by Éric Plamondon
translated by Dimitri Nasrallah
Véhicule Press (Esplanade Books)
Hungary-Hollywood Express is the first translation from Dimitri Nasrallah, a well-respected Montreal-based author who made his name with two award-winning novels: Niko (2011, Esplanade Books) and Blackbodying (2005, DC Books). This background makes for an interesting translation, raising a completely different set of questions than those explored elsewhere on this site in more typical translations by the likes of Donald Winkler, Lazer Lederhendler, and Sheila Fischman, the current household names of Canada’s translation scene.
There are two sides to literary translation: 1) understanding and being faithful to the French and 2) bringing it across nicely into English. Some of the least successful literary translations I’ve read have been written by authors. Authors who live outside the province and appear to have no more than a shaky grasp of its way of life, let alone its culture, subtleties, and slang. Esplanade Books appear to be only too aware of this danger: all the authors who will be translating their books in the future live and work in Montreal. They know the city’s history, the province’s culture. But they are authors first and translators second.
Dimitri Nasrallah falls into this category. It is a massive compliment when I say that Hungary-Hollywood Express reads very much as though it was written in English. Plamondon’s lists are every bit as mesmerizing in English as they are in French, building momentum, and moving from the mundane to the scarcely credible to the impossible:
“I’ve owned a Texas Instrument 99/4A … I’ve learned how to use Windows, Outlook, Word, Excel, Photoshop, Dreamweaver, Flash … I’ve done layout, brochures, posters, books … I’ve also been a soldier. I’ve cut off cocks, heads, and arms. I’ve raped young girls and run over women with a Hummer. I’ve blown up embassies, I’ve gone AWOL. I saved lives, bandaged wounds, and fed children … I’ve seen Genghis Khan’s elephants cross the Mongol Empire … I’ve seen Mount Vesuvius destroy Pompeii … I stabbed Caesar.”
It’s all about rhythm and changing perspective as Nasrallah goes about his work deftly and diligently, effortlessly shifting from the eight-page list of the narrator’s accomplishments that makes up Chapter 1 to the six-line paragraph that is Chapter 2, moving from dry details to external conditions to intimate thoughts. It is, on the face of it, the story of Johnny Weissmuller (1904-1984), “an Olympic champion … an Apollo of the movie house, an Adonis with a glistening torso that millions of women around the world have dreamed of holding in their arms,” but there are also captions and descriptions for photos we can’t see, anecdotes, poetry, cameos by Al Capone, and “the story of a poor guy who sold pencil sharpeners in Chicago, 1991” as Plamondon takes an unexpected approach to each subject. The delivery and timing are exquisite, each vignette a satisfying work of art in miniature. Whole passages read like the best Wikipedia articles ever, the essence of a character distilled into a few sentences, dates, and places of birth, fleshed out until they become literature:
“Gabriel Rivages was conceived in May 1968 in the backwoods of a Canadian forest. In Paris, they called it the unrestrained pursuit of pleasure. His mother, a waitress at the only hotel on a wildlife reserve, had succumbed to the charms of a foreman. Gabriel was born in February 13, 1969, the same day the Quebec Liberation Front detonated a bomb at the Montreal Stock Exchange. The president of the exchange noted the event with irony: ‘Today, you might say that the market went up!’”
Nasrallah is part of a welcome new generation of translators who is prepared to step back from the French long enough to render “grand vide” a “deep-seated emptiness,” who writes “I’m particularly fond of that photo” when the French says “J’aime bien la photo,” and who isn’t afraid to slot in an “Mm-hmm” when the “Oui” of the original would have fallen impossibly flat, who calls “un boulot de serveuse” a “waitressing gig.” Expressions involving familiar idioms are fluid in English: “On a été un peu dans le jus mais pas trop” becomes “We were in over our heads for a little while, but not by much,” for example, while “Poisson avait raison” is “Poisson was onto something” in Nasrallah’s version, not the instantly forgettable “Poisson was right.” And “nous sommes obligés de” is—mercifully—translated as “we’re compelled to” as opposed to the forced-sounding “we are obliged to,” a phrase that seems only to appear in translations into English.
Divergences from the French begin to appear when the English is compared to the less familiar idioms of the French original. (And, let’s be honest here, how many reviewers are likely to do that? There is even an argument, I suppose, that this might be a little underhand or unnecessary, opening the car’s hood to look at how the engine’s running, when we can step back and give the tires a perfunctory kick instead.) But, for me, writing about a translation doesn’t just involve writing about the book as it now reads in English: to judge a translation we need to look at how the translator read and understood a French sentence and rewrote it in English.
The “je viens d’avoir” construction is translated two or three times, including in the novel’s first line, as “I’m about to” although it refers to the past. It means, in the case of the first line, “I just turned 40” not “I’m about to turn forty.” “À la fin de l’année de mes quatre ans” means at the end of the author’s fourth year, which should of course be translated more idiomatically, but translating it as “for four years” is to say something different in English. “Au Québec” is repeatedly translated as “in Quebec City” when Plamondon is referring to the province, not its capital. Bankruptcy as “the drop of water that overflows the vase” seems to stick unnecessarily close to the French idiom when we can more naturally say it’s “the last straw” in English, an argument that gains weight when we consider that similarly exotic-sounding idioms in French have been given their idiomatic equivalents in English (“ça met du buerre dans les épinards” becomes “it’s his bread and butter,” for example). And “ignorer” is translated, ironically enough, several times as “We’ll ignore that” when it means we don’t know something.
There are slips in meaning. 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.” “Un ultime souvenir” is translated as “the ultimate souvenir” and a character “qui revient d’une visite avec son fils” is “dreaming of taking his son for a visit” as revenir is misread as rêver. There are also a handful of French sentences that were overlooked, or set aside, and didn’t make it into English. Finally, on the face of it, “when I want the whole world to go to shit” seems to be a nice translation for “où j’envoie chier tout le monde” but do they really mean the same thing?
We can do two things here. We can give our translator the benefit of the doubt or we can ask ourselves what does it really matter. Is the English translation a standalone work or should it reflect the French as faithfully as possible? My natural inclination is to want my cake and eat it, to preach faithfulness provided it doesn’t get in the way of style. It would appear that Nasrallah’s focus is very much on the writing, on wearing his writer’s rather than his translator’s hat—something I look forward to exploring further with him in a future interview.
It’s easy to nitpick, easy to stumble over a word choice (should those members be limbs? should that viaduct be an overpass? shouldn’t Tintin’s Milou be Snowy?), easier still to ignore a sentence that glides on by effortlessly, without pausing to notice what makes it work so well in the first place. In cases like this it’s easy to see Nasrallah’s background as a writer as his ear for a smooth turn of phrase comes through, particularly in dialogue.
Take this example:
“America, an event. Beyond the West, in need of a new conquest. That’s where Hollywood comes in.”
That’s translation at its best. Honestly. It seems perfectly straightforward, but taking a French sentence, no matter how well written, and ending up with an English sentence as natural, as unobtrusive, as that one is often anything but straightforward. And translating “il paraît que” as a laconic “turns out” (and “en fait” as “as it happens”) is inspired. Both seem perfectly simple, obvious choices in hindsight, but they fit with the tone perfectly here.
In this respect, the translation is perfect. The French, too, is straightforward at first glance. But a rhythm builds as paragraphs swell. The French never falls flat, and neither does the English. My quibble—and it is nothing more than a quibble—is that the English occasionally doesn’t say what the French says and not just for reasons of style.
That all said, it is inevitable that each translation be a compromise between representing the French and crafting a nice-sounding sentence in English. Esplanade looks to be onto something with this approach and, while I personally would have stuck just a little more closely to the French here and there, Hungary-Hollywood Express is a welcome step in the right direction for the future of literary translation in Canada.