“Slave Old Man” in English, English in “Slave Old Man”

Linda Coverdale’s English translation of the 1997 novel L’esclave vieil homme et ...

Linda Coverdale’s English translation of the 1997 novel L’esclave vieil homme et le molosse makes Patrick Chamoiseau’s story about slave flight in Martinique accessible to English readers for the first time. Yet even as the story takes on a new form in a language ostensibly foreign to the French Caribbean, Coverdale’s translation reminds us that English is not a neutral vehicle, but one as marked by histories of colonization and enslavement as French.

When I first read L’esclave vieil homme et le molosse, it was as a study abroad student at the Université des Antilles in Martinique. I was taking a Caribbean literature course taught by Chantal Maignan, a professor who went on to become the president of the Martinican Regionalist Party and an elected representative, and whom one of my classmates at the time described as “a force of nature.” She was indeed, fiercely passionate about the texts she assigned and constantly pushing students to read deeply.

Yet when we turned to Chamoiseau’s novel, about an old enslaved man in Martinique who one day flees the plantation, the force that propelled the discussion seemed to come from elsewhere, from the words themselves. The author, winner of the Prix Goncourt in 1992 for Texaco, has been widely celebrated for his vivid, innovative prose that both expresses the quotidian realities of ordinary Martinicans and imparts important lessons about the legacy of colonialism on the island.

Our discussion of the novel was in French, as all formal, professional interactions are in that overseas department of France. Creole, outside of very informal exchanges or without the tacit consent of those in conversation, is taboo in Martinique. Yet this French was like none I had heard before. As we dove into our usual close reading, Maignan invited the class to come at words like “voltige” (acrobatics) through their Creole equivalents. She asked us to read phrases like “au pipiri chantant” for what they are, Creole expressions in what is ostensibly a French-language text.

As a non-Martinican, I witnessed this conversation as an outsider, unable to participate in any substantive way. I struggled to make sense of the discussion, to disentangle the French I had learned formally in grammar classes from the Creole I was picking up informally. The languages floated around the room with apparent ease, coexisting, colliding, pulling apart. I came away dazed and disoriented.

Linda Coverdale’s English translation, Slave Old Man, bridges that insider/outsider gap I encountered, rendering the creolized text legible to the English reader. This legibility comes from translation choices that mirror the process of creolization. Coverdale attaches English words and definitions to French-Creole words that have no ready equivalent in English, creating another layer of hybridization in the work.

In “Slave Old Man,” English as an added layer to Creole and French bears the weight of the long history of Anglo-American presence on Martinique.

The results of this new hybridization can sometimes be unwieldy: “au pipiri chantant” is rendered as “comme pipiri chantant: like the grey kingbird singing at daybreak.” At other times, it yields compound words like “calalou-gumbo.” Such choices provide hints that Slave Old Man’s imagined reader is decidedly North American, since the English-speaking Caribbean provides “callaloo” as a ready translation of “calalou,” a dish quite different from gumbo.

Throughout the text, English words add a new layer to the playfully irreverent treatment of language for which Chamoiseau is so well known. For example, when the master finds out that the slave old man has run away, he “abruptly realizes that for a long time already, the mastiff has been howling, and that this howling, all by itself défolmante—is dis-in-te-gra-ting—the substance of his world.” “Défolmante” in the original is already a play on the French word for deforming. Read aloud, it also sounds like “défoulment,” wild, unbridled physical release, much like the “décharge,” the electric shock that the narrator identifies as the impulse behind the old man’s flight. All of these words bear the prefix “de-” to signal the negation of the plantation’s order that happens when the slave man escapes. Coverdale’s addition of dis-in-te-gra-ting mimics the collapse of both language and the structure of the plantation. “The slave old man—most docile among the docile—has gone marooning,” and because his act is so uncharacteristic, it disrupts the power structure.

In creating these hybrid words and expressions, Coverdale not only moves the original from French into English, she also moves the English language—with all its baggage and the weight of its history—into the original text. Slave Old Man transforms Chamoiseau’s novel from one that grapples with the relationship between French and Creole into one that interweaves these two languages with a third, English, that also has a long history in Martinique.

Slave Old Man is about a docile old slave who suddenly flees his master’s sugarcane plantation. He runs into the forest, eats dirt, nearly drowns in a watery ravine, and emerges to continue running. With his master and his master’s monstrous mastiff in hot pursuit, the old man redefines his relationship to the space of the island.1 As he runs deeper and deeper into the woods, the narrative takes on the quality of a journey of self-discovery. In the first pages of the story he appears to be a passive figure, entirely accepting of his role as a cog in the bloody machinery of sugar production on the plantation. Once he begins running, he rejects that role and redefines his relationship to nature (land and water). His environment becomes adversary and ally, source of knowledge and life, site of trauma and death. Through his flight, he is transformed from “the slave old man” to “the man.”

“In this novel, language not only tells the story, it is the story,” Coverdale states in her translator’s note. What is that story? Chamoiseau’s response comes in the early pages: “A history greatly furrowed by variant stories, in songs in the Creole tongue, wordplay in the French tongue. Only multiplying memories could follow such a tanglement.” For Chamoiseau, the story is about the entanglement of Creole and French. It acknowledges one language as the source of a myth of origin and irreverently regards the other as a site for wordplay. The story begins in slavery with the old man’s flight and extends beyond it to the author’s reflections on what it means to write about that history today.

But again, if L’esclave vieil homme et le molosse for Chamoiseau is about Creole and French, then the story of the English language in Slave Old Man is the story of English in Martinique. The language as an added layer to Creole and French bears the weight of the long history of Anglo-American presence on the island, starting with England as an occupying power from 1762 to 1763 and again from 1809 to 1814.2

The historical baggage of the English language in Martinique also includes the specter of occupation by the United States during World War II.3 While the United States never occupied Martinique in the way that it did the neighboring French-speaking island Haiti, a sector of the Martinican population saw America’s growing interest in the island as the site for a potential military base as a welcome counterweight to French colonial power.


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These historical moments are never explicitly mentioned in the novel. England’s occupation would find no place in this story told on the scale of the three individual characters rather than on the scale of imperial wars. America’s interests are far more recent and do not fall within the story’s timeline. Yet a reader aware of these moments cannot help but wonder how the terms on which the English language has been historically present in Martinique today shape the added layer of linguistic creolization in the translation. This history presents an oft-disavowed break in the national myths of assimilation and integration that define Martinique as uniquely French.

When I left Chantal Maignan’s class, I decided that I was done with Chamoiseau’s novel. At the end of my study abroad in Martinique, I carefully packed all my books but left L’esclave vieil homme et le molosse behind. It’s too difficult to understand, I thought. To my surprise, I returned to it last year, assigning it in my course on slave flight in French Caribbean literature because it was one of the few novels that dramatized escape so vividly.

These days I tell my students that this is the one text in the course they will read where almost nothing happens. “An old enslaved man escapes from the plantation and runs into the forest. He spends the next hundred pages running. The end.” And so, knowing that they cannot rely on plot, students sit with the language in much the same way that Coverdale calls us to do with her translation. We sit in the language of bondage, flight, monstrosity, and rebirth. We sit with the history of slavery and dwell on the myriad languages that constitute and express that history today.



This article was commissioned by Stephen Twilleyicon

  1. Although Coverdale’s translation features many additions, there are also omissions. The most significant is the absence of the “molosse,” the mastiff, from the English title and the cover art. The translator’s note does not discuss this omission, which focuses the story far more on the old man himself as a singular protagonist, rather than on the old man and the mastiff as locked in a deadly struggle through their flight.
  2. See Rebecca Hartkopf Schloss’s study Sweet Liberty: The Final Days of Slavery in Martinique (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009) for an analysis of the 1809 British occupation of Martinique.
  3. For a detailed account of political relations between the United States and the French Caribbean, see Kristen Stromberg Childers, Seeking Imperialism’s Embrace: National Identity, Decolonization, and Assimilation in the French Caribbean (Oxford University Press, 2016).
Featured image: The Battle of Martinique between British and French fleets in 1779, in a detail of a contemporary painting by Auguste-Louis de Rossel de Cercy (1736–1804). Wikimedia Commons