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Posted: Tuesday September 30, 2014
Meditations on the Art of Translation

Every September 30th, readers, writers, and publishers mark International Translation Day by honouring the translators who help bring great literature of all kinds to new audiences. At Talonbooks, we are particularly privileged to work with many of Canada’s most pre-eminent literary translators – on this day, we say thank you!

Translation has its roots in the feast of St. Jerome, the Bible translator who is considered to be the patron saint of translators. Over the centuries, as literature has evolved and changed, so too has the practice of translation.

Contemporary translation is “an act of furthering and response – taking a written work beyond its structural and linguistic boundaries and offering, in answer, a new text,” says translator Jessica Moore (translator’s note, Turkana Boy, p. 128). In our purportedly bilingual but vastly more diverse nation, “language barriers” and matters of translation are never far from our daily lives; translators are among those who steward and further discourses between language groups, and thereby advance our literal and proverbial understanding of one another. Thus, for your consideration, on this Day of days, we submit a few intriguing passages on the art of translation.

In her translator’s note for Maylis de Kerangal’s novel Birth of a Bridge (pp. 247–49), Moore asserts that the translation effort begins with love: “an unabashed love of the book – a vibrant, generous novel by one of the most celebrated authors in contemporary France.” She concludes that her “greatest challenge in translating this novel was to avoid flattening her singular use of language.” In the same note, she comments on the challenges of capturing expressions, writing that she aimed

to keep the echo of the French by maintaining as many cultural references as possible. References to landmarks, monuments, and figures from pop culture mostly were kept as is. There were times, though, when a reference would have been obscure if left as it appeared in the original. In the first site meeting, for example, when describing the two types of soil, harder on the surface but soft underneath, Diderot speaks about le coup de la frangipane (literally, ‘the marzipan trick’). This refers to the Galette des Rois – a cake with a flaky crust and soft marzipan filling, traditionally served during the Christmas season and near Lent or Carnival. Any French person would understand this reference, but to most of Anglophone North America, ‘the marzipan trick’ would be a mystery. I chose in this case to call it ‘the trick of the cream filling’ – which I suppose could call to mind either éclairs or cream-filled doughnuts, the latter being more of an across-the-board cultural reference in the English-speaking world.

With its turns of phrase and tone, fiction is one thing, but poetry is another beast altogether. Moore has translated both. In her translator’s note for Turkana Boy by Jean-François Beauchemin (pp. 127–29), Moore comments on the difficulty of translating poetry:

… it troubled me to ask [the author] to explain – because poetry shouldn’t be explained, it should be lived and felt. And then a pivotal point came. It was Jean-François who pushed me (out of the nest, so to speak) to have faith in my own interpretation. He let me know that he trusted in my poetic sensibility, and urged me to take the translation firmly into my own hands. Because, of course, to be truly faithful to a work means stepping away from a too-close adherence – in terms of rhythm, words, and phrasing; it means maintaining a loyalty to the spirit of the work …

Capturing the “spirit” of a work, as well as its meaning, is surely a daunting task for all serious literary translators, because poor translation not only dishonours the work, but also deprives the reader of understanding and enjoyment. Mayhaps you’ve heard about or even read English As She Is Spoke, the classic example of frustrated translation efforts and their resulting confusion (and hilarity).

A compelling exposé of bad translation work was written by Ralph Maud (and published by Talonbooks in 2000); it unearthed the history of anthropologist Franz Boas’s biased and arguably half-hearted efforts to capture the aboriginal stories told to him and written by Henry Tate. In the introduction to Transmission Difficulties: Franz Boas and Tsimshian Mythology, Maud pulls no punches about his own frustration and ultimate purpose: the classic text, he writes, is rife with “sorry errors of judgment and commission in the collaboration between Boas and Henry Tate that produced a volume which has been generally prized” (p. 9), yet isn’t worth prizing. He goes on:

I trust I have already said enough in this introduction to suggest how exasperating [Boaz’s book] Tsimshian Mythology is because of all the opportunities lost. I will with some stubbornness persist until I fully reveal that this monumental book has feet of clay. At the same time, Tsimshian Mythology is truly prodigious and, with some effort of reevaluation, it might in the future be turned to good use in a way its caster could not – it is clear – imagine. The small book I have undertaken to write can only begin the process, which will of course have to be completed by scholars in full command of the Tsimshian language. The reason that someone like myself (not able to make such a claim) can proceed at all in this prolegomenon is in itself interesting. How can a mere English speaker propose to handle this material? (p. 15)

Maud’s frustration with Boas’s translation, it should be noted, comes from a place of love and respect for the informant and scribe Tate; his concluding regret is that “Tate’s work might amaze us with its beauty and depth of feeling if it were presented well” (p. 130).

An especially beguiling work involving translation, which acknowledges and in fact celebrates its trials and failures, is Daniel Canty’s inventory-novel, Wigrum (translated by Oana Avasilichioaei). Wigrum includes quirky sidebar translations of real and fictitious passages quoted in the text, in Braille, Czech, French, German, Greek, Japanese, Polish, Russian, Spanish, and others.

Translators themselves acknowledge their challenges, often in the form of translator’s notes that accompany works in translation. To read an interesting set of translator’s notes, each of which acknowledges the subjectivity of the translator and his or her active role in interpretation, pre-order a copy of Larry Tremblay’s forthcoming War Cantata / Child Object. Each of the two plays in the volume is translated by a different translator: War Cantata by Keith Turnbull and Child Object by Chantal Bilodeau. In their notes, Turnbull and Bilodeau comment on their slightly different approaches to translating Tremblay’s dramatic texts. This book will be available in about a month’s time for $17.95.

Talonbooks has been publishing works in translation for decades and has a vested interest in providing in English works by Québécois authors. Throughout its history, Talon has published the work of more than 35 translators, including: Phyllis Aronoff, Oana Avasilichioaei, Michael Barnholden, Dietrich Bertz, Chantal Bilodeau, Neil Bishop, Alan Brown, Will Browning, Patricia Claxton, Sheila Fischman, David French, Linda Gaboriau, Bill Glassco, Hugh Hazelton, Laura Hodes, David Homel, Yvonne M. Klein, Neil Kroetsch, Maureen Labonté, David Lobdell, Ralph Maud, Jessica Moore, C. S. Morrissey, Rhonda Mullins, John Murrell, Robin Philpot, Fred A. Reed, Gail Scott, Howard Scott, John Stowe, Shelly Tepperman, Bobby Theodore, Keith Turnbull, John Van Burek, Ellen Warkentin, and Toyoshi Yoshihara. These skilled translators have crafted English works from original works in a variety of aboriginal North American languages and French (France and Quebec), as well as a few unexpected languages, including Japanese and ancient Greek. We are proud to have published such masters of language – if it can be said that anyone can master language.

Despite the behind-the-scenes nature of translation, Talon’s fine translators have not gone without recognition, even in recent weeks. Check out “Finding the Words: Linda Gaboriau’s struggle to translate a hit Quebec play” by Eric Andrew-Gee, a piece recently published in The Walrus about translator Linda Gaboriau’s efforts to translate the play Christina, The Girl King by Michel Marc Bouchard from French into English. Also check out – perhaps from your library – the book In Translation: Honouring Sheila Fischman (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013), which celebrates Fischman’s career of many decades and her contribution to the cultural ties between English and French Canada.

For a fun way to celebrate International Translation Day, visit the Society of Translators and Interpreters of British Columbia in Vancouver. Today it holds its annual International Translation Day open house and T-Slam, during which participants are given an hour and a passage to translate and then read to the group. Many languages may play a role. The T-Slam runs from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. at the STIBC office on West Broadway.