Learning another language can be a transformative experience; it can, quite literally, change your life. In learning another language, one becomes another person: stupid, inarticulate, and without a sense of humour at first and then, gradually, someone with a different identity. For Lori Farnham, learning French was a passport to worlds beyond, a ticket to escape, a life-altering experience.
She was an unhappy child growing up in Kitchener, Ontario, in the 1960s. She was ridiculed for her name —“Farnham, farm ham, fart ham, oink oink, hey little piggy”— and felt disconnected from her peers, her city, even her parents. There were harsh exchanges at the dinner table. “Our food is not good enough for you?” she was asked. “Our name is not good enough for you either?” The insinuations were cutting. Resentful of her daughter, for taking up French and for recoiling from the family, Lori’s mother once snapped, “Who do you think you are? You’re nobody special.” Years later, this would make the perfect title for a memoir:
The phrase is deeper than it appears. If it is intended really as a question and not as a putdown (you are not as good as you think), it means that one can become someone else, and be transformed. Decide who you are. Pour qui te prends-tu? is therefore an invitation, almost a red carpet, a manual, just like the Quebec expression se prendre pour un autre. One day, very early, I took myself to be someone else, for someone who was going to learn French and leave forever. And I did.
Many children and adolescents feel alienated from their families and the environment in which they live, but not many completely transform themselves. Lori Farnham fell in love with French — leading to even more distance between herself and her mocking classmates. She visited Paris and moved to Quebec City, changed her name to one she spotted in a local phone book, earned a doctorate at Université Laval, moved to Montreal, got married, and worked as a translator with her husband, Paul Gagné.
As she explains in Pour qui je me prends, the woman she became often hid the girl that she once was: “I love it that people ask me, ‘In fact, are you an anglophone or a francophone?’ If people don’t figure it out after listening to me, I have succeeded.”
In October 2022, the community of translators in Quebec was shocked by the news that Lori Saint-Martin had died suddenly in Paris, where she was to address the Commission nationale française pour l’UNESCO. She had just been admitted to the Académie des lettres du Québec, and the news gave added poignancy to her two recent books, which together constitute an extended memoir — one part personal, the other part professional.
For Saint-Martin, a new name meant a new identity. New languages — French and then Spanish — were the key to social mobility. She grew up in a working-class household without books or paintings: “I never felt at home at home.” Rather, she felt like an exile in a town where her family had lived for generations. But a trip to Berlin in 2016 made her realize that, just as she had fled from English, her grandparents had fled from German, around the time that Berlin, Ontario, changed its name to Kitchener. This too created a breach, a rupture with the past: “My ignorance of German is heavy, full of meaning. A lack of knowledge was imposed upon me. A form of violence.” While she came to resent the fact that German had been, in a way, taken from her, she reconciled with the English of her youth and embraced Spanish, dancing from one language to another and raising her children with two mother tongues.
Along with Paul Gagné, Lori Saint-Martin was incredibly productive. As a team, they translated Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall on Your Knees; Tamas Dobozy’s Last Notes and Other Stories; and Mordecai Richler’s Joshua Then and Now, Barney’s Version, and Solomon Gursky Was Here (winning Governor General’s awards for the last two). There were also translations of Maya Angelou, Margaret Atwood, and Naomi Klein, among many others. Together, they opened the door to English literature for French speakers in Quebec with more than 120 books. Yet despite the accomplishments, Saint-Martin was virtually unknown in English Canada because even bilingual English-speaking Canadians rarely read French translations of English works.
Saint-Martin’s career as a translator and interpreter is at the heart of Un bien nécessaire, whose title plays on the expression “un mal nécessaire” (a necessary evil). Translation, she argues, is an encounter, a meeting with the other, a form of deep and detailed reading, an interrogation of meaning. “The quality of my translation depends upon the quality of my reading,” she writes. “Translation is reading, exegesis, interpretation, and then recreation.” (Perhaps, like its English translation, recréation can point to a double meaning: entertainment and renewal. Saint-Martin surely offers us both.)
If translation is a profound engagement with the original text — involving deeply moral questions about the best way to convey content, meaning, and style — interpretation is a high-wire adventure and a form of secret espionage. “In the back-and-forth between English and French, I love the speed, the danger of the simultaneity, its immediacy,” she writes. “I love entering into groups where businessmen, insurance agents, lawyers, or doctors talk as if they were alone. One can observe them like a spy, even though bound by professional confidentiality. I love the lack of a safety net, the necessity of following the speaker word for word, without pause, barely breathing.” Translation is permanent, whereas interpretation vanishes: “The satisfaction of interpretation is the exact opposite of that of translation. The pleasure is immediate: the public nods, laughs, understands the stakes of a tense negotiation because we have rendered everything with precision.”
Interpreters are sometimes privileged witnesses to history — but faced with a difficult duty. Saint-Martin recalls “the voice of the woman who translated Jacques Parizeau into English after the defeat of the ‘yes’ side in the second referendum.” She picked up a “moment of consternation”: “(‘Money and ethnic votes.’ Damn, did he really say that? And what if I misunderstood?)” Saint-Martin heard the interpreter “clearly hesitate, weigh her options, and jump: in fact, she understood.”
Like actors, interpreters utter phrases that are not necessarily true to themselves: “As a doctor . . .” or “If I am elected . . .” Part of the job is to be a mimic, but only to an extent. “My voice in the interpreter’s booth instinctively follows the tone of the speaker. If her voice trembles and her eyes fill with tears, the same thing easily happens to me, I have to restrain myself; during Lady Diana’s funeral, which I translated for TV, I wept during the pauses and then returned, my voice calm and even, to the ceremony.” And whenever the last speaker has uttered the last word, the interpreter’s work is over. “While translators sign books that remain, which exist somewhere as material objects and possible discoveries, interpreters are artists of the ephemeral.”
Un bien nécessaire is a passionate defence of both translation and interpretation, as well as an articulation of Saint-Martin’s own duality. This is most explicit when she describes translating her own work, rendering the novel she composed in French into English. In doing so, she discovered her own emotional reticence in English, compared with her more expressive self in French: “Self-translation makes me face my past as a woman, my evolution as an author and my linguistic divide, my dance between the languages. All the changes that I made — additions, omissions, alterations to the time structure and perspective — testify to a process of recreation; it is not we who write in a language but the language that writes us.”
It can be disconcerting to read a book by someone who has recently died. It can provoke a sense of loss for a stranger one will never meet — in this case, a stranger who helped build a bridge between languages. As these two books show, Lori Farnham did more than transform herself into Lori Saint-Martin. She helped transform a critical part of the relationship between French and English in Canada.