Literary translator Sheila Fischman has translated more than 125 Quebec novels by some of the province’s most prominent authors, including Michel Tremblay, Roch Carrier, Anne Hébert, and Jacques Poulin. She has received a host of honours for her work, including the Governor General’s Literary Award, for which she has been a finalist 14 times, two Canada Council Translation Prizes, and two Félix-Antoine Savard Awards from Columbia University. She was named to the Order of Canada in 2000 and the Ordre national du Québec in 2008, and this year received the prestigious Molson Prize from the Canada Council for the Arts for lifetime achievement and ongoing contributions to the cultural and intellectual life of Canada.
carte blanche‘s Rhonda Mullins spoke with her in November.
cb: Not many people understand what translation is or how it’s done. Some people think Google can do it, or that it’s a sort of formulaic transposition of words from one language to another. And it is hard to imagine until you’ve done it. How would you describe it?
Fischman: I think you have to start by talking about what it isn’t. A number of times I’ve been approached by people who say, “I’m bilingual, so I want to become a translator.” But they’ve never written anything of their own. Some of these people might well turn out to have the skills and the temperament to do it, but ce n’est pas évident. What is translation? Phil Stratford used to say it’s a really profound reading of the text. You read it so closely and so intimately that it becomes part of you, and another part of your intellect or your brain sets itself the task of, not reinventing, not recreating, but remaking it in the other language. There are all sorts of metaphors that everybody knows that are used to describe the act of translation. Taking a piece of music that’s been written for piano and transposing it for violin, that kind of thing. And even though that’s one of many clichés, it’s actually a good parallel. To me it’s a reasonably good description of what it is.
How does it differ from writing?
In writing you’re creating from zero. A novelist or a short story writer invents characters, invents stories and uses his or her own language to put these into the world, whereas a translator comes to a text that has already been created. I then have the wonderful task or assignment of taking someone’s ideas, characters and stories and playing with words in my own language in an attempt to remake them. I love working with words, I love working with language. But I couldn’t create a character, I certainly couldn’t make up a story to save myself. So for me, working as a translator is just wonderful.
To what extent does a work you’re translating become your own?
I guess I would have to say that the English becomes my own, but the work itself belongs to the author, the person who’s created it.
So you’re interpreting a work in your own language and trying to do justice to the author’s intentions, but those two goals may be in opposition. How do you see your responsibility to your readers or to the author?
It’s a balancing act. I think of it in terms of responsibility to the two languages. I am responsible for getting across what the original is and what the original does, while at the same time being responsible to the English language and writing something that can be read and makes sense in English and that ideally suggests the kind of musicality of the first language. This is really hard to do. For me, it’s the biggest challenge. There are two ways of putting this, but the idea is to write something that makes the reader think or feel that they’re reading something in French, even if they don’t know a word of French, and to write what the author would write if he or she were writing in English.
Can you even begin to explain how you do that?
No! It’s all instinct. I didn’t study translation, but I’m sure that there are technical terms that describe what I’ve been trying to say.
How did you come to translation?
It was long ago. I’d come to live in Quebec; I’d studied French in school in university and I had a good grasp of grammar and all that, but I’d never had the opportunity to speak French, because this was in Toronto. When I came here I wanted to be able to speak the language that the majority spoke, and I knew that it couldn’t be the language of the 19th century poetry that I’d studied in university. Someone suggested that I try translating something. It sounded like a good idea, but I’d never done any translating and obviously I had no idea what was involved. That person suggested Anne Hébert’s famous story “Le Torrent,” and I still remember my first look at that story. I couldn’t figure it out. I had no idea what was going on. I mean my ability to read and comprehend something in French wasn’t there yet, so I kind of shelved the project of trying to translate something. But it was still there in the back of my mind, and then I met Roch Carrier who had just published La Guerre, Yes Sir! and I decided to try translating it as a personal project. When I’d finished it, I felt that—and I’m not talking about my translation because it was my very first—but I felt that the novel was a really important one that had a lot to say to non-francophones. So I sent it to various publishers and eventually it was published, and it’s still in print. I guess I was right that it was an important book. Then I translated Carrier’s next novel, and I enjoyed the work of translation even more. So when I came to live in Montreal on my own, I decided that I was going to try making a living as a literary translator. It was pretty tough in the first couple of years, but eventually I was able to.
You talk about La Guerre, Yes Sir! being an important book for English Canada. And I’ve heard this about you, that you have built a lot of bridges between French and English Canada. Has that been a project of yours, say, a political project, or is it just a by-product of being a translator?
There have been times, depending on my own development, when I’ve had the idea that it was a kind of political project. But I don’t really feel that way anymore. Basically, I’m an enthusiast and I like to share my enthusiasms. In the case of the work that I do, I see it as a way of sharing my enthusiasm for a particular book with people who don’t have access to it in French. Simple as that. And then there’s the pleasure that I take in it, which is a very big deal.
You’ve been the English voice of some of Quebec’s most important authors, such as Michel Tremblay, Anne Hébert and Roch Carrier. Do you ever find that daunting?
You know, if I stopped and thought about it, I would probably be absolutely paralyzed and unable to do it. The first time that I translated a number of authors I was catatonic with fear. Michel Tremblay came to me with his first novel, The Fat Woman Next Door Is Pregnant, and asked me to translate it, and I remember spending a few months while he was still writing it thinking “Oh God, how am I ever going to be able to get across the kind of French that he writes in?” But I’ve now translated around 10 of his novels, and he’s pleased with the work that I do and I’ve even had a couple of prizes for them, so that initial fear has gone. When I started to translate Gaétan Soucy’s La petite fille qui aimait trop les allumettes it was the same kind of thing, but I don’t know, a phrase at a time, a sentence at a time. Only once have I taken on a project to translate a novel and realized after about ten or fifteen pages that it wasn’t working. The chemistry with the book just wasn’t there, so I returned my advance.
You’ve translated 125 books. How have you managed to be so prolific?
You know, I was really, really lucky, because when I started translating it was the same time that there were all these new writers bursting on to the scene, and they’ve continued to publish. So it was an accident of timing. They turned out to be sort of the stars of that particular generation of writers. In recent years I’ve been translating younger writers too, which I’m doing because I’m excited by their work, but also because I want to learn about the new ways of writing that these younger writers are exploring. So I’m going to be translating Éric Dupont and Emmanuel Kattan. There are also a couple of women writers who are perhaps a little bit older but still of another generation: Élise Turcotte and Christiane Frenette, who are writing novels that I just love.
How do you choose the books you translate, or how do they find their way to you?
It happens in a variety of ways. In some cases I’m the one who reads a book and thinks “oh, I want to translate this” or “I think this could work in English,” and I will propose it to a publisher. That’s one way. Sometimes it’s an English-language publisher who will approach me. Sometimes it’s the French publisher who will approach me and sometimes it’s the author.
To what extent does it have to be a right fit with you?
It absolutely has to be a good fit or I can’t do it.
But obviously you’re a good fit with a lot of authors?
I think so because one of the requirements for literary translation is to be a really good listener. And I’m better at listening than at talking. You know, you have to listen to what Jacques Poulin calls “la petite musique” of the original, and not let anything else come in that can confuse you. One thing about my work that I’m kind of proud of is that I seem to be able to judge before I even start working on them what novels are going to really work in English. That was the case with Carrier.
You are associated with Quebec authors, and some of the biggest ones of course. Have you translated any other French-language authors?
I translated one French author. It was an American publisher who came to me, after reading a review of one of my translations in the New York Times Book Review. The author’s name was Tony Cartano. It was a novel that was inspired by the life of Kafka. The day that it was published, the American publisher closed up shop, so I don’t know if anybody read it—I don’t know if anybody ever bought it. That was over 20 years ago.
I want to ask you about awards. This year you won the Molson Prize in the Arts, you’ve been nominated many times and won the Governor General’s Award, been nominated for the Giller, received honorary doctorates, named to the Order of Canada and the Ordre national du Québec. Normally translators lurk in the shadows. How do you feel about receiving this recognition and becoming a public figure in your own right?
I never set out to become a public figure. Having said that, I insist on my work being recognized. This takes a form of insisting that the translator’s name appear on the front outside cover as well as on the title page. It’s wonderful to have your work acknowledged by prizes and money and all that—I won’t pretend that it’s of no interest—but I don’t set out to do a prize-winning translation. I set out to do the best translation I’m capable of. If other people find that it’s good or interesting that makes me very happy.
Do you have a literary life outside of translation?
I was a book review editor at The Montreal Star. I’ve done some journalistic writing—book reviews, columns. I have a writing project that was presented to me that I sort of work at off and on. It’s not something I really wanted to do, but my publisher twisted my arm and insisted I can, so we shall see. I’ve been working on it for a few years. It would be something about translation but it won’t be a memoir; it’s something well, dare I say it, poetic? It’s what he wants and that he insists I can write it, but i’m not yet convinced.
Are there any projects that you’ve been dying to tackle that you haven’t got to yet?
You know, so far I’m lucky enough to be doing exactly what I want to do.