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I Never Talk About It

by Véronique Côté and Steve Gagnon; Peter McCambridge et al. (trans.)

ReviewsSeptember_INeverTalkAboutIt_CoverSpare a thought for the country’s translators. In a nation that is nominally multicultural and officially bilingual, the diligent wordsmiths who devote themselves to rendering foreign-language texts into the dominant English are rarely afforded the recognition or admiration they deserve. Readers who shy away from work in translation with the same disinclination they display in eschewing subtitled movies (too much work; clearly – literally – foreign to an anglophone’s primary experience) often fail to appreciate the difficulties translation can pose or the evident skill and finesse required to negotiate the subtle bridge between remaining true to an originating artist’s vision and furnishing a work in fluid, readable English.

In some cases, the roadblocks are obvious (or should be). When the French oulipo writer Georges Perec produced La disparition (in English, A Void), a novel written entirely without using the letter “e,” he set his translators a devious challenge. (One that the canny Gilbert Adair admittedly fudges by presenting numbers – “cinq,” “huit,” “dix,” etc. – as numerals, thereby avoiding the “e”s in the written English words.) Poetry – especially of the formal, metrical variety – provides another clear obstacle.

But even in more straightforward cases, there are any number of traps and stumbling blocks a translator might encounter; the great ones know how to negotiate these with apparent effortlessness, avoiding mistakes while also creating an organic, calibrated English composition. It is a function of translation (as with editing) that a reader only notices when something goes wrong; a good translator is a palimpsest, overwriting a text in a way that should ideally remain invisible and undetectable.

That mistakes are possible is something Peter McCambridge acknowledges in the introduction to I Never Talk About It, an intriguing experiment – 37 stories translated by 37 different people – in bringing the practice of translation out of the shadows and calling attention to its variants and nuances. “It’s like when you’re standing in front of a classroom of children,” McCambridge writes. “‘Go ahead,’ you tell them, ‘there are no wrong answers.’ The next word out of their mouths is practically guaranteed to be a wrong answer.” Substituting “5” for “five” in the translation of A Void is arguably a cheat, not a mistake; can the same be said for changing the entire setting of a piece to make it more accessible to an English-language audience?

This is in fact what Ros Schwartz does in translating “Conspiracy,” one of the short stories in I Never Talk About It, a collection by Quebec actors Véronique Côté and Steve Gagnon. In her translator’s note, Schwartz admits to moving the setting from Quebec to London (though only in the background, as the location of the story is never specifically mentioned), substituting the English football team Arsenal for a more local Québécois reference (“je prends pour le Canadien”), and swapping in Candid Camera for the Quebec equivalent, Surprise sur prise. Schwartz argues that because “location is secondary to the character of the narrator” in this story, the change of setting is just fine; those who subscribe to Tim Parks’s notion of the ills of globalized literature and its concomitant flattening of the local might beg to differ. A reader of the second sort might likewise cavil with Neil Smith, who, in translating the story “Spasm” substitutes Dunkin’ Donuts for Tim Hortons because he assumes a target audience of American readers.

But this debate is of a piece with McCambridge’s project in I Never Talk About It. The collection originated as monologues delivered orally; these 37 short pieces were fixed in form and published (in 2012) by Les éditions du Septentrion as Chaque automne j’ai envie de mourir. For the English-language edition, McCambridge, who runs Baraka Books’ translation imprint, commissioned 36 individual translators (having undertaken to translate one story himself), each with a different background, experience level, approach, and philosophy. Combining 37 disparate voices – some of them seasoned veterans, some newcomers, and a few who barely speak French – across one collection is either an intriguing way of calling attention to inner workings that usually remain hidden, or a recipe for a Tower of Babelesque cacophony.

It is perhaps due to the origins of the source material as spoken monologues that the cacophony does not materialize. What is remarkable is not so much the disparity of voices as the relative smoothness with which the stories interact. It helps that the grounding in colloquial speech renders the pieces tonally similar. Even the specific stylistic challenges of translating Québécois French to English seem shared among various translators here – on more than one occasion, a translator refers to the imperative to remove or claw back on the number of comma splices, a grammatical form that is more acceptable in the original French.

And the stories themselves – all virtually plotless, interior, and narrated in the first person – provide a common aspect that helps in the reading experience. (Though here, too, nuances show through: in the note on the story “Ants,” Farrah Gillani refers to the narrator as “her,” though because English does not have gendered nouns, this is open to interpretation in the translation.) Whether the notes at the end of each story outlining the individual translator’s approach will prove useful or superfluous likely depends on how invested a reader is in the technical aspects of storytelling. (And even the most sympathetic reader will not find illuminating a note as anodyne as, “I aimed to convey the narrator’s tangible anger at the cruelties and injustices of childhood.”) But in retrieving some measure of recognition for the difficult and perilous task translators perform in relative anonymity, this volume has done its subjects a service.