by Perrine Leblanc
translated by Lazer Lederhendler
House of Anansi, 2015
A psychologist does nothing but “ânnoner des phrases de réconfort.” The réconfort is calling out to the translator inside of you. Its similarity to comfort is irresistible and before you know it you’ve put down a competent but somewhat plodding “phrases of comfort”—no, strike that—”words of comfort” and moved on.
Moved on, you say? Hold on a minute! Lazer Lederhendler takes your “words of comfort” and raises you “bromides of consolation.” Damn it, you think. That’s nice. That’s a translator at the top of his game. And it’s just as well. For Lazer Lederhendler. For Perrine Leblanc. And for Anansi. Because Perrine Leblanc’s writing is seldom short of exquisite for much of this book. And Lazer Lederhendler never fails to do it justice.
Malabourg’s opening paragraph, for instance, is flawlessly brought into English by Lederhendler in a beautiful translation that sets the tone for the rest of the novel.
“Between Mont Silverwood and the sea lies Malabourg. The village covers two hundred and thirty-five square kilometres, an area encompassing a salmon river, a section of the national highway, a forest made up primarily of conifers, and, in the heart of the forest, a lake the local children call ‘the tomb.’ Malabourg sits on the northern shore of the Baie des Chaleurs, but because the water there is salty, it is referred to as the sea.”
The second paragraph, if anything, is even better: welcoming, descriptive, and introducing a touch of magic.
“Malabourg’s sky is not hollow; it manipulates people like a shaman. Nature, sovereign nature, the hook of a god of chance about whom little is known, shows itself in its own way through the gene that for two hundred years has fashioned the faces of Malabourg’s inhabitants.”
This is writing of the highest order, published in France by Gallimard no less and now in English translation for House of Anansi’s Arachnide imprint. It was even up for this year’s Governor General’s Award for translation, ultimately edged out by Twenty-One Cardinals.
There is something about the language, the turns of phrase, that lingers with us paragraphs later, evocative and full of meaning, all delivered with a disturbing undercurrent of death, sexuality, and disruption.
The vocabulary choices in English are impressively spot-on throughout: rendre fou is driven to distraction (rather than the cheaper driven mad), pourvu is endowed, pur produit is a full-blown product, transactions obscures are murky, and Elle n’a pas de seins, les poumons les ont mangés becomes She has no breasts; her lungs swallowed them whole, a fuller and more satisfying phrase than a more literal had eaten them, which would have fallen flat.
The descriptions are astonishingly lush, adding a dash of poetry and a hint of the extraordinary to everyday places and events—”He also sells fiddleheads in May and the sugared rhubarb that the children love to chew in the summertime as they amble along the shoreline, at the foot of the ochre cliff, among the fires still smouldering from the day before, far from what’s left of the clams that were grilled and eaten on the pebble beach at 2 a.m. by virile older brothers, pretty girls, and tourists.”—as Leblanc paints this world of hers with a full palette of colours (canary yellow, apple green, mandarin, fuchsia, and more).
The imagery is just off-beat enough to stay with us, to add an element of truth to each description. And in the early chapters there is a beauty to the language, a madness, that reminds the reader of Anne Hébert. It is refined, dignified, composed as it goes about describing the murders of three young girls in Malabourg, a fictitious village on the Gaspé Peninsula. Long, eloquent sentences draw us in and weave their spell over us, giving the novel a feel all its own, while constantly reminding us of the influences of other great writers from Quebec’s past.
The writing is always incredibly evocative: a skater is described as “putting on a burst of speed, scarf flapping in the wind, ice spraying chin-high from his blades,” while a herbal tea is “a lullaby sung in silence.” And Lederhendler has his work cut on one more than once occasion, translating the whimsical “As-tu des remords mon merle, maire, merde?” as “Remorseful, my little mare, mayor, nightmare?”, for example, and coming up with praiseworthy solutions as Leblanc comments on her characters’ French pronunciation or switch from tu to vous.
One particularly technique was, I noticed, inverting sentences to great effect, i.e., delivering information in an order that worked much better in English than had the translator followed the French order of ideas. To take a trivial example on the face of it, “Lilliane regardait son amie en se grattant l’oreille” becomes “Liliane scratched her ear as she looked at her friend.” I asked Lazer Lederhendler about such inversions and he was kind enough to reply:
“I don’t think in terms of ‘inverting’ the sentence, since the original sentence tells the translator what the sentence should say but not how exactly to say it. Like anyone who writes for a living, I aim for a well-constructed, interesting sentence, which for me means a sentence with good rhythm, cadence, euphony—unless, of course, otherwise required by the style or approach of the original. Also, a sentence that leads with the ‘punch’ and ends ‘anti-climactically’ is generally less interesting than one constructed the other way round.”
It’s such a little thing, but as we’ve often noticed on this site in the past, it’s the little things that often make the difference in literary translation, either quietly undermining the English or, as is the case here, providing additional reasons why everything simply works and sounds “right.”
In short, there is much to admire in the translation. But aside from the writing, truth be told, there is not much else to this tale. Once the murder mystery is behind us, fleeting characters are lovingly described but there is little for the reader to hold on to. The story stumbles, loses its way, and quickly fizzles out as we progress. The promising beginning is forgotten as we turn the pages of the book’s second half, no longer with any real interest. The intrigue is far behind us as talk turns to perfume, flowers, New York City, the Botoxed wealthy, and the student protests in Montreal.
But we are left with Perrine Leblanc’s warm turns of phrase and Lederhendler’s excellent translation. That is almost enough.