Bridging the linguistic divide

by Rhonda Mullins, CertTranslation’05

Translating the work of a gifted writer from one language to another is a tricky business. No less an authority than Umberto Eco once summed it up by saying that “translation is the art of a failure.” In a country like Canada, with its much-touted two solitudes, one could argue that failure is not an option. The stakes are too high. We need to understand one another and making sure that the works of some of our greatest authors are available in both official languages is as good a place to start as any.

Thankfully, Canada is home to a talented corps of gifted literary translators. Many of the country’s most celebrated translators are McGill graduates. Their ranks include Jane Brierley, MA’82 (a two-time Governor General’s Literary Award winner for her translations), Dominique Fortier, PhD’03 (an award-winning author and a GG finalist in translation in 2012), Linda Gaboriau, BA’72 (a two-time GG winner) and Alain Roy, BA’88, MA’90, PhD’96 (the 2012 GG winner for French translation for his work on Mark Kingwell’s Glenn Gould).

McGill graduates have translated some of the country’s foremost authors, bridging cultures and opening up literary horizons for avid readers across the country. But translation is a solitary, behind-the-scenes pursuit, one that we rarely get a glimpse of. We approached some of the country’s leading literary translators to get their perspective on the work that they do.

Patricia Claxton BA’51: The invisible woman

Patricia Claxton

A doyenne of the Canadian literary translation scene, Patricia Claxton has such an impressive track record that it’s hard to know where to begin. The self-taught translator started out using translation as a means to learn French. “I found an article in Cité Libre that I thought was extremely well written, and it expressed views that agreed with mine. So I translated it and took it to someone who was very bilingual, and he said I was pretty good. But he also said ‘If you’re going to translate this fellow’s writing, you’re going to have to write what he said and not what you think he should have said.'”

The fellow Claxton had been taking linguistic liberties with was Pierre Trudeau. “That was the best lesson I ever had. Never extrapolate. If you want to write something that expresses your own opinions, then write your own stuff. Don’t translate somebody else’s. The translator’s job is to be invisible.”

That lesson was learned in the early sixties, and Claxton has been invisible ever since. Although not in her own mind. In describing the practice of literary translation, she squares her shoulders and says, “I’m performing it. Most people think you’ve got the words and you just put them in English. But I think of myself as an actor on stage. The French use the word ‘interpretation’ in the sense of acting on stage and interpreting a role, so I think of myself as interpreting a role in English.”

Claxton’s career as a literary translator has been long and illustrious. She has translated such Quebec icons as Nicole Brossard and Jacques Godbout. And she has won two Governor General’s Awards, both for work related to Gabrielle Roy, the most recent one in 1999 for her translation Gabrielle Roy: A Life.

Indeed, her career has been punctuated by encounters with Roy, having translated a selection of the celebrated French Canadian author’s autobiography, letters in Letters to Bernadette and children’s literature with The Tortoiseshell and the Pekinese (“That’s pie,” she says of translating children’s literature). She is also well-known for translating Gil Courtemanche’s A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali, a love story set against the backdrop of genocide. “Recreating something that powerful is a challenge,” she says. “But I’m not afraid of horror. Anything that’s a challenge can be fun as far as I’m concerned.”

Rachel Martinez BA’82, GradDipTranslation’07: The wistful ambassador

Rachel Martinez’s literary translation career started with a bang, in the form of a Governor General’s Literary Award. While trying to find her niche as a freelancer, she wrote to Éditions du Boréal offering her services. They declined, citing her lack of experience. A contract for an art catalogue for Les Presses de l’Université Laval helped her get her sea legs, and soon Boréal was knocking on her door asking whether she could translate Kevin Bazzana’s Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould. They didn’t need to knock twice.

“I was so happy,” she says. “I worked so hard on it. I had experience in translation, but this was my first literary work. I got completely immersed in it. I used to work a lot at night when my kids were asleep, and I would listen to his music. I watched TV shows about him, listened to recordings and looked at pictures. It was a wonderful experience. It’s not always like that, but this particular time it was.”

Rachel Martinez (Photo: Eve Leclerc)

Whenever the project lends itself to this sort of immersion, it’s how Martinez prefers to work. For a recent translation of Susin Nielsen’s Word Nerd, the story of a young boy with a penchant for Scrabble, Martinez hauled out the board. “I read about Scrabble; I played Scrabble. I had to translate word play, so I worked with the Scrabble board at my side. It’s so much fun when you can get into a subject that way.”

Martinez also translated Douglas Coupland’s Player One: What Is to Become of Us for Quebec’s Les Éditions Hurtubise, which was later published in France, a rarer occurrence than one would think. French publishers prefer to have books translated by French translators, sometimes with questionable results for Canadian works of literature ― translating winter can be tough if you haven’t experienced it firsthand. So Martinez was particularly proud of this coup. And she is equally proud of her versatility. “I don’t want to be confined to a single genre. I love doing biographies. I love doing children’s literature. I love doing novels,” she says.

Martinez sees her role on Canada’s literary landscape as bridging two cultures, a sort of ambassador, albeit a wistful one. “I find it sad that if you go to French university and you’re not studying literature, or maybe even if you are, there’s a good chance that won’t find out about English Canadian literature. You can do your master’s in literature and not know about Margaret Atwood or Alice Munro. And I imagine the same is true for English universities. So we’re hoping to make French readers aware of what’s happening on the other side of Ottawa River. That’s the mission. We’re trying to get the two solitudes communicating.”

Nigel Spencer, BA’66: The word player

Nigel Spencer receives the 2012 Governor General’s Literary Award for French to English translation from Governor General David Johnston at Rideau Hall (Photo: Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Nigel Spencer may have been born to translate. “I used to translate in my head for fun,” he says. “I like word games. When I get tired, I pun. It’s excruciating.” But it was a first contact with author and playwright Marie-Claire Blais, with whom he is now closely associated professionally, that got the ball rolling. He sent her an excerpt of one of her plays he had translated. She liked his work and started putting his talents to use.

Spencer has translated four of Blais’s novels, winning a Governor General’s Literary Award for three of them – including the 2012 prize for his efforts on Mai at the Predators’ Ball. Not bad as batting averages go. And it’s a pretty good indication that Blais and Spencer are simpatico. “She’s fearless, she’s direct; she reaches out in several different directions without ever quite losing her grip. It pulls you in. It’s like a whirlpool. And I love it. It’s a challenge and I love that too.”

For Spencer, literary translation is best described as “creative interpretation,” a term he borrows from Edith Grossman, the American translator of the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and others. Spencer’s background in drama has given him the tools to interpret creatively. “I think that’s the best description I’ve ever heard,” he says. “Maybe it appeals to the actor in me, that whole multidimensional approach. When I’m working, I talk to myself, I walk back and forth and I try things out.”

Spencer is aware of his role as a conduit for cultures coming closer together. “When you translate, you sort of bring the audience along with you, so you’re kind of a mediator. You take account of the audience’s context, along with the author’s, and you have to make them interpenetrable. You have to discretely editorialize occasionally, to choose a word in a sort of didactic way to allow people to see the background, which is not their background. So I think the word “ambassador” in its best sense applies in that you’re introducing context, cultures, languages and mindsets and allowing them to interpenetrate.”

Spencer has also translated several books and songs for the former Poet Laureate Pauline Michel, translated articles for Time magazine and created film subtitles for Bravo!, all of which has helped him stretch and develop his ability to express himself, making his prose “flesh-and-blood language,” to use his words. The way he sees it, experience and confidence are liberating, because you can start to play around with things. “First, it’s setting yourself free, and then you get back to how the author got from point A to point Z. And you ask, ‘how am I going to get there’? Well, I’ll do it my way.”

Rhonda Mullins is a Montreal writer and translator. She was a finalist for the 2007 Governor General’s Literary Award for Translation for The Decline of the Hollywood Empire by Hervé Fischer. She studied translation at McGill’s School of Continuing Studies.

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