Bricks without Straw

Toward a sureness of hand

Paul Auster likens translation to shovelling coal. I think of it as more like laying bricks. With one small move at a time, you build a wall to bear a load of meaning. Oh, and it should somehow be exactly like another wall made from different materials for another climate by someone whose mental image of a wall is nothing like your own.

Translating literature involves one step more than, say, a government report does. Once your wall is level and plumb and structurally sound, you go back and add the ornaments and grace notes that madcap nineteenth-century masons always included. As we edit — and editing is writing is translation — we must step away from the text we’re reproducing and listen instead to the one we are writing. The translator’s voice will inevitably shine through, so why hide it? Why not find small nooks into which you can slip your favourite words? (I always make room for “purchase,” as in “foothold,” or “cleave to,” as in “hold to with great conviction.”)

In my early twenties, on a road trip from British Columbia, my girlfriend and I got lost in Quebec City’s Lower Town. We ended up renting an apartment on the street where I still live. In my neighbourhood, I often watch master masons working with the unhurried assurance of craft mastered through experience. I aspire to such sureness of hand. But that is not the only lesson my neighbourhood has taught me.

I’ve walked Rue Saint-Vallier — a curved thoroughfare that defies the city’s grid — between five and ten thousand times. Inhabiting a text until you can do it justice in translation is like walking the same street over years that become decades. You start out in awe and in love (young, clueless); over time you learn your way; before you know it, you can see not only each business but the ghosts of businesses past. You remember when that café moved in, the surprise when those architects set up shop. At some point, you find yourself holding your son’s hand, seeing through his eyes. You imagine what the bent-over ladies see, the ones who knew this place when it was teeming in the ’50s and then saw it empty out, one storefront at a time, until one day, as if overnight, people again packed the streets their grandparents had left behind.

I can’t extricate my patient emigration to this city and appropriation of this language from the process of becoming a translator; they are one and the same. The people who gently laughed at me showed me how inadequate my school French was. Until you’ve bought lumber, talked to children, and eavesdropped on hundreds of buses, you can’t really understand a language (or a place). After fifteen years, I still have to ask authors and friends to explain jokes and qualify the harshness of insults. But I have learned to recognize the contours of my ignorance.

My latest translation is Christiane Vadnais’s Fauna, ten linked stories set against dire climate change and, yes, a pandemic. A biologist strives to understand a deadly parasite with such singleness of purpose that she is loath to stop working even to give birth, which she does, in one of the book’s most thrilling moments, alone in her lab. Vadnais’s prose is elegant, formal. “Delatinizing” diction and syntax is often the backbone of French-to-English translation, but I found that this particular text, with its main character steeped in Linnaean biology, called for the opposite approach. I went full Samuel Johnson and embraced Latinate words and constructions.

On Fauna’s final page we find this sentence: “Dans la forêt brumeuse, les chevreuils tendent l’oreille au son des chiens-loups qui ont oublié leurs jeux de balle d’autrefois pour en inventer d’autres, moins naïfs.” (In the misty forest, the deer prick up their ears to catch the sounds of the wolfdogs who have left behind their ball games for more nocuous entertainments.) I’m confident that “moins naïfs” has never before been rendered as “more nocuous.” But after trying twenty or thirty formulations, that was where I landed — on an obsolete yet recognizable word that somehow reflects the nocturnal menace of these creatures and the book as a whole. Then I hoped against hope to get “nocuous” by my tough, unerring editor, and somehow did.

Literary translators aren’t exactly craftspeople, nor are we quite authors. We must be unafraid to break rules, thorough enough to leave no stone unturned, modest enough to check our worst impulses, selfish enough to hone our voice. Like a street that defies the grid, translation follows its own path, one I’ll spend a lifetime walking but never figure out.