Gather ’round for a story: the Haitian folktale

First of all: apologies for the lack of posts in the last couple of weeks, it’s been a busy period for me. As it is, I’m still snowed under and so this post is just a relatively quick entry based on an interesting translation project I completed a while back.

The text was a French translation of a folktale from Haiti which was itself a translation from the Creole version: the official language of Haiti along with French and the chosen language of communication with its oral nature.

One of the greatest traditions in Haitian culture, and the one that is central to this translation, is that of storytelling which, in rural areas of Haiti, is an integral part of the cultural heritage of a country where families must create their own entertainment in the evenings.

This tale shows many of the typical qualities of a Haitian folk tale: there is a use of humour that often transfers surprisingly well to English, certain fantastical elements (accounts of magic, wild beasts and even encounters with God are common, and this tale is no exception with the inclusion of a tiger: a somewhat mythical beast in Haiti as no tigers have ever been known to inhabit the country), dramatic changes in narrative linked with the improvisation of a storyteller, and finally examples of the storyteller addressing his audience directly.

Many of these features will undoubtedly seem unusual to a reader unfamiliar with the underlying context but the insight that they offer into a completely different culture is fascinating.

In the translation, I tried to embrace this sense of strangeness by using unfamiliar syntactical formations that often mirror Creole word order and phraseology as well as using ideas from Appiah’s article ‘Thick Translation’ (well worth a read!), which suggests using annotations and glosses to locate the text in a rich cultural and linguistic context. Well, enough already, here it is: the story of the riddle solver and the child. Enjoy!

The Riddle Solver and the Child.

There was once a man who had three sacks of money. He walked, posing riddles, searching for somebody capable of posing him a riddle that he couldn’t solve and to whom he would hand over the money. He went everywhere.

One day he heard about a woman who had a child very good at posing riddles; that is why the child saw a man approaching who had three bags on his back. Upon arriving, the man said hello to the child; the child replied and the man immediately asked,

“My child, can you get me a little ‘kras’[1] of water?”

“A little ‘kras’ of water, my uncle[2]?”

“Yes, my child.”

When he said yes, the child went into the house. There were two buckets full of water; he decanted all of the water in the containers and, when he had finished, he took the ‘kras’ and carried it to the man.

“Oh! My child! I asked you for a little ‘drop’ of water and that is ‘kras’ that you bring me isn’t it?”

“No, my uncle, you didn’t ask me for water, you asked me for some ‘kras’ of water, I gave you some ‘kras’ of water.”

“Well, ok! I asked you for a little bit of water.”

“Ok. Now you’ve asked me for water my uncle.”

The child left. He took another glass and gave him good water. When the man finished drinking, he said,

“My child, let me tell you what brings me here. I am travelling the world (at this point he puts the bags on the ground and shows them to the child). These bags, that you see, are full of money. This money could be yours, as, if I find somebody capable of posing me some riddles that I cannot solve, I will give him the money.”

The child then said to him,

“My uncle, if you have come seeking riddles, mama isn’t here, papa isn’t here, but I can pose you some.”

The man agreed and added,

“My child, let’s start. So, where is your mother?”

“Mama? My uncle! Mama has gone to seek what she didn’t sow.”

The man remained quiet. Then he said,

“Ok! And your father?”

“Papa left before day break. He has gone to dig a hole, to fill a hole, but the hole is still gaping.”

“Ok! Did I not see that you have a big brother too? Where has he gone?”

“Oh, this morning, papa sent my brother out hunting. All the game that he finds, he must leave; and all the game that he doesn’t find, he must bring back.”

They remained still.

The man didn’t know how to reply to the child. He said,

“Well, my child, I can’t see a single response to give you, I’m going to give you the bags of money.”

The child agreed. The man took the three bags of money and gave them to the child, who said to him,

“You can sit down; when I come back, I’ll tell you the answers.”

The child took the money. The man saw him go back into the bedroom (the child had the time to go further than Fanise’s house, in the distance over there, to hide his money). A moment passed before he came back through the door by which he had left. Upon his return, he sat down and said,

“Uncle, you don’t know the answers; let me give them to you.

You asked me where mama was? I told you that mama had gone to fetch what she didn’t sow! You have to know that mama is a midwife, you understand? When someone has their first labour pains, they send for mama, but mama is never there when the people make a child.”

The man took a paper from his pocket, noted the riddle and then said,

“And your father?”

“Papa? This morning, since papa owed somebody money, he went to borrow some money from another person to be able to pay it back; but in actual fact, papa is still in debt, no matter what he does.”

“Ah! It’s true! Good, and your brother?”

“My Brother? My brother had lots of jiggers[3] on his feet. Therefore, papa sent him to the river to wash his feet and remove all of the jiggers that he found. But all the jiggers that he didn’t see, he would bring back, and all of those that he saw, he would leave in the water.”

“Well. My child, you are very skilled.”

After a pause, he added,

“My child, it’s finished, I’ve exhausted the subject. I’ll go.”

The child let him leave.

But what do you think he was doing? He went to look for a tiger and said to himself,

“When the child sees the tiger, he will be afraid and he will give my money back to me.”

But the child’s father had quite a long piece of chain in the house. The child, meanwhile, was sitting beside the fire that was burning near to the house[4].

When the child looked up, he saw the man arriving with an enormous tiger[5] (a beast so large that he could eat the child in one bite). The child didn’t move, he looked and said,

“Ah! Uncle! Papa will be angry with you, you know.”

Then he pretended to think for a second and added,

“Papa will have words with you, for I think it’s about ten months since he gave you money to bring him a beast…” (The tiger, who was approaching at top speed, stopped).

The child added,

“Of course, I know that Papa won’t take this little[6] tiger that you have brought him.” (The tiger stays still).

The child continued,

“Anyway, papa is a big person, me, I’m just a child. Also, I don’t know if, when he arrives, he will be happy or annoyed. So I’ll give you the bit of chain and you will attach the tiger.”

When the tiger saw the child approach with the bit of chain, he started to run.

The man stayed still. When the child realised that the man had remained motionless, he said to him,

“Oh! Uncle! Look! Now you have let the tiger take to the road, where will you go to?”

“Oh my stars!”

The man took to his heels. When the tiger saw the man running behind him, he believed that it was in order to catch him and he ran even faster.

The man quickened his pace as well. They ran, one chasing the other.

And that is how the tiger, followed by the man, fell into a chasm where they were both killed.

The child, meanwhile, was rich. When his father and mother came back, he said to them,

“Mama! Papa! We are rich.”

The father, surprised, asked him how and the child told him,

“A man came here with three bags of money. He came to ask me for stories, I told him some and I won his money. I’ll take you to the money.”

When the parents arrived to the place he had hidden the money, they stood speechless.


[1] In rural areas, water from ponds and rivers is put to settle with the cacti when it is too muddy. A little bit of mud is always left at the bottom of the container, called ‘kras’ in Creole. As ‘kras’ can also mean ‘a small amount’, you never ask for a ‘kras of water’ but rather a ‘drop of water’. The word ‘kras’ is reserved solely to refer to food, as it can also mean a few “crumbs”, just enough to dirty a plate.

[2] In rural areas, the child calls all men ‘uncle’ and all women ‘mother’. Children themselves are always named ‘pitit’, meaning ‘child’.

[3] ‘Jiggers’ is the nickname given to ‘chigoe fleas’. These are a type of parasite causing disease in tropical areas by burrowing into people’s feet when walking barefoot and they must be removed daily.

[4] In rural areas, especially in mountainous regions where it is quite cool, a fire permanently burns close to the house and the children warm themselves by it.

[5] There are no tigers in Haiti. In fact, ‘tiger’ is a generic term used in Haiti meaning a wild, ferocious animal of the cat family.

[6] The term ‘little’ employed here is very important. To deny the appearance of a being, whatever it may be, is to demonstrate a transcendental strength.

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