Thirty-seven journeys from French to English: I Never Talk About It by Véronique Côté and Steve Gagnon

We all have our secrets; the habits, hopes, histories, and horrors that we keep to ourselves. We all hold something inside that we never talk about. It may be painful; it might be embarrassing. It can be major, it can be insignificant, but either way we all have a truth to guard.

This is the concept behind an inventive collaboration between Véronique Côté and Steve Gagnon, two Quebecois writers, actors and directors who created thirty-seven short confessional monologues to be performed live, and then gathered into a book titled Chaque automne j’ai envie de mourir. However, a unique and daring thing happened as this collection made its way from French into English. Thirty-seven different translators were invited along for the ride. The result, I Never Talk About It, is the latest release from QC Fiction, and further evidence of this ambitious young publisher’s determination to offer Canadian and international audiences original, exciting new work from Quebec.

The prose pieces that comprise this book demonstrate a wide range in structure and voice from unsophisticated and straightforward, to quirky stream of consciousness, to stylized and experimental. This variety creates the perfect environment in which to explore the considerations and decisions a translator faces in guiding a text from one language to another.

The translators invited into this intriguing exercise come from around the world and include seasoned professionals alongside first-timers without any specialized training or experience. Some are Francophones more accustomed to moving from English to French, while others have little or no familiarity with Quebecois usage and culture. There are teachers, students, and authors.  Each story is followed by a brief biography of the translator along with his or her comments about the challenges they faced and the approach they employed. Because, as editor and translator Peter McCambridge indicates in his introduction:

…there’s always an approach, always a slant, always a distortion or deviation from the original, however slight or well-intentioned. Often it makes for a smoother reading experience in English. But it’s nice to know it’s there, all the same…. Because there are few wrong answers. Because any translation is a question and then an answer.

And yes, there may be few wrong answers, but as a reader with a special fondness for translated and international literature, there are certainly approaches that, in the reading, seem to work better than others. However, unless we hear about the choices that are made we cannot know what we might be missing, or why some books leave us wondering: Is it the original or the translation that seems off?

 The greatest reward offered by a book like I Never Talk About It is a space to explore one’s own reaction to concise pieces, first on their own and then in the light of the translator’s reflections.

Because the original works are essentially performative, with variations in tone and flow, many translators mention the challenge of maintaining the energy of the French text. Often the chosen approach involves an intensive engagement with the text. Pablo Strauss describes translating as:

…a slow, unscientific process of writing and rewriting until you can’t look at the piece any more. Experience has taught me that translation has no rules; the translations I love are at once loose and careful.

Later on, Lori Saint-Martin admits that:

I read the piece about 786 times, a couple of times out loud, mentally thinking of avenues without writing anything down; then I did a really fast, intuitive draft as if writing it creatively myself…put it aside, and rewrote it three more times, pulling it closer to the original sometimes, sometimes a bit further away to boomerang it back closer.

It’s probably a coincidence but the stories they translated, “Nightmares” and “Constellation” were among my favourites.

One of my pet peeves when it comes to translated or even international literature originally written in English, is that decisions are sometimes made to make the work more palatable to an American or British audience. In this collection two translators chose to relocate the specifics and tone of their pieces—one to the US, the other to the UK—removing the Quebec (which were also essentially Canadian) references. To my ear, the results were out of place and disappointing. As a frequent reader of South African literature I have seen this tendency too, whether English originals or translations from Afrikaans, all the bakkies are turned into pick-up trucks and so on. For me it amounts to unfortunate accommodation and contributes to the homogenization of international literature lest any local flavour be off-putting.

In the end, I Never Talk About It is more than an enlightening glimpse into the myriad of ways that texts can be approached by a translator; it is an entertaining, and often deeply moving, look into the private anxieties, obsessions, confessions, and passions of a diverse cast of characters.

12 thoughts on “Thirty-seven journeys from French to English: I Never Talk About It by Véronique Côté and Steve Gagnon

  1. Yes. I don’t like homogenisation either, and especially not because it’s all one-way.
    These days anyone can Google a word or use the dictionary on their Kindle when they really can’t work out a word from context so it is completely unnecessary to change things. The fact that they still continue to do it shows the cultural arrogance that underlies the practice.
    I refused to allow a 3rd reprint of my little book about Indonesia because the publisher wanted to Americanise the introduction which compared aspects of life in Indonesia with Australia. It cost me sales, but I think it’s really important that Australian kids get to read about their own country!

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  2. This does indeed sound interesting, though I’m with you on the retention of the local setting etc. I had issues with my recent read of War and Peace when the names were Anglicised – dammit, I want my Russians to *sound* like Russians (and my Canadian lit to be set in Canada).

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    • Even in a city like Calgary the library rarely has what I want and inter-library loan is very slow. Having watch QC Fiction from its beginning last year, I am happy to see a new effort in Quebec lit gaining attention and traction—works like this are inventive.

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  3. Glad you enjoyed it, Joe! I think what I want people to take away from the book (aside from enjoying the stories themselves, that is – because they really are fun stories that I think deserved to be shared in another language) is not only that there are all these different decisions normally taken (and not commented on at all) by the translators but that translator #1 or translator #3 or translator #37 could very well have translated the whole collection. That’s what normally happens and that’s what most readers assume to be the only or the best possible outcome, not just 1 of many more than 37 possibilities.

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    • It almost essential reading for fans of translated literature because those decisions (and the editorial collaboration) are critical. The decision to remove comma splices was another that caught my attention and I found myself reading for and pleased to see that form of punctuation left intact because when it works it is important (but that’s the editor/copy editor in me coming through!).

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