“I Am a Translation”: Writing the Global Caribbean Language

Words by Dorothy Potter Snyder 

[T]he Word becomes again a god and walks amongs us; look, here are his rags, here is his crutch and his satchel of dreams; here is his hoe and his rude implements on this ground on this broken ground . . . something torn and new. — Kamau Brathwaite[1]

The theme of the 36th Annual Key West Literary Seminar (January 11-14) was Writers of the Caribbean, and it featured twenty-two authors talking with each other and seminar attendees about their work in four intense days of panels and themed presentations. This was the first time in the Seminar’s history that it focused on a specific geographical region, and concerns about the current social, political and weather climates lent a special urgency to the conversations between writers representing eleven of the twenty-eight Caribbean nations. Language and vernacular was a major theme, and one about which the writers from former British colonies were particularly vocal.

It is thankfully no longer a question, as it was during the early years of the Caribbean Arts Movement in the late 60s when Barbadian writer Kamau Brathwaite was mesmerizing students at the University of Nairobi with his orature, that authentic Caribbean voices in print constitute “real” literature. The contemporary Caribbean writers at the KWLS, both those writing from the diaspora and those with one or both feet in their nation of origin, are representing their cultures with prize-winning work in English, French, Spanish, creole, patois and all the nuanced levels of vernacular in between. These writers refuse to be categorized or marginalized, and they represent a virtuoso multilingualism and multiculturalism that is not only representative of the Caribbean itself, but is also a preview of a dynamic, new global literature.

The writers from predominantly anglophone islands spoke extensively about the callaloo of Caribbean languages and vernaculars that are blending in a contemporary archipelagic literature in which the “King’s English” is no longer king, and island-facing idioms and hybrids are being foregrounded in published works. They also emphasized that the region and its literature has always been characterized by hybridity, and they discussed the ways in which they appropriate both from each other and from the classical, continent-facing literary canon, as well as how they approach the delicate process of crafting Caribbean vernacular onto the page for the general reading public. Antiguan novelist Jamaica Kincaid’s keynote John Hersey Memorial Address, You Appropriate Me, I’ll Appropriate You, called for more artistic freedom in employing transcultural elements in literature. Novelist and Haiti scholar Madison Smartt Bell summed up the transnational influence of the Caribbean, stating that the archipelago’s environmental challenges and cultural hybridity reflect a global future, and that the boundaries of the Caribbean influence “are the limitless edges of the outward spiral.”

In a panel entitled Jamaican Letters: Past, Present and Future, Jamaican writers, Marlon James and Nicole Dennis-Benn shared their thoughts about translation, compromise, the Jamaican vernacular, and the ongoing negotiation in their lives and work between textbook English and the many points along the dialect spectrum.

Authors (left to right) Kei Miller, Nicole Dennis-Benn and Marlon James discuss “Jamaican Letters: Past, Present and Future”. (Photo: Nick Doll)

James, author of the novel A Short History of Seven Killings, said that a certain “linguistic schizophrenia” results from crossing social class lines: he recalled being a student at the elite Wolmer’s Boys’ School in Kingston, “straddling two Jamaicas” and becoming a code-switching expert. By contrast, Dennis-Benn, author of the novel Here Comes the Sun and a writer from a working-class Kingston family, lamented losing her standard English-patois bilinguality during her years at the prestigious St. Andrew School for Girls, where she felt pressured to “perform” a less inflected language. Dennis-Benn said she is reclaiming this part of her identity, in part by writing characters into her novels who display purposeful vernacular nuances: “As a writer now, I’m trying to unpack it . . . what happened then was so much internalized hate.” Miller, author of Augustown, spoke about this “post-Creole continuum spectrum”, the nuanced dialect shifts that occur between social contexts, or even within a single sentence. The panel agreed that the sociolinguistic hierarchies that are most fiercely defended by middle-class Jamaicans become useless in the realm of literature, especially in the novel, where the poetry of the written word and character development demands a greater and more polyphonic authenticity.

Use of vernacular is not merely an anthropological or linguistic venture; it is also a direct response to the overall colonial cultural influence. This idea was central to a discussion between Virgin Islander Tiphanie Yanique and Trinbagonian-Bahamian-American Robert Antoni who joined Kei Miller to respond to the question, “What is the New Global Caribbean Literature?” Both Yanique and Antoni use vernacular extensively in their work. “Small islands,” said Antoni, the author of As Flies to Whatless Boys, “require many voices to speak because they are hugely complex.” He said that for a long time, vernacular was seen as a secondary, even comic, expression in literature, but that it is now “leaking out of quotation marks” and subverting the colonizing languages and literatures. Yanique’s novel, Land of Love and Drowning, subverts the entire text of American author Herman Wouk’s Don’t Stop the Carnival by foregrounding Wouk’s secondary islander characters and reimagining the story from their perspective and in their words. Antoni says he “lives for” writing characters that give voice to the multiglossic West Indian vernacular, adding that his process involves not only documenting authentic speech convincingly, but also inventing and even fabricating expressions and grammars that can offer meaning to readers who have never traveled to Trinidad.

Robert Antoni shares with the audience a excerpt reading from novel-in-progress, Cut Guavas. (Photo: Nick Doll)

Even the title of his novel, As Flies to Whatless Boys, simultaneously appropriates and evolves Shakespeare’s language for Antoni’s own narrative purposes. Antoni, after reading from his short story Hindsight and his novel-in-progress Cut Guavas, said that Caribbean people are individuals of “grand gestures” in movement, color, and sound and, in accordance with that idea, he proposed the development of ever more radically hybrid, multi-genre, multi-linguistic and multimedia literary forms. He said that the internet will be increasingly embraced by Caribbean writers as a new way to tell and receive stories, because Caribbean people “inhabit multiple spaces: Brooklyn is a Trinidadian nation, London is a Jamaican nation.”

Not all Caribbean writers express themselves in vernacular, but their work nevertheless reflects a personal process of claiming the hybrid identity. New York City-born Antiguan-American poet, critic, and translator Rowan Ricardo Phillips spoke about how his Caribbean identity is viewed through the continental lens: “I somehow ended up with what linguists have told me is a completely neutral American accent, so perfect in its flatness that it can’t be taught. This, coupled with my name, leads people to not have any freaking idea where I’m from.”

Poet Rowan Ricardo Phillips gives a moving reading from Emily Wilson’s translation of Homer’s Odyssey in the opening of his talk, “I Who Have No Weapon But Poetry”. (Photo: Nick Doll)

The commodification of the Caribbean as a tourist destination, referred to often at the Seminar as “the Paradise Paradox”, forces it into an unnatural stasis in linguistic as well as other ways, he said, ultimately obscuring the socio-cultural nuances of the region for the outside observer. Phillips took the title of his talk, I Who Have No Weapon But Poetry, from the poem The Schooner Flight by recently-deceased St. Lucian Nobel Prizewinner Derek Walcott, whose life and achievements were highlighted at the Seminar. Honoring the Homeric tradition embodied in Walcott’s work, Phillips spoke about making sense of a hybrid identity, both in life and on the page: “I am a translation in a lot of ways that are funny and tragic and weird. I … thought about the way in which I’ve spent my life appropriating, because that’s what artists do, that’s what art really is.” Phillips, whose poetry emerges from the multifarious jam of voices in his head—his Antiguan parents, the Homeric tradition, Coltrane, the sights and sounds of New York City—does not write in Caribbean vernacular, but his poetry, in its references, themes and syllabic musicality, is nevertheless a genuine reflection of the Antiguan diaspora and the hybrid Caribbean cultural experience.

Caribbean authors largely depend on continental editors, publishers and critics to believe in and promote their work, and their relationship with these literary gatekeepers is sometimes fraught with linguistic misunderstanding. In one of his novels, Miller wrote that his characters were “going to see the flim show, and my editor thought ‘he just clearly made a mistake, it must be film.’ I was so upset!” Conversely, an editor may offer welcome support and understanding: James reported that his non-Caribbean editor had to “school” him when he asked if he should add a glossary to one of his novels that employed heavy vernacular and “… he said, ‘no, if you put a glossary you’re joining in the exoticization of your own voice.’” But James also has to be vigilant, he said, “because they’ll come across a grammatical error and say, oh, well that must be Jamaican. No! It’s a grammatical error!”

Before I left Key West, I stopped at Sandy’s, a Cuban-style café, to have breakfast, and I heard another customer order a “bucci”, something that sounded to me like an Italian-style coffee. “We only have it here in Key West!” said the man proudly. It turned out it was a “buche” (BOO-chay), standard Spanish for “shot” (as in “a shot of whiskey”), and so my last meal on the island involved yet another hybrid linguistic experience, another word both “torn and new”.

An employee of Key West’s Cuban café Sandy’s proudly wears Caribbean vernacular in transition, the “buchi”, on his work t-shirt. (Photo: Dorothy Potter Snyder)

That’s culture, and culture is a more dynamic, generative, and, in many ways, wiser force than politics or economics. When we imagine the landscape and the language as a cultural One, rather than a geographical or linguistic terrain to be dominated or categorized into parts, we can dive down to a more useful reality, one that guides us through the apparent gaps between past and present, right and left, powerful and historically oppressed, the individual and the wider human family. 

In this contemporary era of mass migration, the writers of the multiglossic, diverse Caribbean are uniquely positioned to reflect the life of the archipelago and its diaspora, and also to teach the non-Caribbean world a lesson about the beauty and creative potential of cultural hybridity.


[1] Brathwaite, Kamau. The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy. Oxford University Press, 1981. Paraphrase suggested by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o in his book, Something Torn and New: An African Renaissance. Basic Civitas Books, 2009.


To learn more about the Key West Literary Seminar: Writers of the Caribbean, please see the interview with Arlo Haskell, the Seminar’s Executive Director. 

Dorothy Potter Snyder is a journalist, short story writer and literary translator who specializes in Caribbean and Central American women’s fiction. Her work has appeared in The Sewanee Review, Surreal Poetics, and Public Seminar. She is currently translating a collection of short stories, “Uno no sabe y otras sabidurías” by award-wining Mexican writer, Mónica Lavín.