Johnny Temple Interviews Adam Mansbach and Kellie Magnus
To celebrate the release of Go de Rass to Sleep, the new Jamaican patois translation of the bestselling Go the F*** to Sleep, Johnny Temple spoke with author Adam Mansbach and translator Kellie Magnus about translation, Jamaican culture, censorship, and more. Read the full interview below.
Johnny Temple: Where in the world did the idea come from to “translate” the book Go the Fuck to Sleep from standard English to Jamaican patois?
Adam Mansbach: The idea, if memory serves, came from sitting around bullshitting with you, Johnny. As Go the Fuck to Sleep became a phenomenon and dozens of foreign translations began to be published, we started talking about what languages we’d really like to see the book in. For us, most compelling were Yiddish (self-explanatory) and Jamaican patois.
As neighbors in Brooklyn, I’m pretty sure we became friends at least partly through a mutual love of reggae and an appreciation of Jamaican culture. My formal relationship with Akashic began when I published a story called “Crown Heist” in Brooklyn Noir; that story revolves in part around the Welton Irie song “Herbman Trafficking.” And I’m even more sure that I tried to convince you that my advance for Go the Fuck to Sleep should consist in part of a rare original Greensleeves pressing of Captain Sinbad’s Seven Voyages of Captain Sinbad I’d seen in your collection.
Beyond just being Jamaicaphiles, though, I think we both, at that point, had some sense of what languages the book worked best in—that the languages with the most vibrant and interesting vocabulary of curse words yielded the best translations, at least within the realm of what we could semi-read. And having been cursed out by Jamaicans before, I knew that patois would be amazing. I also liked the idea of translating the book from English . . . into English. The fact that it had never been done before, except with the Bible, seemed like reason enough to do it.
JT: Kellie, in your mind, what is it about Go the Fuck to Sleep that makes it particularly suitable, as Adam suggests, for translation into Jamaican patois?
Kellie Magnus: I think there’s a warped blend of humor and frustration and authenticity in the original that made it perfect for translation into patois. Even in English there’s something about it—the color and the rhythm in the language—that feels very Jamaican. It wasn’t hard to imagine what a Jamaican parent would think in that situation and how he or she would express that in patois.
What I love about the original is that there isn’t very much going on—so much of the humor comes from Adam’s playful use of language. When Johnny mentioned how many languages it had already been translated into, I thought it would be a great opportunity to show how versatile Jamaican language can be.
JT: How do you feel about the fact that Shaggy is doing the audio-book recording of this book?
AM: I’m very much looking forward to hearing it. The readings have been super-important to Go the Fuck to Sleep, from actor Samuel L. Jackson’s sublime version to filmmaker Werner Herzog’s terrifying one, from Jenna Elfman and Nikka Costa’s music video to Thandie Newton and Noel Gallager’s tandem take, to George Lopez’s Spanish version . . . so continuing that legacy was definitely important to me. And after months of serial agitation for Bounty Killa, Cutty Ranks, Sister Nancy, Fuzzy Jones, and various other personal heroes of the dancehall, I feel like we’ve settled on a possibly perfect narrator. I can’t wait to start telling people, “Only two books have ever been translated from standard English to Jamaican patois: Go the Fuck to Sleep and the Bible—but only one of them has an audio book by Shaggy.”
JT: A Jamaican bookseller once told me that Jamaicans tend to shy away from books with profanity in the title. Kellie, as a Jamaican yourself, do you believe this to be the case? And if so, do you think that will still be the case with this book? Or is Go de Rass to Sleep in a category of its own?
KM: Jamaican booksellers are conservative, understandably. Many Jamaicans are. We also tend to be a lot more conservative about books than we are in regular conversation. Somehow, what’s on the page is seen as more precious. But I think there are many who can look past one word in the title and get the intended humor. For me, the upshot is getting someone who maybe wouldn’t normally pick up a book to look at it, to relate to it in some way, and to enjoy it. And yeah, I think there are many Jamaicans who will react in that way.
AM: The backlash to Go the Fuck to Sleep, which was minimal, largely took the form of huffy weirdos fulminating on the Interwebs. (“I would never read this book to a child.” Yeah, no shit, it says “fuck” on the cover. And on the back it says, You probably should not read this to your children. It would take a very particular blend of literacy and illiteracy to mistakenly read this book to a kid.) They, in turn, were shut down by the nation’s grandmothers, who turn out to be a really crass and hip group of people.
The only attack that developed into a full-throated attempt at censorship came from New Zealand, which continues to seem incredibly random. The organization pushing booksellers to take Go the Fuck to Sleep off the shelves was called Family First New Zealand. Their press release was awesome. I have it framed in my office. It reads, in part, While we appreciate that in an adult context, the book may be harmless and even amusing, we have grave concerns about its effect on aggressive and dysfunctional parents.
Really, National Director Bob McCoskrie? Your rubric for banning shit is whether or not aggressive, dysfunctional parents can handle it? Are you also proposing to ban spoons?
While I got the distinct sense that Bob McCoskrie might have been not only the national director of Family First New Zealand, but also the secretary, the minister of information, the sergeant at arms, and the membership, he managed to get on TV to talk about the book. Which is when Noni Hazlehurst, our Australian audio-book reader, stepped in.
Noni is a beloved children’s television presenter who’s also managed to have a serious film career. She’s like an Australian mixture of Maria from Sesame Street and Meryl Streep. She represents the childhood of every Aussie and Kiwi under the age of forty. On national television, she told Family First New Zealand that the book was providing real relief and catharsis to thousands of parents who felt isolated and exhausted and bad about themselves—just like she had as a young mother—and that they should shut the fuck up. So they did.
KM: I’m dying! Adam’s answer says it all. Parents aren’t stupid, They’re not going to read it to their children. The book isn’t even out yet and I’ve had people ask me, “How could you do this? You’re such an advocate for reading.” Well, that was kinda the point.
What I’m looking forward to is having a book, in patois, that Jamaican parents can relate to and that will crack them up. I write for children eight years old and younger, so those overtired, frustrated parents are my people. They’ll get it. There’s also a great opportunity to pull in parents who aren’t part of the usual book-buying crowd. Humor is an integral part of Jamaican culture and Jamaican language, but we don’t use it nearly enough on the page. I think that’s a shame. We spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to get children to read more. Well, there are acres of research that tell us children will read more if their parents read more. Parents aren’t a homogenous crowd. So I’m in favor of all kinds of books—pious or profane; serious or silly. If I put a book in someone’s hand that triggers an association of reading with pleasure, then I think I’ve done my job.
I also love the idea of a book for adults in picture-book format with very simple language. We know that those work in introducing books to adults with low literacy skills. We have none like this written in Jamaican patois.
But beyond all that, I happen to think the book is really good! Kwame Dawes did most of the heavy lifting in the translation and I think the result is fantastic. I’m really looking forward to seeing how audiences respond to it.
The Calabash International Literary Festival in Treasure Beach, in late May, is the perfect venue for launching the book in Jamaica. The festival has always been known for its diversity. It draws in Jamaicans of every color, race, religion, class, and it’s always been a place where all kinds of controversial ideas can contend. Calabash has never had a focus on children’s books, so I love that a children’s book parody allows us to kickstart a conversation about the value of children’s books. Frankly, I’m hoping that the book will have that effect at the national level.
JT: Adam, when did you first get interested in Jamaican culture?
AM: It was the music, and I first discovered it through hip hop. Growing up, I was an MC and a DJ, and after a few early fusions (like the terrible-in-retrospect but fascinating-at-the-time Run-DMC/Yellowman team-up “Roots Rock Reggae” or KRS-One’s Jafakin chatting on “9mm Goes Bang”), New York hip hop and dancehall cultures really starting merging around 1990–’91, with artists like Super Cat and Shabba crossing over, Red Alert’s dancehall show on KISS-FM, and white-label 12″s by people like Bobby Konders with artists like Burro Banton, Jigsy King, and Bounty Killa chatting over the hottest hip hop beats of the moment. I loved all that stuff, and the more I dug, the more I started to understand how hip hop had come from reggae—from mobile sound systems and freestyle toasting and the whole soundclash ethos—and also how reggae had influenced some of my favorite rappers in specific ways I hadn’t been aware of because I didn’t know the reference points—like KRS interpolating “Boops” on “The Bridge is Over,” for example.
As a hip hopper, you’re trained to always dig deeper, to unearth the sources of the music you like and the sources of those sources, and that led me backward through the history of reggae. And that, in turn, led me through some of the political and social history that underwrote the music. And when I moved from Harlem to Brooklyn, it was a wrap. I had the first floor of a brownstone in Fort Greene, and if I played a hot song on a summer day with the windows open, people would shout “Reeeewind!”
KM: For me, the most important connection is in the use of Jamaican language. Reggae music has always been one of the safe spaces where we don’t get hung up in this ridiculous argument about whether or not Jamaican patois is a language or a dialect, or whether it’s appropriate to use it, or whether if we use it people will understand it. It just is. It’s there in all its beauty and power. And it’s loved by people all over the world.
I grew up in and live in a world saturated with reggae, so I don’t have a nostalgic or deliberate relationship with it; it’s just a part of me. Reggae artists are some of the most vibrant Jamaican poets. Every once in a while I hear a line that I wish to God I’d written. I’m actually working with a friend on a book about the best dancehall and reggae lyrics. It frustrates me that a lot of what I love about reggae, and especially dancehall—the rhythm, the colorfulness of the language, the lyrical dexterity—doesn’t show up enough on the page. That’s part of what I love about this book. I think there’s a lot of value in having a book out that plays on the rhythm and language Jamaican people use in everyday life and that inhabits the music they love.
ADAM MANSBACH is an award-winning novelist and screenwriter whose books include The Dead Run, Rage Is Back, The End of the Jews, and Angry Black White Boy, the New York Times #1 best-seller Go the Fuck to Sleep, as well as the children’s version, Seriously, Just Go to Sleep, and Go de Rass to Sleep. He is the coeditor of A Fictional History of the United States with Huge Chunks Missing. His work has appeared in the New Yorker, New York Times Book Review, Esquire, the Believer, and on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. His daughter Viven is five.
KELLIE MAGNUS is a Jamaican children’s book author. She serves on the boards of the National Library of Jamaica and the Book Industry Association of Jamaica. She lives in Kingston, Jamaica. She is the translator of Go de Rass to Sleep.
Go de Rass to Sleep, a Jamaican patois translation of our New York Times, Amazon.com, and Wall Street Journal #1 best seller Go the Fuck to Sleep, is written by Adam Mansbach, illustrated by Ricardo Cortés, and translated by Kwame Dawes and Kellie Magnus. It is, to our knowledge, the first ever to be translated into Jamaican patois. As with the original, it is a profane, affectionate, and radically honest bedtime story that humorously captures the unspoken tribulations of putting your little angel down for the nighttime, making it a perfect Father’s Day gift!
Posted: Jun 12, 2014
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