Review

Yukonstyle

by Sarah Berthiaume

translated by Nadine Desrochers

Playwrights Canada Press, 2014

Garin was two years old when his mother disappeared from a bad East Vancouver neighbourhood. With the Robert Pickton trial gaining national attention, he’s wondering if she might have been one of the victims. But, although it touches on national stories likely to strike a chord with most Canadians, Yukonstyle is, for me, all about the language.

The author reserves her biggest thanks at the back of this play published by Playwrights Canada Press to her translator Nadine Desrochers—“my ally, my friend, who knows better than anyone how to make my words travel from one language to another”—and little wonder. Desrochers’ work is enviable and masterful as she translates “the texture of images that often, still, leave me breathless with awe.”

Two bodies “melt into gold,” a girl is “embedded in the couch with her full belly / her itchy dress / and nowhere to go,” and there’s a grimy beauty to it all:

“On the other side of the kitchen,

stuck between the sink and the freezer,

is Garin

in his old Canucks T-shirt and his dirty apron

Garon, sweating

silent

piling dishes into the dishwasher’s belly.”

“Idiomatic” doesn’t begin to do the translation justice. “Je m’en fous” is “Well too fucking bad.” “Elle fera pas de marde” becomes “She won’t be any trouble,” and at one stage a “holy fuck” becomes a “tabarnak” as Desrochers reverses roles and translates part of a series of replies back into French.

The play itself is written in that wonderful heightened state of reality, blending everyday language with the beautifully poetic.

Characters set the scene and describe the action on stage as it begins to develop around them and other characters appear “as stock footage in the dark of the living room.” Lines are delivered matter-of-factly and precisely, only to be followed by others that belong more to the world of poetry and dreams than to one of tax receipts and murders: “Whitehorse. Night. Winter. Minues forty-five degrees Celsius. The threshold between cold and death.”

This makes Desrochers’ high-wire act all the more successful, as she negotiates not only the fine line between two languages but between different registers, too. Lines like “Garin loves me, though of his love I am yet unaware” manage to go down smoothly, with just the right amount of affectation and no awkwardness. And long stretches of dialogue go by with the reader—or audience member—being able to guess word for word what the original French was, a rare feat indeed because Desrochers manages to avoid adding a clunkiness or foreignness, intended or otherwise, to the text. In this, the translation has the unusual virtue of being almost transparent, unusual in that it is an aim that’s often vaunted by translators and seldom delivered; not without sticking painfully close to the French at any rate.

There’s talk of the “real low-class shit” that the local Indians get up to. Of Robert Pickton taking his saw to dead prostitutes: “Dig in, piggies! Happy hour! All you can eat!” Of dancing raven bodies that sprout human legs and Sorel boots. It’s larger than life in the Yukon, in among “the moose antlers and the Star Choice dishes.” But it’s not so much what Sarah Berthiaume says. It how she—and how her translator—say it.

PETINF14-QuebecReads-Favicon-32x32Review by Peter McCambridge