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.

Everything here is dead: Brothers by David Clerson

My first book of 2017 is not the cheeriest of novels, but all the same, it came as a very pleasant surprise. The story is a dark fable, decidedly not for children, but then, the fairy tales we remember from childhood were much bleaker, gruesome affairs in their original incarnations. So imagine, if you will, a scene taking place just off the edge of a canvas painted by Bruegel the Elder, where two deformed boys play on the shore of a wild sea, dreaming of escape to fantastic lands, and you will evoke the setting—and the mood—of Brothers by Quebecois writer David Clerson.

The third title to be released by QC Fiction, a new subscription-based imprint of Baraka Books, Brothers is quite possibly the Quebec publisher’s most daring and impressive offering to date (I reviewed the first release, Life in the Court of Matane for Numéro Cinq last July). This slender volume with the striking red cover—QC Fiction has chosen a most impressive graphic design for their books—cbrothersontains a world that overflows with mythological adventure, shocking violence, and nightmarish beauty.

Brothers plays with and twists themes pulled from myth and legend. The central character, “older brother” is born of the union between his aging mother and a wild dog. She does not want her son to face the world alone, so she cuts off his left arm and from that limb she fashions a “younger” brother who has two very short arms. The two disfigured boys spend their days running through the fields and marshes around their clapboard house, fishing off the pier, and scavenging oddities that the waves bring in.

One day the sea offers a wreck of a boat, another day a wooden puppet washes up. Together the brothers work to patch the boat as best they can, dreaming of the day that they cross the waters to distant lands populated with monstrous creatures in search of their “dog of a father.” When they find a drowned dog, they know that the time has finally come. With the older brother dressed in the animal’s tanned pelt, one of the puppet’s arms strapped to his shoulder in place of his missing limb, they set to sea, leaving their aging, desiccated mother behind. She has withdrawn from them so completely they doubt she will notice their absence.

The first days it took a long time to get away from the shore. Not by choice, but because the wind kept them there, or they didn’t know how to handle their sail, to make the boat go where they would have wanted. Instead, they followed the coast, in a direction they had never been, not toward the marshes and the neighbouring village, but out to where the coastline fell away steeply, with cliffs sliced by creeks and a multitude of shrieking birds soaring above.

The brothers are ill-prepared for their adventure. Illness levels the younger boy, storms rage, and ultimately, disaster strikes. The older brother eventually ends up alone, on a farm, chained to a doghouse. Yet he finds, for a time, a certain peace in this new existence, save for the torments dished out by the six pig-like children who also live there. He will even experience a mixture of love and lust with a grey dog—the daughter of a dog of a father—whose life has been much lonelier and harsher than his. But this respite does not last, and it does not end well.

If there is a moral here, it is that life is brutal—that goodness and evil are both instinctual survival mechanisms. The former is weak and the latter consumes. Redemption is elusive.

So why read it? The prose, beautifully translated by poet Katia Grubisic, is crystalline, spare, and unsentimental. The balance is just right… it holds you in awe. It is surreal, grotesque and beautiful in turn. The older brother is self-reflective. He notices his contentment, contemplates the stirring of love, and knows he is helpless against the escalation of murderous revenge. The cruelty he has experienced, the violence he has perpetrated, the guilt that haunts him, and the kindness he cannot accept leave their mark, shape him. He has existed at the intersection between beast and man—more whole and complete for the months he lives as a dog, as harsh and mean as they are—but in the end, in the absence of the brother who completed him—he can find comfort only in the company of a murder of crows. And it is insufficient.

This book is not, as I had feared, magic realism. This is not a human tale with a magic element—it is a magical tale with a human heart. Like a folktale for a post-apocalyptic future, Brothers, in all its grotesque surrealism, reflects a truth in which we recognize ourselves, with an equal measure of horror, sadness and shame.

Originally published in 2013 as Frères, this first novel won the Grand prix littéraire Archambault 2014.

A modern day folktale: Baloney by Maxime Raymond Bock—my Rusty Toque review

baloneyOne of my favourite books of 2015 was Atavisms, a collection of short stories by Quebec writer, Maxime Raymond Bock. I was especially impressed by his ability to employ a wide range of styles and genres, from historical to speculative fiction, in a multi-faceted exploration of Québécois history, society, and identity. His newest release, Baloney,—now available from Coach House Books and translated, like Atavisms, by Pablo Strauss—offers further evidence of Bock’s versatility. This novella evokes the spirit of a traditional folktale, with its tragic-comic hero whose larger-than-life adventures are immortalized by a disillusioned young writer drawn to the aging, eccentric would-be poet. By turns funny, sad, and wise, this simple story is surprisingly moving and thoughtful, and stands as yet another fine example of a new generation of Quebec writers who deserve to be more widely read in English-speaking Canada and beyond.

My review of  Baloney can be found in the current issue of The Rusty Toque—my first contribution to this fine Canadian online literary and arts journal.

Life in a company town: Arvida by Samuel Archibald

You could almost envision Arvida as a town constructed as a backdrop, like a movie set, just waiting to be called upon by a talented story teller; one who would pull and draw legends, myths, and memories out of the woodwork of his hometown and re-imagine them, use them as fuel for his creative fire – a writer like Samuel Archibald. And you would not be that far off. Arvida was, in truth, a company town, founded in 1927 on the banks on the Saguenay River, 240 km north of Quebec City. Archibald describes the town’s genesis as follows:

“The Americans built the town beside the aluminum smelter in a hundred and thirty-five days. There’d been nothing around for 200 million years, then there was the Alcan smelter, and a hundred and thirty-five days later, a town.”

A town with no history suddenly appearing in the middle of nowhere was a haven for those with a past to escape, those who wanted to forget or be forgotten… “a town of second chances”.

arvidaBy the time that Archibald was born 1978, Arvida had been fused with the town of Jonquière and today a number of smaller communities have been amalgamated to form the city of Sanguenay. Arvida, as separate entity, the model town once praised by the New York Times no longer exists as such. But its glory days, its decline, its humanity – and a measure of misguided inhumanity – provide a wealth of inspiration for the stories that make up Arvida, Archibald’s short story collection first published in French in 2011, and now available in English translation. It has been shortlisted for the 2015 Giller Prize.

On the back cover of this book, Samuel Archibald is compared to a “Proust-obsessed Cormac McCarthy”. Stir in a nod to Stephen King and it is not an inaccurate billing. There is a dark heart throbbing throughout these stories, a pulse that binds them together, weaving often disparate tales into a surprisingly coherent and effective whole.

The series is bookended by the first and third parts of the “Arvida” story: “My Father and Proust” and “Madeleines”. Together with “The Centre of Leisure and Forgetfulness” (Arvida II) which appears about two thirds of the way through, we have a fictional glimpse of the author, his family, and his hometown. Funny, sad, and philosophical, this tripartite tale begins with humorous accounts of the narrator’s father’s boyhood penchant for stealing pastries and ends with the challenge of facing Proust’s madeleines armed only with the memory of McNuggets, anchored in the middle with a celebration of the spirit and fortitude of his grandparents and the characters that brighten small town life at its best.

Many of the stories that fill out the collection are decidedly darker. Blood and violence are not unknown. But then neither are dreams and a spirit of magic. “Cryptozoology” features a father and son who live between dream and waking life without holding one as more valid than the other. Sharing a cabin in the woods, 13 year-old Jim is essentially his hard-drinking father’s care taker, driving him home from social gatherings, and cleaning and sobering him up the morning after. On the road and along the traplines he is haunted by sightings of an elusive animal, perhaps a cougar, that cross into his sleeping hours and take on an increasingly mythical significance as Jim himself becomes ill.

“Now Jim is dreaming and listening. He hears what they’re saying about him. He’d like to reassure them, to explain to them. He often has a dream with no up nor down, where the beast attacks him and devours him. It’s a dream of carnivorousness and violence, but not of death. He does not expire while the cougar is annihilating his body, he fossilizes within the animal like a memory of flesh.”

Ghosts are also a featured presence in Arvida, from the old fashioned gothic horror of “A Mirror in the Mirror”, the tale of a woman who wastes away into a state of otherworldliness waiting for her playwright husband to return from an extended stay in Montreal; to the spirits, real or imagined, that haunt and ultimately destroy the family life of a man who takes on the restoration of a crumbling historic mansion. But the horror theme is taken to an extreme in “Jigai”, a gruesome fantastical tale of ritual mutilation set in Japan, safely across the globe from small town Quebec. It is apparently an allegory of an unimaginably brutal story Archibald heard when he was growing up. Placing it in the middle of this collection however, has the effect of providing a powerful counter point to the small moments and the everyday terrors, fears, and passions of life in a remote community.

The fictional Arvida is inhabited by a wide assortment of colourful, often hapless, indiviuals. For example, in “América”, for the promise of three thousand dollars, a pair of young men decide to accept the challenge of smuggling a woman from Costa Rica into the United States. First they enlist a cokehead as an accomplice who turns out to be little more than a burden that must be abandoned, and then neglect to consider the impact that the events of September 2001 will have on their attempt to cross the border in 2002. Later on in another story, “The Last-Born”, a man who is less than a deep thinker, decides he can kill a man, again for a couple thousand dollars. Yet what starts out as attempted murder, turns into an unexpectedly heartwarming tale. Archibald is sensitive to the complicated dynamics of human interaction, allowing his characters to find their own ways in to and, with luck, out of trouble.

Arvida was very well received in Quebec. Archibald worked with translator Donald Winkler for a year to realize the work in English. Hopefully the Giller nomination will serve to introduce him to a wider audience, and to provide a well deserved boost for his small publisher, Biblioasis, who had three titles on the long list this year, two moving on to the short list. The stories in Arvida may be inspired by a particular place, but they vividly evoke the reality of small town Canadian life, especially in the 1960’s and 70’s. They could be set in any number of communities across the country, especially those company towns that rose up around mining or pulp and paper factories. Some, like Arvida have been absorbed into larger centres, while others are fading away.

We’re extras in our own stories: Atavisms by Raymond Bock

I am often at odds with the literature from my own country, in fact I’m increasingly at odds with my own country itself. When I heard about Atavisms, a newly released translation of Maxime Raymond Bock’s award winning collection of short stories it caught my attention immediately. I was keen to have a look at Canada through the lens of a contemporary Québécois writer. I don’t know what I expected, but I was hooked from the opening pages.

atavismsNot content with niceties, Bock catapults his reader into this collection with “Wolverine”, a story about a disaffected nationalist nursing his resentment long after the FLQ (Front de Libération du Québec – a separatist paramilitary organization) has fallen into decline in the years following the institution of the War Measures Act in October of 1970 in response to the hostilities that had risen to a crisis point. When he happens to encounter a former Liberal cabinet minister, aged and intoxicated, he enlists a couple of friends on an adventure of revenge that turns brutally violent. It is shocking even if you come to this tale from a distance, but as a Canadian who will never separate the October Crisis from his 10 year-old imagination, I met it with intoxicated horror. Suddenly I was thrown back to my prairie schoolyard where my friends and I re-enacted events we were in no way equipped to understand – but with kidnapped officials and bodies in trunks it was infinitely more exciting, and terrifying, than anything on TV.

The horror continues to unfold in the second story, “The Other World”, but this time the reader is thrown back hundreds of years, to the early Quebec settlers and the immediate aftermath of the surprise attack by of a band of Iroquois on a couple of traders and their Huron guides. As the lone survivor lies under a thicket of pine branches hoping to remain hidden as the attackers relieve their victims of goods and scalps, he muses that, no matter what happens, he has no regrets.

From there we move, in “Dauphin, Manitoba”, to look outside the borders of Quebec, with a man’s monologue directed at a girlfriend he left behind in a prairie town. They had moved out there together. While she found herself captivated by her work, he failed to get a foothold or feel at ease in the vast empty landscape and retreated to the familiar blanketing comfort of a Montreal winter.

“You could pace back and forth a hundred years without coming close to the boredom I felt on those prairies, once sifted by antediluvian oceans, sculpted by retreating glaciers, surveyed by rambling nomads – friendly spirits, even better warriors – plowed to-and-fro by combines kicking up the dust of buffalo skeletons. You could say I caught you off guard when I left you alone to follow your path; you could say it was a nice trip, the time of your life. Lies. We’re both free now. You can study law, become a pastry chef, take up curling, or stay out there and keep up the good work; I’ll stay here and the snow will keep coming down.”

I once made a move like that in the opposite direction, albeit no further than Ottawa; but in the end made my way back west, never really at home at either end of the equation. As the narrator frames his missive to his girlfriend in terms of the generic novels he is making his way through, he does not sound any more committed to his move as something intrinsically right than as an acknowledgement of where he does not belong.

As the stories in Atavisms unfold, stretching back and forward in time, common themes, from history to politics to parental anxiety, reoccur, reflecting off one another. It can be argued that these thirteen stories are interconnected although they do not explicitly share any repeating characters and range from historical to surrealist to speculative fiction. Some of the contemporary stories are deeply universal and could almost be set anywhere, like “The Bridge” in which a depressed history teacher muses about his fate should he give in to his suicidal whims; or “Room 103”, a son’s one sided conversation with his dying father:

“It’s the end, Antoine, there’s nothing left to be done. You’re so light you don’t even make a dent in the mattress. It’s just you all alone with your obsolete quarter-million dollar machines, your network of tubing, your probes and dreams.”

Like a fragmented block of glass, each story in Atavisms offers a view of the Québécois experience through a different prism until the final tale, “The Still Traveler”, pulls all the threads together into a time and place in a precolonial reality dating back to the legends of the earliest residents and visitors to the Americas. After all, atavism refers to the tendency to revert to an ancestral type and that, more than anything is the underpinning theme of this collection: fathers and sons, family histories, political legacies, the identities that contain and define us.

Outside of Quebec, a sense of identity is diluted. I was struck by the depth of the colonial commentary that runs through a number of these tales and how the early days of New France are revisited with a harsh measure of reality. This is a conversational point sadly under played in Canada as a whole. As a new level of racism and xenophobia directed at new Canadians grows across this country, we would do well to remember how recently white Europeans made their way onto these shores.

Newly released by Dalkey Archive Press under their Canadian Literature Series, Pablo Strauss’ translation very effectively maintains the distinctive flavour of Bock’s richly varied stories. Supplemental endnotes fill in some essential language and historical references to enhance the reading experience.

I would strongly recommend Atavisms to anyone interested in knowing more about the Quebec experience, whether inside or outside Canada. Not only because the perspective is not as widely known or understood as it should be, but because this is simply a collection of very good stories. Period.