carte blanche‘s Rhonda Mullins spoke with him in October.
cb: Can you tell me a bit about your background?
Lederhendler: My career path is typically atypical, which as far as I can tell is the norm among literary translators. By and large, people who translate literature have all kinds of meandering in their lifelines and in their professional lives as well. I eventually got a degree in literature from the University of Ottawa, and then a master’s at Concordia in creative writing. My thesis was a collection of poems. But then there’s the whole informal education which I think is as important, if not more, for my work as a translator: being raised by working-class immigrant polyglots, my involvement in semi-professional theatre and music in my late teens and early twenties, the very personal process I went through acquiring a deeper knowledge and love of the French language and civilizations, and the people who were my teachers, my friends, my intimates throughout that process. That’s the kind of thing I mean by “informal education.”
I’ve often been impressed with translators who are poets. Do you see a relationship between the two genres?
One of the things about poetry that I appreciate is that it’s the ultimate work with language. With poetry, you’re working at an extremely high level if you want to put it in those evaluative terms. So you have this engagement with language that is all-pervasive and profound, and in that sense it makes you very sensitive to what’s going on in a text in another language. I think my background in poetry has given me a sense of metaphor, and metaphor and translation mean almost the same thing: carrying over from one to the other, saying one thing in terms of the other. So you have to have a sense of metaphor in making the kinds of lateral leaps you need to get a good literary translation. And then there’s the sensitivity to sound, rhythm, and such that a poet absolutely has to have. It helps. Plus, poets will spend many hours over one line, over one word. Translators do that too. You want to get it right. So sure, there’s a certain carry-over. But there are no hard distinctions. You don’t have to be a poet to have poetic sensibilities.
When did you get involved in literary translation?
Well, I won’t go into my prehistory in translation. If anyone’s interested they can check out my essay in Beyond Words, just published by the Banff Centre. Susan Ouriou was the editor. But strictly in terms of literary translation, it was just after I got my MA at Concordia and a friend asked me if I would be interested in translating a book of short stories by Claire Dé. I read the short stories and found them interesting, and it went from there. I felt comfortable with it immediately. I felt I was in my element. And one book led to another book and so on and so forth. That’s just how it goes. You have these opportunities, and you can take them or not, and I decided I was going to take this one.
You work with a lot of different authors.
Several different, yes. But I don’t work with the authors that much. I work with the text. Generally speaking, as translators of contemporary Quebec fiction, we work with living writers. So they are in the picture, and the writer has prerogatives, the writer has a say, and you respect that. You have to respect the fact that your work is completely derivative and in that sense subordinate to the writer’s creation. So the writer can make suggestions, and sometimes they’re good suggestions. The writer can set you straight on certain ambiguities, for instance, vis-à-vis tone. The writer may tell you, “This is ironic.” And that puts a whole new face on things. So you have to be attentive and open to that. But in general, I tend to have a sort of arm’s-length relationship with the writer, which doesn’t, by the way, prevent us from becoming good friends.
How would you describe translation?
That is the question, isn’t it? How you answer depends on a lot of things. Different translators will give you a different answer. And I’ll give you a different answer depending on my mood. But the first thing I would say, and it’s something people don’t take seriously enough but should, including some translators, is that translation is a profession. There’s this whole romantic idea on the one hand that you have to have a calling. Which is true. Because when you’re not making much money, you have to have some good reason for doing something. But it is a profession and it’s undervalued as a profession, as many professions are. The other thing is that it’s important to understand that there’s something basically ethical about it. You’re providing a service. When somebody wants to read a poem or a novel in a language they don’t understand, they’re basically illiterate. And the translator makes them literate and able to appreciate as closely as possible what is experienced by a native reader of that language. So there’s a basic service that’s being provided, but beyond that there’s the whole aesthetic aspect: translation is an art. It’s an interpretive art. So you’re working to create something beautiful out of pre-existing material, sort of like a pianist who sits down and reads a score and then performs it. Of course analogies can only go so far. But it’s an interpretive art, and it doesn’t get the kind of recognition that other interpretive arts do. Actors do something similar. You put words in their mouths, and they bring characters alive. Translators take an author’s words and bring them alive in another language. So there’s this trick of the light that people are quite happy to go along with, but at one point if you’re curious enough, you want to understand how this happened, in how you got from this book to that one. And the only other thing I would say is that you do need imagination, you do need all the things that an artist needs, to be a good translator. Or you can be a bad translator and have the same results as a lousy artist. People walk out, or they don’t come. But if you want to be a good translator you need intuition, you need empathy, you need a wealth of all kinds of seemingly unrelated knowledge and experience. It’s much more than just good vocabulary and knowing how to use a computer.
You’ve been a teacher. Do you think translation can be taught?
I think the answer is pretty simple: to the degree that any art can be taught. You teach the same things you teach an art student. You teach technique and materials. But beyond that, what’s going to make the difference between someone who can create a true work of literature, a true work of art? You need something that’s a little bit more. You need a certain degree of talent and passion and mania in a sense, because you have to work at it and work at it and then rework it until you feel you’ve done as much as you can do given the constraints. So can that be taught? By example, maybe.
An excerpt of your translation of Les Pieds Sales by Edem Awumey appears in this issue of carte blanche. Is there anything you can tell us about it?
My working title is straightforward: Dirty Feet. It’s due to be out some time in 2011. The writer has a very interesting background. He’s originally from Togo, was educated in Paris, lives in Gatineau, Quebec, and teaches at the University of Ottawa. This novel is a Parisian novel, but the weather’s bad and the tourist population has thinned out. It’s a bleak story. It’s about a man who is a taxi driver and more or less an illegal immigrant, part of that whole scene of illegal African immigrants and refugees. In one sense he’s looking for something out of his past. He needs closure, so he’s on this strange kind of quest for his father, which is not unusual in literature, the search for the father. But another aspect, which is more grounded in the politics and history of Africa, is that his past catches up with him. And it’s not a happy ending. The book was short listed for the Goncourt in 2009. We’ll see if it resonates here.
I wanted to ask you about the perception that translators get better with age. Have you noticed a difference between you now and you 10 or 15 years ago as a translator?
There’s a common rule of thumb that translators begin to hit their stride at 50. And I guess given the nature of the beast, it makes sense, because there’s kind of an accretion of experience and knowledge and, dare I say, wisdom that is necessary. When you’re dealing with certain kinds of books, I think that’s important. So of course you increase your translation skills, but you also increase your business skills, your technical skills in terms of handling negotiations, defending yourself in the marketplace, dealing with people. You get to be more mature and you pick up certain tricks of the trade, but the tricks of the trade have a lot to do with how you proceed in your work, so you’re not wasting time and you’re using past experience. The advantage of being a young translator is that you can do a lot of work in a short span of time and not get tired and start over again. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re putting out the best work. And afterwards, maybe you get a little more tired, but you know how to use your energies to make the translation shine.