This is part of an ongoing series of interviews with people who are closely involved with Quebec literature on a daily basis as we continue to talk to publishers, readers, bookstore owners, and translators to get a feel for today’s publishing scene in Quebec.
Dimitri Nasrallah is fiction editor at Esplanade Books, an imprint of Véhicule Press in Montreal. He translated the first volume of Éric Plamondon’s 1984 trilogy, Hungary-Hollywood Express.
I bet Chapter 73, one of the shortest, was the hardest to translate?
It was indeed. The section is so condensed and has so many competing elements that it’s practically untranslatable. I started off in a somewhat literal translation that wasn’t working at all, at which point Éric Plamondon, Éric de Larochelière (Le Quartanier’s publisher), and I had to talk through what the priorities of the section would be. We decided the poem in question needed to emphasize the wordplay inherent in the poetry sections, while still alluding to the novel’s themes. From there, I rebuilt the section from scratch, from title on down.
And was Chapter 71 the easiest?
What about translating all those lists? I’m guessing it was harder than it looked.
The key with the lists was replicating the subtle escalation of musicality that was inherent in the originals. Plamondon has a wonderful ear for teasing out rhythms from the most mundane corners of the French language, but that aspect would be lost in a straight translation. So I had to come up with a parallel rhythm for the English, a parallel voice that differed slightly in syntax, was perhaps a little tougher and a little more direct.
Can you tell us a little more about your general approach to translation and did your work on this book deviate from it in any way? Was it exactly the same approach that you and Neil Smith took when translating La Déesse des mouches à feu, which earned Neil a GG nomination for translation earlier this year?
It differs with each novel. There’s no boilerplate. In each case, I try to discern what the original work is doing, what its priorities may be beyond the words on the page. From there, it’s a matter of deciding how to best represent those concerns not only in the English language, but within Anglicized culture.
For Geneviève Pettersen’s novel, Neil and I spent a lot of time mulling over the slang, which is practically a character in the story as it speaks to both the era and the region. Replicating the original slang was not going to work, so we decided to recreate the slang of the same time period, but as it would have occurred in an equivalent English-Canadian town of the same size.
For Plamondon the concerns were altogether different, as we were not dealing with a linear novel, but an experimental one that comes together in a pointillist fashion. So the translation required an approach that was direct and transparent, at times conversational and intimate, one that impacts the reader without creating the kind of obfuscation that slows down the reading.
I wanted to showcase its structure in the most welcoming light, because ultimately what the 1984 trilogy has to offer in English translation, above all its other fine qualities, is its formal ingenuity as a potential innovation to literary writing in the age of information overloads.
I think it’s great that you’re about the same age as Éric Plamondon. (To be honest, I’m sick of a whole generation of up-and-coming writers from Quebec sounding like they’re in their sixties and seventies when we read them in English.) Do you think that helped you capture his voice?
Perhaps. I don’t know that the voice in English is a replication of Plamondon’s voice in French. Rather, I felt I needed to come up with a voice that could carry all of the novel’s attributes consistently. I think the English voice is tougher, more direct, more clipped than the French in syntax and yet employing a much wider vocabulary. It bears the same spirit, but French and English have different rhetorical strengths and weaknesses.
Is there a line you particularly agonized over or something you can point out to us in the translation that we might have missed?
Chapter 19, “Armelle and Giono,” starts with an English translation of a Biblical passage and then offers how Melville assumed it in Moby Dick, before moving on to how Giono translated the very same passage into French. The nuances and details change slightly with each evolution, and there’s a story to be told from following the interpretations. Plamondon did this all in French, and replicating it in English was no easy task. In Giono’s case the translation had to highlight changes made from English toward French, in English! It was a Rubik’s cube.
And what about some of the points I raised in my review about accuracy/style? I totally get that some decisions were made with the French publisher and author and that the aim was to have everything sound as smooth as possible in English without slavishly following the French. So this led to changes, I understand, like beginning the book with “I’m about to turn forty” rather than “I just turned forty” (which is what the French says). I was going to ask if you thought this wasn’t just change for the sake of change, but clearly you don’t or else you wouldn’t have done it! I suppose this question betrays my own tendency as an editor and translator. I think it’s only an issue for me because you reshaped meaning here and there in English a little more than I’m comfortable with, you went a little further than I would have done. What, to you, are the benefits of doing this?
Well, I’d point back to that Chapter 19 and say that Plamondon had built this work fully aware that translation is an evolution and not a replication. The foundations of Hungary-Hollywood Express are often English-to-French translations from Wikipedia or other online sources that work exactly in this way, and so translating them back into English requires even more evolution so as not to end up back where the author began.
Accuracy is a near-impossible task in literary translation to begin with, precisely because words are deemed ‘literary’ when they are managing to carry more than one dimension to them. How does one translate multi-dimensional language accurately, especially when it’s rendered in experimental form?
Choices have to be made along the way, and as long as those choices bear the same literary weight, the variables that add up to that weight don’t necessarily have to be the exact same. So the translator assumes some agency with the work to pull off the author’s intentions.
There were many instances where the two Erics and I discussed the word choices, and in every instance where it was felt that I’d missed something integral from the original, we went back and fixed it to everyone’s satisfaction. But then there were moments that they were just as happy to leave in my alteration, as a nod to the sort of trans-linguistic wordplay that’s described in Chapter 19 and elsewhere in the work. For Plamondon, it seemed an extension of the associative paper trail that characterizes his fiction.
And not all the changes in meaning were introduced for stylistic reasons surely? I presume some of them came about from playing around with the English to the point where it no longer said what the French did. I’m thinking of examples like these from my review: “The bikini is banned ‘sur plusieurs plages’ in France, Plamondon writes, while Nasrallah has it banned ‘from all beaches.’ In English, Weissmuller is ‘the best paid-actor in Hollywood’; in French, he’s ‘one of the best.’” How do you view differences like this between the French and English? Collateral damage? All part of the creative process? A plus?
The translation sometimes did spark some minor deviations that we were all fine with, because in the end, we gained way more for the force of a “from all beaches” than we would have mustered with the relatively flaccid “from most beaches.” The sections are so brief that if you end up splitting hairs and tending all the ‘mosts’ and ‘one of’s’, you end up with an uncertain and tentative work in English. Compiled over numerous brief sections, it doesn’t muster up the same impact as the French, which doesn’t experience the same rhetorical challenges with such descriptions.
Reviewers are fond of saying things like “adeptly translated by Nasrallah, fluently translated by Nasrallah.” If you could pick one adverb to go with your translation which one would it be?
I’ll leave that to a reviewer. In most cases (present company excluded) reviewers are commenting on aspects of the work they’ve invested little to no energy in exploring when they make such statements.
Finally, I hope it’s clear from the excerpt on Québec Reads, but this is such a great book in English and in French. I think it epitomises a lot of what’s right with Quebec literature at the minute. What makes it an important book in your eyes? Why did you choose to translate it for Esplanade?
Plamondon’s fiction is important because its innovative structure offers a convincing lens to how we forage information online these days. Other writers have attempted to find a literary mode for illustrating this, but they tend to be maximalist in their approach, to really inundate the reader with the fire hose of information available to us. But the lasting literary merit of the author’s achievement is that he’s whittled this associative investigation down to its most poetic simplicities.