by Jocelyne Saucier
translated by Rhonda Mullins
Coach House Books, 2015
Set in the 1960s, Jocelyne Saucier’s Twenty-One Cardinals follows the Cardinal family, a clan of twenty-one children whose lives centre on the small mining town of Norcoville in northern Quebec.
Originally published in 2006 (Les héritiers de la mine), the novel brings together a chorus of voices. Saucier writes in the first person, but interestingly six Cardinal siblings share in the telling. As the story unfolds, we are given different versions of the same events, in different lights and at slightly different angles. Memories are unreliable and contradictory; truths are exaggerated and interspersed with lies. In their own way, each Cardinal mythicizes their family and the events that shaped their lives, until they become nothing short of legendary:
“We were a race of conquerors. Of those who do not bend or break, of those who follow their instinct, who spread their wings wide and fly in the face of fear. We were the kings of Norco.”
In the French novel, the language is characteristic of rural Quebec in the sixties: the narrators speak joual and the text is rife with Québécois expressions. Through the Cardinals’ narrations, we get a sense of their feral upbringing, poverty and small-town culture. English words peppered throughout the novel, such as Big, King and Mustang, reflect the influence and power of English during that era, and wordplay adds complexity, introducing significant challenges in translation.
Winner of the 2015 Governor General’s Literary Award for French-to-English Translation, Twenty-One Cardinals has been praised for its deft and beautiful language. Translator Rhonda Mullins evidently worked hard to produce an English-sounding text. She successfully recreates the tone and feel of the French, and finds creative solutions to tricky problems, the most notable being “smyplace” (short for “that’s my place”) for aheumplace (que personne ne prenne ma place). Virtually no French words are kept, and Quebec expressions are transformed into accurate and idiomatic English equivalents, like “old bag” and “hicks” for vieille chouette and culs-terreux.
While Mullins’ approach works exceptionally well to capture the complex chorus of voices, I found it failed to convey the music of the original French. Much of Mullins’ language is beautiful, but Saucier’s work is also musical, with auditory features that are often found in poetry, such as rhyme and sound repetition. In the following paragraph describing a dynamite blast, Saucier’s repetition of the vowel é creates a noticeable musical pattern:
“Trop d’agrégats gelés mêlés à la matière libre. De la rangée d’épinettes où nous nous étions tous réfugiés, nous pouvions voir le sable fuser parmi les blocs qui retombaient dans un éclaboussement de neige souillée. C’était déréglé, désarticulé, un peu clownesque.”
In her translation, Mullins sticks close to the French and successfully recreates the striking image, but the music of the original falls to the wayside:
“Too much frozen aggregate combined with loose material. From the row of spruce trees where we had all taken cover, you could see the sand fly up amid chunks that fell in a splash of blackened snow. It was disorderly, jumbled, a bit clownish.”
Poetic passages like this one are rampant in Saucier’s novel, and it’s a shame that not all of them make it over into the translation.
I also wished Mullins had left remnants of the French in her translation. By creating a monolingual narrative, she diffuses the linguistic tension that is so inherent to Saucier’s work. For example, the dialogue between the McDougalls and the Cardinals loses its significance when both appear to speak the same language. The Cardinals’ names, which blend English and French in the original novel, become purely English Canadian. Overall, I felt the political and cultural divide between the English and the French fades into the background, so as to become almost unnoticeable.
While I was captivated by the Cardinal family and the mystery surrounding Angèle’s disappearance, the novel’s ending proved to be abrupt and anticlimactic; the tension that had been building from the very first page was cut short, and the final reveal carries little emotional weight. That said, every chapter was a pleasure to read and the cast of characters was unique and compelling. The major strength of the novel is its examination of family: the complexities of identity, loyalty and betrayal, and the lies we tell to protect the ones we love.
I thoroughly enjoyed Twenty-One Cardinals, and Mullin’s translation is no doubt a success. In literary translation, choices must be made and compromise is inevitable. While I found Mullins’ translation to be disappointing on some levels, her virtuosity as a translator is undeniable, especially considering the complexity of Saucier’s work.
Review by Megan Callahan
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