In Conversation: Catherine Leclerc & Robert Majzels

Catherine Leclerc (CL): For Sure is the fifth novel by France Daigle that you translated. For our readers, 1953: Chronicle of a Birth Foretold (1997) was the first, then you went on with Just Fine (1999), A Fine Passage (2002), Life’s Little Difficulties (2004), and now For Sure. 

This almost seems like a cycle, especially since Daigle’s latest novel explicitly refers to 1953 and comments on it, as can be seen in the excerpt of your translation that Lemon Hound reproduces hereOver the course of these novels, the way Daigle plays with language has kept changing—as have your translation strategies. What were the most striking aspects of this evolution for you as her translator?

Robert Majzels (RM): I think what’s most striking is the evolution of France’s work on Chiac, which has placed an increasing and changing imperative on my translation to reflect that work. At first, it was playful and transgressive. But by the time we get to Pour sûr, there’s a highly complex encyclopaedic dissection and playfulness that goes beyond Yves Cormier’s Dictionnaire du français acadien [Dictionary of Acadian French]. That has posed an enormous challenge to the translator.

Secondly, the need to translate France’s in-depth discussions of French and Acadian literature, culture and language into English, providing all this detailed information to Anglophone readers in a lively engaging way. For example, the literary references, the books and authors in her “Ideal Library” are for the most part either written in French, or part of a Francophone’s culture; an English language reader must be prepared, and be properly engaged to learn about this other worldview.

Thirdly, this last book contains encyclopaedic research into a variety of fields — embroidery, printing and typeface, colours, languages, psychoanalysis — all of which required research into the equivalent lexicons in English.

CL: Chiac, the mix of French and English spoken by Acadians in the region of Moncton, New Brunswick, first appeared in Daigle’s work in Pas pire (your Just Fine). Since then, each of her novels has included more.

Your translations have followed suit, but I think something else happened with Life’s Little Difficulties. When I read it, I was under the impression that you went further than her in orchestrating the encounter between English and French: you eliminated italics, putting both languages on the same level, but you also became very playful.

I assume that part of this has to do with the fact that Daigle’s Chiac is, necessarily, more representational than yours. She is giving literary credence to a stigmatized vernacular and fighting the stigma herself whereas your translation could be more directly experimental. But I would be curious to know what your take is on my reading .

RM: Yes, I agree.

And this problem, how to reflect the fact of Chiac’s stigmatized vernacular standing in English, came to a head in tackling Pour sûr. In Life’s Little Difficulties, I was mainly working to introduce French into an English text as a form of resistance to Anglo chauvinism. At the same time, I could play with English, push it in new directions, which is the task of the translator.

In Pour sûr I couldn’t go on in that direction, because France Daigle had gone so much further into Chiac. I needed a more rigorous and structured language to translate her Chiac. But not a standard English, which would conceal the difference operating in the French. I was compelled to invent a non-normative English. In both cases I was resisting conventional translation practices in refusing to normalize the language, looking for ways to impact English itself, the way that France has impacted French. But the strategies are different.

 CL: It’s true that, with Pour sûr, Daigle’s work takes a new turn and that her Chiac becomes radically playful. She invents a new way of spelling it (using tildes when neither French nor English has tildes), and parodies it for effects, just to see how far it can go, like in this passage from page 36 of your translation:

It’s all a question of balance. For example, take the phrase “je vas aouère besoin d’un troque ou d’un vãn pour haller mon botte ennewé (Least ways, I’ll be needin’ me some body’s truck or van to haul me boat).” Here at least the sentence seems to maintain a consistent tonic register. On the other hand, a vague menace lurks beneath the surface of the sentence: “si que je swĩtch la lĩght back õn pis que la maison xplode, xpect pas d’aouère ver ãgain d’autres outils pour Father’s Day (if I goes to switch on de light and de whole house blows up, don’t you expect no more o’ dem tools fer Fadder’s Day).”

Your translation takes advantage of the abundant metadiscourse on language in Pour sûr to occasionally reproduce Daigle’s new writing strategies in Chiac. Yet For Sure’s renditions of Chiac into English are entirely new compared to both Daigle’s Pour sûr and your previous translations. Even though there are affinities between the Chiac in your Life’s Little Difficulties and the one in Pour sûr, you chose to introduce a new approach instead of repeating the type of mixing that can be found in Life’s Little Difficulties.

What struck me in particular was that your translations of Chiac this time seem very “oral”. We can hear the voices of the characters as we read them. And these voices are “credible” (even though Chiac speakers do not actually speak English that way). Also, instead of concentrating on language mixing exclusively, you introduce different uses of English that are stigmatized. The excerpt published by Lemon Hound gives examples of that. What was the process that led you to make this change?

RM: As France increased the use of Chiac from book to book, I found I had to adjust. After Life’s Little Difficulties I remember telling France that if she continued in this direction, eventually I would become superfluous; there would be no need for a translator. The original would be a mixture of English and French in both versions.

But this isn’t what happened. For two reasons, I think. First, France herself has done more than increase the amount of Chiac in Pour sûr. She’s also achieved a kind of purer Chiac, if I can use that word about a language that’s been stigmatized. The Chiac of Pour sûr is much more than a mixture of English and French; there’s more old French and French that is specific to Acadia and not influenced by English. The rhythm and musicality of Chiac is more evident than ever before. Its complex grammar and refined diction are deployed in a masterful way.

I felt that if I simply increased the mix of French and English in my translation, I would produce an ugly English. The characters would seem less intelligent than they are in Pour sûr. Which is one of the problems with a great deal of English translations of Québécois, for example, in the past. English readers laugh at the heavily accented and clumsy English of Francophone characters. It’s one of the forms that Anglo-chauvinism takes in Canadian culture. So I decided I couldn’t simply toss more French words into the mix.

I began to study Newfoundlandese and Cape Breton Industrial accent, which is influenced by Irish. Both of these are stigmatised or minor languages of English. They’re also, like Chiac, maritime languages. I listened to tapes of people speaking these languages, and read some literature. I started reading the Dictionary of Newfoundland English.

But I didn’t want to simply translate Chiac into a recognized English minor language, the way for instance Tremblay has been translated into Scottish. I couldn’t allow the reader to forget that this was Chiac the characters were speaking. Because that’s what this book is about, the culture and language of Acadia. Because the readers, if there were going to be any, would be Anglophones, and the book had to be seen in the context of the relationship of English to French in North America, and Canada in particular. But it also had to point to stigmatized versions of English, minor languages such as Newfoundlandese, Irish, Scottish, etc. all of which have the experience of colonial and imperial rule.

In the end, borrowing from Newfoundlandese and Cape Breton Industrial, I decided to create a minor English of my own that would reflect the musicality of Chiac, that would resist normalization of the dialogue into standard English without being easily dismissed as Irish or some other recognizable language, but, and this was important, that would help make the characters as appealing as they are in the original. Hence the orality you point out. I love to listen to Terry and his pals talking, I can hear them. Which makes his silence at the end of the book so devastating.

CL: Of course, your attention to language stigmatization in For Sure does not prevent you from playing language games. In this respect Pour sûr seems to present itself as a fabulous terrain for linguistic creativity, and your translation certainly took advantage of that. I’m thinking of the Scrabble games where you changed the words and the scores. Or, to use another example, the creation (not entirely devoid of meaning) of English words to mirror the Acadian pronunciation of other words, such as “meerway” and “meerware” for “miroué” and “mirouère,” (104 of your translation).

These creations, and there are many, reminded me of translation exercises that you once recommended I try with my students, where the goal is to translate other aspects of discourse than its meaning: for instance, translating the sound the words make, or substituting certain words randomly. Where you intervened was dictated by the original. To give just an example, the letters do not have the same number of points in English and in French Scrabble, so you had to make changes. But the way to intervene was left open. There were many possibilities. So I am curious as to how you devised your methods of intervention.

RM: The Scrabble games were a nightmare. My partner Claire Huot and I took hours to play out the French games of the original, and to play out English games to mirror the French.

In general, in wordplay, I tried to keep the playfulness of the translation parallel to the play in French. I don’t subscribe to the conventional idea that a translation can never live up to the original. That you always have to give up something, either in form or content. I’m not saying that the translation can be or should be a perfect mirror of the original, but it should not be a lesser version.

I suppose it’s a kind of stubbornness in me, but I refuse to let a rhyme, assonance, alliteration, pun or other play of language in the original slide without some solution in parallel in the English.

CL: Playful interventions make the translator visible. But there is another, even more blatant way in which For Sure makes its translator visible, as can be seen in the excerpt. In Pour sûr, Daigle regularly refers to herself and her previous work. Your translation, logically, refers to the English versions, but you also make sure to credit yourself as the translator of these works, as in these additions: “(translated from the French by Robert Majzels, House of Anansi Press, 2004),” or “as translated by Robert Majzels,” etc. You even indicate that you translated a text by Voltaire cited in Daigle’s Pour sûr. Translation theorists and critics, myself included, delight in such occurrences, but I’d like to know more about the rationale behind this explicit presence, which did not occur in Just Fine, where Daigle also makes an appearance as a writer.

RM: In Just Fine, Daigle’s appearance is less obtrusive because it slips into the text seamlessly. In my past translations of her novels, I occasionally peeked through the translation, but never openly stepped forward. I tried to keep the intrusion as quiet and subtle as possible, just as the narrative in Just Fine is itself seamless. Pour Sûr, on the other hand, is openly, brazenly metafictional because of its fragmentary structure. So I felt obliged to show my hand, to render the translation, the fact of translation visible. I couldn’t be faithful to the original if I didn’t also put the translator out in front as well. I was tempted to insert a supplementary fragment in the name of the translator, but that would have broken France’s cube, and I didn’t have the heart to do it.

CL: The book has only recently been released and the reviews have yet to come in. To date, how has your translation been received? I stumbled upon an excellent review by Medeine Tribinevicious in The National Post (on August 2nd, 2013), which underlined the “mix of high and low” and the “creativity in language”—and complimented your “skilled hand.” Any other feedback? Has the book’s size been an impediment to it being reviewed?

RM: I’ve seen no evidence of any reception whatsoever, as yet, beyond that review in TNP. I think the size of the book may well be a factor. I once heard a shopper looking at a thick novel in a bookstore ask the salesperson if she didn’t have something shorter. I can’t think of any other consumer field where the customer wants less. I myself feel the thicker the book the better. I always feel sad when I finish a good book. But more likely the slow reception is due to the lack of interest in English Canada for work originally written in French, and for anything that isn’t immediately recognizable as Canlit, i.e. historical romance in the realist tradition. It’s a shame really, but I think a book like this takes time to make its way. I truly believe that France Daigle has written a masterpiece, the kind of book that comes along only very rarely in Canada and beyond.

CL: My last question is addressed less to Robert Majzels the translator and more to Robert Majzels the writer. Your work as a writer is very different from Daigle’s but there are common preoccupations: an interest for literary form which is not oblivious to power relationships; a consciousness surrounding language use, the idea of using it, its materiality, as the material for fiction and of not taking it for granted…

One difference, though, is the way you treat your characters. France Daigle’s Acadian characters are voluntarily sympathetic and easy to identify with. I know readers of Pour sûr who skipped many other parts but jumped enthusiastically from one segment depicting the character’s life to the next. You, on the other hand, appear to create distance between your characters and your readers. In Apikoros Sleuth, your narrator refers to characters as “nouns in dresses,” something you commented on in an interview with Nathaniel G. Moore for the Danforth Review in 2005. “The challenge,” you explained, “is to care about them without concealing their invention.” I believe this too applies to both your work and Daigle’s (after all Pour sûr explicitly designates Terry and Carmen as fictional characters and records conversations between an author named France Daigle and her characters). Yet your modes of characterisation seem very different. Would you care to comment on that?

RM: I don’t think anyone has more successfully combined the portrayal of characters without concealing their invention than France Daigle in her Terry and Carmen cycle. As a close reader of her work, I feel deeply saddened by the knowledge that they are not coming back. But who knows… In any case, we can begin reading their story all over again from the beginning. France has beautifully fleshed out and detailed these characters while at the same time showing us the invisible hand behind the curtain. Of course, the writer named France Daigle who appears in her novels is yet another character invented by the author. And her power over the other characters is limited. She is more a kind of medium, admitting that she can’t know in advance what will happen. As soon as the author takes the stage, he or she becomes a character. Even the least intrusive narrator is an invented character, the author, even when she or he remains invisible, is only an implied author. We all understand this since Barthes, since Pirandello, and we ought to have known it since Sterne and de Cervantes. Still we need reminding.

I also think it’s important to note that I’m not implying it’s possible to define or describe France Daigle’s work in general. Every book is a new project, and there’s enormous differences, as you’ve pointed out, between the Daigle of 1953, the Daigle of Petites difficultées and the Daigle of Pour sûr. The language in the latter is far more elaborate, on a higher register, for one thing, not to mention the more obvious differences in the structure of the novels.

In that sense I feel my work is similar. I don’t see the point in repeating myself from one project to the next. Each book or project certainly can be seen to lead to the next, but neither France nor I are following a formula. In Hellman’s Scrapbook, I think I created characters that were more fully developed though their artificiality was implied. In City of Forgetting, I simply used characters that already existed in history or literature, but I tried to make them simultaneously appealing, three dimensional. In Apikoros Sleuth, which you cite here, I was trying to give language itself an equal place alongside the semantic content, characters, plot, meaning. I think of the chapters of Apikoros (one or two large pages each) as nodes in the narrative, moments in a narrative that one can discern, but that isn’t central to the movement of the book. I wanted language, its materiality, its repetitions and differences, its treachery, to be present simultaneously in the reader’s mind with the characters, story, philosophy.

In Pour sûr, one could argue that Chiac is the main character. In any case, a book, a project is always a problem we are wrestling with, an experiment, an exploration. There is no correct solution, no right answer or best formal approach to the problem of language, to characters in fiction or poetry. Each experiment is useful and valuable if it’s done seriously and carefully. As writers, we relish the forays, victories, opening up of new territories, reversals that fellow writers produce. Those who claim they are the ones who have found the best or only way to write, even in the present, are either childish neophytes or fascists.


 dsc_5907Catherine Leclerc is Associate Professor in the Department of French Language and Literature at McGill University. Her research focuses on literary multilingualism and its translation, particularly in Anglo-Quebec and Franco-Canadian writing. She has published articles on France Daigle and her translation in the journals Voix et images (2004) and TTR (2005), as well as in the book Traduire depuis les marges/Translating from the Margins (Merkle et al., 2008). She won the Gabrielle-Roy Prize 2010 (in French) and was short-listed for Governor General’s Literary Awards in 2011 for her book Des langues en partage? Cohabitation du français et de l’anglais en littérature contemporaine (XYZ, 2010).
Robert Majzels is a novelist, poet, playwright and translator. He lives in Calgary.