Home > Translation > The Man in the Yellow Coat/L’Homme au Pardessus Jaune

The Man in the Yellow Coat/L’Homme au Pardessus Jaune

April 21, 2011

by M.J. Fievre


The Man in the Yellow Coat

For years, her grandmother had warned her: They will take your money; you will give them your soul. Now, as she waited for the man, Mathilde’s muscles ached with weariness, and the monotonous tick-tock of the massive mahogany clock raised her tension to the point of panic. Strange designs were drawn on the walls and a hideous sculpture of Jesus hung upside down beside an altar laden with dozens of talismans and potions. On a small table stood grotesque figurines made out of cloth scraps and dots of paint on old wood.

“I’m here,” a voice suddenly said.

It belonged to a man with an oblong face and mutable eyes. At times, they looked colorless but, more often than not, his pupils took on a golden, almost reddish shade. He wore a big yellow overcoat that contrasted with his dark skin, a gray hat that obscured his forehead, and grimy boots.

As he lit the enormous pipe that hung from his mouth, Mathilde’s throat swelled tightly, her heartbeat drowning out the ticking of the clock. She felt slightly numb as apprehension crept over her.

“Well,” the man said, a devilish smile spreading across his face. He held out his hand to her without taking off his gloves, and the handshake felt like quicksand. “You can call me Maître Octave.”

 I could run, she thought. And yet, she stayed. No one else would help her. All I need is one friend, she thought. Just one friend. One. Mathilde’s feverish hands grabbed her necklace as she thought again about her grandmother’s warning, about stories of houngan and mambos bringing good fortune and healing through their “white” magic.

“Be careful,” Grandma had cautioned.  “If the voodoo doctor that you visit is a bòkò who performs evil sorcery, he will steal your soul.”

With a shiver, Mathilde positioned herself in the armchair that was the most distant from her host.  She saw her reflection in a mirror — her brown hair was dull; her jeans and tee-shirt worn and unclean. No wonder no one wants to be my friend. A furious wind burst the window open and whistled on a threatening note through the foliage of the trees.

Mathilde’s lips were dry as she thought about the way the other ninth graders at school laughed at her, sticking “kick me” signs on her back. Once, at lunch time, a girl had poured chocolate milk on her uniform.

 “I’m new in the neighborhood — and I feel very lonely.  I need friends. Jenny has lots of them. You must help me. Please, help me.” One friend, that’s all I need. To laugh and hang out with and talk to and do normal things with.

As flashes of electric blue ignited the sky, Maître Octave took off his hat and scanned the room around him with strangely piercing eyes. In a forbidding painting, Baron Samedi, Guardian of the Grave, was portrayed in his traditional garb-top hat, undertaker’s coat, bow tie, cane, and dark glasses with right lens missing. There was no electric switch. Only black wax candles, laid out in every nook and cranny of the room; their flames danced like rubbery snakes in the gloom. The rain moaned and whispered to Mathilde who was engulfed by a disgusting odor. She could not pinpoint the source, but it was both nauseating and familiar.

Maître Octave spoke, and for a moment she caught a glimpse of the strange gleam that shined occasionally in his eyes.

 “Who is Jenny?” he asked.

 “She’s my twin sister, but we’re not very close. We’ve been living with our grandmother since our parents died.”

While Jenny was going to parties and school dances, and hanging out with friends, Mathilde stayed home and watched TV. She just didn’t belong.

“Jenny is ashamed of me,” Mathilde said. “She ridicules me in front of her friends. I would like it to be different. I do like her even though she’s shallow. I don’t exactly want to be as popular as she is. I just wish I had more friends; that’s it.”

“Does she really have that many friends?” the houngan asked.

“Oh, yes!” Mathilde exclaimed. “She is quite popular. She drives all the boys crazy! She couldn’t wish for more. If I had only one tenth of Jenny’s friends, I would have everything I could wish for. Her best friend, Francesca, is devoted to her.”

Maître Octave relit his pipe. Mathilde’s glances kept returning to the sorcerer’s hands. The man was wearing gloves, Mathilde thought, just like a murderer. Her head rang with anguish. She’d sneaked out of the house. Nobody knew where she was.

Maître Octave was smiling again. “You are rather reasonable. You’re only asking for one tenth of Jenny’s friends. To satisfy you will be child’s play for me.”

How could one doubt the words of a man with that diabolic glance? It seemed to Mathilde that nothing could resist Maître Octave.

“What do you want in return?” she asked.

He looked acquisitively at her neck. “Give me your necklace.”

Mathilde’s chest tightened and she struggled to draw a breath. Her right hand reached for her necklace. It was a memento. She had received it from her mother, only a few weeks before the terrible car accident. It was made of brass and copper and shaped like a hexagram with triple acorns.

“My necklace?”

The man stared at her, waiting.  How far was she willing to go? The wind opened the window with rage and drops of rain lashed her face. Mathilde jumped at the dull rumbling of the storm. She shivered violently. It’s worth it, she thought. And as she gave him the necklace, she imagined the name-calling that would stop in the hallways. No more ketchup in her book bag.

He extended his gloved hand to her once more, and again the devilish fire in his eyes left Mathilde startled.  “My dear child, your dreams will soon become reality.”

She stood up, careful not to knock the candles over. A wooden bird with a hooked beak stared at her with gloomy eyes. She looked away, but the sculptures were everywhere, scoffing at her.

He did not walk Mathilde back to the door but, with each step she took, she felt his eyes on her.

“You will hear from me soon,” Maître Octave said.

She left the house in a hurry, running in the blinding rain, the wind ripping through her clothes, the earth grabbing her feet. She felt hollow inside.


The next day, when she sat in front of her breakfast, it seemed that the ham and eggs were giving out a strange smell… That smell… It was the smell of the morgue when she had been asked to identify her parents the previous year… The smell of the hougan’s house. Mathilde pushed back the plate abruptly, knocking over her glass of milk. She soon realized that her imagination was playing dirty tricks on her. The food was just fine.

When the doorbell rang, long and insistent, she hastened to the door.

She shuddered when she saw the yellow overcoat, the hat and gray boots. What was he doing here?

 “Ma’am?” a reedy voice said.

She realized that she was staring at a young man. He was wearing a yellow overcoat, but it was not Maître Octave. It was simply a delivery boy.

“I have a package for Miss Mathilde Rochas.”

“I’m Mathilde,” she said.

The boy handed her an envelope that she tore open hastily. She took out a small piece of paper and read the meticulous writing:  “My very dear Mathilde, your wish is now reality. Real friends are rare and difficult to find.

Mathilde signed and grabbed the package. The box was extremely long and rather heavy. The girl had difficulty carrying it into her room. It seemed to her that she could smell that horrible odor again… She was going to open the package when she heard sobs coming from Jenny’s room. Mathilde put the box down and ran to her sister.


After a brief hesitation, she entered the room, sat beside Jenny and wrapped comforting arms around her. Surprisingly, Jenny did not push her back.

“What’s the matter, Jenny?” Mathilde asked.

 “It’s Francesca,” Jenny said with a strained voice. “She’s dead. I just got the phone call. She was killed last night. A dreadful crime. She was cut in pieces. The police say that her legs are missing.”

 Jenny grabbed Mathilde’s hand. “You know, Francesca was my only true friend.”

Suddenly, snatches of sentences jostled together in Mathilde’s head: “You are a reasonable girl… You wish for only one tenth of your sister’s friends… She was cut in pieces… The police say that her legs are missing…”

Horrified, Mathilde thought about the oblong box left on the bed, and also about the horrible smell it was releasing.


L’Homme au Pardessus Jaune

Mathilde frissonna, lançant un regard anxieux vers la grande horloge en acajou.  Le tic-tac monocorde ne faisait qu’accentuer cette sourde angoisse qui l’avait assaillie au moment même où elle avait franchi la grille de la vieille maison. Elle se mit à arpenter la pièce de long en large pour essayer de se calmer. Il y avait cette horrible odeur… Mathilde n’aurait pu dire de quoi il s’agissait. Elle en avait simplement la nausée. Et puis ces curieuses statuettes qu’elle n’osait approcher de trop près… Dans la pénombre, elles semblaient lui lancer quelque défi. Aucun interrupteur électrique. Seule des bougies de cire noire, disposées dans tous les recoins de la pièce, dansaient dans le clair-obscur.

« Je suis là, » fit soudain une voix qui fit sursauter Mathilde. Il lui sembla un moment que les battements accélérés de son cœur couvraient de loin le tic-tac de l’horloge.

Elle ne l’avait pas entendu arriver et Maître Octave, décidément, était loin de lui plaire. Le visage oblong, les pupilles d’une couleur indéfinissable… Par instants, ils semblaient gris mais le plus souvent, les yeux de l’homme prenaient une teinte dorée, presque rouge. La jeune fille eut un mouvement de recul lorsqu’il s’approcha d’elle. Il portait un énorme pardessus de plastique jaune qui contrastait avec sa peau d’ébène. Un chapeau gris et des bottes de la même couleur complétaient sa tenue.

Il alluma l’énorme pipe qui pendait à sa bouche puis tendit la main à Mathilde sans prendre la peine d’enlever ses gants. Après avoir hésité, Mathilde lui tendit la sienne, réprimant tant bien que mal son envie de s’enfuir. Ce n’était guère le moment de reculer. Il lui fallait aller jusqu’au bout.

Mathilde se rongeait nerveusement les ongles. Agée de dix-sept ans, elle n’était pas jolie. Loin de là! Ses cheveux bruns étaient ternes, son teint fade, son nez un peu trop retroussé. De plus, Mathilde ne semblait accorder aucune importance à sa tenue vestimentaire.  Son jean et son T-shirt, tous deux élimés, étaient d’une propreté fort douteuse.

Après un long moment, la jeune fille sortit enfin de son mutisme. «Je me sens très seule, » expliqua-t-elle. « J’ai besoin… d’amis. » Elle respira un bon coup avant de reprendre: «Ma cousine Serena… elle en a plein!»

Maître Octave hocha la tête. Un vent furieux entrait par la fenêtre ouverte. Il sifflait dans le feuillage des arbres sur une note menaçante.

La tristesse de Mathilde prenait le pas sur sa peur. « On m’a dit que vous étiez un magicien… Vous devez m’aider. Je vous en prie, aidez-moi! »

Maître Octave ne répondit pas tout de suite. Il enleva son chapeau qu’il se mit à caresser du bout des doigts. Il promenait autour de lui son regard perçant lorsque l’orage éclata. Des éclairs d’un bleu électrique zébraient le ciel.  La pluie semblait déchaînée. Une véritable rafale. Maître Octave ferma les fenêtres. Lorsqu’il prit place sur son canapé, sa voix n’était plus qu’un désagréable murmure. Mathilde dut se pencher en avant pour entendre ses paroles. Elle crut entrevoir cette étrange lueur qui brillait par moments dans ses yeux.

« Je suis prêt à vous venir en aide, » dit l’homme. « Mais ce travail que vous attendez de moi n’est pas des plus simples. Qui est Serena?»

La pluie frappait violemment contre les carreaux de la fenêtre. Fuis cet homme! Fuis cet homme! semblait-elle crier.

« Serena? » balbutia-t-elle. « C’est ma cousine. J’habite chez elle depuis la mort de mes parents. Nous fréquentons la même école, nous avons le même âge. Néanmoins, nous ne sommes pas très proches l’une de l’autre. » Mathilde hésita avant de continuer: « En fait, elle n’arrête pas de me traiter de tous les noms et de me ridiculiser devant ses amis. Je l’aime bien, moi. Elle est tellement jolie! Franchement, je l’envie. Elle a un tas d’amis! »

Maître Octave gardait un air impassible, hochant la tête pour montrer à son interlocutrice qu’il l’écoutait attentivement. « Etes-vous sûre qu’il ne s’agirait pas plutôt de simples camarades de classe? Les amis—dans toute l’acception du terme—sont rares, vous savez. »

«Elle est très populaire! Grâce à sa grande beauté, elle possède une cour étendue d’admirateurs, tous prêts à risquer leur vie pour elle! Que désirer de plus? Si je possédais seulement le dixième des amis de Serena, je serais une fille comblée. Sa meilleure amie, Francesca, lui est toute dévouée… »

Maître Octave ralluma sa pipe. Le regard de Mathilde revenait sans cesse aux mains du sorcier. Elle tremblait de peur. Des gants… Pourquoi des gants? Cela lui faisait penser à un meurtrier. Et si quelque chose lui arrivait? Personne ne savait où elle était, ni ce qu’elle faisait. La tête de Mathilde bourdonnait. Une terrible angoisse la tenaillait.  La pluie était loin de s’être calmée. Fuis cet homme! Fuis cet homme! sifflait-elle.

Maître Octave avait recommencé à sourire. Ses yeux étaient presque tout à fait rouges.

« Vous êtes plutôt raisonnable, » fit-il. « Vous ne demandez que le dixième des amis de votre cousine Serena. Remettez-en vous à moi.»

Comment pourrait-on douter des paroles de cet homme au regard diabolique? Il semblait à Mathilde que rien ne pouvait résister à Maître Octave.

« Comment devrais-je payer? » demande-t-elle.

« Ne vous en faites pas pour l’instant, » dit-il.

Elle se sentit soulagée. Elle se demandait de quelle manière Maître Octave allait s’y prendre pour lui procurer ce bonheur tant convoité lorsque le vent ouvrit la fenêtre avec rage. Fuis cet homme! Fuis cet homme! Elle sursauta au grondement sourd de l’orage.

Maître Octave lui tendit sa main gantée: « Ma chère enfant, vos rêves seront bientôt réalité. »

Encore cette étrange lueur dans son regard. Mathilde tressaillit. Une statuette représentant un oiseau au bec crochu paraissait la fixer de ses horribles yeux jaunes. La jeune fille détourna le regard, mais les sculptures étaient partout autour d’elle. Toutes semblaient la narguer.

Quand elle quitta la maison, il pleuvait des cordes et un épais brouillard enveloppait Port-au-Prince. Des ombres surgissaient de nulle part. Les mots de Maître Octave la poursuivirent: Vous avez frappé à la bonne porte… Vous êtes une fille raisonnable… Vous aurez un dixième des amis de Serena. Sa voix résonnait, tel un écho: Un dixième… Un dixième…


Au petit jour, une peur inexpliquée assaillit Mathilde et quand elle s’installa devant son petit déjeuner, on aurait dit… On aurait dit qu’une étrange odeur émanait des œufs au jambon. Cette odeur… L’odeur que dégageait la morgue de l’hôpital général lorsqu’elle avait dû aller identifier ses parents l’année dernière… L’odeur du vestibule de la maison du sorcier. Mathilde repoussa l’assiette d’un geste brusque, renversant son verre de lait. Au même moment, la sonnette de la porte d’entrée retentit.

Mathilde tressaillit en découvrant le visiteur. Un pardessus de plastique jaune… Un chapeau et des bottes grises… Elle claqua la porte avec un petit cri et se laissa glisser le long du mur. Que venait-il faire ici? La sonnerie retentit de nouveau, longue et insistante.

Puis la jeune fille vit avec horreur que l’homme tournait la poignée de la porte.

« Je suis pressé, mademoiselle, » fit une voix fluette.

Mathilde dévisagea le garçon qui venait d’entrer. Il portait un pardessus jaune, mais ce n’était pas Maître Octave. Il s’agissait simplement d’un garçon-livreur.

« J’ai un paquet pour mademoiselle Mathilde Bicho. »

Le garçon lui tendit une enveloppe qu’elle déchira précipitamment. Elle en sortit un petit bout de papier sur lequel se lisait une écriture méticuleuse: Très chère Mathilde, votre vœu est désormais réalité. Vous possédez un dixième des amis de votre cousine Serena Bicho.

« Je suis pressé, mademoiselle, » fit de nouveau le garçon-livreur.

Lorsque Mathilde leva les yeux vers lui, elle se rendit compte qu’il tenait une énorme boîte dans les bras. Curieuse, elle signa et s’empara du lourd paquet.

Elle eut quelques difficultés à la transporter jusqu’à sa chambre. Il lui semblait de nouveau prendre l’horrible odeur… Elle allait ouvrir le paquet lorsque des sanglots lui parvinrent de la chambre de Serena. Mathilde déposa la boîte et courut à la pièce voisine.

« Serena? »

Elle n’avait jamais vu Serena dans un état pareil. De grosses larmes coulaient sur son visage rouge.

« Que se passe-t-il, Serena? » lui demanda-t-elle.

Elle ne répondit pas tout de suite. Mathilde dut beaucoup insister.

« C’est Francesca…, » dit-elle enfin d’une voix étranglée. « Elle est morte. Elle a été assassinée la nuit dernière. Un crime affreux. On l’a découpée en morceaux. Les policiers avancent que ses deux jambes ont été emportées. »

Mathilde en fut bouleversée.

« Qu’est-ce que je vais devenir? » ne cessait de répéter Serena. « Francesca était ma seule véritable amie. »

A ces mots, Mathilde resta interdite. Des bribes de phrases s’entrechoquèrent dans sa tête: Vous êtes une fille raisonnable… Vous ne désirez que le dixième des amis de votre cousine… Comme prévu, vous possédez désormais un dixième des amis de votre cousine Serena Bicho. On l’a découpée en morceaux… Les policiers ne retrouvent même plus ses deux jambes…

Une expression horrifiée que Serena, aveuglée par les larmes, ne remarqua pas, se peignit sur le visage de Mathilde. La jeune fille pensait à la boîte oblongue posée sur le lit, et à l’horrible odeur qui s’en dégageait.

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The Place of Audience in the Translation of One’s Own Work

I first started working as a translator when I moved from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to Miami, Florida, in 2002. At twenty-one, I was fluent in four languages and, as a full time student pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Education, I needed the extra cash. Once or twice a week, after my field experience hours in some of Miami’s toughest public schools, I offered my services at lawyers and car insurance offices, interpreting in French, Haitian Creole, and English. At home, once my college assignments completed, I spent tedious hours translating audio files from the Broward County Police Department, listening to suspects claiming their innocence in child sexual abuses cases. The file usually ended with these men breaking down and confessing their vicious crimes.

After a while, I grew weary of the macabre aspect of the job and considered quitting translation altogether. That is, until I got the opportunity to translate a few literary pieces. As a writer myself, I enjoyed the task of carefully rendering the meaning of intricate stories. I decided to revisit L’Homme au Pardessus Jaune, one of my short stories, which had been workshopped and edited while I was still living in Port-au-Prince. My translation would be addressed to an American audience.

During the translation, my writer’s instincts kicked in and The Man in Yellow Coat took a life of its own, primarily because it aimed at entertaining a different audience.

Reader’s Openness to the Supernatural. Take the first line of the story, for instance. In Haiti, the supernatural is always lurking in the back of people’s minds and the intent of a fantastical story easily grasped. Because life in Haiti is laced with mystery and superstitions, only a few words were needed to draw the Haitian audience into the magic world of Maître Octave in the original piece. In the English version of the story, however, I felt the need to add the grandmother’s warning in order to help with the set-up and cater to the American audience, which is more matter-of-fact and doesn’t expect the supernatural, unless hints are given in that direction.

P.O.V. Audience also affected the point of view of the narration. While the omniscient P.O.V is admissible in Haiti, a country known for its oral tradition, it was frowned upon in American literature. For this reason, omniscience wasn’t used in the English version. I opted, for instance, to use the old mirror trick to introduce Lily’s physical appearance (Third person attached).

Specific Details. A different audience justifies other choices throughout the translation. Some of the details have been changed. An example: While the gloves are mentioned right away in the French version because it is peculiar to wear gloves in Haiti, they are only mentioned later in the English version. Also, to help build on the urgency of Lily’s request, examples of bullying were added in The Man in Yellow Coat.

Characterization. In the French version, the other female character is Lily’s cousin. Her name is Serena, which I found suited a character who was idolized and envied. In the English version, Serena became Lily’s sister Jenny. Because she’s meaner in that version (there are actual images of the bullying of Lily), I felt that somehow the name Serena was no longer fitting. The fact that Jenny is Lily’s sister makes her behavior even more despicable. As for the character of Maître Octave, just because he is a sorcerer, he’s automatically seen as evil by a Haitian audience. In the American version, though, I decided that Maître Octave would not accept money, but something much more valuable to Lily, which helps set him up as even nastier character once we reach the denouement and learn of the request’s outcome.

I’ve enjoyed the translation of L’Homme au Pardessus Jaune tremendously, particularly because of the liberties I was able to take. I’ve never had one of my own stories translated by someone else. I would be very interested to see what the final product would look like.


Born in Port-au-Prince, M.J. Fievre (website) is an expat whose short stories and poems have appeared in numerous publications, including Haiti Noir (Akashic Books), The Southeast Review, The Caribbean Writer and The Mom Egg. She is currently a regular contributor for The Nervous Breakdown and a graduate student in the Creative Writing program at Florida International University. She loves coconut shrimp, piña coladas, her dog Wiskee, and a good story. Anton Chekhov is one of her favorite writers.

Categories: Translation Tags:
  1. Neddy
    April 21, 2011 at 9:16 pm

    The section explaining how you went about translating and what your thought process was was really interesting. It definitely adds a new perspective for me. Nice work!

  2. kinkela
    April 22, 2011 at 7:42 am

    slt ce rossy je savoir si se comment

  3. alex cigale
    April 22, 2011 at 12:47 pm

    I loved the discussion following, your consideration of choices made in creating the “parallel” English text. The awareness of the target audience and the cultural adaptations a text undergoes in translation enriches our understanding of the art. The attention you bring to the pleasure of the aesthetic practice of literary translation speaks very much to the reason I myself have found it so satisfying. Along with bringing a much needed and enriching multicultural perspective to English lit, this had been my main motivation for editing and presenting this issue and I think the reactions and active participation of our managing editors and of the entire Qarrtsiluni community reflects an agreement on the success and value of this difficult and labor intensive effort. Thank you, MJ, for your substantial contribution! Alex

  1. May 9, 2011 at 3:32 pm
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