November 08, 2021

Lynn Palermo, associate professor of French studies, was shortlisted for the 2021 National Translation Award in prose for her translation of the novel Humus (University of Virginia Press, 2020).

Lynn Palermo, associate professor of French studies Lynn Palermo, associate professor of French studies“Engaging in translation forces you to walk in the shoes of others, understand their worldview and articulate their experience through their eyes,” Palermo said.

Humus is a fictionalized account of the true story of 14 African women who in 1774 escaped the hold of a slave ship by leaping into shark-infested waters rather than face a lifetime of enslavement. Half of them drowned or were eaten by sharks. From this tragic incident, French author Fabienne Kanor composed a powerful novel in which each woman tells her own story. Their intertwined narratives reveal the brutalizing effects of slavery, not only on the victim but also on the oppressor.

“When I first read Humus, I was seized by the novel. I was fascinated by the complex portrayals of the main characters at the center of the novel – 18th century African women who come from various locations, cultural groups, belief systems and positions in their societies,” Palermo said. “Their lives intersect only because they have been torn from their own lives and subjected to the violent and traumatic abuse of capture so that they can be sold into slavery. Yet, they somehow maintain their sense of self throughout.”

The National Translation Award, which is administered by the American Literary Translators Association, is the only national award for translated fiction, poetry and literary nonfiction that includes a rigorous examination of both the source text and its relation to the finished English work.

“I think the value of reading literature in translation is that you connect on a deeply human level with people around the world whose lives and experiences are very different from your own. I think we need to hear more stories from around the world to understand the world and feel a part of it,” Palermo said. “The United States is such a massive, diverse country that we tend not to realize to what extent we cut ourselves off from the rest of the world because it seems like we have a world full of perspectives right here and conveniently in English. To translate is to see a bit of the world through others’ eyes.”