In Search of New Babylon

by Dominique Scali

translated by W. Donald Wilson

Talonbooks, 2017

Whenever I dive into a newly translated piece of Quebec fiction, my eyes and ears are finely tuned for issues encountered during translation. I usually find myself asking the same questions. How did the translator approach language features like bilingualism and joual? Did they preserve, or attempt to preserve, a sense of Quebec culture and identity even as they strove to create an idiomatic English text? Did they leave traces of French in the text, and if so, how? But when I picked up Dominique Scali’s In Search of New Babylon, a Western spanning the years after the Civil War, I quickly realized that few of my usual questions applied. In this exceptional piece of historical fiction, Scali tackles a distinctly American subject, one that clearly posed unique challenges for both the author and translator.

In her debut novel, shortlisted for the 2015 Governor General’s Award for French-language fiction, Scali introduces us to a handful of characters, each one journeying through the gritty landscape of the American Southwest. Charles Teasdale, Pearl Guthrie, Russian Bill, the Matador, and the Reverend Aaron are familiar, but manage to stray from the usual genre stereotypes; each of them is filled with surprising conflicts and contradictions. While the story is set at the end of the Gold Rush, none of them are traveling west to pan for gold. They’re searching for something much less tangible and infinitely more valuable; their own impossible ideals, hidden somewhere in the California desert:

“A place where you constantly have your breath taken away, sometimes because of the scenery, and sometimes because your throat’s been cut. My town will be called New Babylon, and people will come from far away just to be able to say they’ve been there.”

Donald Wilson was shortlisted at the 2017 Governor General’s Award for his English translation of Scali’s À la recherche de New Babylon. When I read Wilson’s translation, I was hard-pressed to find any awkwardness or hint of French. In Search of New Babylon could easily have been written originally in English; the wry humour, stark prose, and rolling cadence are superbly captured. Wilson’s familiarity with Westerns is clear, and I imagine he did a significant amount of research to ensure that his writing sounded authentic.

In the French, Scali’s writing is taut and rhythmic. The omniscient narrator has a strong voice that carries the reader forward, the way a good storyteller ought to, and Wilson did a great job capturing the steady beat. He also managed to infuse the novel with the language we so strongly associate with the Wild West; the descriptions, expressions, and dialogue especially are spot-on. One of the most interesting aspects of Scali’s novel is the way she approaches accent. Throughout the novel, she uses different language features, like elisions and phonetic “liaisons” to mimic the southern drawls and small-town twangs of her American characters:

“Au début j’ai cru que z’étiez un promoteur de l’Est qui venait reniffler les nouveaux talents. Z’êtes pas un promoteur. J’sais pas qui vous paie. J’sais pas ce que vous voulez. Mais vous pouve me tuer, ça m’est égal.”

In his translation, Wilson had the straightforward but nonetheless challenging task of rewriting these passages in Southern American English, using recognizable features such as contractions and double negatives:

“To start with, I thought you was a promoter from the East come scoutin’ for fresh talent. You’re no promoter. I dunno who pays you. I dunno what you want. But you can kill me, what do I care.”

Above all, In Search of New Babylon is incredibly fun and impossible to put down. Scali has successfully taken a piece of American history and woven it into a wholly unique Quebec Western, one that truly reflects Scali’s own relationship with and interpretation of the genre. From this perspective, Wilson’s translation can be seen as an act of retranslation; by rendering the novel in English, he has relocated the story and, in a sense, returned it to its origins.

PETINF14-QuebecReads-Favicon-32x32Review by Megan Callahan