In the Quebec film LTolo, the protagonist keeps a copy of RTjean Ducharme's L'AvalTe des avalTs (The Swallower Swallowed) close-at-hand like a priest keeps a bible. Ducharme, perhaps the most important literary figure of the Quiet Revolution generation, is little known by most English-speaking Canadians and little translated due to the complexity of his writing. A kind of French-Canadian J.D. Salinger, this reclusive author of nine novels and several plays, has also managed to evade publicity since the late 1960s.
Published in 1969 by Editions Gallimard, The Daughter of Christopher Columbus (La Fille de Christophe Colomb) is the tale of the New World discoverer's imaginary daughter Columbia who hatches from her father's egg in the middle of the twentieth-century. In her hopeless quest for humanity's love and friendship, she ends up in cahoots with the animal kingdom to plot a war against the human species in order to put an end to the pillaging, racism, misogyny, senseless murder, and rape once and for all. The narrator makes it clear from the get-go that he doesn't care what his readers think of him. Especially his female readers whom he addresses separately from the males in his foreword: "If you are pretty and you feel lonely, my telephone number welcomes you with open arms." By coming off as politically incorrect on all fronts, he makes certain that only the most devoted (or masochistic) readers stay for the ride.
Partly a parody of the epic form, and partly a political satire in the manner of Jonathan Swift and Lawrence Sterne, the narrative in the original French text moves from rhymed verse to prose like an old Mercedes chugging along to the auto wrecker's shop, always threatening a full textual breakdown: "When one feels like committing suicide, my dear,/The verse gets worse and bursts as you go along." Other tricks up the narrator's sleeve involve word play and double meaning. He also takes digs at famous French-Canadian critic and francophile writer Jean Ethier-Blais by using the archaic "Jehan Ethiey-Blez". Bing Crosby is "Crosby Bing" while Americans are "United Statesians".
Time and again, the translator Will Browning immaculately renders the caustic humour of these passages and remains true to the French text. It's no easy feat to translate epic poetry in verse¨the likes of which is unhinging as we read it¨into prose, all the while maintaining the shifty, frolicsome voice of the original. Sometimes in translation¨if one has both luck and talent on one's side¨a word springs to mind that is such a perfect fit it's like a gift from the Translation Gods. One example of this is Browning's translation of the phrase "Qui a jappT ta? C'est Jean-STbastien Chien (ch. 142)!" Browning translates "chien" which is of course "dog", as "bark" to read: "Who yapped that? It's Johann Sebastian Bark." In doing so he doesn't mislead the reader; in fact, 'Bark' performs well within the infinite distance of the text's playfulness. Browning is not always successful, however. Due to the polysemic nature of The Daughter of Christopher Columbus, it is often difficult to transpose the many layers of textual inference into English. In an earlier passage, Browning translates "Viens, Jean-STbastien Chien! Viens, Jean-STbastien Cabot!" as "Come, Johann-Sebastian Bark! Come, Johann-Sebastian Cur (ch. 101)!" In French, the word "Cabot" along with being the name of the Italian navigator John (Sebastian) Cabot, is also a word for dog. Yet no such double meaning exists in English. So Browning decides to translate "Cabot" as "cur" (meaning snappy dog). This satisfies the canine wordplay, yet disregards the explorer-navigator theme.
For readers who enjoy a challenging, funny read RTjean Ducharme's The Daughter of Christopher Columbus is a book that speaks loudly and clearly of the time in which we live. The novel's translator Will Browning says it all when he writes: "His writing shows what we have become! Twisted, rigid, obsessed, violent, mindless adults who have forgotten the beautiful world of our childhoods, when everything was still possible."
The translator, Will Lissa Cowan & RenT Brisebois recently completed a translation of Quebec poet Pierre Morency's work titled Words That Walk in the Night. It is published by VThicule Press.