Lost in translation, no more: Two writers capture Montreal’s unique linguistic identity

Artwork by Wenting Li

Montreal is a city of translators, novelist Sean Michaels observed one day.

Residents make the mental trip between French and English countless times every day. Sometimes they do it resentfully (when being served by a McGill student barista) and sometimes they do it badly (the grocery display for farm chicken/hard chicken). More often than not, they translate into second nature, like the softball player who shouts “heads up… Warningafter a foul errant ball.

It is probably not surprising that Montrealers do such interesting things with literary translation, the refined and formalized expression of this local mental habit. The recent collaboration between two writers on a novel about a luck-obsessed comedian shows just how good some people are at bridging the language gap.

The writers are Michaels, Giller Prize winner and most recently author of The bets; and Catherine Leroux, a novelist and translator who translated this book into French as The throws of the dicereleased last year.

Author Sean Michaels.Julie Artacho

The practice of translation is often referred to in terms of difficulties (think: “lost in”). This is doubly true in Montreal, where language forms the boundary between the city’s two historic solitudes. Literary translator Linda Gaboriau spoke of the delicacy of making the grandiloquence of playwright Michel Marc Bouchard sing on the English stage; Mordecai Richler’s French translation from France made the faux pas of calling Maurice Richard The rocket instead of the “Rocket”, as English and French Quebecers called it.

Even someone as skilful as Leroux – who was just nominated for a Governor General’s Award for The throws of the dice – finds herself tripping over some language barriers, she acknowledges. Elegant conjugations in his version of the book, like waited and appeared (wait and appear), give some passages a classical quality that they lack in the looser original English. Written French is inherently more formal than its spoken counterpart, she explains – even more so than written English.

Or take “plum,” a meaningful word in a book populated by a family of grocers. Literally translating as plum robs the word of its plum-like assonance, Michaels points out, replacing a ripe, rounded sound with something more parched.

Both writers, however, prefer to dwell on the possibilities of translation rather than its problems, particularly the possibilities that are revealed in a city endowed with what the poet AM Klein called a “double-melody vocabulary”.

In Montreal, author and translator are more likely to consult on stylistic decisions such as how to capture the evocative power of the word “plum”. When Michaels was translated into other languages, like Czech, he let go of the reins completely. Here, the process is more of a round trip.

He and Leroux were already friends when she signed on to translate American drivers, the novel for which Michaels won his Giller. When they met at a café to discuss the project, one of his first questions was: When do these characters start familiarity? That is, when do they start using the second person informal pronoun you rather than the more formal you – a question that does not exist in English, with its neutral “you”.

Author and translator Catherine Leroux.Audree Wilhelmy

Leroux was sensitive to the different inflection points that tip a relationship towards intimacy in English and French. When she first dated an English speaker, she fell into an embarrassing situation after saying “I love you” too early in the relationship, not realizing it was more loaded than I love you, which can indicate both love and taste.

Michaels was delighted to hear all of these verbal nuances grouped together in the simplest sentences.

“It was the moment with the translation where I was like, ‘That’s cool,'” he said. “I felt at that moment that what Catherine was doing definitely didn’t need to be this bad, watered-down photocopy.”

With The bets, they agreed to do something even more ambitious. Because the book was about an unnamed city that could only be Montreal, the translation would be as much cultural as linguistic. On the one hand, Leroux proposes to make the French spoken by the characters distinctly Québécois. This sometimes meant leaving a few English words in the text to replicate authentic Franglais – moccasins and cupcakes.

But Leroux went further, too, by changing certain cultural references from English Canadian to French-speaking Quebecers. Whereas in The bets the main character’s mother listens to Ideas on Radio-Canada, she listens to the public intellectual Serge Bouchard on Radio-Canada in The throws of the dice.

This decision would be unthinkable in a book about a unilingual city. The characters in Anna Karenina don’t suddenly read the Manchester Guardian in English translations. But even in bilingual Montreal, Leroux’s act of cultural transplantation was a dramatic choice, subtly changing the demographic context of the central Potiris family by turning the dial on their radio.

Michaels had faith in this unusual “loss of control” over his characters because he trusted Leroux. Leroux believed it would work because of The simpsons. When she was growing up, most American movies and shows were dubbed into French with a French accent. The simpsons was one of the few actors dubbed by Quebec actors with local cultural references. When the characters in the original were supposed to talk about Oprah, they might mention Quebec TV personality Claire Lamarche instead.

“It made it so much funnier,” Ms. Leroux said. “I realize now that I had this past in mind; than it had been done before, and it worked very well.

The interaction between French and English is not always so homogeneous and sparkling in literary Montreal. Anglophone and Francophone writers often live in different worlds. “The loneliness and the separations there, and the way we don’t see each other, living our lives and doing our jobs on the same streets, is kind of sad,” Michaels said.

He and Leroux want to show a different way, to translate well in a city of translation. Last fall, they participated in a rare bilingual reading chat at a bookstore near the border between culturally Anglo Mile End and Francophone Outremont. Friends joked about the plum against plum and CBC versus Radio-Canada. The conversation snaked between English and French as gallantly as a softball player shouting “head held high… Warning.”

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