poetic norms inherited from Dante and the Petrarchan tradition as a more recent version of Zhuangzi’s subversion of Chinese fourth-century BCE norms.

This podcast was produced by Bridget Ryan, Stonehill College class of 2023, through funding from a Stonehill College 2022 Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) grant.

 Click here for a transcript of this episode.