They haven’t put out a shingle advertising themselves as Homel and Son, but the business of translating literary works from French into English is a family affair for Montreal’s David and Jacob Homel.
David, the Chicago-born patriarch, started studying French in high school and moved to France at the age of 18 before landing in Canada, first in Toronto and later Montreal. His earliest published effort was a 1980 translation of Louis Caron’s The Draft Dodger (House of Anansi Press). “It was not a very good translation,” he recalls. “But people tolerated it enough, so I continued to do that.”
Later, David launched a fruitful relationship with Haitian-born novelist Dany Laferrière, beginning with 1988’s How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired, and including Why Must a Black Writer Write about Sex? (both Douglas & McIntyre), which claimed the 1995 Governor General’s Literary Award for translation. He earned a second GG in 2001 for Martine Desjardins’s Fairy Ring (Talonbooks).
David has also published seven of his own novels, including 2014’s The Fledglings (Cormorant Books), and four books with his wife, children’s author-illustrator Marie-Louise Gay. He has two translations this fall with Arsenal Pulp Press: a graphic-novel version of Irène Némirovsky’s bestseller Suite Francaise and Foucault Against Himself, a collection of interviews about the philosopher by François Caillat.
Jacob, born and raised bilingually in Montreal, recalls receiving small translation tasks from his father as a child. As a university student, he accepted jobs translating academic essays and newsletters to help defray tuition costs.
He first officially collaborated with his father in 2009 on The Weariness of the Self, a history of depression by Alain Ehrenberg (McGill-Queen’s University Press). The Homels also worked together on last year’s translation of the novel Hysteric (Anvil Press) by celebrated Quebec author Nelly Arcan, who committed suicide in 2009. Jacob subsequently translated Arcan’s Breakneck, published earlier this year. Due out in early 2016 is his translation of Karoline Georges’s Under the Stone.
How do your approaches to translation differ?
Jacob: People my age have a different approach to the emotional weight of whatever we’re feeling. So I think I’m closer to the work that I translate. I try to be at one with the author and whatever the author is feeling.
David: That’s why I thought it would be good to work with Jacob on Hysteric, because I thought he’d be closer to the emotional tenor of the material than I was. I’m not just talking about the word for this or that, but in the whole way people refer to their own emotions.
What is your greatest responsibility?
David: To try to provide an equivalent experience in English to the one that readers had when they read the original in French. You can’t always replicate the experience but you can try.
Jacob: You often end up sacrificing literal meaning for “sense.” For instance, Nelly Arcan writes sentences the length of other peoples’ books. And English abhors long sentences. So how do you communicate the breathlessness of her writing without using the technique that she uses? You have to add punctuation, but you can’t do it too much or else you’re taking away from the original sense.
What is the division of labour when you work together?
Jacob: We usually split the book into parts. We’ll each translate our part. We each correct each other’s work. Then the person responsible for the final version will go over the entire book and put it into a single voice. That’s worked very well so far.
In the past, translators were often credited with bridging Canada’s proverbial “two solitudes.” And today?
David: People don’t think like that anymore. I don’t think we’re doing God’s work. Or Trudeau’s. But hopefully we’re helping people see work they might otherwise not have seen.
Jacob: If it does anything for communication between the so-called two solitudes, which I don’t even think is the context anymore, then it’s only by accident – a happy accident, but an accident.
How has working together affected your relationship?
David: Without sounding too sentimental, it’s a chance to work with somebody that I know and love. In the old days men and their sons worked on the farm together, or in the factory and so on. That doesn’t happen as often anymore. It’s an opportunity to have fun doing something we enjoy doing together – and get paid for it.
Jacob: It allows us to communicate with each other through a professional relationship. You send an email about a word that you’re having difficulty with and then, lo and behold, you’re suddenly exchanging emails that go deeper than a translation question.