This is the fifth in a series of interviews with people who are closely involved with Quebec literature on a daily basis. In the future, we hope to talk to more publishers, readers, bookstore owners, and translators to get a feel for today’s publishing scene in Quebec.
Passionate about languages from a young age, Arielle Aaronson left her native New Jersey in 2007 to pursue a diploma in Translation Studies from Concordia University in Montreal. She holds an M.A. in Second Language Education from McGill University and has spent the past few years teaching English in the Montreal public school system and creating educational material for second language learners. Her first translation, 21 Days in October, was published by Baraka Books in 2013.
So, Arielle, can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you ended up in literary translation?
I’ve always been surrounded by books; my mom is a librarian, so I started reading from a very young age. When I was 20 I spent a semester abroad in France, and that’s when I took my first translation class. I loved playing with words and seeing how substituting different ones would create a different feel within the text. After my semester abroad I knew my future would involve French in some way, so coming to Montreal to do a degree in translation seemed like a very natural progression. What I love most about literary translation as opposed to other types of translation is the freedom to create and interpret; I’m not a writer, but being a translator gives me license to muck about and make someone else’s words mine, in a way. It’s my form of artwork.
And what about 21 Days? What’s it about? What was the process like from first reading it to signing the contract to translate it?
Wow, that’s a lot of questions! The book is essentially about the period in Quebec’s history called the October Crisis, when the government of Canada invoked the War Measures Act and imposed martial law in response to growing political unrest in the province. What’s interesting is that the story is told from the perspective of a teenage boy who doesn’t really have a good grasp on politics. So from an educational standpoint, it’s an excellent springboard for discussion among today’s youth. I first read the book out of curiosity, since it was part of the history curriculum at the school where I was teaching. It’s always good to know what your kids are reading! I was immediately drawn to the story and its clipped style of writing. It’s very matter-of-fact, but it unfolds in a way that lets the reader evolve along with the main character. A good friend of mine encouraged me to submit a translation proposal to Baraka Books, who specialize in historical-political texts. The publisher, Robin Philpot, was extraordinary. Not only did he accept the proposal, but he’s also been a huge support throughout the whole process.
How did the translation go? Did you run into any particular problems with slang or historical references?
I really loved working on this book. The chapters are short enough so that I could get through one or two at each sitting, which made the work fly by. Nothing ever dragged out or stagnated. I tend to do a quick rough draft first and then go back over all problematic areas—and in this book there were quite a few. The characters are from a working-class neighbourhood and speak very colloquially, which can be difficult to translate. I had to constantly double-check that I was using the appropriate register of language, and I did a lot of searching through slang terms that would have been used in Canada in the 1970s. Plus I had to decide how each character would sound and how their speech would differ from other characters in the book. It was quite the challenge!
How do you feel about literary translation in general? Do you try to be as faithful as possible to the French or do you aim for a smooth read in English?
Hmm, that’s a tough question. I think ideally a translator should read through the entire work and be able to see through the text to grasp the style of writing. In my case, the narrative was pretty straightforward. If it reads a bit choppily in English, it probably is because it read that way in French, too. But all authors have different writing styles, of course. So a huge part of me would say that it’s important to stick as close to the author’s intent and voice as possible. However, I also feel that reading should be a pleasurable experience. Therefore, I will also try to adapt my translation in order to reflect how an English speaker might perceive the text. Does this involve making subjective assumptions? Yes. While that may be problematic at times, I also find that when sentences are translated too faithfully they jump off the page as sounding awkward and forced. And that irks me.
What are some of your favourite pieces of Quebec writing? Have you any other translations in the pipeline?
I really loved La fiancée américaine by Eric Dupont. I did have some qualms with the plot at times, but I thought the writing was just magnificent; it pulled you right in from the beginning. I also loved Dominique Fortier’s Du bon usage des étoiles. What a great narrative! And timely, now that we seem to be on the brink of solving the mystery of the Franklin expedition. I don’t have anything concrete in the works yet, but I have sent off some queries to various publishers recently. My bookshelf is just filled with books waiting to be read and, hopefully, translated!
If you were to recommend that someone who has never read anything from Quebec pick up a book and start reading it today, which book would it be?
Oh, goodness. I guess that would depend on the person! Like I said, I loved La fiancée américaine. But its sheer size is a bit daunting to most readers, I’d imagine. I’d say a great book to understand a bit more about Quebec would be Cures for Hunger by Déni Béchard. It’s originally published in English, but the French translation is top-notch. Although it can get a bit melancholy at times, I loved the relationship that was at the heart of this book. It’s not only about a father and son, but also about a father and his past. Great stuff.
How do you think Quebec literature differs from novels published elsewhere in North America?
Quebec literature is about people. It’s stories about children, teenagers, families, husbands, wives, and relationships with society. I think it’s this humanistic side to the literature that really appeals to me. When I can pick up a book and immediately get enveloped in a character’s world, to me, that’s magic. And this might be a theme running throughout Canadian fiction on a larger scale; Alice Munro writes incredible stories about people. But La petite et le vieux, La chute de Sparte, even 21 Days, they’re all great books that have the relationship—with self, with lover, with the greater society—at their core.