Translating African American Vernacular English: a comparative study on the relevance of source text context analysis

Traduction(s) :
Traduire le Vernaculaire Africain Américain : une étude comparative sur la pertinence de l’analyse du (con)texte source


The literary translation of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) in French has given rise to academic debates in France ever since the 1990s and the publication of the seventh issue of the journal TTR “Traduire les sociolectes,” in 1994 (volume 7, n°2). There is as yet no answer to the question of which strategy should be used to appropriately translate AAVE, but several lines of thought have been opened, exploring the realms of translation and retranslation, of equivalence, foreignization and domestication1 – the reasons for their use, their effects, their risks and their limits. This also echoes contemporary reflections, anchored in identity politics, about the representation of minority voices in literature, whether in translated texts or in source texts themselves. The point of this article will be to demonstrate how the comparative study of the use of the African American voice in two novels can inform translation issues.

The works chosen for this study are two novels by American female writers: Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), by Zora Neale Hurston, and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940), by Carson McCullers. The two novels were published at the same period, which will inform important considerations about the way they invoked African American voices and transcribed AAVE, and as a result, about their translation. On the African American literary scene these years were marked by a heated debate around the nature of the representation of African American identity in American literature. For her African American peers (such as Langston Hughes and Richard Wright), Zora Neale Hurston held a specific place in the debate. She was an ethnologist who studied African American and Caribbean folklores, including their vernaculars. As a result of this extensive research, she published an article in 1934 entitled “The Characteristics of Negro Expression” in Negro: An Anthology. Her first novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, provided a fictional representation of her observations and her own experience among the African American community. Indeed, she was a Black woman who grew up in Eatonville, Florida, the main location in which the action of the novel unfolds. Their Eyes is a celebration of the African American identity, its history, expression and culture (she was also the first Black female writer to include feminist concerns in her story, but these were not at the center of the literary debate mentioned above). For these reasons, Wright considered her literary position as that of a ”minstrel”, whose only goal was to please white readers with a celebratory tone which did not account for the injustices suffered by the community.2

On the other hand, Carson McCullers was a white, queer female writer, who also grew up in the South, in Columbus, Georgia. As most of her biographers, and even her own autobiography, indicate, she had a profound respect for and sustained friendship with the African American community. Her take on issues of race in her novels, especially in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, brought her the unwavering support of Richard Wright, who wrote in The New Republic in 1940:

To me the most impressive aspect of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is the astonishing humanity that enables a white writer, for the first time in Southern fiction, to handle Negro characters with as much ease and justice as those of her own race. This cannot be accounted for stylistically or politically; it seems to stem from an attitude toward life which enables Miss McCullers to rise above the pressures of her environment and embrace white and black humanity in one sweep of apprehension and tenderness.

Although he did not link his admiration with her style or her political stance, one can still wonder about the origin of the discrepancy between his opinion on McCullers’s and on Hurston’s works. As I intend to demonstrate below, the two novels depict the African American voice very differently, whether in terms of diegesis or in terms of style and linguistics, resulting in different socio-ideological stakes and different positions in the literary debate. Consequently, the reception and understanding of issues linked to the African American identity will be different for readers of each novel. Without proposing a personal take on the particular question of the depiction of the African American identity (and thus not following Wright’s position, but using it as a springboard for my argumentation), the aim of this article will be to explore how the difference in depiction can help translators position themselves when translating these voices: elements like grammatical markers, linguistic variations, and the richness of cultural references may inform the nature of the translation strategies that can be used in French to mimic the effect of the source text on the readers, while striving to convey a sense of the Black identity of the relevant voices.

Before going into further detail, it is necessary to delineate the definition of the notion of ”voice” as it will be used in this article, which will encompass all narrative devices that might be used to render a character’s expression, from direct devices like direct speech and dialogues, to more indirect ones, like free indirect speech or free direct speech.

I will first study the source texts’ uses of the African American voice comparatively. This will help envisage the novels’ representations through their differences, giving way to translational considerations on the nature of the devices which can be used in the translation process. I will then compare these reflections with the existing French translations and retranslations, their chronology (which might explain some of the choices made by the translators), their effects and their limits.

As stated above, Zora Neale Hurston worked as an ethnologist and thoroughly studied African American traditions, both cultural and linguistic. It will become clear that her novel features all the characteristics and ”rules” of AAVE listed in handbooks like Spoken Soul: the Story of Black English by John Russel Rickford.

The markers of AAVE in Their Eyes are numerous: phono-graphological markers (which signal pronunciation specificities, in italics in the excerpt below), grammatical and syntactic markers, but also an overall tendency for metaphors. The following extract features most of the linguistic markers specific to AAVE. Grammatical markers include double negation (”can’t she find no dress”), the negative ”ain’t” (”she ain’t even got no hairs”), the elision of BE copula and of auxiliaries (”what she doin’,” ”where he left her”), the absence of third-person singular present-tense s (”she don’t stay”) and the displacement of the use of pronouns (”dem overhalls”):

What she doin coming back here in dem overhalls? Can’t she find no dress to put on?— Where’s dat blue satin dress she left here in?—Where all dat money her husband took and died and left her?—What dat ole forty year ole ’oman doin’ wid her hair swingin’ down her back lak some young gal?—Where she left dat young lad of a boy she went off here wid?—Thought she was going to marry?—Where he left her?—What he done wid all her money?—Betcha he off wid some gal so young she ain’t even got no hairs—why she don’t stay in her class?— (HURSTON, 2013, 2, italics mine)

This passage is all the more interesting as it is the first apparition of AAVE in the text. Indeed, the narrative voice is established in the novel as using Standard English, although it features occurrences of AAVE in certain passages, like that first one. These lines are uttered not by a particular character but by the chorus of the people in town, signifying the harmonized use of AAVE among the African American community (and indeed, all dialogues are written in AAVE). Throughout the novel, the expression of the various African American characters, whether individuals or collective entities, remains similar, and the transcription of AAVE is very detailed and exhaustive. Another specificity of the novel is that it only features African American characters, except in one short episode when two white men briefly appear, toward the end of the novel. As a result, the African American identity in the novel is not immediately introduced in the context of a racial confrontation between Blacks and Whites in the South, as in McCullers’s text.

This last element might also explain the abundance of folklore and cultural elements in Their Eyes: the African American community is presented as autonomous and can thus experience its traditions freely. Cultural specificities range from the use of metaphors and similes, (”dey’s gone lak uh turkey through de corn” (HURSTON, 2013, 113), ”If you kin see de light at daybreak, you don’t keer if you die at dusk. It’s so many people never seen de light at all. Ah wuz fumblin’ round and God opened de door” (HURSTON, 2013, 159)) to the mention of particular practices, dances and songs, like the ring-shout (HURSTON, 2013, 156), and to the famous “lying sessions,” or to use H.L. Gates Jr.’s expression, “signifying,” which consists in playful exchanges aimed at mocking one’s interlocutor with a witty use of words.3

On the other hand, McCullers’s depiction of the African American voice in The Heart is more social, in that it includes episodes illustrating the struggles of the African American people within white Southern society. Her text features fewer detailed transcriptions of AAVE than Hurston’s, however it still plays with the socio-linguistic concept of variation: the range of situations in which the Black characters find themselves allows for this diversity and adaptability of language.

To begin with, the first appearance of a Black character in the novel is not identified by AAVE but by the thematic mention of the character’s skin color: ‘And that is the various reason why I’m a whole lot more fortunate than most colored girls,’ Portia said as she opened the door.” (MCCULLERS, 2000, 46) The only hint at a non-standard use of English is the elision of the plural in ”the various reason,” but beside that, Portia’s identity as a Black woman is revealed thematically rather than linguistically. This contrast with Hurston’s novel already sets the two texts apart.

In the rest of The Heart, the character of Portia uses AAVE but its transcription is less realistic, less exhaustive than in Hurston’s novel, as there are few markers, which are mainly grammatical and syntactic, as can be observed in the following sentence: ”'This here floor sure do feel good to my feets. You mind if I just walk around like this without putting back on them tight, hurting pumps?’” (MCCULLERS, 2000, 72, italics mine). Phono-graphological markers are only few and far between in McCullers’s text, and so are cultural references and traditions. Instead, the inclusion of Black characters in a White Southern town paves the way for striking episodes of social injustice (like unjustified arrests and scenes of physical and psychological abuse). But this confrontation between Blacks and Whites in the novel also allows the author to experiment with the African American characters’ expression of their identity, for example with the rejection of one’s own community traits. Portia’s father, Dr Copeland, adamantly refuses to use AAVE. The following dialogue shows the discrepancy between the father and his daughter’s expression (which is, again, introduced thematically in the narration) :

Doctor Copeland always spoke so carefully that each syllable seemed to be filtered through his sullen, heavy lips. ”No, I have not eaten.”
Portia opened a paper sack she had placed on the kitchen table. ”I
done brought a nice mess of collard greens and I thought maybe we have supper together. I done brought a piece of side meat, too. These here greens needs to be seasoned with that. You don’t care if the collards is just cooked in meat, do you?”
does not matter.”
”You still don’t eat
nair meat?”
For purely private reasons I am a vegetarian, but it does not matter if you wish to cook the collards with a piece of meat.” (MCCULLERS, 2000, 72, italics and bold letters mine)

The reason for Dr Copeland’s choice of not using AAVE (and indeed, using an over-formal English) is linked to his social ideas about the liberation of African American people, and is reinforced by the fact that he is a doctor and is educated. But his choice also implies a personal isolation, from his own family members who use AAVE (”‘[…] none of us ever cares to talk like you. Us talk like our own Mama and her peoples and their peoples before them.’” [MCCULLERS, 2000, 78]), but also from white characters who still see him as a Black man (ECHEVARRIA, 1991, 106). This depiction of socio-linguistic variations around AAVE will be crucial to account for in the translated text.

One can thus see the discrepancy between Hurston’s celebratory text, which invokes all aspects of the African American traditions, culture and language, in the context of an African American, almost closed-off community, and McCullers’s social text, which features sociolinguistic questions of self-expression in a minority group in the context of a normative, white social order. Although Wright likened Hurston’s work to a ”minstrel,” it is impossible to deny the fact that both novels do have an ideological agenda regarding the broader issues of the representation of African American identity in literature. Comparing the two texts brings these differences into starker light and helps us envisage the texts’ socio-ideological concerns more clearly.

Hurston’s novel offers a challenge to any reader discovering her dialogues written in AAVE.4 The source text presents a certain otherness on many levels: it is linguistic for readers of Standard English, and cultural for readers who did not grow up in an African American community or family, or even in the South of the United States for that matter. This confrontation with minority voices, though it can be described as celebratory in its style and presentation, can be seen as a political stance, a homage paid to a culture that had, until then, either been depicted in a parodic, stereotypical way, or not depicted at all. The aim of such a novel may be to grant literary legitimacy to AAVE and African American characters. McCullers’s novel also aims to offer legitimacy to this particular community and its voice, to give value to its place in society; however, her representation choices are more discrete in terms of linguistic markers and in terms of cultural references, which does not imply the same translation issues. The reader should be able to decipher the identity of the African American characters (in order to understand episodes of racial injustice) without being confronted with a destabilizing linguistic otherness as in the case of Hurston’s novel.

For this reason, a translation of Their Eyes Were Watching God should aim to provide a similar encounter with the other for the target reader. In the source text, the exhaustivity of references particular to this community indicates how detailed the depiction of the African American identity should be in the translation. Some occurrences may not pose translation challenges (the metaphors can be translated literally for instance) but they demonstrate the depth of the representation that is built in the narrative, and thus inform the way in which a translation of the text may be elaborated. The foreignness we are seeking could be derived from two strategies. Firstly, it may be possible to draw inspiration from Black French sociolects and creoles5 which would not be deemed standard in French literature (a decentralizing strategy6), though one should avoid essentialization in equivalence, hence the use of the word ”inspiration” to suggest linguistic creativity around sociolects. A second strategy may involve keeping elements of the source culture in the target text itself (which could be described as foreignization). One could also raise the question of the explicitation of cultural references like card games or songs (either explaining them in the text itself or in footnotes, or on the contrary, not explaining them and leaving the references for what they are). On the other hand, a translation of McCullers’s depiction of the African American voice could be constructed through linguistic hints. This would not put the reader in a position of complete discovery of a non-standard linguistic system, but it should not neutralize the cultural and linguistic identity of the represented community either. In addition, the variations in the novel should be accounted for in the translation, so that a contrast should appear between occurrences of precise uses of AAVE and occurrences of a lighter, more sober use of it, or even the rejection of it. At this point, one could infer that devices used to translate Hurston’s transcription of AAVE might be adapted in a lesser extent to translate African American voices from McCullers’s novel. Such considerations seem to lead to a collaborative approach to the translation of minority voices, where translators of different texts featuring similar issues could discuss their methods to gain a new perspective on their own translation, supported by strategies elaborated by others.

To this day, both of these novels have been translated twice, each by two different translators. The dynamics of these translations and retranslations is very interesting as it reflects many issues related to the novels’ reception in France: the chronology of these translations echoes different periods’ positions on translation issues. The first novel to have been translated was The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, in 1947, by Marie-Madeleine Fayet. It was translated shortly after its original publication, in the wake of white American novelists’ popularity (like Faulkner or Steinbeck) in France. Since there is no information available concerning Fayet’s strategies, we need to examine the translation choices and interpret them without knowing the translator’s positions. In Le Cœur est un chasseur solitaire, Fayet chose to illustrate the African American characters’ identity with the most direct and stereotypical attribute of Blackness in mid-20th century France, that is by transcribing an accent. Her choices to render a stereotypical ”Black” accent is clear in the following sentence, with the elision of the letter r, phono-graphologically transcribed by an apostrophe : ”Not’ Willie pas avoi’ aucun couteau et commencer à beugler et à cou’i’ autou’ de la salle” (FAYET, 1983, 176). In addition to this elision of the r sound, she uses syntactic calques (infinitives instead of conjugated verbs for instance) which can be observed in this last example; the combination of these two devices gives way to a caricatural representation of African American characters. This particular accent was well-known in France at the time, used in advertisements to sell ”exotic” products derived from the colonized territories, like the brand Banania. The devices used by Fayet were used more broadly in French society to mock people from colonized territories and their expression (in addition to inaccurately representing the reality of French creoles), thus giving an impression of stereotypical uneducated characters, which was not McCullers’s intent.

This translation was available for a long period in France and provided the only access to McCullers’s work, before the novel was retranslated by Frédérique Nathan in 1993. The second translator adopted a diverging approach when translating the novels’ African American voices: she opted for an almost complete neutralization of the characters’ Blackness, where Fayet magnified it to the point of becoming a domesticated caricature (via her referencing a stereotypical Black voice in French). The strategy Nathan used to signal the transcription of a non-standard form of English in the source text was to alter the register of the African American characters’ speech, for an informal tone in French. This cultural neutralization can be observed in the passage mentioned earlier, when Portia talks with her father. In the source text, the contrast between the two characters’ speech is easily noticeable and signifies interesting sociolinguistic concerns. With the neutralization at play in Nathan’s translation, this discrepancy is toned down:

– […] Ça t’est égal si les choux sont cuits dans la viande, hein ?
– Aucune importance.
– Tu manges toujours pas de viande ?
– Non. Pour des raisons strictement personnelles, je suis végétarien, mais cela ne me gêne pas que tu cuises les choux avec un morceau de viande.
(NATHAN, 2017, 87)

Portia’s expression is only marked by the elision of the negation adverb (ne) or by informal interjections such as “hein,” which do not signal a particular racial identity. Dr Copeland’s speech is still marked by an overly formal style, which allows some contrast between the two characters to arise, but it does not point toward a difference in representational issues among the African American community. Although this choice is less offensive than Fayet’s to a contemporary reader in terms of historical representation, the global effect of the presence of African American characters in the novel is mostly lost to the target reader.

Interestingly, while McCullers’s second translation was published in 1993, Hurston’s very first translation also dates back to 1993. Their Eyes Were Watching God was not introduced in the French literary landscape until then, which means that the translation concerns for this first translation were tackled with a certain awareness allowed by distance in time. Contrary to McCullers’s translators, Hurston’s first translator, Françoise Brodsky, reflected on her work openly as she later published an article about her translation process for this novel. Her article demonstrates her knowledge about certain issues linked to the translation of AAVE, a question which had already been raised at the time : “Pour ce qui est des dialogues, écrits phonétiquement, il était bien entendu exclus (sic) de se rabattre sur un dialecte français genre berrichon ou auvergnat, petit-nègre ou argot parisien.” (BRODSKY, 1996, 171) She expounded several rules for her translation, in order to render the linguistic and rhythmic effects of AAVE:

- Peu d'apostrophes, parce que le Black American est une langue traînante et que je ne voulais pas la raccourcir ou la hacher en français.

- Peu d'apostrophes donc, mais des mots agglutinés comme dans le français parlé (jsuis, nfait, jvois, pasque, jpensais) ou liés par un tiret, par exemple dans le cas de doubles consonnes (c-que, m-marier).

- Seules exceptions : à la fin de certains mots (impossib', nèg'), lorsqu'on courait le risque de changer la lecture du mot (qu'tu parce qutu ou qu-tu risquaient d'être lus cu-tu) ou pour rendre une différence d'accent. (BRODSKY, 1996, 174)

Her article shows that she knew what was at stake when translating such a politically charged sociolect, and reached a certain degree of creativity in her translation (she translated rhymed songs, and invented a new type of double word like “enduré-subi” (BRODSKY, 1999, 65), which she disseminated throughout the text to compensate for the redundant quality of AAVE grammar and syntax). However, as pointed out by Claudine Raynaud,7 her contractions still give way to a certain rapidity, and even fragmentation, in the reading experience, where AAVE flows more fluidly and slowly. In addition, she featured register changes which signal a rural type of speech (see the translation of the chorus passage mentioned at the beginning of this article : “où qu’elle est,” “pourquoi qu’elle,” “où qu’elle l’a laissé” (BRODSKY, 1999, 20-21)), even though she wanted to avoid using patois. With this first translation of Their Eyes, and especially with the translator’s article, the ground for an appropriate translation of AAVE was laid even if the outcome remained questionable. This awareness might have been made possible by its publication in an independent, politically committed publishing house (L’Aube), whose goal was to introduce Hurston’s work in France some 50 years after its first publication. On the contrary, McCullers’s second translation was published by Stock, whose reach is more widespread in France, hence the concern for larger accessibility.

The second translation of Their Eyes pushed the work of foreignization and decentralization even further. Published in 2018 by Zulma publishing house, it was produced by Beninese translator Sika Fakambi. Claudine Raynaud explained that in the retranslation of Hurston’s work, the translator strove to come up with a new kind of sociolect inspired by those she heard while growing up in French-speaking Africa. This can be seen as a decentralizing approach, which gives legitimacy to French African sociolects without choosing one as an essentializing equivalence. More than twenty years after its first utterance, Fakambi applied the hypothesis made by Bernard Vidal in 1994 to find potentialities in French-speaking African countries.8 She also used foreignizing devices, like mirroring grammatically redundant constructions (“en-dans,” “si tant,” “faire ça que,” “toi y’a pas personne qu’est ton paa”) and preserving certain words and references in the source language (like “gal,” “swinguent,” and even entire songs left untranslated in the body of the text). These strategies confront the target reader with a specific type of otherness, a challenging, destabilizing text, much to the effect of the source text itself, if not more.

One might infer that such a translation, aware of racial concerns and applying strategies to respect them, could only appear at a time when identity politics in literature and translation were gaining more and more visibility. Indeed, in the cases of the earlier translations studied in this article, sociolects, vernaculars and dialects still needed to reach literary legitimacy in French translation in order to be used consistently. The fear of choosing essentializing and domesticating equivalences, or even worse, caricatural transcriptions of accents, led to the use of opposite strategies, neutralizing the specific identity of African-American characters for a long time in French translation, and with it all its historical and political implications. Today, thanks to the translation of English-speaking African writers like Ghanan author Nii Ayikwei Parkes by Fakambi herself (for which she earned two translation prizes), French African linguistic markers are gaining legitimacy and visibility as valid translation tools and are paving the way for new possibilities for the translation of AAVE, and maybe the retranslation of such texts as McCullers’s. Indeed, one could find inspiration in works like that of Fakambi’s, and adapt certain strategies to the socio-ideological concerns of the source text. McCullers’s representation of AAVE is more subdued than Hurston’s, so it is obvious that a translation like Fakambi’s would be too detailed for McCullers’s text, but inspiration can still be drawn from certain constructions, and a collaborative work can even be envisaged in this novel which is not only about African American characters, but which also accounts for the reality of their struggles in American society.

To conclude, we are currently in a period of linguistic experimentation when it comes to translating minority voices into French, including the voice of African American characters. Comparing source texts’ socio-ideological stances in context can help us infer what needs to be rendered in the target text so as to recreate the effect of the source text on the target reader: is the text linguistically destabilizing, or does the language simply signal a specific identity for the purpose of displaying social concerns? How are the minority characters represented in context, in terms of cultural references and social relations? Are there variations depending on which character speaks? All these questions can help the translator decipher the purpose of the source text in order to produce an appropriate translation.

Note de fin

1 In The Translator’s Invisibility, Venuti explains the difference made by Schleiermacher between “a domesticating method, an ethnocentric reduction of the foreign text to target-language cultural values, bringing the author back home, and a foreignizing method, an ethnodeviant pressure on those values to register the linguistic and cultural difference of the foreign text, sending the reader abroad” (VENUTI, 1995, 20)

2 Henry Louis Gates Jr explains Wright’s position in those words: “Hurston’s ‘prose,’ he says, ‘is cloaked in the facile sensuality that has dogged Negro expression since the days of Phillis Wheatley.’ Wright then accuses Hurston of ‘voluntarily continu[ing] in the novel the tradition which was forced upon the Negro in the theater, that is, the minstrel technique that makes ”the white folks” laugh.’ Wright reveals what most bothers him about Hurston's novel: its ‘sensory sweep,’ which, he continues, ‘carries no theme, no message, no thought’” (GATES, 2013).

3 Gates associates the mythical figure of the Signifying Monkey with this practice: ”the Signifying Monkey, he who dwells at the margins of discourse, ever punning, ever troping, ever embodying the ambiguities of language” (GATES, 1988, 52).

4 Claudine Raynaud, in her presentation on Zora Neale Hurston’s translation during the conference “Dire et traduire la couleur noire : nommer l’identité africaine-américaine en anglais et en français” in Lille (2020), explained that one of her African American students, when first confronted with Hurston’s text, was quite disconcerted and needed some time to adapt to the exhaustive transcription of the sociolect.

5 Annick Chapdelaine and Gillian Lane Mercier offer the following definition of ”sociolect”: « On peut dès lors considérer le terme de sociolecte comme un terme générique qui recouvre ceux, plus spécifiques car fondés sur un ensemble plus restreint de paramètres, de vernaculaire, qui désigne le parler d'un groupe ethnique en marge de la langue officielle comme des instances de pouvoir, de patois, qui renvoie au seul parler paysan, de pidgin et de créole, basés surtout sur des critères de formation linguistique et d'appartenance ethno-géographique, de dialecte, enfin, où les déterminations géographiques impliquent en règle générale des déterminations socio-culturelles » (CHAPDELAINE, LANE MERCIER, 1994, 8)

6 Antoine Berman described the nature of translation as follows: ”lessence de la traduction est d’être ouverture, dialogue, métissage, décentrement. Elle est mise en rapport, ou elle nest rien (BERMAN, 1984, 16). When translating AAVE, decentralization can be reached with the use of African French sociolects, in contrast with Standard French (typically from the métropole).

7 Claudine Raynaud, « Dire et traduire la couleur noire : nommer l’identité africaine-américaine en anglais et en français », Lille, 2020 :

8 « Aussi, après avoir abandonné les rives de l'Hexagone, nous autoriserons-nous un élargissement du français et considérerons-nous les pays africains d'expression française comme le lieu d'une première potentialité - le substrat africain du VNA et des créoles justifiera dans ce cas le lien établi avec l’Afrique » (VIDAL, 1994, 192).

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Référence électronique

Camille LE GALL, « Translating African American Vernacular English: a comparative study on the relevance of source text context analysis », La main de Thôt [En ligne], 10 | 2022, mis en ligne le 20 mars 2023, consulté le 25 mai 2024. URL :


Camille LE GALL

Université Toulouse Jean-Jaurès

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