Uniting St. Martin experts for Caribbean literature at House of Nehesi

The new book Nativity/Nativité/ Natividad by Lasana M. Sekou is only weeks away from publication in St Maarten, said Jacqueline Sample, president of House of Nehesi Publishers (HNP).

But before the book gets out, “there’s a little piece of history behind this first trilingual book by the St. Martin writer that should be made public,” said Sample.

The book will include the French and Spanish translations of the nine-segment narrative poem along with its new English edition. An extensive glossary appears in the three languages.

Alex Richards took to the task of translating Nativity (Nativité), as the first serious French translation of an entire work by Sekou.

Here’s the behind-the-scenes piece that shouldn’t go unnoticed. On December 6, 2008, at a morning-long meeting, complete with a traditional St. Martin cuisine brunch suited for celebrities, “HNP gathered leading linguists, translators and critics, along with educators and folks with legal training, from both parts of the island to discuss the French translation of Nativity,” said Sample this week.

Meeting to discuss French translation of Nativity before the book is published in April 2010. (L-R): R. Romney, L. Mussington, R. Arrindell, F. Badejo, A. Richards, D. Jeffry, J. Illidge, L.M. Sekou. (Saltwater Collection)

Meeting to discuss French translation of Nativity before the book is published in April 2010. (L-R): R. Romney, L. Mussington, R. Arrindell, F. Badejo, A. Richards, D. Jeffry, J. Illidge, L.M. Sekou. (Saltwater Collection)

The panel included Alex Richards, Daniella Jeffry, Fabian Badejo, Rhoda Arrindell, Jocelyne Illidge, Lenny Mussington, and Robert Romney. The author participated mostly as a silent observer.

The idea was to invite a group of people to review the French translation by critically discussing the poem. They would explore its meaning, its links to St. Martin, the wider Caribbean, the Americas, Africa, Asia; its play and pun on languages, sexuality, folklore, music and other aspects of culture, religion, slave uprisings, indentured whites and East Indians and immigrant Chinese, the genocide against the Amerindians, the horror and victories of history, and projecting a future of being centered in the making of history,” said Sample.

We also wanted the Nativité discussants to read the translation and compare it to the new English edition as it could be read or interpreted especially in the Caribbean.

For a publisher it is a sign of maturity to be able to gather experts around a single text purely for a critical discussion before the work reaches the wider public,” said Sample.

For a writer who wants to involve his people in the developing stages and nation-building processes “of a literature of our entire island nation and not divide it into Dutch and French parts, it was an honor to see the work get that type of tough and informed treatment,” said Sekou on Sunday. St. Martin is still a colony of France and the Netherlands.

The panellists’ meeting took place at the Philipsburg Jubilee Library. There were two follow-up meetings at the University of St. Martin (USM), coordinated by Rhoda Arrindell, with a reduced grouping of the discussants. Arrindell was then the USM Language Division head and lecturer in literature and English.

Our confidence in the translation by Alex Richards meant that he would be able to take a tough scrutiny by the other panellists. I’m told that he rose to the occasion with style and intellectual savvy,” said Sample.

Richards is a USM lecturer and former Municipal Library director. Since the 1980s he has been involved with organizing literary activities and writing and lecturing about literature and cultural affairs, said Sample.

The director often points to the difficulty of translating Sekou because of the twists and turns, both subtle and brazen that the author makes with English and with other languages in the region that he takes license with, said Sample.

The government of the Collectivity of St. Martin provided a cultural arts grant for the French translation and printing of Nativité. “The president of the Collectivity Mr. Gumbs and culture department head Ms. Minerva Dormoy, both of whom I had the pleasure of meeting during the poetry garden series last year, have remained committed to this literary arts project and will finally see the results in April,” said Sample.

Completing Sekou’s new Nativity is the Spanish translation, Natividad, translated by Maria Teresa Ortega. The Cuban translator is widely recognized for her translation of works by leading Caribbean authors such as George Lamming, Jan Carew and Mark McWatt.

The independent scholar Emilio Jorge Rodríguez was the Spanish editorial coordinator and Badejo served as the Spanish language consultant for Natividad. Small volume- or pamphlet-size selections of Sekou’s poems have been translated over the years into Spanish, Dutch, Chinese, and late last year into Turkish.

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