Monday, August 28, 2006

Review of "Writing Between the Lines"

A review I wrote of “Writing Between the Lines: Portraits of Canadian Anglophone Translators” has just been published in the Danforth Review. The book is a collection of essays about Canadian translators who translate from French to English. Most of them see their work as a way to conquer the political and cultural divides that separate French-speaking Canadians from English-speaking ones.

As a bilingual country, Canada has two distinct languages and cultures, and this of course extends to the literary realm as well. Historically, there has been little contact between anglophone and francophone writers, but as a new book, Writing Between the Lines: Portraits of Canadian Anglophone Translators, describes, the work of dedicated translators has helped change this.
Writing Between the Lines is made up of twelve essays, each focusing on a specific French-to-English translator who has influenced Canada’s literary scene. An unfortunate limitation of this book is that there are no portraits of people who translate to French (with the exception of Susanne de Lotbiniére-Harwood, who translates feminist works in both directions). As the essays emphasize, translation is a necessity, especially in a country with two or more cultures separated by languages, religious and/or political beliefs, and ways of viewing the world. So by leaving out francophone translators, this book seems to have missed its own point. Despite this, however, Writing Between the Lines does have plenty to offer any reader interested in translation or Canadian literature, because, as the introduction says, this is the “first comprehensive, inside view of the practice of anglophone literary translation in Canada.” The essays give biographical information on the translators, review their work and their working processes, discuss some of the authors they have translated, and explain what the translators have done for Canadian literature.

Most of the translators profiled also produce, or produced, their own writing, as poets, novelists, academics, journalists, essayists, and one pornographer. This suggests that writers make the most successful literary translators, although this isn’t inevitably the case. But though they have creative writing in common, they certainly don’t share the same techniques for literary translation or opinions on what a translator’s role is. For readers not familiar with translation, the book might be an appealing surprise in that way, because the translators have a variety of different viewpoints on translation, and the essays make it clear that along the scale ranging from strict literalness (faithfulness to the original text) to total freedom (the translator takes liberties), there is no one perfect method of balance. Some translators featured in this volume, such as Patricia Claxton, believe that it is their responsibility, even a civic duty, to be loyal to the original author and his text and intention. William Hume Blake, for example, thought of translation as a way of preserving and sharing a specific sort of French Canadian life with English-speakers and thus used “Gallicized vocabulary and turns of phrase,” rather than anglicizing them for his audience. Others, including poet D.G. Jones, who helped found the bilingual literary magazine ellipse, see translation more as a transformation of the text that sets fewer restrictions on the translator. And Sheila Fischman believes translators and the original authors should get “equal billing,” which suggests something about how she sees her position in the creation of a text. Meanwhile, Barbara Godard has a somewhat different way of working; she includes a translator’s preface, not agreeing with the “concept of translator and translation as transparent.” In the prefaces, she explain the author’s ideas and style, and her choices as the translator.

These translators also choose, or accept, to work on very different types of assignments. de Lotbiniére-Harwood only translates writing by women, as a “political activity” that makes “the feminine subject reciprocally visible in two cultures.” Similarly, Ray Ellenwood sees translation in a political light and has therefore worked on documents as diverse as political satire, an artistic manifesto, and surrealist works. Linda Gaboriau has translated more than sixty plays, while John Glassco translated thirty-seven of the fifty poets in the anthology The Poetry of French Canada in Translation, and Patricia Claxton has translated, among other things, books on the history of Québec and articles by former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.

No matter how they go about their work or what topics or genres they prefer to translate, all the translators seemed agreed on why they were translating. Not only do they want to introduce great Québec novelists, playwrights, and poets to those who can’t read French, but they also see translation as the way to “bridge the cultural and political gap between English Canada and Québec,” and literature as a step towards bringing anglophone and francophone Canada closer together.


Unknown said...

I wonder what Sheila Fischman reads for fun?

I've started to read Volkswagen Blues by Jacques Poulin. Set in the Gaspésie region I'm heading east with Poulin, up and around the hilly roads, out toward to blue water. My memories of my only road trip to Gaspé are blue – the colour blue. Memory plays tricks on us but when I think of this beautiful region in Quebec I think of the colour blue and so many of our family photos feature the coastline villages with the water backdrop. With the except of a few pictures of us standing under wind turbines on wind farms, most of the pictures are of my little family posing at the vast shore. Blue.
I didn't get far in the book before I flipped it closed to consult the cover. I'm reading the translation by Sheila Fischman. I'm not sure why I picked up the English instead of the French original. Poulin's style is fluid and an Anglophone with a fair grasp at French can follow along swimmingly. I don't know if it is fair to describe his style as old fashion story telling but that is my impression - not too many confilicts, not to much word play, lots of imagery, lots of physical description, slow introduction to the characters who might turn out to be secondary to the facts in the story. The story has a lovely cadence. Now I have to ask myself: is this because Poulin is a great storyteller or is it because Sheila Fischman is a great storyteller?
You'll remember Sheila Fischman as the translator that introduced much of Anglo Canada to the works of Roch Carrier, Michel Tremblay, and Anne Hébert. She has shared the voice of over 125 works by Canadian Francophones, in particular Quebecers... with the rest of Canada. In May 2008 Fischman was presented with the Molson Prize recognizing her outstanding lifetime contributions to Canadian cultural. The $50,000 Molson prize will buy her A LOT of books.
I wonder what type of books Sheila Fischman takes to the cottage, curls up by the fire with, and piles beside her bed To Be Read later? On the other hand, maybe Sheila Fischman doesn't read for pleasure at all. Maybe it feels too much like work.
Maybe she writes. When a translator gets paid to interprete and convey to words of others, are they ever tempted to put pen to paper to craft their own prose?
I'm going to ask my translator Gisèle Lamontagne and my copy editor Josée Prud'homme. While they adapted Dining with Death into La Mort au menu I never once in the entire process asked either of them what it was about their craft that drew them in, enabled them to polish the rough bits so that the diamond sparkled through of any given piece by any author.

How does someone develop the skill to make another artist look good, in a completely different language?

If you see Sheila Fischman at the next awards gala, ask her for me.

Kathleen Molloy, author - Dining with Death / La Mort au menu

B.J. Epstein said...

Thank you for your comment, Kathleen! Your point about whether you are reading a writer or reading a translator is a good one. I think it's a combination. At a conference I organized earlier this year, translator and translation scholar Douglas Robinson gave a keynote speech in which he discussed double-voicing. His conclusion was that it is impossible for translators not to add something of their own voice to the text. They leave their own fingerprint in some way, even if imperceptibly.
And, yes, I think many translators write, too (I certainly do). A translator has to be a good writer. A writer, of course, does not have to be a good translator.
Your books sounds interesting! Can you read the translation?

Best wishes,