Women, Translation, and the Haitian Revolution

Marie Vieux-Chauvet, Dance on the Volcano, trans. Kaiama L. Glover (New York: Archipelago, 2016); 492 pages; ISBN 978-0914671572 (paperback)

• June 2018

The 2017 publication of Marie Vieux-Chauvet’s masterpiece Dance on the Volcano in English language translation by Kaiama L. Glover is significant not only for the salience of Vieux-Chauvet’s critical engagement with colonial legacies of liberalism, patriarchy, and racism in the Americas, but as a work both authored and translated by a woman and published in a literary market in the United States that continues to disproportionally favor male voices. Given the historical ephemerality of Vieux-Chauvet’s oeuvre—owing in part to a complicated editorial history that limited the reissuing of many of her works after the halt in distribution of Love, Anger, Madness in 1968—the publication of this new translation is perhaps a hopeful sign that more work by Vieux-Chauvet will be appearing in English and, tentatively, that efforts are being made on behalf of some readers, editors, and publishing houses to support and circulate the voices of women of color, both as translators and in translation.1

Set in late-eighteenth-century Saint Domingue, Dance on the Volcano (originally published in French as La danse sur le volcan in 1957 by Éditions Plon) draws on accounts from Haitian scholar Jean Fouchard’s historical text, Le théatre à Saint Domingue (1955) and reimagines the male-dominated narratives of the Haitian Revolution, centering the voice and experience of Minette, a young, free woman of African descent. Minette’s racial consciousness develops over the course of the novel as she experiences prejudice and violence while seeking an independent artistic lifestyle as a performer on the Port-au-Prince stage, despite colonial laws that prohibit women of color from occupying such coveted spaces in the public sphere.

One of the most striking aspects of Dance on the Volcano—and one of the great successes of this translation—is the novel’s attentiveness to colonial gendered dress, particularly to ways clothes served to externally mark bodies and signal class and racial status. Dress was strictly monitored in the French colonies and was enforced through laws such as the Code Noir of 1685. These laws became particularly strict toward the end of the eighteenth century in Haiti as a massive slave revolt emerged as a viable threat to the political economy.2 In the vivid first paragraphs of the novel, Vieux-Chauvet illustrates the colonial anxiety over public self-fashioning through the gaze of white creole women who are angered at the subversive display of dress and jewels by a group of Port-au-Prince’s free women of color:

The jewels adorning the toes of the mulatto women—whom a new law had banned from wearing proper shoes—just made them all the  more fascinating and desirable. Seeing their diamond-shod feet, the white women regretted having called for the new regulation directed at “those creatures” who had dared imitate their clothing and hairstyles. Having complained to the Governor about the inexcusable offense, they had called for justice—without admitting of course, that their real desire was to punish and humiliate these rivals who had become far too appealing to their own husbands and lovers. (7–8)

Vieux-Chauvet’s attention to patterns, bare skin, fabric, and the movement of clothes on and off women’s bodies underwrites the novel’s depictions of racial and gendered performances of belonging. Minette, for example, must constantly refashion herself (her demeanor and her dress) in order to conditionally pass as white and to continue to perform in Port-au-Prince’s opera house. Simultaneously, as Minette’s political consciousness grows, so does her desire to participate in the revolution, and accessories such as the madras scarf become symbolic of her commitment to fighting for the liberation of Haiti’s enslaved peoples. Vieux-Chauvet’s depictions of dress reveal an insistence on the nuanced ways women were historical actors within the Haitian Revolution and the role that women’s fashion played in openly disordering colonial hierarchies.

Recreating a text whose depth and lushness is derived from detail—the tightness of a bodice, the shape and shade of one’s lips—is no easy task, and Glover’s translation effectively captures the various social and legal nuances of colonial vocabulary relating to race and class status. In the original text, words designating phenotype, such as mestive or manant, or items of clothing, such as gaule, are footnoted with definitions intended for an audience perhaps unfamiliar with Haitian history or the legacy of French colonization in the Americas. In many cases, reproducing footnotes from a source text is not an ideal strategy for a translation, since footnotes tend to be expensive for publishers and some translators find them cumbersome. Terms that are culturally and, in many cases, temporally bound are thus always a challenge for a translator who must find a consistent strategy for conveying meaning without overamplifying the original sense.

In the case of Dance on the Volcano, Glover has adopted a foreignizing approach, italicizing words that may be unfamiliar to an English-speaking audience, leaving the readers to discover on their own (or to draw from context) the role this terminology played in colonial Haitian race and social relations. While Dance on the Volcano labors to preserve the opacity of certain words and phrases, the most beautiful and energizing aspects of this translation are Glover’s poetic renderings of the novel’s many vibrant and complex characters. Glover’s translation of Bouche-en-coeur, the nickname of Minette’s seductive and savvy friend, as Kiss-Me-Lips is a rich example of the ways Glover recreates, in both sound and style, moments of simultaneous playfulness and density in Vieux-Chauvet’s prose.3

Dance on the Volcano is only the second of Vieux-Chauvet’s five novels to appear in full English translation.4 When asked in an interview during Women in Translation Month (a yearly series of events launched in 2014 by literary blogger Meytal Radzinski) why so few women are being translated, Glover responded by pointing to the shortage of published books by women in general, underlining the significant role that race and class privilege play in this process:

The reasons for this are complex, but might be said to boil down to a sort of suspicion that somehow “women’s issues” are limited and particular, whereas what men write has broader purchase (and I use the word “purchase” intentionally—to point to questions of marketability and of capital that surround the global literary institution). And if you add the matter of race to the presumed specificity—and attendant unmarketability—of gendered perspectives, things get even more “challenging,” shall we say.5

Dance on the Volcano thus serves not only as a critical addition to the canon of Haitian letters in English (as one of only a small number of novels about the Haitian Revolution written from the perspective of a Haitian author) but as a key contribution to contemporary discourses situated at the intersections of race, gender, coloniality, and authorship. 


Siobhan Marie Meï is a PhD candidate in comparative literature at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her translations and original poetry have appeared in carte blanche, the Adirondack Review, Transference, and Asymptote. She is a co-editor of the H-Haiti series “Haiti in Translation” and her coauthored book chapter, “Women (Re)Writing Authority: A Roundtable on Feminist Translation,” is forthcoming in the Routledge Handbook of Translation, Feminism, and Gender.


1 Other recent English language translations of work by Haitian women authors include Évelyne Trouillot, Memory at Bay, trans. Paul Curtis Daw (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2015); Kettly Mars, Savage Seasons, trans. Jeanine Herman (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015); and Yanick Lahens, Moonbath, trans. Emily Gogolak (Dallas: Deep Vellum, 2017).

2 “Between 1758 and the revolution the persecutions mounted. The Mulattoes were forbidden to wear swords and sabres and European dress.” C. L. R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (New York: Vintage, 1963), 41.

3 To read Glover’s thoughts on her translation process, see Nathan Dize, “Haiti in Translation: Dance on the Volcano by Marie Vieux-Chauvet; an Interview with Kaiama L. Glover,” Haiti in Translation (blog), H-Net, 22 December 2016, https://networks.h-net.org/node/116721/discussions/158058/haiti-translation-dance-volcano-marie-vieux-chauvet-interview.

4 An earlier, now out of print edition of Dance on the Volcano, translated by Salvator Attansio, was published in 1959 by William Sloan. In 2009, Love, Anger, Madness, Rose-Myriam Réjouis and Val Vinkour’s rendering of Vieux-Chauvet’s celebrated 1968 triptych Amour, colère et folie, was published by Modern Library.

5 Kaiama L. Glover, “Women in Translation Month Q&A with Kaiama L. Glover,” Book Culture, 2017, www.bookculture.com/blog/2017/08/30/women-translation-month-qa-kaiama-l-glover.


Related Articles