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.
Katherine Hastings has worked as a Quebec-based translator and copyeditor since 1995. The Unknown Huntsman, published in November 2016 by QC Fiction, was her first ever literary translation.
QC Fiction is all about doing things differently, with an emphasis on new voices and first-time translators. In what way is The Unknown Huntsman different, in your eyes?
The most striking difference, to my mind, is the unusual use of the “we” narrator, whose identity is never revealed. From a translator’s standpoint this was doubly challenging in that in the original French text, the odd-numbered chapters use “nous” while the even-numbered chapters are narrated using “on,” both of which translate as “we” in English! In the end, after much hair-tearing, I opted to differentiate the two using italics.
It’s the story of gossipy, vaguely threatening village that could be more or less anywhere. Was it an easy decision to anglicize the characters’ names?
My first instinct was to leave the names in French but it soon became clear this would mean we’d lose the many plays on words they contained (Monsieur Michon the baker and Albert Meunier the miller, for example) in the translation. When I discussed it with the author, he was curious how his characters’ names would translate in English, so I came up with a list of English equivalents and we agreed that was the way to go. I think the names help capture the quirky tone of the book quite nicely.
As a reader do you imagine this as a story taking place in a nameless village or for you is it more rooted in Quebec?
While there aren’t any place names to help the reader situate the story, other than mentions of “the village” at the centre of the tale and some far-off city, there is a feeling about the story that brings to mind any number of one-church Quebec villages in the not-so-distant past.
I love some of the ways you managed to translate the puns. When talking about the florist, “Comme le dirait madame Latvia, il y avait jonquille sous roche” becomes “As Mrs. Latvia would say: there’s trouble in Tulipland,” for example. Would you agree that the story has more layers and the writing is more intricate than it first appears?
There are very few descriptive passages in the book, so it’s the dialogue and the narrator’s musings that really bring the characters to life, and I think the author has done a wonderful job of it.
As you suggest, it’s a multi-layered story that keeps the reader guessing right to the end. It’s also chock-full of puns that had me laughing out loud, and translating them was often tricky, but always fun.
If you had to sum up the novel in one word, what would that word be? And your translation?
In a word, unconventional. I set out to capture the quirky nature of the French text, and I hope the result is an English translation that accurately reflects the tone of the original novel. But I’ll let the readers be the judge!