Conveying Culture, Emotion, and Humor in Haitian Creole Translation

A few years ago, I volunteered on a small translation project for a documentary film (from Haitian-Creole to English). The film told the story of a small Haitian town in which the people were trying to bring water from a nearby spring. My work consisted in translating about 400 words of a local pastor’s sermon. The pastor was explaining how access to clear, potable water would change the community’s life.

The words were touching and filled with raw emotions. One could tell that he was speaking from the heart. I felt as though I would need to translate more than words or ideas: I actually had to convey his emotions. I also had to keep my own emotions in check, as this documentary was filmed shortly before the earthquake (on January 12, 2010, a 7.2 earthquake devastated Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital) and I couldn’t help but wonder how the lives of the people featured in the film were affected.

The simple fact that this documentary could be a way for these people’s lives to get better gave me the strength and determination to do the very best job I could with high-quality Haitian-Creole translation. In fact, if translated properly, this film would depict the lives and stories of people whom otherwise wouldn’t have a voice.

From a linguistic point of view, I had to deal with metaphors that don’t really have equivalents in other languages. Also, I found it difficult to describe typical Haitian hardship in English, as this reality could be so foreign for English speakers that they may not grasp all its nuances. The last, but certainly not the least, of my problems was the fact that part of that sermon was very funny.

In typical Haitian fashion, hardship is approached with humor, and laughter is not an oddity when we’re going through an ordeal. While it is culturally acceptable for Haitians to laugh, sing and dance in the midst of catastrophe, I had to think twice about the more appropriate way to convey the pastor’s message without English speakers getting the wrong idea or trivializing it. In fact, I had to make it clear to anyone who is not familiar with the Haitian culture that the message was important.

I still think about the people in the film and wonder whether their project was successful. It brings me joy to think that by translating those 400 words, I was able to make a difference in their lives.

About Yves-Marie Exume

Yves-Marie is a native Haitian Creole translator living in Quebec, Canada. She has a degree in social sciences and a background in Haitian Law and Psychology. She has worked for an NGO in Haiti and for government in Canada.Translates between English, French, and Haitian Creoele.