Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex are some of the works that have been translated into English anew, or “retranslated,” sometimes by writers in their own right, like Lydia Davis, who has tackled both Proust and Flaubert. These achievements have been hotly debated in literary magazines and painstakingly analyzed in academic journals. While the notion of “retranslation” itself has become somewhat of a trend in translation studies, the actual phenomenon is far from new. Many canonical works, such as the Bible and the Arabian Nights, have been abundantly translated and transformed over time, the object of multiple adaptations for different audiences and media. The works of Mordecai Richler, a more recent and less canonical author but a giant of Canadian letters nonetheless, have similarly undergone a major retranslation into French.
Translation is always a complex event, set in a particular cultural context and geographical space, with a range of sociological and political factors that govern the actions of translators as well as various agents—publishers, editors, funding agencies, and reviewers—who initiate the act of translation and influence its outcome. The act of retranslation has meanwhile been investigated since Antoine Berman formulated his influential “retranslation hypothesis.” For Berman, first translations are usually “assimilating,” in that they attempt to erase the foreignness of a work of literature; over time, however, this deficiency tends to be corrected as (re)translations become increasingly faithful to the original text. This hypothesis has been amply discussed and contested.
A prominent Montreal publishing house commissioned the French translation of Mordecai Richler’s novels some years after they had already been released, mainly in France. Two representatives of les Éditions du Boréal, managing director Pascal Assathiany and literary editor (directeur de l’édition) Jean Bernier, invited a pair of translators to lunch and stunned them with an invitation to translate a series of Richler’s books. The chosen couple, Lori Saint-Martin and Paul Gagné, collaborators in translation as well as real-life partners, were by this time among the most accomplished and decorated translators in Canada. Both flabbergasted and intimidated, the translators were delighted to take on the project, which they saw as the opportunity of a lifetime, a unique and rare “gift,” as they revealed in an interview with me in August 2021 on the patio of their home in Montreal’s Notre-Dame-de-Grâce neighbourhood. There were no other candidates, to their knowledge, and they were under the impression that the project would not have gone ahead had they not accepted.
Saint-Martin and Gagné have been translating books together since the early 1990s, beginning with the publication of Daphne Marlatt’s novel Ana historique, for which they received the John Glassco Translation Prize awarded by the Literary Translators’ Association of Canada for a debut translation. However, their career did not take off until their translation of Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall on Your Knees (Un parfum de cèdre) earned them their first Governor General’s Award in Translation in 2000. They now estimate that they have translated around 120 books. By the time Boréal came calling, the duo had already won a fistful of prizes, including a second Governor General’s Award for Dernières notes (2007), their translation of Last Notes and Other Stories by Tamas Dobozy. Before devoting himself full time to co-translating some of Canada’s most esteemed writers, Gagné had worked for several years in an agency, translating a million words a year, mainly for the federal government. Saint-Martin is a professor of literature at the Université de Québec à Montréal, as well as a novelist and short story writer.
On the table during that pivotal lunch was a set of five books: Solomon Gursky Was Here (translated as Solomon Gursky in 2015); Joshua Then and Now (Joshua, 2015); The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (L’Apprentissage de Duddy Kravitz, 2016), and St. Urbain’s Horseman (Le Cavalier de Saint- Urbain, 2016). At the time, the publisher did not yet have the rights to Barney’s Version, so they were going to do Son of a Smaller Hero, which was dropped when Barney’s Version was acquired (translated as Le Monde selon Barney in 2017). At the time of our interview, they were in the process of completing the reinstated translation of Son of a Smaller Hero, released in 2022 under the title Fils d’un tout petit héros, for a total of six books. For Solomon Gursky and Le Monde selon Barney they have garnered two more Governor General’s Awards.
All these titles had been translated previously, mostly in France, although a translation of Duddy Kravitz had come out in Montreal in 1976. Barney had been translated by French translator Bernard Cohen not long before and was even released in paperback as recently as 2018. Many errors have been detected in these earlier translations, inventoried in multiple critical and scholarly pieces, even framed by translatological concepts—notably domesticating versus foreignizing approaches—with reference to such theoreticians as Berman, Lawrence Venuti, and Henri Meschonnic. Bernard Cohen, chided for never having set foot in Quebec, has had his wrist slapped for translating Lower Canada as le Canada inférieur (instead of le Bas-Canada) and the well-travelled road to the ski hills Autoroute du Saint-Laurent (instead of Autoroute des Laurentides, or Laurentian Autoroute) (Côté). Much has been made of another slip-up in Barney: the translation of the nickname of beloved Quebec hockey player Maurice Richard, the “Rocket,” as la Fusée, a misstep that understandably miffed francophone readers in Quebec (Martineau 60). Readers chez nous have been particularly touchy about mistakes associated with their favourite pastime, as evidenced by Lysiane Gagnon’s column in the Montreal daily La Presse, in which she salutes Saint-Martin and Gagné as translators capable of finally getting things right, calling out the French translator’s reference to our prized hockey trophy as the tasse Stanley instead of the coupe Stanley.
Boréal’s project has generally been well received and perceived as a step forward. Writing in Le Devoir, Catherine Lalonde deplores how long it has taken for Quebec readers to have access to a “respectable” translation of Solomon Gursky Was Here, which like the other Richler novels had suffered from disgraceful made-in-France translations (“pitoyable” is the word she uses). And she heralds the “new French voice” of translators Saint-Martin and Gagné (Lalonde).
Make It New
“New” has been the operative word and guiding principle of the project, as the red wrap-around band on the cover of the published volumes indicates.1 It would be a Quebec translation, for a Québécois readership: it was supposed to be an up-to-date translation of six works, all done by the same person (or two persons in this case) within a relatively short period of time, so that there would be a certain coherence and unity of voice. The publisher’s intentions are indicated in the following blurb for Solomon Gursky: “This new French translation, by Lori Saint-Martin and Paul Gagné is the first to be made in Quebec. The francophone reader will therefore rediscover the wealth of references to Canadian and Québécois reality made by Richler.”2 As the next books were released, they were accompanied by similar statements emphasizing the newness of the translation and its faithfulness to the original work of Richler.3
The Canada Council for the Arts, which has long promoted and funded literary translation in this country, does not usually support retranslations. As Saint-Martin and Gagné point out, Pascal Assathiany had to make a special case to the Canada Council, arguing that the Hexagonal French versions were outdated and not suited to audiences here. The project was thus quite deliberately pitched to the funders as “new” and also marketed as such.
It has become somewhat of a national sport to poke fun at the bloopers and clunkers in former made-in-France translations. However, once they received their marching orders from Boréal, the homegrown translators were not all at concerned with previous translations. They made a point, in fact, of consciously ignoring them—not even peeking. They emphatically maintain that this is not “retranslation” in the usual sense, but rather a “new” translation, by which they mean that they are not proposing to rewrite or revise an older, faulty text.
Though This Be Madness
From the outset, Gagné has refused to read the existing translations. Not out of laziness, he insists. Rather, he fears that it would “contaminate” his mind. He feels that the only possible approach has been to act as if there were no previous translation. Editor Jean Bernier may have occasionally taken a look, out of curiosity, but the translators claim they never did, not before or after. Not that previous translations were totally bad, they say. Rather, they are not comfortable with going through someone else’s work and cherry-picking the good parts, the trouvailles. Their translation is not a “palimpsest” with a little bit borrowed from someone’s translation, and a little bit from another; it is not a reading done in France and not a reading done thirty years ago, but another reading done here and now.
Co-translators for three decades, Saint-Martin and Gagné have worked out how to produce a prodigious volume of translation in a short time (Gursky and Joshua, issued the same year, total an astonishing 1,200 pages). Over time, they have obviously developed a highly efficient method of working together, reflected in the seamless way in which they answered my questions, the conversation flowing effortlessly as they finished each other’s thoughts and sentences, almost as if they were speaking with a single voice.
Gagné dedicates himself one hundred percent to the task of translation, while Saint-Martin sets aside some of her time to carrying out the duties of her “day job” as a professor (although Gagné makes a point of highlighting her outstanding capacity for work, which makes it possible for her to add translation to the “million things” she does). Gagné writes a first draft and edits it online, after which he prints it out and hands it over to Saint-Martin, whose job is to do a “bilingual revision.” In other words, she checks Gagné’s French translation against the English original, word by word and line by line. Gagné calls her his “safety net” because, as an Anglophone, she is likely to catch idiomatic expressions he might have missed. Saint-Martin’s rewrite involves manipulating the text, moving it away from a strictly literal rendering. According to Saint-Martin, Gagné has an aptitude and preference for translating, while she is better as a reviser. Gagné concurs and says he hates reading his material over again. When corrections come back from the publishers, Saint-Martin takes over. She is the one who will negotiate with editors and proofreaders. They both feel happy with the model. One person, working alone, doesn’t always have the distance or the stamina to handle larger projects.
The Labours of Translation
The translators use the word “intimidated” several times in the course of our conversation, showing immense respect for the author they are translating and gratitude, as well, to the literary community for the attention bestowed upon them (“choyés” is the term they use). They are modest about their own work, although infinitely thoughtful. The term “difficult” comes up, too, as a leitmotiv. All translation, they say, is difficult. Gagné recalls that the countless texts he translated in a previous life were difficult, but that literary translation is even more so because in addition to the sense, you have to be attentive to the style and humour of the original. Not only must you be aware of the context in which the original book was composed, you must also understand your target audience. “When I think about it all,” he says, “it gives me a headache.”
They underline the fact that no translation is ever perfect or totally bad. They are reluctant to find fault with their fellow translators, past or present. The craft of translation is undervalued as it is, even regarded with suspicion. There’s no point in adding to the negative perceptions by criticizing the work of others. They do raise the question of “voice,” on the other hand, hypothesizing that an author is better served by a single translator rather than a cacophony of voices (“bruit des voix”). The previous French versions of Richler were done by disparate translators, at different times. At Boréal’s request, they took on a set of the greatest Richler novels, which they agreed to complete within a relatively short period of time. The effect was sure to be different, more coherent, and more effective.
Although these translations were intended for Quebec readers, the publisher also partnered with a French publisher, Éditions du sous-sol. “Québécois, oui et non,” they say. Of course, the translations were to have a Quebec focus, tone, and vocabulary. But there was a “small constraint”: the text was also meant to be transparent and readable for an international audience. Enter the French copyeditors: bleuets (blueberries) become myrtilles; un stationnement (parking lot) is changed to un parking; and chandail (sweater) is replaced with pull. Things can’t be too Québécois or the books won’t sell. The Montreal team draws the line at inserting France-specific slang like nana and flic or curses like putain de. Saint-Martin, who handles the French editors for the most part, feels, however, that they have maintained a light-handed approach. And compromises could be made by choosing terms that are recognized as specific to Quebec, but included in the authoritative French dictionary, Le Robert.
“Son nom sent encore le soufre”
While the translators immediately earned accolades for their work, the reception of Mordecai Richler was more problematic. As Lysiane Gagnon points out, Richler is still a controversial figure in Quebec; she says, literally, that “his name still smells of sulphur.” Caustic and prickly, he was not particularly well liked by his own people, Quebec Jews and Anglos. And he got the backs of Quebecers up even more by writing vitriolic pieces, in high-profile American publications such as The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly, decrying Quebec’s language laws and nationalist agenda. Yet polemics are strikingly absent in the novels, Gagné notes. Criticism of French Canadians, as Richler calls them, boils down to at most two or three paragraphs in any given novel, unlike the sustained satire on his own social group. Moreover, in a novel like The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, the only character who elicits our sympathy is actually the French Canadian Yvette. Richler’s political writing generated a firestorm, however, to the point where he was a literary persona non grata on his own turf. Someone had even said to Saint-Martin and Gagné, “You can translate Richler all you like, I will never read someone like that.”
Why then would Boréal choose to translate such an antipathetic author? It could be argued that the Montreal publishing house has always been open to the voices of minorities. The press has been a trailblazer in Indigeneity, published much English Canadian literature in translation, while also promoting Quebec writers with nationalistic tendencies. Richler’s “irreverence,” as the translators put it, possibly held some appeal. It was perhaps a bit of a gamble, but one that seems to have paid off. Lysiane Gagnon concludes her diatribe by suggesting that the time has come to celebrate Richler, Montreal’s most eminent writer (along with Michel Tremblay), and internationally among the most renowned Canadian writers. In announcing its choice of Pascal Assathiany as a recipient of the 2018 Ordre de Montréal, the city of Montreal explicitly recognized the Richler translations: “His translation program, which helped francophone readers rediscover Mordecai Richler, has also revitalized and showcased Montréal’s cultural diversity” (“Pascal Assathiany”). Though the translators are uncertain about how well the Richler translations have sold in Quebec, in France they have been a runaway success, on bestseller lists and the front pages of major literary magazines, where Richler has been touted as a great Canadian and Québécois novelist.
The Art and Science of Translation
Over the last half century, an impressive body of knowledge has emerged on translation, running the gamut from anecdotal musings to quasi-scientific theories. Saint-Martin has read a great deal of translation theory in connection with her courses at UQAM, but for all its interest she has rarely found it useful or applicable when immersed in translating. Considering himself less theoretically inclined, Gagné admits that translation theory bores him to tears. Translation theories may well nourish the mind, inform the way in which we perceive translation, they conclude, but, says Gagné, “When confronted with a concrete translation problem, you’re on your own. Although, there are two of us. We have each other, and that’s comforting.”
And yet, Saint-Martin deftly conceptualizes her craft and articulates her choices, precisely because she has been steeped in theoretical reflection. She has been working on a compilation of observations on the translation process titled Un bien: éloge de la traduction littéraire, recently released by Boréal. In it, Saint-Martin also addresses the links between writing and translating. Translating is good training for writing and writing is good training for translating, she opines. Translating is always a kind of writing; it is rewriting, except that when you write you are the one who decides. When you are translating you are in the service of someone, something else. You are borne by a movement, but you are not in the driver’s seat; you recreate something that was already there. “In the book that we are completing [the translation of Son of a Smaller Hero], there isn’t one word of French,” she told me:
In our version, there is not one word written by Richler. At the same time, it’s his book. It makes you dizzy to think of it. The paradox of translation. Translation is spectacular. It is banal and at the same time it’s something. Barney’s Version is not our book; Le Monde selon Barney is his book and our book.
The Shifting Sands of Translation
There is no definitive translation. The process of remaniement or “recasting,” to use Saint-Martin’s term, is never-ending. Words, phrases, and the text as a whole are refashioned over time, with successive versions reshaped for new audiences. “Un ouvrage n’est jamais achevé . . . mais abandonné”: Paul Valéry’s adage that a literary work is never finished but only abandoned can be applied to a translation (Valéry 1497). Infinite revisions are possible until the translator simply surrenders it. The translation circulates as a new work for new readers until such time as circumstances set off another translation, in another time and space.
The “discourse of lack,” according to which retranslations are needed because the previous one(s) were in some ways deficient (Massardier- Kenney 73), has come to be replaced by a more positive view of translation. Retranslations, seen as new readings, can unleash the power of translation to create new works of literature. Since modernists such as Pound exhorted writers to “make it new,” translation has progressed from a subordinate act of (re)writing to a generative art. Saint-Martin and Gagné take their place in this tradition, placing value on their “amorous attention” to the original text. As acclaimed as the new Richler translations are, they may not be the last. But they will have fulfilled an important function by helping to construct a new component of Quebec literature—anglo-Québécois literature—which has been borne across the linguistic divide to take its place among the increasingly diverse works available to francophone readers in this country and beyond.
- See the cover of Le Monde selon Barney, which is promoted as a “new translation by Lori Saint-Martin and Paul Gagné” on the Boréal website: www.editionsboreal.qc.ca/catalogue/livres/monde-selon-barney-2578.html.
- The translation is mine. See “Solomon Gursky” : « Signée par Lori Saint-Martin et Paul Gagné, cette nouvelle traduction française de Solomon Gursky Was Here est la première à être réalisée au Québec. Le lecteur francophone pourra donc y retrouver toute la richesse des allusions de Richler à la réalité canadienne et québécoise. »
- See, for example, “Joshua.”
Berman, Antoine. « La retraduction comme espace de la traduction. » Palimpsestes: revue de traduction, no. 4, 1990, pp. 1–7.
Côté, Sébastien. « Centre, périphérie et ethnocentrisme : la traduction française de Barney’s Version, de Mordecai Richler. » Post-Scriptum, no. 3, mars 2003, post-scriptum.org/03-06-centre-peripherie-et-ethnocentrisme/.
Gagnon, Lysiane. « Et Mordecai? » La Presse, 26 novembre 2016, plus.lapresse.ca/ screens/4176cb8d-a16c-4640-b92d-1b208d630f05__7C___0.html.
« Joshua. » Éditions du Boréal, www.editionsboreal.qc.ca/catalogue/livres/joshua-2463.html.
Lalonde, Catherine. « Retraduire Mordecai Richler. » Le Devoir, 8 avril 2015, www.ledevoir.com/lire/436554/retraduire-mordecai-richler.
Martineau, Sophie. « Traduire Mordecai Richler en français. » Translittérature, no. 38, hiver 2010, pp. 57-61.
Massardier-Kenney, Françoise. “Toward a Rethinking of Retranslation.” Translation Review, vol. 92, no. 1, 2015, pp. 73–85.
« Pascal Assathiany. Ordre de Montréal, » ville.montreal.qc.ca/ordre/en/pascal-assathiany.
Saint-Martin, Lori, and Paul Gagné. Personal interview. Aug. 2021.
« Solomon Gursky. » Éditions du Boréal, www.editionsboreal.qc.ca/catalogue/livres/ solomon-gursky-2441.html.
Valéry, Paul. OEuvres. Edited and annotated by Jean Hytier, vol. 1, Gallimard, 1957.
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