by Marie-Renée Lavoie
translated by Wayne Grady
House of Anansi, 2014
A few years back I was looking for book recommendations (as I often do), so I turned to my colleagues for some titles. At that time, it seemed that everyone was reading the same book: “There’s this new book out… something about a little girl…” “Oh yeah, La petite et le vieux. I just read it; it was really good.” “My sister just told me about that one. Said it was great.” I wrote the title down for future reference. Several months later, I was staring at a book jacket in a window display because it looked like the iconic Québec photo I’d taken so many times on my own camera: a colourful brick duplex framed by its wrought-iron walk-up, a bicycle locked to the downstairs railing. Before I’d realized that this was the title scribbled on page 37 of my agenda, I knew I wanted to read this book. It already reminded me of home.
And that’s exactly what I did end up loving about La petite et le vieux: it reminded me of home. True, I didn’t grow up in working-class Québec in the 1980s or fancy converting to the opposite sex. I didn’t even have a paper route when I was young. And sure, Hélène, alias “Joe,” had an alcoholic father and a potty mouth, made friends with the local drunk, and was working for pocket change in a bingo hall by the time she was eleven years old. But she was also scared of the dark. And scared of her big sister. And scared of disappointing her father. She could have been any of us at eleven.
When I heard that the book would be coming out in English, I was excited that the Anglophone community would also be able to enjoy reading about Hélène’s triumphs and misadventures. Marie-Renée Lavoie had created a character with “an insatiable desire to be alive,” and that desire was soon to be shared by a wider audience. But my excitement was not altogether altruistic; I was also interested to see how the exchanges between our plucky hero(ine) and her curmudgeonly neighbour Roger would be translated. In French, Lavoie’s dialogue flows as authentically as if you were hearing it in the street. Take this scene, where Hélène’s sister has just landed in the hospital. Searching for someone to blame, Hélène spits at Roger:
−C’est de ta faute!
−Bon, ‘est encore choquée, elle, a-t-il fait en se retournant vers la télévision.
−T’étais pas là pour surveiller. D’habitude, t’es là pour surveiller. Tu fais chier.
−Je serai pas tout le temps là pour tchèquer, câliboire. Pis parle pas de même, toé, ta mère va te maudire une claque. Va ben falloir qu’a l’apprenne à tchèquer des deux bords avant de se garrocher dans ’rue.
−[…] En tout cas… ce serait le fun si t’arrêtais de vouloir crever.
−Pis toé de jouer au p’tit gars manqué.
−Rapport. […] Mêle-toi de tes affaires.
It would take some translating chops to be able to turn this vibrant dialogue into English that could touch readers without losing its tenderness. Although Wayne Grady’s translation unfortunately sometimes falls short of expressing this same tenderness in English and I don’t always agree with some of his choices, I do find him to have a masterful way with words. If one does not compare the translation to the original line by line and instead reads the English as a unit, it makes for a smooth and entertaining read. Grady does a handsome job of translating the colourful insults (bean-face! old fart!) and expletives (for Cripe’s sake! doggone Christopher on a cross! Jesus Christ on a bicycle!) that run throughout the narrative. In fact, I think he does an altogether admirable job of recreating cranky old Mr. Roger in English: “I don’t know anything about baseball, I never listen to it. I hate it, it’s a goddamned sissy’s game. Bunch of pansies in tight pants sitting on a bench.”
Grady’s strength is being able to read the arc of the narrative and transform it so that the English reads comfortably and dynamically. He makes deliberate decisions with language that truly benefit the storytelling. And Marie-Renée Lavoie does tell a good story.
Review by Arielle Aaronson