Translation Is a Love Affair

One of the most interesting facets of Translation Is a Love Affair is the brief bio on Sheila Fischman:

Sheila Fischman has published more than 125 translations of contemporary French-Canadian novels including works by Jacques Poulin, Francois Gravel, Anne Hebert, Marie-Claire Blais, Michel Tremblay, and Gaetan Soucy. In 2002, Fischman was named to the Order of Canada in recognition of the quality of her translations and unparalleled contribution to Canadian culture.

One hundred and twenty-five translations!?!? I knew she was an important Canadian translator, but this is Herculean. And tying this into our Making the Translator Visible series, not only is Fischman relatively invisible, but outside of Canada, Quebecois literature tends to be pretty invisible as well. I’ll go out on a limb here and state that very few people reading this have read works by more that two of the authors named in her bio.

Which is unfortunate for all sorts of reasons—like the fact that Quebec borders the U.S. and has a rich cultural history and yet is essentially ignored by U.S. publishers—but that’s not really the point of this review.

What is the point of this review is the role that translation plays in this not entirely successful novel. In terms of the plot itself, translation is key: this novel is narrated by Marine, a young female translator who is close friends with Monsieur Waterman, a famous author whose work she translates. Although the title might suggest some sort of coupling between them, this isn’t really that sort of book. Instead, the two get involved in a quasi-mystery involving a young girl, a older woman, and a stray black cat with an S.O.S. message affixed to his collar.

The plot is slight, the pacing uneven, and the narrators voice a bit cloying, but nevertheless, there are some interesting facets to this book, if not necessarily for literary value, but to bring up translation craft related questions. For instance, there’s this bit from a conversation between Marine and her young neighbor:

“Why do you pull out the weeds?”

“Because the water is sticky, poisseuse.

“Does that mean there’s too many fish, poissons?”

I gave her a sidelong glance to see if she was joking, but she wasn’t.

Poisseuse means that the water is a little sticky. I could have said collante. Do you see what I mean?’

Well, maybe. How to translate wordplay like this is an eternal ALTA panel, and in this case, the only way to retain any of the verbal confusion is to keep the French for “sticky” and “fish” in French. The explanation—simply providing a French synonym for “sticky”—falls a bit flat, and is indicative of this novel as a whole.

But for people interested in translation, this book does have its minor joys. There’s a bit in which Marine (who is described obliquely, but in a very sensual, male-fantasy of the hot young female translator sort of way that’s both awesome and a bit creepy) puts on her favorite T-shirt

the one with this declaration by Armand Gatti printed on it in red: “Mastering words is subversive and insolent.”

And more to the translation point, there’s a scene about a translation of an Anne Hebert poem:

Monsieur Waterman asked if I had paid attention to the end of the poem: I read it aloud:

D’ou vient donc que cet oiseau fremit
Et tourne vers le matin
Ses prunelles crevees?

“Now, look at the translation,” he said.

F.R. Scott had translated the last line as Its perforated eyes. The translation was faithful and I thought it was appropriate. He had written a second version that was more or less identical. And then a third, very surprising, which ended with the words blinded eyes. The bird, symbol of the heart, no longer had punctured or gouged or perforated eyes: it was quite simply blind. And even if we agree that the meaning of blinded is weaker than that of blind, we might think that the bird was only blinded in a temporary way . . .

It seemed to me that the translator had softened considerably the image that Anne Hebert had used. I was rather shocked.

“He corrected the author,” I said.

“You might say that. But look a little farther . . .”

Reading on, I soon found the explanation: in the tradition of falconry, the hunter does not put out the falcon’s eyes, but merely drops a hood over its head until the moment when he let it fly away to catch its prey. Could he have thought that Anne Hebert didn’t know that detail . . .

And then, we go back into the old man-young woman dynamic when Waterman explains his hypothesis on what F.R. Scott was trying to do:

“In addition to being a poet, Frank Scott was a professor of law. And he was a good fifteen years older than she was. So I imagine him, an old gent with a white beard, taking the beautiful Anne Hebert by the hand and explaining to her that love isn’t dangerous, that she has no reason to be afraid, that her heart is free and unfettered.”

The focus on language, on words and sounds, that runs throughout the book is palpable, but doesn’t really seem to build to much. And occasionally dips down into the patently obvious. Like then ending to this emotionally poignant scene in which Marine relates a moment from her childhood in which her uncle from Connecticut tries to molest her:

The next morning the uncle and his wife left for Connecticut. The name of that state always reminds me of the clattering of a pair of scissors. Because of the last syllable.

I really wanted to be charmed by this novel, but instead it fell far short. The female voice isn’t all that believable (except in a half-fetishized sort of way) and the overall creation isn’t that compelling as a plotted story or as an atmospheric piece. It definitely has its moments, and it’s a very quick, very smooth read . . .

So I’ll end where I began, and restate how important Sheila Fischman has been to the promotion of Quebec literature.

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