This is part of an ongoing 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.
Cassidy Hildebrand is a freelance translator, reader, and writer. She did her MA in translation studies at the University of Ottawa, for which she wrote a thesis on translating short story cycles. Her English translation of award-winning Montreal author Suzanne Myre’s short story collection Mises à mort was recently published, and now she’s looking into some new projects. She currently splits her time between Toronto and Ottawa, but wishes she was somewhere warmer.
Well, I’ve always loved reading, writing, and studying French, which turned into studying translation at university. I did a concentration in literary translation for my MA, and when I was looking for a book to translate for my thesis, my adviser suggested I check out Suzanne Myre’s work. I decided to translate her most recent release, which was Mises à mort, her fifth short story collection. At the time, my adviser was also working with the University of Ottawa Press on launching the Literary Translation series, which publishes English or French translations of contemporary or classic literary works. I was lucky enough to have him submit my translation for publication, and the press generously agreed to publish it. Right place, right time.
I see you read for Anansi. I’d love to know more about how you got into that and what exactly you do.
I started reading for House of Anansi after I met Kelly Joseph, the managing editor, at an Anansi book reading in Toronto. We got to chatting about literary translation and she told me about Arachnide Editions, Anansi’s relatively new imprint dedicated to publishing English translations of French-Canadian works. Being a reader for Anansi basically means I read French-language novels and tell the publishing house whether or not I think they’d be suitable for translation under the Arachnide program. I summarize the novel and assess it in terms of writing style, voice, subject matter, topicality, possible translation issues, commercial potential, accessibility, etc. Then the Anansi team decides which books to have translated for its list. I love it, because I’m always getting to read fantastic French-Canadian novels by a diverse range of authors, some established, some green, whose work I may not necessarily choose to read on my own, so I’m always being exposed to great new stuff.
And what about Death Sentences? What’s it about? What was the process like from first reading it to signing the contract to translate it?
In short, Death Sentences is a collection of stories about death, both in the literal and metaphorical sense of the word. As grim as this may sound, Myre has a sense of humour and mostly approaches the subject from an ironic and (darkly) humorous perspective. Yes, the book can be sincere and sobering, but it’s also sarcastic and witty and fun. Her handling of the subject is so clever and interesting; she takes the reader to completely unexpected places (an almond croissant is potentially murderous and a bookish man has a very odd speciality, for example).
It was a long process from the first reading to the contract signing. I translated and edited sporadically, for a number of reasons, before it finally went to the publisher.
Just a note about translation in general: it always amazes me how differently people will interpret the same thing, or how even you yourself can interpret something in different ways at various points in your life.
And that’s one of the great things about Myre’s writing, too; it’s complex and ambiguous, there’s always something new to discover in her stories, even after multiple readings.
Suzanne Myre is an author I’ve been meaning to get around to for years now, but I must admit I haven’t read a thing of hers until this week when I picked up B.E.C. Have you read any of her other novels? What kind of style does she have?
I haven’t read Myre’s novels yet (they’re both on order), but I’ve read a lot of her short stories. She’s published five collections in total, and they’re all great. Her writing is vivid, incisive, idiosyncratic, and she’s got a great sense of humour. Her style can veer from the plain to the more ornate, depending on the needs of the story, though I’d say she usually falls somewhere in between. I always like reading her. No matter the subject, I find she’s always frank, thoughtful, and funny, and she can achieve so much with a short text. Her short stories have given me a completely new appreciation and taste for the genre. I’m much more inclined to read short stories now than I ever was before. And I’m really looking forward to reading her novels.
How did the translation go? Did you run into any particular problems? Could you give us an example of a line or paragraph and how you dealt with it in English?
I had a lot of fun translating Mises à mort. Apart from interesting expressions and occasionally bizarre syntax that could sometimes be a bit tricky to render in English, I think the bilingual nature of the book created the most interesting translation challenge. Myre uses the English language semi-frequently throughout and makes a lot of pop culture references, some French (Madame Bec Sec, les Simard), but mostly English (she quotes Coldplay and House of Love lyrics, for example). Because the entire collection is set in Montreal, and because the English language/culture serves as a recurring and unifying element, I wanted the English translation to possess elements of the French language/culture as well, while still being accessible to an Anglophone audience. My solution was to keep the French pop culture references as they were (while making sure the allusion wouldn’t be missed), and use French words or expressions that any English speaker would understand, such as voilà and n’est-ce pas. In one case, I kept the phrase in French and repeated it in English: “…you have to turn the page. Do you understand? Tourne la page.”
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?
Whenever I’m translating, I’m always trying to aim for a happy middle ground between the French and the English. I want to maintain the same tone, rhythm, register, and evoke the same feeling as the original, and, naturally, convey the same meaning, but I also want the text to read beautifully in English. There’s always going to be some give and take, and in the end, my goal is to create a nice balance between the two.
And you have an MA in Translation Studies, don’t you? I’m sure this influences how you translate. In other words, I take it you learned about the two schools of thought and varying degrees of faithfulness at university. Did you see translating Death Sentences as a chance to put everything you’d learned into practice or to break free and combine your own style with Suzanne Myre’s?
That’s a tough question! For all the discussions we had on varying degrees of faithfulness, I wouldn’t say I put everything I’d learned into practice when I was translating Death Sentences. I would say that as a translator, I’m more willing to take chances now, more willing to stray a little further from the text. But I think that’s a result of having more confidence in my work in general, rather than a result of studying notions of faithfulness. And I’m not talking about taking liberties with meaning, I’m just talking about giving yourself a little more rope in expressing that meaning. When I was translating Death Sentences, I was trying to maintain Myre’s style as much as possible, but I’m sure some tendencies of my own eked their way in, too. Really, I think you’re always going to bring a bit of your own style to a text, whether intentionally or not.
What are some of your favourite pieces of Quebec writing? Have you any other translations in the pipeline?
Two of my favourite pieces of Quebec writing are Mordecai Richler’s Barney’s Version and Joshua, Then and Now. Almost anything by Richler is a favourite of mine, I don’t know how many times I’ve re-read his stuff. Even as a kid, I loved his Jacob Two-Two books. For something completely different, Gabrielle Roy’s Bonheur d’occasion is also brilliant. And of course, I’m always happy to pick up something by Suzanne Myre. As for my current translation work, I have some other projects in mind, but nothing I could officially qualify as being “in the pipeline.”
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?
For the English reader, I’d recommend Mordecai Richler’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. For the French reader, Gabrielle Roy’s Bonheur d’occasion. Of course, both works have been translated into French and English respectively, so language isn’t actually a barrier. (Thank goodness for literary translators, right?)
Really, I’d recommend anything by Richler or Roy. These may seem like stock suggestions, but they’re such talented writers and they both, during different times, from different perspectives and through very different styles (and languages), so beautifully capture life in Quebec. They’re such a treat to read.
Michel Tremblay’s play Les belles soeurs is another excellent piece of writing to come out of Quebec, and being written in joual, it’s definitely very “Quebec.” Again, this may seem like a stock answer, but the play had a huge impact on Quebec language and culture, so I think it needs to make the list. I think any of these would serve as a great introduction to Quebec literature.
How do you think Quebec literature differs from novels published elsewhere in North America?
At the risk of sounding glib, a lot of Quebec literature is in French. But that’s my sincere answer, too! Quebec is a unique place in terms of language, culture, history, politics, etc., and its literature is a reflection of that. I really don’t know of any other place in North American that can compare in that respect.