by David Bouchet
translated by Claire Holden Rothman
Véhicule Press (Esplanade Books), 2017
“My whole life was like the wind, invisible, ungraspable. Time stopped. Space was obliterated. I’m haunted because I can still see Charlotte behind her window that day. Her tears were flowing too, but they were internal tears, tears that don’t dry, secret tears she’s been holding inside since birth. And that day, I saw in her eyes that her tears were for our family. I’m haunted because I understand that life’s balance is fragile, that everything can fall down in the blink of an eye, like it fell for us.”
Much of the language is beautiful, the translation on a par with literature written originally in English, a level not all translations rise to.
Our narrator’s name is Souleye. He’s twelve years old. Along with his “Pa” and “Mère,” he’s left Senegal to start a new life in Montreal.
The early going is an easy read. We’re keen to learn more, the pages turning effortlessly as Soleil (his friend Charlotte mishears Souleye and calls him Soleil instead) shares his tale with the easy rhythm of a natural storyteller. Storytelling is in fact a good way to look at the narrative. The Souleye/Soleil French pun being a prime example, translator Claire Holden Rothman has chosen to stick close to the French, given all the wordplay. This means drawing attention to the anglicisms and the puns of the original, which don’t carry over well (or at all) into English and instead need to be preserved and explained. French words are kept and puns unwrapped, lending the translation an authenticity rather than what could easily have resulted instead in awkwardness. The result is closer to what it would be like to actually have a conversation with Souleye in real life, with him dropping in French words now and then rather than substituting or dropping the puns altogether, or pretending they don’t exist.
It’s an approach to the translation that seems entirely sensible, and it usually works well.
We end up with explanation like this: “Maybe, with the long journey ahead, the word échecs (which, in addition to ‘chess,’ means ‘failures’) scared him.” But they’re more of a help than a hindrance, aided by the fact that the English word choices are nice and idiomatic (folks instead of parents, for example), while occasionally slipping into a more formal register that seems reserved for translations (“communicating by Skype,” for example, as opposed to Skyping or putting “strabismus” in the mouth of a cross-eyed thirteen-year-old girl, “big new word” though it might be).
That said, keeping Mère in French jarred. I never failed to do a doubletake every time I read it. And having sentences like “We didn’t know the word ‘weird,’ because it’s English” is not the best sentence to have to read in a book you’re reading in English. It’s not ideal, though consistent with the approach, while having to explain “mal de Mère” (“which is a joke, because in French these words mean ‘seasick,’”) like having to explain any joke, let alone make the leap to “tremblements de Mère” on the next page, going straight to “motherquakes” without stopping to explain the link via “tremblements de terre,” robs the expression of its charm.
Throughout, there’s the pleasant blend of childish naïveté and poetic language, but at heart this is the usual immigrant story we’ve heard—and read—so many times before in an umpteenth immigrant memoir.
“It’s the start of a new life. Everything’s ahead of us now. Whatever happens, there’s no turning back,” Pa says, using a line that’s been used by so many before him. But, more generally, and more problematically, the remarks of our 12-year-old narrator can be run-of-the-mill, devoid of magic and insight.
For every “Suicide is Denise’s reason for living” or “My heart pounds as if I’ve just run around the world backwards,” there’s an “I’m not all that keen on social life. When lots of people are around, it’s noisy,” or “Alleys are good places for kids, because we don’t often drive through them.” Garage sales are “like little family reunions on the sidewalk, where people unload all the junk they don’t want anymore, and try to make a few bucks from it.”
The comments can feel stale, reheated rather than fresh and original. In fact, we occasionally wonder who this book is for, who it’s being narrated to. There’s little to learn or delight in for anyone with even a passing knowledge of Quebec culture (“In Quebec, you ‘listen to TV’ or ‘listen to a film.’ … grocery stores in Quebec are called dépanneurs … “Everyone moves on the same day: July 1st.” … the daycares are full). Of greater interest (to the Quebec-based reader) are the fun (and more exotic) facts about Senegal: In Senegal, cartoons are called Mickeys, even when Mickey Mouse isn’t in them. A boudiouman who appears on the streets of Montreal is referred to by this Gambian Wolof word meaning “garbage-picker.”
As the book goes on, the plot falls a little flat, a procession of facts and events with no sparkle to speak of, no spring in its step. It can feel as though we’re reading an autobiography. Stories from the family’s past in Senegal are often more interesting than their present in Quebec, this world of snow, dépanneurs, and immigrants wanting the best for their children. The narrator’s strength, it seems, is looking back rather than around him, and the book is at its best when it ventures off the beaten track onto less familiar ground, focusing on the family and its rounds of Scrabble, herbal tea, pizza, and poutine (familiar though they are, they’re personal and touching), rather than zooming back out and trying to apply universal truths to life in Quebec.
Ultimately, I’d put this down as a successful translation, one that plots a sensible course and sticks to it. But we shut the book with the feeling that an opportunity was missed. A book that tries to describe the immigrant life in Montreal and tell a story at the same time doesn’t really end up doing either with any real verve or originality.
Review by Peter McCambridge
Read an excerpt here