‘I loved working with the textures and rhythms of David Diop’s language.’
On being longlisted for the 2021 International Booker Prize, author David Diop and translator Anna Moschovakis spoke to us about At Night All Blood is Black.
David, what has it been like to be longlisted?
My editor Daniel Seton let me know the news of the longlisting. It’s an honour for me to see At Night All Blood is Black alongside 12 other novels of such excellent quality, from all over the world. This distinction will give the opportunity for readers to discover my novel who might never have encountered it otherwise.
How would you summarise At Night All Blood is Black in one sentence?
At Night All Blood is Black is the story of the friendship of two young African peasants, drawn into an industrial war so violent that it disorients them, dislocates them from their own identities and forces them to set off on a search for their lost humanity.
How important do you think it is to tell more diverse stories about World War I, away from the usual narratives?
In writing At Night All Blood is Black I wanted to allow the reader to inhabit the mind of a young African man, to give them unfiltered access to his experience of war. The choice of a stream-of-consciousness narrative allowed me to amplify the internal voice of this young man who, like all his African brothers-in-arms during the French colonial period, had no way of making himself heard.
Critics have commented on the relationship between the narrator and the oral storytelling tradition. Was that what you had in mind?
I didn’t want Alfa Ndiaye, the main character of my novel, to be a French speaker. I translated his thoughts into French, but I also wanted the reader to understand, thanks to the rhythm of the language I used, that Alfa was thinking in Wolof, a language spoken in Senegal. Like every language, Wolof has its own rhythm, its own unique patterns of speech, which I replicated in French through the repetition of certain phrases and constructions. The great challenge for my translator Anna Moschovakis, and her great success, was to reproduce this same rhythm in the English language, so that the reader would understand that the text is haunted by an African voice.
Anna, what has it been like to be longlisted?
I’m just so glad that people are reading and appreciating this book, and I hope that being longlisted will help it find more readers. Speaking as a translator – a role that, for me, feels always like being a beginner – it was thrilling and a bit overwhelming to see my name on a list that includes people I’ve long admired.
What did you enjoy about translating At Night All Blood is Black?
First, I loved working with the textures and rhythms of David Diop’s language. But one of the most enjoyable things about translating this book was also one of the most challenging, and that was trying to get my head around the intricate status of language in the narration. The novel is written in first person, in French, but the narrator, Alfa, is a Wolof speaker who does not know French. The text we are reading is the text of his thinking, as he is forced by circumstances to go through a revolution in his relationship to self and world. It’s a kind of thinking that doesn’t necessarily happen in language at all, or not exclusively, so the narration already lives somewhere between language and understanding – which might also be the space of translation. There is a gorgeously stark passage in the book that explicitly addresses the failures of translation, which I found strangely comforting, and which allowed me to enjoy the work with less anxiety.
How did you recreate Alfa’s distinctive voice?
David’s solution to the problem of trying to transmit Alfa’s thoughts in a language the character doesn’t use was to write in a French that, through its rhythms and patterns, conveyed something of Wolof – a French inhabited by Wolof. This inhabitation, or haunting, fits the novel’s attention to suppressed histories of colonial violence, ruptured bonds, and the troubling of boundaries between self and other, before and after, enemy and kin. While working with the materiality of the language — its rhythms and patterns, its repetitions, its velocity, its circumscribed vocabulary – I was also always aware that I was translating a translation (my translation of the author’s translation of the character’s thoughts). As a non-Wolof speaker, I am perhaps similarly distant from Alfa’s thinking language as are other non-Wolof speaking readers, a distance David helped me to think of as useful. The trick of the novel is to convey the destabilising effects of the ghost-language as it both admits and resists mediation by the colonial languages of French and, now, English.
Some of the action of the book is horrific – how did you find dealing with the subject matter?
The deep pleasure I found in the novel’s language – and the activated, anxious pleasure I felt working through the translation challenges – were constant and sustained, and those pleasures were at odds with the multiple horrors of the story. I would find myself excitedly talking about the book with friends, and then in hearing my own descriptions I’d experience a flood of the emotion I’d had to temporarily suppress to do the work. In countless self-evident ways Alfa’s experiences are distant from my own, but elements of his psychic torment as he tries to think himself out of impossible conditions felt familiar. So some of the terror I was able to experience intimately, while much of it I could feel only at an angle – a cruel and uncomfortable angle of colonial histories, racism, gender difference, and language dominance. I think this is one of the most remarkable accomplishments of the novel: how it brings each reader’s position/s up against different elements of Alfa’s narration, creating a unique, in some cases possibly necessary, horror.