One Sentence, One World: Translating Mordecai Richler

Translated by Judith Woodsworth

Translating involves creating a new work in the spirit of the original. Moving away from the original just enough, and then coming back to it with new words. A hand is dealt once and for all: what someone does at the beginning of a novel may no longer work two sentences further along. This is even more true for a new book. And every word, every sentence, every image can defy translation absolutely. The solution has to be local—it is the solution of a particular problem—as well as global, in keeping with the entire book. Every time you translate, you jump off a cliff, yet with respect, integrity, admiration, and terror. But eventually you just have to get it done; you have to make a decision, make the leap and send your work off to your editor.

Paul Gagné and I have devoted several years to the marvelous and grandiose project of translating, or retranslating, Mordecai Richler’s finest novels.[1] Translation problems abound in Richler’s work: the wide range of tones and voices, the challenge of conveying in French the experience of living life in English in Montreal, humour and wordplay, Jewish references, a layering of different geographic and historical contexts, countless literary and cultural allusions, from the poetry of Auden to long-forgotten political slogans and advertising jingles. Richler was a great storyteller. His prose comes across as simple, spontaneous, and transparent, almost as if he were speaking. It flows, effortlessly it would seem. Therein lies the main difficulty, in a sense, because this natural style is something that has to be reimagined.

According to some critics, you should never “reshape” the sentence you are translating. With every change, they maintain, you distort and betray the original. For me, the opposite is true: I believe that you sometimes need to change the text so that it can stay the same. All art consists in knowing when—and how—to stay close to the original. To illustrate our method, I have chosen one sentence. In principle, it is rather straightforward, without any of the usual conundrums (swear words, plays on words, double entendres), but it is not as easy as it looks—which goes to show that everything is difficult to translate.

Here it is: “In those days, of course, Izzy no longer drove his battered Ford V-8 down St. Urbain, chasing after the ice-truck, peddling refrigerators.” The sentence is not hard to decipher, even though the word “ice-truck” belongs to a bygone era. Here, as elsewhere, Richler’s prose is very clear. But how were we to render the sentence in French? First, let’s take a look at what makes the sentence distinctive: the unusual temporal perspective, for one, although it’s absolutely characteristic of Richler’s major novels (“In those days, Izzy no longer . . .”). The sentence also stands out for its concision and the concrete, matter-of-fact information it imparts, which comes from the combination of adjectives and nouns (“battered Ford V-8,” “ice-truck,” “refrigerators”) as well as the repetition of present participles (“chasing,” “peddling”).

The meaning of the adverbial phrase of time (“In those days”), combined with an action taking place in the distant past (“Izzy no longer drove”), is complex, characteristic of all of Richler’s work. It drives home the distance between the poor and ambitious man of former times and the millionaire he has become. More than a mere indicator of time, it underscores Izzy’s social mobility, rendered all the more spectacular in light of his rather laughable debut as a salesman. This turn of phrase is linked to a fundamental aspect of Richler’s later novels, at play in two or three different storylines: the retrospective gaze of the St. Urbain Street guys, who would still be haunted by memories of Fletcher’s Field High and the delicatessens of the Main even after they had grown up to be rich and famous. On the narrative level, their ambivalence is reflected in flashbacks that are intimately tied to the present; the protagonist or the narrator switches between two—even three—points in time, alternating the rear view with the present tense. Izzy’s current opulence is layered over memories of an exceedingly modest past, which without being explicitly idealized inspires deep nostalgia. Think of Duddy Kravitz, who is successful beyond belief, and who orders caviar at a restaurant to show what a connoisseur he is, although he much prefers the chopped liver of his childhood.

This oscillation between past and present, between today’s success and nostalgia for days gone by, colours not only the story and the characters but also the style. The sentence I have provided as an example in fact evokes three periods of time: the present in which the novel is being written, the intermediate time to which this particular episode belongs, when Izzy was already rich (“in those days” rather than “nowadays”), and, finally, the time when he was just embarking on a much less exalted way of earning a living. Here is a first attempt at producing a French translation that follows the English original quite closely:

In those days, of course, Izzy no longer
drove his battered Ford V-8 down
St. Urbain, chasing after the ice-truck,
peddling refrigerators.
À cette époque, bien sûr, Izzy ne
conduisait plus sa vieille Ford V-8 le long
de la rue Saint-Urbain, poursuivant le
camion qui livrait la glace, vendant des

It is obvious, right off the bat, that some additions were required. If “ice-truck” were translated as “camion à glace(s),” the words would conjure up an ice cream truck. In English, on the other hand, there is no confusion: the product transported by the truck can only be blocks of ice. As well, “le long de” is a wordier way of expressing “down” but there’s no other choice. Saying “conduire le long de” is clumsier and less colloquial than “drive down.” In English, verbs expressing movement are more flexible and provide more information (“stomp out” or “fly in,” for example). Also, the more or less literal translation of the expression of time in the sentence “À cette époque, bien sûr, Izzy ne conduisait plus depuis longtemps” is both flat and vague; the sequence of time (which also indicates, as we have seen, a causal relationship: Izzy stopped those activities because he became rich) does not come across clearly. If we were to say, for example, “À cette époque, bien sûr, Izzy avait depuis longtemps cessé de conduire,” it would be even longer, and scarcely any clearer. What’s more, the use of present participles makes a sentence that sounds perfectly natural in English appear strange and contrived in French. I know from experience that such wording would be rejected at the editing stage, as would “à cette époque.” You would be asked to rewrite the sentence or, even worse, the editor would do it for you. Thus, the sentence lacks both clarity and texture; it is dull, without the verve of the original.

I should point out that I am in no way advocating a modern-day version of the belles infidèles approach, for you can’t change everything in the name of the “genius” of the French language.[2] It’s just that in this case the translator is up against a particular difficulty inherent in Richler’s style. His sentences are like overstuffed boxes, with contents about to spill over at any time. And yet, Richler just manages to strike a fine balance of names, places, past and present moments in time, modified by all kinds of adverbial expressions. You could describe his sentences as journalistic, in that they seem to answer the requisite who-what-where-how-and-sometimes-why questions, amalgamating elements that are piled one on top of the other like a house of cards teetering on the verge of collapse, but remaining intact nonetheless. In order to reproduce all of these elements in a French sentence, the translator sometimes has to rearrange or recalibrate them. If not, the translator would create a bizarre syntax that is not at all characteristic of the original English, thereby misrepresenting the author’s voice woefully. In this case, changing nothing actually leads to distortion. Here is a version that seems logical in French—and above all more Richlerian:

In those days, of course, Izzy no
longer drove his battered Ford V-8
down St. Urbain, chasing after
the ice-truck, peddling refrigerators.

Elle était révolue depuis longtemps, bien
sûr, l’époque où Izzy vendait ses
réfrigérateurs en poursuivant, au volant de
sa vieille Ford V-8, le camion qui livrait
la glace rue Saint-Urbain.


Let’s look at how we arrived at this result. “In those days” (we imagine that the accent would be on the word those) says more clearly than “à cette époque” or even “à cette époque-” that the period (“époque”) in question is very different from both the present and an even more distant past. The beginning of the French sentence (“Elle était révolue depuis longtemps, bien sûr, l’époque où . . .”) is slightly more emphatic than the English original, but it is still close to the way language is spoken. It sounds fluent in French, just as natural and idiomatic as the English expression, although it uses other stylistic means to convey the same idea of actions occurring over different moments in time. I feel, moreover, that the dynamic movement of the original comes across better if the verb is in the affirmative form (“vendait des réfrigérateurs”) rather than the negative “no longer drove . . . peddling refrigerators.”

Secondly, the elements of the sentence have been rearranged. Some people would consider a change of order to be a mortal sin, maintaining that the sentence should end with refrigerators, as it does in English. However, a diktat of this kind has no universal value. The shorter and simpler the sentence, the more you are inclined to keep it the way it is because the basic structure (subject-verb-object) is similar in both languages. The longer a sentence, the more complex and dense, the more likely it is that changes will need to be made. While we have generally kept “escalation” to a minimum throughout the translation, this particular sentence has grown longer than the original English one (thirty-one words compared with twenty-two), but it is just barely longer than the literal version (twenty-nine words). The addition of words can be attributed to the required adjustments I’ve already mentioned (“au volant” for “drove” and “camion qui livrait la glace” for “ice-truck”), changes that stem from fundamental differences between English and French. In the case of “In those days, Izzy . . .” (which we have translated as “Elle était révolue depuis longtemps, l’époque où Izzy . . .”), I would like to think that the way in which it is formulated, athough longer, is clearer, smoother, and more idiomatic than the word-for-word version: “À cette époque, Izzy ne conduisait plus.”

The proposed translation, I believe, reflects Izzy’s mindset, without stretching the point too much: it was more logical to sell housewives a fridge for $2 a week when they were paying $1.80 for blocks of ice (thus outpacing the truck he was following, which was destined to disappear while Izzy triumphed). From the lexical point of view, “vendait” is more neutral than “peddling,” but “colporter” couldn’t be used because it applies to objects a salesman carries with him; we could have said “vendre à tempérament” (sell on instalments) but this point is made in the rest of the passage and the sentence is overloaded with enough information as it is. The French sentence does not have the same rhythm as the original one. On the other hand, it has its own cadence, it flows naturally, and, like the English sentence, it is graphic. It is also true that it finishes differently, ending with the street rather than refrigerators. All the same, the French ending serves the purpose of the author, for whom St. Urbain Street (so emblematic that Richler named one of his books, The Street, in its honour) is the centre of the universe, the symbol of both his real and his fictional life, the starting point of every journey, and the object of a tender and nostalgic glance that permeates his writing and is achieved through it. The translation thus corresponds to the author’s overall project, reiterated in each line of the novel, reproducing the defining and fluid movement between past and present, as Richler explicitly says in the original title of the novel from which the sentence is drawn, Joshua Then and Now.

That’s why it is not enough to stick closely to the English sentence (word order, use of gerunds) in order to produce a good translation. Compared to the literal translation I first set out, the second one I have proposed seems much closer to the English original in what it seeks to do. Of course, whenever it is possible to “stick to” the original, we do just that, but sometimes you have to stray from it a little, or even a lot, in order to remain closer to what is being said. Therein lies the difficulty of the process; the very beauty of the act of translation involves knowing when and how to take this approach. It could always be better: we could have said “de sa Ford V-8 toute cabossée,” but at the last minute we replaced “cabossée” with “vieille” because this word, although less colourful than “battered,” gives the sentence a better rhythm. I feel a bit bad about dropping “toute cabossée,” but I also understand why we did.

This example and many others like it show that as soon as you no longer translate word for word, you are “reshaping” the text and going in a different direction. Necessarily and, in general, fortunately. You can go too far, but not going far enough actually means going in the wrong direction. That’s when you end up producing a translated text that is a carbon copy of the original, one that fails to have the same impact as the original. It is important to grasp the musicality of a text so that you can perform it, to the best of your ability, on the fresh instrument that a new language provides. Richler excels less for the order in which he introduces different elements than for the very natural way he weaves them together, for the swift flow of his sentences, and for the images that emanate from them. In this case, we visualize a journey down St. Urbain Street, a voyage that is both concrete and metaphorical. All of which, I hope and believe that we have captured.

I do not offer up this translation as definitive or perfect. I am still hesitant when I look at it. It probably has defects. Another translator would have produced a different version, perhaps a better one, less good, or as good. It all depends on your criteria and your tastes. At a different time in our lives, we might have done something different. I just wanted to reconstruct the different steps along the way, to illustrate the questions we asked, our doubts, our thought process, and all of the loving attention that goes into translating a single small sentence.


[1] Solomon Gursky and Joshua, 2015; L’Apprentissage de Duddy Kravitz and Le Cavalier de Saint-Urbain, 2016; Le Monde selon Barney, 2017. These translations were published in Montreal by Éditions du Boréal. Solomon Gursky, L’Apprentissage de Duddy Kravitz, Le Cavalier de Saint-Urbain and Le Monde selon Barney were also published in France by les Éditions du Sous-sol. The translation of Son of a Smaller Hero, entitled Fils d’un tout petit héros, has just been released, 2022.

[2] Belles infidèles (literally, beautiful and/but unfaithful) refers to a school of translation dating back to seventeenth-century France, which involved betraying the source text in order to produce a version that was considered to be more beautiful or an improvement over the original.


This originally appeared in Canadian Literature 248 (2022): 148.

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