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An Explosion in the Archives: Reframing French Archives through Caribbean Digital Praxis
An Explosion in the Archives: Reframing French Archives through Caribbean Digital Praxis
Nathan H. Dize
In 2014 we launched A Colony in Crisis, a digital primary source document reader of French to English translations focusing on the economic, political, and social climate in the colony of Saint-Domingue on the eve of the French and Haitian Revolutions. The lion’s share of the documents on the website were drawn from the University of Maryland’s special collections, which was undergoing a digitization project of its French Pamphlet Collection at the time. In the beginning, our project team consisted of two graduate students and a subject librarian, as well as an advisory board of librarians, historians, anthropologists, and literary scholars responsible for peer-reviewing student-produced translations. A Colony in Crisis has been updated four times since our launch: twice with original translations, once with a collaborative pedagogy project providing biographical information, and most recently with a undergraduate-led first Haitian Creole translation of our 24-document archive. This step not only represents the culmination of the project’s original aim to foster greater accessibility to colonial archives through translation, but it does so through what I venture to call Caribbean digital praxis.
We, the authors of the site see ourselves as members of a broad community of Caribbean digital scholars located throughout the Caribbean and in the diaspora. These practitioners perform on-the-ground work to confront colonialism, challenge the global fluxes of capitalism, and undo the violent silencing of Caribbean peoples worldwide. I am thinking, here, of mapathons first organized by Alex Gil and Juan Francisco Saldariagga at Columbia University to pinpoint the areas most affected by hurricane Maria, and which have also taken root at many other universities; of Schuyler Esprit at Dominica State College and Create Caribbean leading her students in study and the effort to rebuild the only DH Center in the Caribbean after it was destroyed this fall; of Yarimar Bonilla, a professor of Anthropology at Rutgers University, who is every day tweeting stories and interviews with Puerto Ricans in the wake of Maria; of Jessica Marie Johnson at The Johns Hopkins University who, along with Mark Anthony Neal of Duke, is theorizing and teaching courses on Black Code Studies, which imagines the link between black digital life as an undoing of the historical violence of Black Codes in the Americas; of Marlene Daut and Julia Gaffield at UVA and Georgia State University respectively, who are fostering new dialogues amongst scholars through H-Haiti; of the Digital Library of the Caribbean at the University of Florida’s effort to create equitable partnerships throughout the Caribbean to preserve and digitize precarious library holdings; of my fellow panelists who are delving into digital narratives, imagining new means of tracing and tracking Black Atlantic figures throughout the world, and visually rendering the porosity of physical borders between Caribbean nations. This is just to name a few, but the idea of Caribbean digital praxis is that there is action, a doing of sorts.
For our project, Caribbean digital praxis means to decolonize the Haitian digital archive through curation, translating documents in a manner that sifts through the machinations of eighteenth-century French rhetoric. The scribes of the colonial archive––administrators, lawyers, deputies, and ministers––describe a global capitalist system intent on increasing profits, accounting for enslaved Africans in terms of grams of sugar produced and plots of land worked. In contrast, A Colony in Crisis exposes the heights of colonial deception and brutality, featuring documents where planters lie about their poor treatment of slaves and invent conditions of white famine to increase their revenues. In what follows, I will make reference to series of artists, writers, historians, and anthropologists whose work has helped us reframe a colonial French digital archive as a Haitian archive and attend to the specificities of colonial Haiti in order to expose rather than recreate the violence of colonial documentation. For these reasons, my presentation will be separated into two parts: translation as decolonization and curation as communal teamwork, or konbit in Haitian Creole.
Translation as Decolonization in the Digital Realm
“We must become undisciplined.” Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being
“By necessity, the Haitian Revolution thought itself out politically and philosophically as it was taking place. Its project, increasingly radicalized throughout thirteen years of combat, was revealed in successive spurts. Between and within its unforeseen stages, discourse always lagged behind practice.” Michel-Rolph Trouillot
As a graduate student and scholar, one of my most rewarding experiences has been as a translator. It has served a pragmatic purpose as a means of practicing my French reading and writing skills, undoubtedly improving my English in the process, but it has also shaped the way I look at the world. Translation has undisciplined me. Instead of simply reading a source, whether literary or historical, primary or secondary, my goal has been to render it legible for readers other than myself, to interpret and frame the source text in a way that caters to readers. This practice has always superseded discourse. I say this not to compare our project with the insurgent nature of the Haitian Revolution, but to say that we needed to act. To translate. To produce. This is what we had the money for and the time to spend in order to launch our project in the summer between graduate classes.
In the last year we have had to think back to the project’s beginning, to contemplate our past choices and newly define our best practices after being approached by Dr. Laurence Jay-Rayon Ibrahim Aibo and two Haitian students at Montclair State University who hoped to produce Haitian Creole translations of our 24-document archive. We had to reflect on how we treated student labor, how we researched the topic so that our Haitian translators, Daphney Vastey and Pierre Malbranche, would understand the type of lexical study they needed to do, and how to structure the project going forward so that the next 24 translations would be rendered as equitably as the first 24.
In the spring, Daphney and Pierre had the chance to present their work to a group of scholars and administrators at the newly minted DH Center at MSU. Daphney reflected upon her work saying that “translators do not always have the best intentions,” bringing to bear the importance of research in conjunction with translation. By structuring the Haitian Creole translation project as an independent study, Daphney and Pierre had the time to pour over CLR James’ The Black Jacobins and texts by naturalist Moreau de Saint-Méry, learning, as we did three years prior, that the word atelier in eighteenth century French meant “slave gang” rather than a merely anodyne “workshop.”
The digital landscape afforded both the original set of translations and the Haitian Creole versions a greater since of equity because we as translators are in charge of our own time and control the means of publication. When we initially published our first 12 translations to the site we used print models for historical document readers and aimed to eventually have our own reader in print. However, we soon realized that the digital nature of our reader was more plastic than that of print; it conformed to the ebbs and flows of pre-tenure and graduate student life. We could publish content we when we were “free” and take care of our other responsibilities during the academic year as needed. Not only did the digital format fit our needs as researchers and translators, as students and graduate instructors we saw the value of an open-source document reader in translation when the time comes to make biannual Amazon book orders or to take the long march to the campus Barnes and Noble and eventually spend X number of dollars on required course texts. Over the past three years, the Anglophone readership of A Colony in Crisis has been consistently the highest with 18,000 of our 24,000 views coming from the United States alone.
When it came to the Haitian Creole translations, we knew, too, that the freedom to publish content on the translators’ timeline was a way to ensure equitable treatment of our project members and partners. By allowing translators to determine the timeline of the project, we hope to shift the role of the translator from a laborer producing an interpretation to a creator, carefully rendering documents legible for an entirely new audience. As digital practitioners, audience is one important question we must ask ourselves. A Colony in Crisis has only been viewed 271 times from Haiti, about 30 times since Pierre’s first translation went live. While it is hard to say how many Haitians have viewed the site in the United States and throughout the Diaspora, it is clear that the future of the site must turn towards Haiti. In order to fully decolonize an archive, it is not simply a matter of cataloguing, digitization, and so-called democratization. For the colonial archive of Haiti to be decolonized, it must be legible and audible for speakers of Haitian Creole.
Curation as konbit; or Caribbean digital praxis
Digital projects cannot come to be without a community: a group of partners, advocates, cheerleaders and supporters. A Colony in Crisis has benefitted from what Haitians would call konbit, or collective teamwork that enriches the entire community. Since the beginning of the project, we have relied on the expertise and support of a group of scholars offering in-kind peer-review, project consultation, and opportunities to publicize our work. Our project would not have come into existence as quickly and remained active as long as it has without this konbit. Indeed, collective and collaborative work is not solely a feature of Caribbean digital humanities projects, but a characteristic of the field writ large. However, I think that looking at our project through the lens of konbit helps to tease out the importance of collaboration in terms of curation and how these exchanges amplify the strength of the digital humanities community in Haitian Studies.
A Colony in Crisis features a Board of Advisors for each set of translations with some members floating in and out as they have time to offer in-kind labor. Some members provide project guidance, while the rest comment on the curated historical context and the translations. Normally a Board member is responsible for 1-2 documents each and because each member hails from a slightly different discipline the review varies from comments on translation to suggestions for historical nuance. Over the course of the last three years, these exchanges have aided A Colony in Crisis in keeping up with the trending scholarship in fields like Atlantic history and Haitian studies, which seek to foreground the presence of people of color within anticolonial and antislavery discourse. These suggestions have helped us hone the site from an archive of French legal and parliamentary documents to a source that directly speaks to the colonial violence of the archive and archival practice.
It is clear that the lessons learned through academic konbit will benefit the Haitian Creole translations of A Colony in Crisis. The vast majority of texts translated into Haitian Creole, or at least those with the most institutional support, are those conducted for the international aid sector, or as many scholars have come to refer to as the Republic of NGOs. Another major source of translation into Haitian Creole comes from faith-based communities, producing holy texts and manuals. In this translation environment, it was clear that we needed to seek out a community that held the interests of Haitians, first and foremost, within academic and digital spheres. With this commitment, we invited both Laura Wagner of the Radio Haiti Archive and Cécile Accilien of the African American studies department and Haitian Creole Institute at the University of Kansas to serve as our first Haitian Creole Board members. These choices go beyond their linguistic capacities as reviewers. We chose to build a community already invested in ethical Haitian digital humanities projects––Wagner is the lead archivist at the Radio Haiti digital archive housed at Duke University and Accilien is developing an open-source Haitian Creole textbook. By investing in the already existing Haitian digital humanities space, we anticipate reciprocating the in-kind labor donated by our reviewers.
One of the most important lessons we have learned is that it is crucial to keep the digital konbit alive to ensure that projects in-progress have a chance to launch. This means that existing Caribbean digital communities (in the Caribbean, Canada and the US) continue to partner with Black and African American digital humanities projects and groups (Colored Conventions Project at University of Delaware; African American History, Culture, and Digital Humanities at the University of Maryland, College Park; Black Code Studies courses and groups at Johns Hopkins University and Duke University) in order to learn together, co-work, and amplify one another’s projects and praxis online and #IRL. Together, ansanm, juntos, we need to keep doing this work to decolonize spaces of digital creation and curation.
Following a performance at the University of Maryland, College Park, I asked anthropologist and poet Gina Athena Ulysse if she would be willing to serve on the inaugural Board of Advisors for A Colony in Crisis. A year later she reflected on how her work with the project had helped her in her creative work as a performance artist. Honing in on one of the resounding messages from a document she reviewed, Ulysse repeated the French rhetorical refrain “Quels sont les besoins de Saint-Domingue?” (What are the needs of Saint-Domingue). As a champion in the push for “new narratives of Haiti” Ulysse called us to consider not only the needs of Saint-Domingue, but of modern Haiti as well. I still think this is the proper rhetorical strategy, to question, rather than attempt to answer and solve. Perhaps this time, it might be more appropriate to pose the question in Haitian Creole: Ki sa Ayiti bezwen?
Digital Humanities spaces have begun to accommodate non-European and indigenous languages, graphically and audibly. In a recent post on the Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage Blog, Hannah Apert-Abrams summarizes the challenges of coding and producing metadata for multi-lingual colonial texts like the Codex Mendoza, which was written in Nahuatl and translated into Spanish. The Radio Haiti Archive at Duke University is processing an audio archive of over forty years of recordings, largely in Haitian Creole and French. Not only are these documents difficult to process––they require highly specialized skill sets in both coding, research, and linguistic abilities––the pose technical problems for how to make the holdings accessible for the speakers of indigenous languages. As far as A Colony in Crisis goes, we will produce audio recordings of all of our Haitian Creole translations so that Haitians in Haiti and in the diaspora can engage with the archive of colonial. Indeed, it is our hope that recordings and the texts themselves will help to reinforce Haitian Creole literacy in advanced-learning environments both in Haiti and lòt bò dlo (on the other side of the water). The meaning of these final steps in our project are not lost on us as Haitian wounds are ripped open daily by tweets and on-the-record statements discriminating Haitians, in a country where the government has ended the Temporary Protected Status program for Haitians living in the US, and when Haiti continues to be occupied by the United Nations. For these reasons, we must turn to Haiti, Haitian Creole, and online spaces already in existence such as the Haiti History Blog, the Kreyolicious blog, Woy Magazine, and others to equitably participate in Haitian digital space, resisting the colonization of indigenous web/sites of Haitian culture.
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