Interview with translator Fred A. Reed

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.

A three-time winner of the Governor General’s Award for translation, plus a nomination in 2009 for his translation of Thierry Hentsch’s Le temps aboli, Empire of Desire, Reed has translated works by many of Quebec’s leading authors.


So you’ve enjoyed a long career as a literary translator. How would you describe your relationship to the profession and to Quebec fiction?

Thanks first of all for the interview, Peter. Sorry we can’t do it in person! Actually, literary translation is something I stumbled onto, just as I made my way obliquely into journalism and then, writing books. My relationship with the profession? I’ve always operated at some distance from most of my translator colleagues, perhaps reflecting my unconventional entry into the field, if we can call it that. Nor did I begin, as, say Sheila Fischman, with a fascination and love for Quebec fiction. My first translation, which came after the late Hubert Aquin’s literary executrix disallowed me from translating one of his earliest novels, was the late and much lamented Thierry Hentsch’s L’Orient imaginaire, published under the mistaken title, Imagining the Middle East. Totally unexpectedly that won the GG award in 1991 and set me off on my semi-lengthy and often sub-brilliant career.


How many books would you say you’ve translated so far?

I’m not in my office right now, but I would guess I’ve translated between 30 and 40 books, many of them with my esteemed and gifted colleague David Homel. In fact, the two of us won the GG for our translation of Martine Desjardin’s Le cercle de Clara, published as Fairy Ring. We’ve since translated all of Mme Desjardin’s work, and are currently preparing her La chambre verte for publication. It would also be fair to point out that I’ve not only translated books from French, but also from Modern Greek, most of them for a series of Greek writers in translation for a leading Athenian publisher (Kedros) but also in England.


Can you name a book you’re particularly proud of?

Beyond a doubt, Thierry Hentsch’s masterwork, Raconter et mourrir, published in English as Truth or Death, which won me my third GG, and was worth every moment, hour, and day of my time. Hentsch’s premature death was a blow to intellectual and literary life in Quebec; he is still sorely missed. Interestingly, that award coincided with the beginning of Michaëlle Jean’s term as Governor General: a propitious moment if ever there was one.


Any books you wish you’d translated yourself?

Not that I can think of. In fact, I never pitched a Canadian publisher on a particular translation.


And you don’t have to name names but are there any translations you wish you hadn’t done or you wish you’d made a better job of?

There are some I’m not terribly proud of. I can mention one, George-Hébert Germain’s highly authorized biography of Céline Dion, which I translated along with David Homel.

So flimsy and pretentious was this potboiler that we actually wrote ourselves into the text…and nobody even noticed!

But we were very well paid for our efforts. Of course, once you’ve finished a translation and it’s been published, the errors you’ve made leap out from the page.


What are you reading right now?

I read primarily the books I’m translating, slowly, carefully and deeply. Right now, that’s La chambre verte. But as I am currently in Morocco, I’m also reading (or have read) several novels by Driss Chraïbi, who is considered the ‘father’ of Moroccan French-language writing. His work is complex, linguistically exiting, rich and multi-layered. There’s even a Quebec connection. This prolific author taught for a semester at Laval, in Quebec City, in the seventies. In fact, I find myself wishing I could translate (and get published) Chraïbi. Anyone listening?


Any future projects in the works?

I’m fast approaching what is called retirement age, if not beyond. We’ll have to see if I get any calls.


Finally, do you have any advice for aspiring literary translators?

Try to translate books that touch you… but never say ‘no.’ You never know if the book you didn’t really like at the beginning will turn out to be the book that transforms you. I would also add: never view the translator’s trade as much more than a form of literary cabinetry. We are the wielders of metaphorical hammers, saws, drills, planes and screwdrivers, and we assemble—we hope—sturdy and attractive furniture.


Photo credit: Mohamed Shaheen