J. Michael Dash, Translator-Critic of the Caribbean

October 2023

The Trinidadian scholar J. Michael Dash (1948–2019) built a legacy as one of the most significant literary critics of the francophone Caribbean in the last fifty years. In 1975 he wrote the first English-language study of the works of the Haitian writer Jacques Stephen Alexis, and twenty years later he authored the first full-length study of the writings of the Martinican thinker Édouard Glissant.1 To these he added several monographs and anthologies on Haitian literary and cultural history. While he is perhaps best known for his groundbreaking literary criticism, Dash was also an accomplished translator, most notably producing English-language translations of Glissant’s essays as Caribbean Discourse: Selected Essays (Le discours antillais), his play Monsieur Toussaint, and his debut novel The Ripening (La lézarde).

As Dash once explained in his lecture “Translating the Caribbean Text,” given at the University of Miami in 1996, translation informed his critical process, enriching his analyses and interpretations of literary texts. In his opening remarks, he joked, “First of all, I’ve never spoken about translation before, and I probably won’t ever again, because I find it very difficult to talk about something which to me is almost an integral part of my work as a critic.”2 Dash hoped that readers could recognize his voice in his translations, that readers would hear him as “a voice along with Édouard’s voice.”3 Without knowing Dash personally, it may seem difficult to disentangle his voice from the original author’s, to discern about a particular translation what is the translator’s presence versus the author’s. To be sure, every word of a translation is chosen by the translator, but this alone cannot account for how a translator embeds themself within a translation, nor how they approached their task.

There are brief moments scattered throughout introductions, afterwords, and other paratextual materials where we can discern Dash’s translation strategies.4 But his lecture “Translating the Caribbean Text” stands as one of the few moments where he speaks at length about his approaches to translation. He explains that, for him, there are three qualities a translator should possess when translating a work of literature: (1) knowledge of the languages involved in the project (e.g., French to English); (2) a sense of the literary and imaginative context in which the book is located; and (3) a personality and sense of style in the language the work is being translated into.

Dash was not only setting down the qualities through which he evaluates other translators, he was articulating his own translation manifesto, that of the translator-critic. Because his translation practice was so entwined with his work as a critic, it is no mistake that larger ideas about Glissant’s corpus and Caribbean literary theories filter into his translations. By paying close attention to the choices he made in opposition to and among other translators, we stand to better grasp the vision he had for francophone Caribbean literature in translation.

I am glad to hear that a West Indian will be translating [La lézarde].
—Édouard Glissant

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Dash served as an advisor to the Heinemann Caribbean Writers Series, and he was responsible for recommending works of Caribbean literature the series should prioritize. He argued that they should shake up the series by publishing works from the nonanglophone Caribbean and suggested three works to editor James Curry: Jacques Roumain’s 1944 Gouverneurs de la rosée (Masters of the Dew), Simone Schwarz-Bart’s 1972 Pluie et vent sur Télumée miracle (The Bridge of Beyond), and Édouard Glissant’s 1958 La lézarde (The Ripening). The books by Roumain and Schwarz-Bart already had suitable translations—the former by Mercer Cook and Langston Hughes in 1947, the latter by Barbara Bray in 1974—so their publication process was straightforward; Heinemann acquired the rights and published UK editions of the novels in 1978 and 1982, respectively. Glissant’s La lézarde, however, was more complicated.

La lézarde was released in France in 1958 to critical acclaim, winning that year’s Prix Renaudot. As a result of its commercial success in France, George Braziller Inc. commissioned Frances Frenaye, an experienced translator of French and Italian literature, to translate and publish La lézarde under the title The Ripening in 1959. The Ripening was met with mixed reviews at the time, and when Dash revisited it for the series, he felt that Frenaye had mishandled Glissant’s text, and the translation would need to be “cleaned up.” When Curry and Dash wrote to Glissant about reprinting The Ripening, the Martinican writer expressed that “on no account would [Frenaye’s] translation be reissued because he had problems with [it].” Met with this impasse, Curry told Dash that he would have to translate the novel. Days later a cable arrived from Glissant, saying, “I am glad to hear that a West Indian will be translating [La lézarde],” and Heinemann published Dash’s translation in 1985.5

During his lecture at the University of Miami, Dash specified that Frenaye’s translation of The Ripening suffered from a lack of understanding of the cultural and historical context in which it was produced as well as from a lack of knowledge of Glissant’s literary and poetic intentions. The Ripening was the only francophone Caribbean text Frenaye ever translated, and aside from the notable exception of Assia Djebar’s La Soif / The Mischief, Frenaye translated mostly White French and Italian writers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.6 For Glissant, language itself is imbued with context and a sense of place. As Dash remarks in his lecture, Glissant would joke with Continental French readers that his works would have to be translated into French for them to be fully transparent for readers unaware of the Martinican context. As such, when retranslating The Ripening, Dash paid particularly close attention to opportunities to resituate language and cultural realities in the Caribbean.

The Ripening focuses on a group of young political activists, led by the protagonist Thaël, who decide to assassinate a member of the neocolonialist elite running for election in the fictional town of Lambrianne, located at the point where the Lézarde River drains into the Caribbean Sea. In the novel, Lambrianne is caught in a moment of violent transition. Local control is up for grabs, and a generation of elders, those who still retained a link with Maroon communities and ancestral storytelling, are passing on. The most important of these elders within the narrative is Papa Longoué, a storyteller and healer who has a vision that foreshadows the bloody end of the novel. Perhaps owing to the centrality of Papa Longoué to the narrative, Dash carefully retranslated elements of two scenes: Papa Longoué’s vision and the announcement of Papa Longoué’s death. In what follows, I juxtapose Dash’s translations with Glissant’s original as well as Frenaye’s version to show how Dash foregrounds Caribbean linguistic and cultural contexts in his retranslation.

Papa Longoué’s vision takes place in the penultimate chapter of the opening section of The Ripening. In it, Thaël’s love interest, Valérie, fears for the future. Her town is undergoing change, and she is on the cusp of marrying Thaël, who has newly arrived in Lambrianne from the mountains. The scene takes place between parentheses and begins with Valérie visiting Papa Longoué for a consultation:


En pensant aux montagnes, Valérie s’inquiétait de l’avenir. . . . Ainsi Valérie fut-elle à une séance chez papa Longoué, homme maître de la nuit et du temps . . .


Valérie’s thoughts of the mountains were mingled with fears. . . . So it happened that one evening when Valérie had gone to consult Papa Longoué, the soothsayer . . .


As she thought about the mountains, Valérie became worried about the future. . . . So it happened that Valérie turned up at a consultation with Papa Longoué, keeper of the secrets of the night and of time . . .7

Comparing the two translations, both Dash and Frenaye opt for a sense-for-sense interpretation of Glissant’s opening line. However, in the second sentence, Frenaye chooses to gloss Glissant’s description of Papa Longoué as “homme maître de la nuit et du temps,” condensing the meaning down to “soothsayer.”

While it may seem like an appropriate translation for a prophetic figure capable of predicting the future, “soothsayer” extracts Papa Longoué from a Caribbean linguistic tradition and places him within a European context. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word soothsayer is rooted in Old Norse, Old High German, Sanskrit, Latin, and Old Gothic languages, meaning “a person who predicts the future by magical, intuitive, or more rational means.”8 Frenaye’s choice of “soothsayer” also has implications for readers steeped in Judeo-Christian beliefs in which soothsayers are outcasts or decried as sorcerers.9 Even as “translators [of Caribbean literature] need to take both oral and scribal traditions into account,” Elizabeth A. Wilson further argues that these two traditions must coexist in balance.10 By overemphasizing Judeo-Christian linguistic roots, Frenaye throws the oral and the scribal into disorder.

Therefore, revisiting Papa Longoué’s title provides an opportunity to not only reset the balance between the oral and the scribal but also amplify the significance of Papa Longoué in the novel as an elder and a descendant of Maroons. Papa Longoué’s words constitute the ancestral roots of anticolonialist struggle, which serve as a guiding light for the young militants in The Ripening. In choosing to translate the title Glissant bestows upon the elder from “homme maître de la nuit et du temps” to “keeper of the night and of time,” Dash highlights Papa Longoué’s distance from colonial dialectics like master and slave. Dash also draws the reader to the significance of the night in the Caribbean oral tradition by restoring Glissant’s formulation “of the night and of time.” As Ralph Ludwig explains in Écrire la parole de nuit, “On the other hand, the night has always been the site of creole storytelling. . . . Once night has fallen, we tell stories of the ancestors to our children, and it is at night, too, when we celebrate our ancestors’ deaths during the wake.”11

The next scene I compare, the announcement of Papa Longoué’s death, marks a critical juncture in the novel as it becomes clear that the younger generation is set to inherit an age-old struggle to maintain a meaningful connection to the past. Papa Longoué not only represented a tangible link to Africa but also carried on a tradition of resistance to colonialism through marronage. As Mercer Cook pointed out in his review of The Ripening in 1960, Frenaye’s mishandling of Papa Longoué’s death is “incongruous” with his otherwise sympathetic portrayal throughout the novel.12 Her repeated translation of “nègre” as “nigger” creates tension within the narrative, causing confusion among readers about the following grief-stricken response to his death.


“C’est fini, il nous a quittés, le vieux nègre!”

Le dernier noeud du noeud.

“Il est parti, notre nègre de Guinée!”

. . . On pouvait dire qu’il avait gagné son combat, le vieux guérisseur, le vieux marron . . . et on pouvait penser qu’il n’avait jamais été plus vivant qu’à cette minute, où une foule vibrante encore des cris et d’ardeur s’immobilisait, dans la clarté déclinante des flambeaux, disant: “Il est parti, le vieux nègre! Papa Longoué cette fois est bien mort.” (219–20)


“It’s all over. The old nigger from Guinea has gone from us.”

The last twist of the knot: “The old nigger from Guinea has gone from us.”

. . . Yes, he had won his battle, the old soothsayer, the old refugee. . . . Never had he been more alive than at this moment, when a crowd intoxicated with noise stood still in the light of the torches and said: “It’s all over. The old nigger from Guinea has gone from us.” (220–21)


“It’s all over, the old man from Guinea has gone from us!”

The last knot to be undone.

“He has gone, our old man from Guinea!”

. . . You could say he won his battle, the old healer, the old maroon. . . . You could say that he was never more alive than at this moment, when a crowd still vibrating with the shouting and wild enthusiasms stood still, in the dying light of the torches, saying, “[H]e has gone, the old man! This time Papa Longoué is really dead.” (170)

If the cumulative effect of Glissant’s repetition of Papa Longoué’s departure is meant to signify a deep, intimate sense of grief over the loss of a revered member of the Lambrianne community, the translation of the word “nègre” to an intimate instead of abject notion in English is crucial. Sharon Masingale Bell has convincingly argued the merits of translating the N-word in Caribbean folk speech among Black interlocutors to evoke a sense of intimacy and play through word games like “sounding” or “the dozens.” This is not the case, however, concerning the announcement of Papa Longoué’s death. The scene exists outside the bounds of “jocular love and appreciation,” and when employed here by Frenaye, the N-word adds some of the fraught cultural baggage it might have if a White person were to have said it.13

The difference between how Dash and Frenaye translate “nègre” and “marron” is also revealing within the intimate context of Caribbean language and history. As Glissant wrote in Caribbean Discourse, “Our drama (which is not a tragedy) is that we have collectively denied or forgotten the hero who in our true history has taken unto himself the cause of our resistance: the maroon.”14 Although Glissant had yet to write Caribbean Discourse when Frenaye encountered La lézarde, her translation of “marron” as “refugee” nonetheless betrays a central tenet of his literary project, to sound the depths of Caribbean history and memory.15 It effectively replicates what Sylvia Wynter calls the “hegemonic sociogenic code,” whereby Black humanity and experience is posited as the other to Whiteness or “Man.”16 While “refugee” may be able to account for the literal sense of refuge and safe harbor that maroons sought in their flight from the plantation, the word is insufficient because it fails to consider the coloniality of Caribbean history and society.17 By reinstating the noun “maroon” rather than the adjectival form “marooned,” which could be a synonymous form of “refugee,” Dash accentuates the Caribbean cultural context of Glissant’s language. Through his choices of “marron” as “maroon” and “notre nègre de Guinée” as “our old man from Guinea,” Dash diverts the reader’s course away from White European colonial concepts of slavery, possession, and dehumanization by accentuating the importance of deeply rooted Caribbean notions of humanism and freedom.18 

In the months after Édouard Glissant’s passing in 2011, Dash was asked by the Caribbean Review of Books to write a tribute to his friend. In his essay “Homme du Tout-Monde,” Dash proposed that Glissant’s oeuvre should be remembered for putting forth two groundbreaking ideas: the first being that landscape could be understood and imagined only through language, and the second, that Caribbean space was archipelagic and every horizon existed only in relation to another. I would like to propose, as I have demonstrated above, that Dash as a translator-critic sought to put forth the same theories in his rendition of The Ripening. The result is a translation that immerses the reader in the cultural and linguistic landscapes of the Caribbean, and the Caribbean that the reader experiences in the text is that of the whole region, an archipelagic “field of relations.”19

Nathan H. Dize is an assistant professor of French at Washington University in Saint Louis. He is a digital humanist, translator, and scholar of the francophone Caribbean. He is the translator of numerous Haitian authors, and he has published work in archipelagos journal, Caribbean Quarterly, and the Journal of Haitian Studies, among others.

[1] J. Michael Dash, Jacques Stéphen Alexis (Toronto: Black Images, 1975); and Édouard Glissant (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995). I would like to thank Jocelyn Sutton Franklin, Corine Labridy, and Lucy Swanson for their careful read of and generous feedback on this essay.

[2] J. Michael Dash, “Translating the Caribbean Text” (lecture presented at the Caribbean Summer Institute, University of Miami, March 1996); see https://umiami.mediaspace.kaltura.com/media/Michael+Dash%2C+Translating+the+Caribbean+Text+%281996%29/0_rg9xopq7.

[3] Dash, “Translating the Caribbean Text,” (italics mine).

[4] See Nathan H. Dize and Charly Verstraet, “Translating the Francophone Caribbean: Centering Black Production, De-centering Translation Practices,” Studies in Twentieth and Twenty-First Century Literature 47, no. 1 (2023): article 6, https://newprairiepress.org/sttcl/vol47/iss1/6/.

[5] Dash, “Translating the Caribbean Text.”

[6] Lucy Scholes, “Re-Covered: The Mischief,” Paris Review (Online), 2 December 2019, https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2019/12/02/re-covered-the-mischief/.

[7] Édouard Glissant, La lézarde (Paris: Gallimard, 1997), 80; The Ripening, trans. Frances Frenaye (New York: George Braziller, 1959), 76; The Ripening, trans. J. Michael Dash (London: Heinemann, 1985), 64. Hereafter cited in the text.

[8] Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Merriam-Webster online, s.v. “soothsayer,” https://unabridged.merriam-webster.com/collegiate/soothsayer (accessed 20 September 2023).

[9] According to the Oxford Dictionary of the Bible, soothsayers are “those who claim to foretell the future; the [Old Testament] is hostile to them (Jeremiah 27: 9). They are denounced by Micah (Micah 5: 12) as akin to sorcerers.” A Dictionary of the Bible, 2nd ed. (2010), ed. W. R. F. Browning, Oxford Reference online, s.v. “soothsayer,” https://www.oxfordreference.com/display/10.1093/acref/9780199543984.001.0001/acref-9780199543984 (accessed 20 September 2023).

[10] Elizabeth A. Wilson, “Translating Caribbean Landscape,” Palimpsestes, no. 12 (2000): 19.

[11] “[La] nuit, au contraire, a toujours été le lieu de la parole créole. . . . C’est une fois la nuit tombée qu’on raconte la vie des ancêtres aux jeunes, et c’est là encore qu’on fête leur mort au cours des veillées”; Ralph Ludwig, introduction to Écrire la parole de nuit (Paris: Gallimard, 1994), 18 (translation mine).

[12] Mercer Cook, “Antilles Men,” Kenyon Review 22, no. 1 (1960): 165.

[13] Sharon Masingale Bell, “Translator’s Preface,” in “Instructing Revolution: Didacticism in the Short Stories of J[acques] S[tephen] Alexis, with a Translation of His Romancéro aux Étoiles” (PhD diss. Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, 1987), 219–20.

[14] Édouard Glissant, Caribbean Discourse: Selected Essays, trans. J. Michael Dash (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1989), 220 (italics in original).

[15] Frenaye’s translation might also be considered an earlier form of the “dystranslation” of Afro-diasporic and Caribbean literature as highlighted by the conversation between M. NourbeSe Philip and Barbara Ofosu-Somuah regarding the Italian translation of Zong!. See M. NourbeSe Philip and Barbara Ofosu-Somuah, “Considering the Dystranslation of Zong!,” in Kavita Bhanot and Jeremy Tiang, eds., Violent Phenomena: Twenty-One Essays on Translation (London: Tilted Axis, 2022), 287–304.

[16] Sylvia Wynter, “On How We Mistook the Map for the Territory, and Reimprisoned Ourselves in our Unbearable Wrongness of Being, of Désêtre: Black Studies toward the Human Project,” in Lewis R. Gordon and Jane Anna Gordon, eds., Not Only the Master's Tools: African-American Studies in Theory and Practice (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2006), 118.

[17] Joshua Myers, Of Black Study (London: Pluto, 2023), 69.

[18] In an earlier version of her essay “On How We Mistook the Map,” Wynter credits Glissant for “placing a new focus on the question of being, that of the Antilles as well as that of the human in general.” Sylvia Wynter, “Beyond the Word of Man: Glissant and the New Discourse of the Antilles,” World Literature Today 63, no. 4 (1989): 642.

[19] J. Michael Dash, “Homme du Tout-Monde,” Caribbean Review of Books, 25 January 2011, http://caribbeanreviewofbooks.com/crb-archive/25-january-2011/homme-du-tout-monde/.

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