Tribute to a Translator

Has cultural understanding ensued from all those Quebec books in English?

There is no doubt that Sheila Fischman, with approximately 150 translated books to her credit, has done the most to create and structure the phenomenon of literary translation in Canada. It is fitting then, with Fischman having reached the venerable age of 75, that McGill-Queen’s University Press decided to publish a tribute to her.

In the academic world, such books are called festschrifts, and usually consist of essays in honour of a retiring professor after a long and illustrious career. This tribute book is a little different. First of all, Fischman is apparently not retiring, since she continues to produce translations at a rate that much younger practitioners would envy. Second, the festschrift is usually a rather formal affair, as suits its academic setting, and In Translation: Honouring Sheila Fischman is anything but formal.

Instead, the book is a patchwork of anecdotal literary history, essays on translation, a few words from the receiver of this tribute, and testimonials from translated authors and colleagues. No clear portrait of Fischman emerges, and I suspect that the book’s editor, Concordia University professor Sherry Simon, was not aiming at such a goal. What does come forward is a picture of the different stages in the translator’s career, and the society of literary people in which Fischman lives.

“The arc of Fischman’s career corresponds to the coming of age of Canadian literary translation,” we read in the editor’s introduction. That coming of age began with a heroic sense of mission: translators would save the nation. That proposition, today, might elicit a smile. Most Canadians experience translation as something of an irritation that comes from having to deal with a not-quite-competent piece of government communication, or a comparative exercise with their cereal box in the morning. But in the 1970s, translators such as Fischman, Alan Brown, Philip Stratford and others thought that by helping English Canadians read the literary works of the French-Canadian imagination (the word “Québécois” was only just entering society at the time), a kind of cultural understanding would ensue, and this would be a step in preserving the integrity of the country.

You will note, of course, that at the time this was a one-way street. The assumption was that English Canada had to understand Quebec, and not the other way around. In Quebec, precious few people felt it was their mission to bring the English-Canadian literary imagination into the French language. At one point, at the end of the 1970s when I first started out as a translator of books, I heard members of the Quebec literary elite declare that there was nothing worth translating from English Canada. No one is saying that any more, of course, for a variety of reasons—but more on that later.

The mission was there, but the translator needed a book, and that happened when Sheila Fischman came upon Roch Carrier’s La Guerre, Yes Sir! At the time, Carrier was also frequenting the Eastern Township town of North Hatley where Fischman lived with her then-husband, the poet and professor D.G. Jones. This town, part artist colony and part vacation spot, and a far cry from her native Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan (although Moose Jaw has a casino and North Hatley does not), played an extraordinary role in Canada’s literary history. It was the theatre where English and French writers and craftspeople came together, with results both harmonious and conflictual, and it was also the place, appropriately enough, where Fischman’s career as a translator got going.

Patricia Godbout, a professor at the University of Sherbrooke, relates one famous North Hatley evening in her contribution. The setting was a poetry reading where a ruckus arose. The problem apparently, back in the heady days of 1968, was that some French-speaking people thought that too much English was being declaimed. Many versions of the evening exist, and as Godbout wisely points out, all are coloured by the amount of alcohol that was consumed. A few things emerge from reading Godbout’s short piece, besides a sense of nostalgia. First, Fischman was truly upset by the conflict that broke out at an event she helped organize, which is normal enough. Times have changed since then: the last bilingual reading I attended, in September of 2012, was entirely orderly and predictable, since translation is now an accepted part of the literary scene, at least in Montreal—some of that state of affairs is thanks to Sheila Fischman. And when you realize that this dust-up took place as the Soviet Union was invading Czechoslovakia (two countries that no longer exist), you have to admit that we as a country are not gifted when it comes to conflict.

In his testimonial (the book uses the French word témoignages, which also means the story told by a witness to an event), Roch Carrier makes the following comment: “I … cannot stop thinking of all the books Sheila might have written, had she not devoted her life to translation.” I am sure I am not the only one who always suspected that she had a manuscript of original writing hidden away in a drawer, perhaps under lock and key knowing her usual discretion, and that in the fullness of time, this manuscript would emerge into the light. A romantic idea, indeed, though with a serious grounding, since it underlines the inevitable relation between writing and translation.

This book puts my suspicion to rest by presenting original work by Fischman, which once again is a departure from the traditional festschrift. The section called “Words of Sheila Fischman” features a suite of six very short prose poems called “Water” that were first published in a chapbook, “the most discreet publication I know,” as Carrier points out. Of course, what he says about the books she did not write because she had devoted herself to translation is just him being polite. Writing and translation are related in some ways, but one all-important difference divides them forever. When you are writing a book, you do not know how it is going to turn out; when you are translating one, you do. That uncertainty makes all the difference in the world when it comes to how you spend your days.

But translation does have one thing in common with writing: it can be used as a tool for self-concealment. Sherry Simon makes that clear in her essay about the little known Sephardic man of letters Edouard Roditi (1910–92). I had never heard of the gentleman; certainly his story is the stuff of novels. He was a translator between many languages, and Simon suggests that, as a homosexual, he sought masks behind which to hide, and language can do that—conceal, not just reveal. Among his other adventures, Roditi was an interpreter at the Nuremberg trials and worked for the post–World War Two American intelligence services. The writers he translated often stand at the crossroads of several identities, such as Italo Svevo and Fernando Pessoa.

Sheila Fischman is famous for asserting that she was “just a translator,” and professor emeritus Kathy Mezei speaks in her contribution of how Fischman wanted to “draw a cloak of invisibility around her presence in the text.” I suspect there is confusion between the persona Fischman wishes to project and her methods of translation. As a translator, she wants her readers to know they are reading a translation from French Quebec. She leaves in curse words in French (in Quebec, people swear by evoking the objects involved in Catholic mass instead of sexual functions), for example, and other words of local colour. When I first came across it, the writer in me disagreed with this strategy. It seems to me that all books signal the fact that they come from a foreign place; as translators we do not have to point this out. In fact, all books arise from a hidden and foreign source, even those written in the reader’s first language. And so I was happy to read Michael Henry Heim’s discussion on whether to “foreignize” or “domesticate” when translating. This veteran, best known for his German-to-English work, comes to a pragmatic conclusion: it all depends. But best of all, in his piece, he gives examples from his own work that illuminate what can sometimes remain a simply theoretical issue.

Perhaps the success of some recent English-language novels from foreign sources has given the nod to Fischman’s method. Junot Díaz won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, a book written in Spanglish, and the beginning novels in “dirty” (or imperfect) English by writers such as Aleksandar Hemon and Rawi Hage have justifiably attracted many readers. Translation does stretch the target language, as several contributors to this collection point out. And English, as we know, is particularly stretchy.

Maybe there is something Germanic about giving examples. University of Ottawa professor Luise von Flotow, who also works from German, supplies examples in her discussion of the dreadful, ideologically motivated English version of the East German novelist Christa Wolf. Usually bowdlerizing involves the suppression of sexual content, but the East German (another disappeared country) cultural authorities, via their into-English version of Wolf’s novel, cleaned up its ideological content. Von Flotow’s reaction was to retranslate the novel, beginning from the title. What those authorities entitled Divided Heaven was retranslated by von Flotow as They Divided the Sky in reference to the Berlin Wall.

Concrete examples are always more illuminating than the romantic imagery of translation as encounter with the Other, although it is true that the vocabulary used to speak of translation often has a carnal tinge to it. A shame, then, that none of the tribute payers undertook a close reading of Fischman’s work. A good example would have been her translation of some of the late Gaétan Soucy’s writing, perhaps his short piece The Anguish of the Heron that is included in the book. I would have liked to see Fischman at work, the decisions made, the nuts-and-bolts anguish of the choices. Admittedly, this book is in English for English readers, but Heim and von Flotow made me understand their points regarding German, a language I do not normally understand. A skillful tribute payer could have done the same for the object of tribute. Such an addition would have been all the more valuable since Fischman is typically quite reticent to talk about herself. There are two short interviews with her conducted by Sherry Simon: one dates back to 1994 and the other, shorter, from 2012, was carried out for this volume. An exploration of her translation work would have added to her “Words,” but perhaps no one wanted to take on that close reading.

 

It is safe to say that, in the future, no one will dominate the literary translation scene the way that Sheila Fischman has. In her preface, Sherry Simon mentions “a motley crowd of improvised passeurs” (including myself and several friends) who took over from Fischman’s generation. Here the issue is not quality, but market. Gone are the days that Fischman knew so well when a big press like McClelland and Stewart would give major play to a book from French Quebec. Anansi has taken up some of the slack, and it is unclear how the demise of Douglas and McIntyre, which published a good number of Québécois writers, will affect English Canada’s ability to read what is happening in French. Small houses such as Arsenal Pulp Press in Vancouver are becoming more active in publishing translation, usually on the basis of affinities—they are looking for equivalents from Quebec, or readers whom they trust give them advice on what books they might pick up. Perhaps this is appropriate for a publishing sector that has always been marginal.

One surprising development seems to bear out Fischman et al.’s national redemptive dream for literary translation—but in an unexpected way. French Quebec publishers are now publishing English-Canadian books at a greater rate than ever. So the translator’s mission has been accomplished—only the other way around from how people imagined it in the 1970s. Whether it is Miriam Toews, Michael Crummey or Gil Adamson, French-language publishers are taking their chances on “Canadian” writers, often in co-publication with Paris. And they are also paying attention to their Quebecneighbours writing in English, like Neil Smith, Claire Rothman—and here I must include myself. No one is claiming any more that there is nothing worth reading from the rest of Canada.