And how would you translate "Nous prîmes un bon whisky bien tassé, bien glacé"?
Philip Stratford once wrote, of translators, that "blinded by proximity to their subject, swayed by politics and history, hamstrung by an inevitable, natural, linguistic, and cultural affiliation to one of two camps, they must neither unify, nor divide. They must practise subtle and unspectacular arts. They must translate while knowing that full translation is impossible." Three years later, in 1982, E. D. Blodgett quoted this remark during a symposium on "translation in Canadian literature" and suggested that if translators were ever to heed Stratford's injunction, they might best do so from the vantage-point of a "threshold": "neither within nor outside [their] language, steeping equivocation with a particular experience." Thus positioned, they could give their complete attention to the ambiguity and indeterminacy of the original text and preserve-somehow-its essential foreignness. (Jacques Brault's "inter-textes" were the model here.) Such "self-reflexive" translations, Blodgett readily admitted, would be more difficult with prose than with poetry but still possible, particularly with the shorter forms. (See "How Do You Say `Gabrielle Roy'?" in Translation in Canadian Literature, University of Ottawa, 1983.)
The Quebec Anthology 1830-1990, a welcome addition to the University of Ottawa's Canadian Short Story Library Series (No. 19, in fact), offers us thirty-three translations of generally good quality, many of them made especially for this volume: sixteen by the editors alone, five by Sheila Fischman, three by David Homel, two by Alan Brown, and one each by Basil Kingstone, David Lobdell, and Louise Von Flotow-Evans. Two are re-translations: Grady giving a new version of Gérard Bessette's "L'extrême onction", Fischman a new version of Anne Hébert's "Le torrent". The few remaining (notably Jane Brierley's excellent "Yellow-Wolf: Malecite Chieftain of Old") have been published before. Only five of the stories date from the nineteenth century (beginning in 1837 rather than "1830"); nine belong to the period 1900-1945, nineteen to 1945-1990. The criteria for inclusion were straightforward enough: the stories had to be representative, "historically important", and yet still "engaging and interesting". (A further condition is implied: that no more than one work per author be selected.) And, finally, the reader is assumed (I assume) to be unilingual, anglophone, and probably a student.
Cohen and Grady have long been enthusiastic supporters and importers of Quebec literature. Ten years ago, they co-edited Intimate Strangers: New Stories from Quebec for Penguin Books. Four years ago, Cohen co-edited, this time with André Carpentier, the bilingual collection Voix parallèles/Parallel Voices for XYZ and Quarry Press. Both Grady and Cohen have had their work as translators recognized: Grady with the Governor General's Award in 1989 for his translation of Antonine Maillet's Le huitième jour, Cohen with the John Glassco Translation Award in 1991 for his translation of Gaétan Brulotte's Le surveillant. (Cohen has also translated Monique Proulx's two novels.) The motion is reciprocal: Cohen's own books have been translated by Daniel Poliquin and Claire Dé.
The Quebec Anthology contains few surprises. Most of the authors chosen for inclusion, particularly the modern ones, would figure on everybody's list: le Franc, Laberge, Thériault (Yves and Marie-José), Grandbois, Ringuet, Hébert, Bessette, Thério, Ferron, Aquin, Carrier, Langevin, Roy, Major, Brulotte, Proulx, Jacob, Dandurand, Pellerin, Yance, Carpentier, and Dé. (Indeed, ten of the same authors, including Thério himself, and four of the same stories are to be found in Thério's Conteurs canadiens-français (1936-1967). Ten of the same authors are also to be found in The Oxford Book of French-Canadian Short Stories, edited by Richard Teleky.) Other names are less familiar: Sylva Clapin, Jean-Aubert Loranger, and Harry Bernard.
The stories chosen make for a great diversity of tone, even as they-often-resemble one another in theme. I would quibble with only two of the choices: Louis Dantin's "La messe de Florent Létourneau" strikes me as an ugly little work; he wrote better-humoured contes ("Le risque", for example). And the anecdote taken from a chapter of Fréchette's memoirs seems altogether out of place, especially when one considers how many genuine contes by "le barde de Lévis" there were to choose from.
The brief introductions to the stories are exemplary, being clearly written and full of valuable (usually trustworthy) information. However, the book qua book might have been prepared a little more carefully. I'm thinking not so much of the typos-there are only a few (the irrepressible "Beaudelaire", etc.)-but rather the lack of footnotes where they would seem to be called for. One example: "A hangover could no more overtake him than a Bostonian a resident of Good-St-Anne-of-the-North" ("The Roussis' Fire"). Is this a contemporary proverb? A reference to some other tale? An exercise in map-reading? The table of contents helpfully includes the dates of original publication-why not also the names of the translators, to whom at least this honour was due?
It is their voices, after all, that we hear in these stories, for good and for ill. The threshold that Blodgett proposed as an ideal eludes (should they agree with him on this) even the most experienced. Fischman reaches it, I think, in her new version of "Le torrent": "Beginning on that day, a crack appeared in my oppressed life. The weighty silence of my deafness swept through me.." (This may owe something to that "affinity" for Hébert's style the introduction credits her with.) Cohen certainly sounds as though he has, in his very readable (but awkward and occasionally opaque) translation of Marie le Franc's "Ames étrangères": "Your superiority over me is that you never premeditate your attitudes." Grady, whose method is normally more adaptive than equivocal, leaves an ounce or so of foreignness in his translation of Carpentier's "De ma blessure atteint": "Toucheur seems to have a certain amount of trouble with the heaviness of that idea; he becomes sombre, and the traits of a whole new person begin to assemble in him, pushing him to the end of the scene." There are other hints that this or a similar consideration may have had an influence, chiefly at the end of the book, where the more experimental stories are. But for the most part, the translators have worked hard and skilfully to replace French sentences with English ones, and their success can be judged in the usual way: Is it accurate? (Or better than accurate, i.e., inspired?) Is it readable? Is it still a good story?
In the case of the aforementioned extract from Fréchette's Mémoires intimes, it may not exactly have been a story to begin with. Fréchette first published these reminiscences as articles in the Montreal weekly Monde Illustré between May and November 1900. (The editors' introduction is somewhat misleading.) "Comment j'ai appris l'anglais" forms part of a chapter on his early education. Grady's translation is vigorous enough but strangely "improving": rather than have the boys adopt, as in the original, a jargon that mixes a lot of French with a little English, he has them merely pronounce French with an English accent. And I can't imagine what his version of the ending will mean to a reader who doesn't know that, earlier in the same chapter, Fréchette describes how "le père Gagné" taught "l'orthographe" (Grady's "Connor Tog Raffy"). Another vacancy for a footnote?
Translators, of course, don't make such decisions impulsively. David Homel, for instance, must have hesitated before deciding-mistakenly, I believe -to translate the very name of the protagonist of Laberge's "Mame Pouliche". Whether "Filly" sounds as ridiculous to an anglophonic ear as "Pouliche" does to a francophonic one is a question more suitable for radio surveys. Here, though, I would argue, Pouliche is not a nickname; and its ironic emphasis is lessened somewhat when we learn that she acquired it by marriage to a man on whom it did cast ridicule, he being not so "fringant" (frisky) as she'd hoped nor in any other respect of great use to her: "Ce nom de mame Pouliche, ce fut tout ce que son mari lui laissa." Laberge plays as much with the sound as with the significance of the word, twice describing her as being, in manner, very like a "poule", which, to be sure, means chicken but may also mean slut (and that is just how the men treat her in the office she spends a lifetime cleaning). When Laberge does use a horsey metaphor-"Toujours elle tirait au collier."-Homel ignores it: "She kept her nose to the grindstone." Throughout his translation she is "Mrs. Filly", whereas Laberge only twice identifies her as "Madame Pouliche", the rest of the time prodding her on with the derisive "mame". Before I start clucking like a chicken myself, I should add that Homel succeeds admirably in communicating Laberge's peculiar ghoulishness, his near-gleeful insistence on the squalor of Filly's folly.
Some of the translations would have profited from another look. In his version of Pellerin's "Dans mon état", for instance, Cohen misses several errors I'm sure he would have caught in a subsequent draft: "Parmi les filles, il y a une inconnue qui ne le reste pas longtemps" becomes "Among the women is a stranger who isn't staying long." "Cela l'émeut" (i.e., Claudine) becomes "That touches me." And "je comprends ma méprise, je m'en veux du procès d'intention auquel je me suis livré à ses dépens" is so garbled it pops out entirely reversed: "I resent the trial of intentions to which I have been subjected by her."
Grady, too, in his translation of Ringuet's "Le bonheur" seems to have been one revision short: the hard-to-reach hovel in "Tout cela peuplait, cette année-là, les quatre pièces au deuxième d'un taudis de la rue Labrecque; encore fallait-il pour le trouver s'enfoncer dans la cour" becomes inexplicably calamitous in "That year they were all living in four rooms on the second floor of a tenement on Labrecque; he often wondered what kept the building from collapsing into its own cluttered yard, not that he cared." Again: the tossing and turning of "Il y songea avec une complaisance qui le fit se retourner dans son lit bien avant dans la nuit" is removed from matter to mind in "He thought about it all that night with an eagerness that returned to him again and again as he lay in his bed." The latter is an example not so much of a simple misreading (e.g., in the same story, "their children" for "ses enfants") as of the stylistic latitude Grady allows himself. As a translator, he definitely belongs in the "re-creative" camp, turning "les mains de la ménagère" into "his wife's cold fingers", "un oeil assuré" into "an almost possessive eye". When a translator equates "presque satisfait" and "almost overcome with delight", he is pulling strenuously on the oar of interpretation. But is the story still a good one? Well, yes, thanks to Grady's own confident, energetic style, it is.
Cohen, no less gifted as a writer, takes fewer liberties with the texts under his care. His translation of Grandbois's "Fleur-de-Mai" exemplifies the best of his work in this volume. It's true there are more of those errors which might easily have been corrected during a final revision: Some phrases, e.g. "ne savent plus sur quel pied danser" and "une huitaine", Cohen renders too literally; others, e.g., "vifs à la détente" and "son pas est toujours juste", he would have done better to. When the captain says that if old Cheng "se montrait à Canton, ou à Hong-Kong, sa vie ne vaudrait pas une sapèque," he and the narrator (and old Cheng) are in Macao; how confusing, then, to read, in Cohen's version, "if he shows up publicly here or in Hong Kong, his life would be worthless." When the narrator meets the carriage with Fleur-de-Mai's servant in it, Grandbois writes: "Elle me fit signe de prendre place à ses côtés." Cohen omits the sentence altogether.
More interesting (because more debatable) are the choices Cohen makes (or doesn't make). When the captain explains to the narrator how hitting the gong raises the boy's self-esteem, he uses but the one verb, "taper", which Cohen translates successively as "strikes", "plays", and "bangs away". I would have thought the repetition itself important. Another repetition, of the narrator's reticent (and seemingly characteristic) "en effet" (for which the captain mocks him), is absent from Cohen's version of the final encounter with Fleur-de-Mai. A small thing, I agree, but not insignificant.
Then there's that glass of whisky. The narrator, to defend himself from the captain's accusation of being "in a bad mood", confesses that he's been running "a bit of a fever", upon which: "Nous prîmes un bon whisky bien tassé, bien glacé." Cohen translates this as "We each drank a whisky, strong and with ice", by itself, a perfectly unobjectionable translation, with even a slight air of "foreignness" to recommend it. In context, however, the sentence seems to me less satisfactory. Cohen immediately afterwards compares the whisky to a "medicine" ("moyen de soigner" in the original), a dose of which one would normally "take" or "have". The untranslated "bon" in "bon whisky" must, I think, have a purpose (apart from the triadic "bon.bien.bien"), if only to separate this from the other drinks served at the captain's table. It would be going too far, perhaps, to construe from it such details as "single-malt" or "aged" or "unadulterated"-but what about "fine" or "pleasant"? A "strong" drink is, more familiarly, a "stiff" one ("bien tassé" may also mean "full to the brim"). "Bien glacé" would have something to do "with ice", presumably, heaps of it, and if not exactly "on the rocks", why, then, the whisky might be "ice-cold" or "icy". None of these alternatives, however, could imitate the rhyme in the phrase "bien tassé, bien glacé", which looks like a bartender's-or a barfly's-formula. "Well filled, well chilled"? "A cold, brimming glass of the finest malt whisky"? "An icy tumbler" etc.? "A stiff, cool dose" etc.?
This has the makings of a board game-for short-sighted reviewers. As David Homel and Sherry Simon made abundantly clear in their Mapping Literature: The Art & Politics of Translation (yet another symposium's proceedings, published in 1988), there are several counters to push along that board, several reasons a translator may have for setting to work: to pay homage to the author, to conduct a critical reading, to rediscover the target language, to explore the limits of a particular form, to help shape and maintain literary values,.even to reconcile two cultures. "Every generation," George Johnston said, "judges its translations in its own way." Strict equivalence may not always receive the highest score.
In their introduction, Cohen and Grady patiently trace the history of the conte, its part in preserving the oral tradition, its rivalry with the more sophisticated nouvelle, its resumption of favour in the '60s (when it was held by some to be quintessentially québécois), its loss of favour in the '80s, and its sly return now, they claim, as it insinuates itself into the work of more inward-looking writers, for whom the nouvelle is becoming "private, fragmented, and.inaccessible to wide audiences."
This terminological seesaw-conte or nouvelle?-has, in recent years, lost a little of its momentum. In 1965, Adrien Thério thought it worthwhile to preface the first edition of his Conteurs canadiens-français with a standard but slightly modified classification: the nouvelle was, as most dictionaries had it, "a kind of very short novel", the conte a "short account of imaginary adventures"-its subject-matter no longer necessarily "legends, fables, and the supernatural" but rather "facts that belong to reality" (even if altered in the telling). He, Ferron, Thériault (Yves), Leclerc, and others rallied to the conte as (to cite Cohen and Grady) "at once a subject for revival and a manifesto for the future". (Perhaps ideology is the fulcrum here. André Vanasse, reviewing the reprint of Thério's anthology in the current issue of Lettres québécoises, sees more self-doubt than self-affirmation in that revival: the archaic language of the conte-"une langue déconnectée du réel, volontairement poétique, venue de loin"-so much favoured by Thériault and Leclerc, he writes, is an indication of how uncertain Quebec society then was, torn between "la vieille France catholique" and an American culture yet to be translated into "des mots d'ici".)
By 1985, when Gaëtan Lévesque and Maurice Soudeyns founded XYZ, "la revue de la nouvelle", (from which several of the stories in The Quebec Anthology are taken), it was left to Claire Martin to make the typically forthright (not to say dismissive) assertion: "La nouvelle, le roman (ajoutons donc le conte aussi), voilà des choses bien étrangères l'une à l'autre, non seulement dans le choix des sujets mais dans celui de l'écriture, de la langue, du vocabulaire, du ton." The nouvelle, she goes on, by its very brevity invites a concise, cutting, often cruel style. Characters emerge just enough to be summarily judged by the author, who has little time to make their acquaintance, let alone cultivate a loving relationship-or a fatal aversion. "Le conte," she says flatly, "n'est pas une nouvelle." It is a form reserved for dreams and impossibilities. A plaything, she implies.
Thério still complains of detecting contes or récits under so-called nouvelles, but in his preface to the 1994 edition of Conteurs canadiens-français (now published, interestingly enough, by XYZ) he had to concede that it was useless to draw too subtle a distinction. His "conteurs", he admitted, could just as easily have been called "nouvellistes". Michel Lord, another Lettres québécoises stalwart, makes a similar observation, in his review of Suzanne Jacob's collection Ah ...!, about the nouvelle's return to "une forme libre". His "working hypothesis", however, is a shade different: for him, the nouvelle is growing more and more to look like a certain kind of essay, its narrative tending more and more to reflect, often lyrically, upon the world and its problems, its fortunes and misfortunes.
Subtitled (how indefinite the article) "a Quebec anthology", Gilles Pellerin's Dix ans de nouvelles marks the tenth anniversary of Éditions de L'instant même, which, in its brief life, has published some sixty collections (among them translations of work by Douglas Glover, Steven Heighton, Isabel Huggan, and Alistair MacLeod). Pellerin's biocritical comments at the head of each story could be notes for Nous aurions un petit genre, the book he published a few months later. The view they present is inductive, drawn from the very examples that follow. We learn that today's nouvelle treats of everyday concerns; may be fabricated from a "petit rien"; is by nature short, not only in plot and structure but in phrasing; can no longer be reduced to the simple reversal of an initial situation; is open enough to accommodate other genres, provided they, too, are short; has few characters; is usually, in Quebec, written to form part of a collection strung along a "piste thématique"; is (yes, Mme Martin) cruel, in that it allots so narrow a space to its characters during their moments of crisis; has not much been influenced by Surrealism ("l'inestimable contribution du français à la littérature du XXe siècle"); need not all be invented; and is not called "nouvelle" for nothing, as it deals with things most recent, brand-new.
Pellerin, whose own work is characterized by a taste for the fantastic (there's a fine example of that here), has included a good number of stories that would, under Thério's (and perhaps Martin's) classification, be defined as contes: in Jean-Paul Beaumier's "La tache", a bothersome stain on a cement column reappears on the protagonist's forehead; in Claude-Emmanuelle Yance's "Rien n'a de sens sinon intérieur", the protagonist is quite literally (and tediously, I thought) crushed by his surroundings; in Hugues Corriveau's "Dépassé par les événements", the protagonist's reflection escapes from the mirror. Next to the grisaille of these Poe-ish tales, Jean Pelchat's "Pleines lunes" (a Surrealistic exception) looms very bright: "J'allais retrouver ma fiancée, beauté aux mille visages, à la peau tatouée d'édifices modernes et de voitures sport.." Not that the collection isn't varied; there are translations from Russian (Olga Boutenko) and German (Wilhelm Schwarz); there are liberating shifts in time ("Cent") and place ("Underground Glasgow"); there is even a little humour ("Après avoir chambardé le paysage"). Nor is it counterfeit: there are plenty of "nouvelles nouvelles".
In his "essai" Nous aurions un petit genre (mostly compiled from pieces published or presented elsewhere), Pellerin reflects-defensively, humorously, triumphantly-upon his career as a publisher with one specialty. Discussions about genre ought to be easy, he says, but they're not. The notion itself is imprecise. And definitions are based on works published fifty or a hundred years ago. A new generation, the one that periodicals like XYZ and Stop-and publishing houses like L'instant même-gave a voice to in the 1980s, has redefined the nouvelle-or, at least, isn't writing to the old definition. Ferron and Leclerc left no legitimate heirs, after all; their place was taken by Borges and Cortazar. Nationalism of that kind holds scant interest for these nouvellistes, preoccupied as they are with form. "Le texte se dit." Characters go unnamed; speech is reported only indirectly; psychological realism is almost completely excluded. Pellerin and his associates have given preference, then, to these explorateurs, every manuscript rejected serving to affirm the ideal a little more. Pellerin's final remarks, however, are pessimistic: The boom begun in the '80s is over. The market for nouvelles, never large, has shrunk. Promoting them has become extremely difficult. Persist he will, nonetheless, fully aware that the next generation may turn things round yet again.
Pellerin's remark about Quebec writers' taking care that their stories fit together in some way or other is certainly borne out by the latest collection from Monique Proulx, Les Aurores montréales. Proulx established her reputation as a nouvelliste with Sans coeur et sans reproche in 1983. ("Beach blues", in The Quebec Anthology, is taken from that volume.) She has been no less successful since as a novelist and a screenwriter. Closely associated with XYZ, where she first published several of these stories, she has had ample opportunity to study the genre's many available shapes. Her intention here (if we're to believe the back cover) was to reveal the soul of "le seul véritable creuset urbain où bouillonne notre culture en même temps que la moins québécoise des villes du Québec." Furthermore, as she notes in an afterword, she had such a collection in mind from the very start.
There are twenty-seven stories in all, six of them named after colours: "Gris et blanc", "Jaune et blanc", "Rose et blanc", "Noir et blanc", "Rouge et blanc", and "Blanc". In these six, distributed almost evenly throughout and printed entirely in italics, she assumes the voice of the Other, immigrant or autochthonous, in letter, prayer, and monologue: "Je t'écris, Manu, même si tu ne sais pas lire." The stories between them take various forms: essay ("Leçon d'histoire"), reportage ("Tenue de ville"; "Ça"), satire ("Madame Bovary"; "Français, Françaises"), parable ("Oui or No"). Some are mildly experimental: in "Léa et Paul, par exemple" (for example), the history of a couple's decline is deliberately jumbled (as in Stanley Donen's film Two for the Road), so that after witnessing their breakup, we return to an evening when they were still starry-eyed.
In the title story, a teenage boy, adrift between parents, is writing a book entitled "Les Aurores montréales", to support a cause: "Défendre le Montréal français contre les Envahisseurs," the invaders most to be resisted being his mother's Chilean lover, the Japanese working at the sushi bar, the Greek kids on his street. He reads only francophone Quebec authors: "Il connaît par coeur Michel Tremblay, il a emprunté à Francine Noël son image montréalaise de Babel, il vénère Sylvain Trudel et Gaétan Soucy et Esther Rochon et Louis Hamelin." This budding anthologist will learn his lesson by the end of the story, discarding notebook and, with it, perhaps, xenophobia and filial anger. For our own lesson we must wait until the end of the collection: in "Blanc", the narrator tells the moribund Mister Murphy that Montreal has possibly changed since the referendum, simultaneously shedding its cause and its "provincialité défensive" and putting on the tough skin of real cities, where you have to learn to become someone all by yourself, "sans soutien patriotique."
Les Aurores montréales confirms Proulx's strengths as a writer: her sense of drama, her accuracy with dialogue (e.g., in "Fucking bourgeois"), her forceful, adaptable style. Subtle she can be, but this is not, overall, a subtle book; it has a singular program, a "piste thématique", that the reader must be guided by. In itself, topicality may have an attraction (it had for me). Might it not also, however, produce an indeterminacy of its own, the confusion of the times being to be blamed for the irresolute ending of some of these stories? (I don't believe Proulx herself is confused.) The referendum drama "Oui or No", launched like a fairy-tale, a conte de fées, with its parallels romantic and ideological, is undone, finally, disappointingly, by what seems to be a loss of confidence (or of wind) rather than a wish for proportion: "une femme n'est pas un pays, aussi petit soit-il." (Compare this with Marie le Franc's "We represent two nations of souls.") "Baby", which begins so ominously, all too soon flattens out into unconvincing caricature. In "Madame Bovary", Proulx sets up a punishing farce for her protagonist but by the end has softened considerably (more than this callous reader was prepared for). In television and film, such dilating congeniality may be de mise; in fiction, something more astringent should be at hand (and is, usually, elsewhere, e.g., in "Les femmes sont plus fines que les hommes"). Not that Proulx should forgo upbeat endings or well-adjusted characters (e.g., "Dépaysement"). These, too, are proof of her exceptional range (and daring). Without them, the ambitious project that is Les Aurores montréales wouldn't have been nearly so successful.
Indeterminacy of language, of genre, of social structure: there's more than enough to go around, evidently. In his paper, E. D. Blodgett argued that literary translation in Canada is a special case, a "confluence of linguistic and ontological pressures". (So that's what was flowing over the ideal doorstep. We might have known.) While theorists are free to hypothesize a "pure language" relieved of the burdens of history and politics, translators must struggle with the vast, much-handled inventory of self-expression. Blodgett, who is both theorist and practitioner, developed his liminal theory from the most conscientious of practices, those methods "by which translation privileged as part of its code a language at once alien and unappropriated." Fifteen years later, the pressure is just as strong, the ideal as lofty (though metaphorically underfoot), and the realization as difficult-or should we say as "impossible"?
Bernard Kelly is the publisher of paperplates, "a magazine for fifty readers".