Quebecois Translations [BTBA 2016]
This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is by reader, writer, and BTBA judge P. T. Smith. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.
For my first BTBA post, I wrote about sci-fi in translation, using reading habits as a pathway into the topic. For my second post, I’m going to repeat the pattern, except this time the topic is Quebecois literature in translation. Six or seven years ago, I obsessively read from one country at a time. For a year, it was only Japanese literature, and then after that it was German literature. If I still read that way, then around two years ago, I would have begun reading only Quebecois literature. There may be less ground to cover, a province instead of a country, and simply less translated, but it is still a vast and varied arena, and one that at this moment, is vibrant, healthy, and growing.
In Vermont, I’m only an hour from the border with Quebec, only an hour from the language of another culture, and yet oftentimes, Vermont’s greatest exposure to Quebec is either Quebecois coming here to vacation, shop, or Vermonters going to Montreal, and only Montreal, to do the same. The exchange is economic, and based on one small aspect of the province. It makes for a disheartening cultural connection, and one person reading translations from the province may not do a single thing to change that, but in my own life, and what it’s done for friendships with the Quebecois I’ve been fortunate to connect with, translation has been heartening, human connection. So often, we think of reading translation as reaching to the other side of the globe, instead of to a culture so close, yet with the language barrier in the way. That’s not to put some edifying factor as the motivation. Though these tangible, liberal arts, reasons are admittedly satisfying, I wouldn’t have fallen in love with Quebecois literature were the falling not a deeply pleasurable reading experience.
There is some strange form of sentimentality at play. Outside of genre reading, for years now I’ve mostly only read translations. There’s been little choice in the matter: it’s simply where I’ve found the most compelling books. The absence of American literature has been replaced by the dark, funhouse-skewed mirror of Quebec. The landscape, the cultural habits, the experiences, especially as a New Englander, are in so many ways familiar, but foreign, not just across border, but across language, with parallel traditions, and ever aware that it’s looking back across the mirrored plane. Reading the novels and stories on the other side of the mirror, it’s obvious how self-conscious Quebecois are in their relationship to the rest of Canada, and to the US, aware of the dominance on the other side, and as the accept the influence, remain resentful and determined to prove that they, the reflection, is a living, powerful creature.
It also happens that this is a good time for love of Quebecois literature to spring. As I mentioned, literature in Quebec is on an upward swing right now, with young publishers establishing strong reputations, and older standbys finding new authors. Step-in-step with that, English-language publishers, like House of Anansi, Biblioasis, Coach House, and Talonbooks, are publishing these authors at a growing rate. Beyond that, websites like Quebec Reads and Ambos, both run by translators, keep English-language readers in touch with reviews, translated excerpts, and interviews. So it’s easy to write and think only about such contemporary work, but there is a history that takes it to the current state.
If you’re a fan of lists, CBC Books offers “15 Translated Books That Are Essential to Canada.”: http://www.cbc.ca/books/Translationlist_CBCBooks.pdf Before going into what is absent from that list, I’d rather acknowledge two of its best choices: Anne Hébert’s Kamouraska, translated by Norman Shapiro, and Hubert Aquin’s Next Episode, translated by Sheila Fischman. The latter was published in 1965 and the former in 1970. Both are modern classics. They come with a reason to be on that list, to be considered Important and taught in classrooms. Kamouraska is a historically inspired novel, telling a version of the true nineteenth century story of the murder of a seigneur by his wife and her lover. It’s a feminist work; it’s a book about power and economy, and the way those under it squirm to find life. None of that prepares you for the prose. From the start, the reader is on unsettled ground, with a third person narrator that alternates, from moment to moment, with first, until the latter takes hold. It moves in time and perspective till Elisabeth D’Aulnières is able speak her story.
Aquin’s Next Episode is a political novel about the Quebecois separatist movement, of which Aquin was a part. Yet here too, the narrative layers are complex and intertwined, the structure and the prose more compelling than any message, while being completely conjoined. His narrator is a separatist, held in a psychiatric ward: his acts of protest against power, his desire for a free Quebec, what he sees as salvation and personal freedom, condemn him to be a madman. It is mad to want to be free. There, he tries to write, to write a spy novel and a confession, and to make that writing a protest too. It’s a thriller that fights with the rules of a thriller, because those rules too this separatist cannot stand. Aquin packs madness, intrigue, violence, desire into this tiny little novel.
The most significant absence from the list is likely Réjean Ducharme. He too established himself in the 60s, then continued writing through the 70s. Ducharme then went quiet, going fourteen years without publishing a novel. Like Aquin and Hébert, his prose is abstract, strange, unsettled, springing away from normal sense. Yet they are earthy in their subjects, whether it is love and passion, rebellion against those with power, in political or personal relationships. And they are ever-Quebecois, writing tied to place and to land. In ways, this is the legacy of Quebecois writing in the 60s, the formative authors for many writing today, which brings us to the BTBA.
For the 2016 BTBA, there are six eligible books from Quebecois writers: Arvida by Samuel Archibald, translated by Donald Winkler (Biblioasis); Atavisms by Raymond Bock, translated Pablo Strauss (Dalkey); Guano by Louis Carmain and Twenty-One Cardinals by Jocelyne Saucier, both translated by Rhonda Mullins (Coach House); Keeper’s Daughter by Jean-François Caron and translated by W. Donald Wilson (Talon); and Ravenscrag by Alain Farah, translated by Lazer Lederhendler (House of Anansi). This little list of course leaves out those translations that unfortunately go without US distribution. Without that barrier, even more Quebecois books would be eligible for the award, and I’d be willing to bet that next year more will be.
In that list, only one Quebecois publisher has more than one entry: Le Quartanier, with Arvida, Atavisms, and Ravenscrag. The two story collections, Arvida and Atavisms (a selfish moment, my review is here) are excellent, and distance themselves from many American collections in that they are not stories written in an MFA program, work-shopped and work-shopped, not scattered stories written over some length of time between novels in order to maintain a magazine or lit journal presence. Instead, they are careful collections, stories that reach far beyond Montreal, expressing the strange land of rural Quebec, stories that are dependant on oral storytelling, of people and their strange pasts, of the visceral reality of the supernatural, and the ineffable mundane. They are meant to be read in order, each story weighed against the other, discomforts and suspicions carrying though, leaving you uncertain whether a new character deserves them or not.
These three are markedly different from the classics mentioned above in that their prose does not have the excess, the experiments and the fractures of Aquin, Hébert, and Ducharme. The beauty in the prose is simply a different one, pushing the strange beneath the surface instead of in your face. They carry forward other traditions, though. They are about Quebec, and look at their province with both pride and anguish. Many of these Quebecois novels hide what they’re about. Their realism is deceptive: a thriller is not just a thriller, a woman murdering her land-owner husband in the nineteenth century may be about something much more contemporary, a monster story may be about a man, and a story of a man may be about a monster, when a story introduces itself, look for the other one.