The Invisible Art

They may not be stars, but these literary translators get a taste of glory in Banff.

By Peter Norman

Imagine that a friend, deaf from birth, asks you to write for her a description of your favourite piece of music. Note by note, chord by chord, you must convey its essence and effects. Every diminuendo, every shift in rhythm, every soaring harmony. You must do so with such vividness that your friend will hear the music in her aural imagination.

A similar—and similarly daunting—job is undertaken regularly by a dedicated cadre of artists. Using one language to stand in for another, literary translators must rebuild the primal experience of reading a poem or story or play. It’s as tricky as explaining music to someone who will never hear it.

Literary translation differs from its more prevalent and better-funded cousin, commercial translation. If your job is to read the Korean instruction manual for a dishwasher and rewrite it in Italian, there’s no need to fret over cadence, tone, flow. You’re not required to capture and convey the delicate shades of meaning achieved by subtle alliteration or assonance. As long as the point gets across, as long as customers learn how the dishwasher works, your job is done. Translating Dante, however, is another matter.

The literary translator plays a crucial role. By guiding us through stories and songs from abroad, translators bridge cultures. Parable, fable, scripture, myth: societies are defined and shaped by their stories. Sure, some cultural information is tucked inside a dishwasher manual or legal decision (well, maybe not the manual). Embedded in literature, though, is the very DNA of a culture.

Thanks to literary translators, those of us confined to a single language can nonetheless read the Psalms of David, Homer’s Odyssey, Haida legend, the works of Sappho, Cervantes, Kafka, Gabrielle Roy. If, as Einstein asserted (and let’s give him the benefit of the doubt where deep thoughts are concerned), “Peace… can only be achieved by understanding,” then the translator’s role looms large indeed.

Language, of course, is a touchy issue in Canada. Many westerners are rankled by the special status granted Quebec; their derision is only bolstered by reports of zealous language police pouncing on mom-and-pop depanneurs, sniffing out signs handwritten in English. Going back further, the suppression of aboriginal languages in residential schools is an infamous part of our history. The languages imported by immigrants are often a flashpoint for racism: the phrase “Speak English,” if delivered in the right context, is akin to a racial taunt.

Words, sounds, syntax, letters, grammar, accent, slang: the architecture of our utterance has become a powerful metaphor for who we are and how we differ. Peace? Understanding? These may indeed be the domain of the literary translators.

The problem: compensation. Literary translators toil for very little money and even less glory. No one needs to tell writers that they went into the wrong profession—money is out there for bestselling scribes, but the correlation between achievement and income is often non-existent. Very occasionally, the literary world bestows dribs of glamour on its practitioners. A Nobel Prize is nice; a limo ride to a launch is welcome, especially with a mini-bar on board; you could even appear on Larry King Live (particularly if you’ve fudged facts in your bestselling memoir). For the most part, however, novelists, poets and playwrights toil anonymously.

Even worse off is the literary translator. When he does score a hit, the credit usually goes to the source author, however ingenious the translator’s contribution. (Exceptions include celebrity translations of canonical works—Seamus Heaney doing Beowulf, for example.) These artists belong to that peculiar guild of invisible artists (editors of text, sound and film also belong): you know they’ve done good work if you don’t notice it.

“Literary translation is by definition very discreet,” says Linda Gaboriau. A veteran, award-winning translator—and, incidentally, the mother of rock star Melissa Auf der Maur— the Boston native and Montreal resident speaks with an elegant New England accent. “When it’s good, it’s invisible. It’s seamless. You’re not aware of the translator. And that means that literary translators’ names rarely go up in lights. It’s a discreet and behind-the-scenes craft with very little recognition. And very underpaid, in all countries.”

Phyllis Aronoff is president of the Literary Translators’ Association of Canada, an organization set up in 1975 to protect the interests of translators, and also to boost their profile. According to Aronoff, literary translators typically earn about half of the pay notched by commercial translators. Literature may be the key to another culture, but it doesn’t pay like dishwasher manuals do.

Enough with the sob story, though. Here in Alberta, a prestigious institution is giving literary translators a taste of luxury, professional fellowship and focused work time. The Banff International Literary Translation Centre (BILTC), housed at The Banff Centre, was established in 1993, and Gaboriau is its founding director. The centre is the first of its kind in North America.

“We offer a retreat atmosphere where people can go to really focus on the translation they’re currently working on,” says Gaboriau. “But you get to work on that project in a small community… so there’s a lot of exchange among peers working in different languages. It becomes a kind of mini-international literary forum, where writers and translators from many languages come together. Our centre is in this magnificent landscape, and everything is done for you. You come here and you don’t have to worry about making your bed, cooking your meals. You’re there with your own little room and your private bath, and your workspace, and the meals in that lovely dining room all prepared for you, and the lounge where the writers get together.”

Several such centres exist in Europe, but this one has a focus unique to its setting. “We knew that we were opening the first literary translation centre in the Americas,” says Gaboriau. “We decided to make it truly North American: translators from Mexico, the United States and Canada, working on literature from anywhere in the world” as well as international translators decoding North American lit. “So someone coming from Slovenia can be translating a Philip Roth, or a Michel Tremblay, or a Carlos Fuentes.”

In addition to getting work done, hanging out with one another and shooting the breeze about interlingual conundrums, the translators can consult with senior faculty members such as Gaboriau—seasoned translators whose experience might come in handy.

What kinds of questions would a translator have? “It depends upon the languages,” says Gaboriau. “I translate primarily from French into English. So it could be someone really struggling with the Québécois… deciphering an idiosyncratic usage, slang. Other times it can be, how do you handle a cultural reference? If they’re talking about poutine—now, poutine has taken over the country, but before, people didn’t know what poutine is. But that’s an example. Do you say ‘poutine’ and let people just scratch their heads? Do you do footnotes? Or do you translate it and say, ‘He sat down to his plate of French fries with barbeque sauce and cheese curds’?”

In 1994, a Bulgarian translator arrived, hard at work on Life of Pi, the Booker Prize-winning novel by Canadian Yann Martel, set partly in India. “All sorts of references to Indian food,” says Gaboriau. “Apparently in the Cyrillic script in Bulgarian, a lot of these words, like the equivalent for coriander or cumin, just haven’t reached Bulgaria—the notion of Indian cuisine and the whole vocabulary, the spices involved and so on. So what do you do?”

A particularly daunting challenge faced the team hired to translate the debut novel of Calgary author Paul Anderson. Hunger’s Brides is an epic and complex work. Its intertwined elements include a present-day murder mystery, a historical tale about a legendary Spanish poet, and verse in Spanish and English. One of its characters is a translator, and thus translation itself—its limitations and its capacity to expand upon the source—becomes a major theme in the book.

German publisher Pendo Verlag acquired the rights to Hunger’s Brides in 2004. The book’s size and complexity meant the translation had to be divvied up among five translators. A year later, Matthias Müller arrived in Banff to represent the group.

One bonus feature for many of the BILTC translators is meeting the author face to face and toiling together at the text. “There’s the opportunity in as many cases as possible to work with the author for a week,” says Gaboriau. “One focus of our program is the promotion of Canadian literature abroad. And to offer these international translators from Israel, from Italy, the Netherlands, the opportunity to come to the country that the novel takes place in, to meet the author—that’s very special.”

Accordingly, Paul Anderson arrived in Banff to meet Müller about three weeks from the translation deadline. While e-mail had already allowed Anderson some contact with his translators, relying exclusively on that technology “would have short-circuited the serendipity that comes from working closely face to face,” Anderson says. Müller came to Banff armed with the “last, knottiest, thorniest questions.”

Anderson was overwhelmed by the positivity of his experience. “It exceeded even my expectations,” he says. And, he adds, the program enjoys “a sparkling reputation among the translators themselves.” As for Matthias Müller, the German translator impressed Anderson with his command of no fewer than 10 languages. “He said his Russian and Japanese were getting quite rusty—so I lost a lot of respect for him right there,” Anderson jokes.

This particular translation project had an intriguing hall-of- mirrors aspect: Anderson’s book incorporates poetry written in Spanish by a real-life figure, the 17th-century Mexican nun and proto-feminist Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Her work appears in the novel as translated into English by one of Anderson’s fictional characters. But the translation is not merely a straight- up rendition by Anderson himself. The imaginary translator, Beulah, “didn’t mind subsuming the work into her own personality,” explains Anderson. Thus the translated poetry becomes part of Beulah’s character development.

On its own, this is a nifty literary trick; for the Germans faced with translating Hunger’s Brides, it presented a monumental challenge. When the roster of translators was being assembled, one candidate, a high-ranking German translator with a formidable grasp of Spanish, seemed the obvious choice for these passages. But, says Anderson, the editor “suddenly realized this was exactly the wrong person, because he’d find Beulah’s translations objectionable.” Instead, the editor selected translators willing to “lend a certain coloration to the word choices.”

Anderson found the real-life translators at Banff to be utterly unlike his fictional character: they were almost self-negating in their service to the source material. He describes the centre participants as “remarkably humble,” with “a sense of serving a calling. Basically their talents are subordinate to that calling. That was a group of pretty gentle souls. They were kind to each other. People of that calibre are a pleasure to work with.”

Canada’s notorious “two solitudes” are also bridged at the BILTC. In addition to her presidential duties for the Literary Translators’ Association of Canada, Phyllis Aronoff is a French/ English translator and former BILTC attendee. There, she worked with co-translator Howard Scott on Madeleine Gagnon’s novel My Name is Bosnia.

Translators may have a role in keeping Canada cohesive, but Aronoff is reluctant to freight her work with too much political import. “I’m more interested in the artistic side of it,” she says on the phone from Montreal. In her view, the Quebec literary scene is no longer as politically charged, or as hostile to the rest of the nation, as it may have been in the past. “There’s less of that siege mentality now. There’s a real openness to the rest of the world and the rest of Canada. A lot more Canadian books are getting translated from English to French than French to English. It’s certainly a change from a few years ago.”

Like many translators, Aronoff says she “kind of fell into translation—it was sort of by chance. Living in Montreal, both languages are all around me. I saw books that I thought should be translated.”

As for the BILTC, Aronoff describes it as “a wonderful program. Wonderful faculty. An atmosphere where you’re surrounded by artists in various fields.” Working with international translators, with all the various languages in use, is “really quite extraordinary. The kinds of problems we’re dealing with on the page are very similar.”

When she’s not wearing her artistic hat, Aronoff is busy overseeing the translators’ association, which primarily deals with the image problem—or, more accurately, lack-of-image problem—translators endure. “We’re so invisible most of the time. Publishers might omit a translator’s name [from the cover of a book] because ‘people don’t like to read translations.’” Aronoff emphasizes the translator’s “right to be recognized as the author of the translation. According to the Copyright Act, the translator is subject to the rights of the original author.” An English version, say, of a Québécois poem is a copyrighted piece of literature—you can’t simply reproduce it in an anthology and credit the author but not the translator.

Programs like BILTC abet this mission by buoying the prestige and profile of the literary translator. Aronoff is effusive on this point, praising “the spirit of the BILTC—I think it’s just a great thing.”

Indeed, it’s hard to dig up any dirt on this program at all. From the setting (which, few Albertans will dispute, is splendid) to the lodgings to the professional support, the BILTC seems to score consistently high marks with past participants.

Luminaries have lined up to voice their approval, among them Margaret Atwood, who calls the BILTC “one of the most important places in Canada, if not in North America, to nurture and advance this necessary art.” Raul Ortiz, the Mexican translator of Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, somewhat startlingly describes the BILTC as “a place that resembles the Shangri-la of my dreams.” Romanian Ana Andreescu adds the rhetorical question, “Is there a better way of promoting Canadian literature abroad?”

According to stereotype, Albertans are not champions of Canadian bilingualism. But we do have a thriving francophone population—and it does produce literature. Another happy BILTC participant is Calgarian Maureen Ranson, an English/French translator who made the short trip to Banff in 2004. Her project was a novel by a francophone Albertan, Marguerite Primeau, who lived in St. Paul and wrote in French. Now a retired UBC professor, Primeau resides in Vancouver. “So many of her fellow Albertans can only read her novel in translation,” Ransom says.

Mexican translator Raul Ortiz claims, somewhat startlingly, that the centre “resembles the Shangri-la of my dreams.”

The Albertan francophone experience is an isolated one, “distant from the centres of francophone culture in Canada— in Manitoba, Quebec and the Maritimes,” according to Ranson. “I met Madame Primeau, now in her nineties. I corresponded with her, asked questions. She was isolated, marginal, because of the language in the anglophone world and the geography in the francophone world.”

A unique, lonely cultural strand here in Alberta—and Ranson was saddled with the task of representing it to the English-speaking majority. Thus the literary translator not only helps us understand the world, but helps a single province learn about itself.

As Ranson sees it, distinctly Albertan experiences are being beamed out into the world thanks to literary translation. “Through story, writers say, ‘Look at me or us or him or her. Look at what I found out. Listen to what I think and feel, dream and imagine.’ Translators tell and write those stories in other languages. Many people whose lives are vastly different from ours here in Alberta can read and hear the stories. Writers and translators spread the word locally, country-wide, around the world. Talented writers in Alberta are recording history and making history, telling our stories, letting us in on stories from elsewhere.”

Ranson was delighted to participate in the BILTC program, which she calls “an unimagined luxury for me,” and as an Albertan she takes pride in its achievements and its setting. “The Banff Centre is a facility we can be proud to share with the world. Albertans are generous in sharing their wealth.”

Maybe so. But public funding for the BILTC is granted at the federal level, and not the provincial. “Fundraising is difficult,” admits Gaboriau. Heritage Canada and the Canada Council for the Arts have chipped in with support. As Gaboriau sees it, these granting agencies believe the program “helps consolidate the image of Canada in its multicultural identity… as open- minded and dynamic.” The Alberta Foundation for the Arts, however, has provided no funding. As for potential private supporters, Gaboriau says they “can’t begin to imagine what goes on and why it’s important. Literary translation isn’t sexy and doesn’t go up in spotlights.”

Funding shortfalls or not, Gaboriau does have plans to expand the scope of the program. The inclusion of Canadian and US Aboriginal languages is a major goal. While Mexicans have arrived to translate their country’s native languages— including Mayan and Zapotec—there’s been a dearth of Canadian aboriginal languages at the BILTC, and, according to Gaboriau, “we haven’t yet found connections with Americans” by which native US languages could be pursued. Another area of future focus will be writers who have chosen to live in exile in North America while writing in the languages of their home countries.

Indeed, translation can be as much a political force as a cultural one, introducing subversive or unheard voices to a world that sorely needs to hear them. Gaboriau says, “One of the Quebec writers who came last June [2004] to Banff, Madeleine Gagnon, wrote that she felt the world would be a very, very different place if literary translators ran the world’s governments. Because they listen, they try to understand. Every word counts.”

Peter Norman is the associate editor at Alberta Views

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