Anna Leventhal’s Sweet Affliction (Invisible Publishing, 2014) is a collection of funny, moving, sharply etched short stories, set mainly in Montreal. Each presents a fully realized world, but they are also linked through recurring characters and intricate connections that reward multiple rereadings. Sweet Affliction won the Quebec Writers Federation Concordia University First Book Prize.
Less than a year after Sweet Affliction was released, Le Marchand de feuilles published Douce détresse. Daniel Grenier’s translation takes risks that pay dividends in this smooth-reading, unabashedly Québécois translation that manages to be every bit as funny (and bittersweet) as the original.
Daniel Grenier is the author of two books, Malgré tout on rit à Saint-Henri and Les mines générales, both published by Le Quartanier. He sat down with Pablo Strauss to discuss what it was like to translate Sweet Affliction. The interview has been translated from French and slightly condensed. ≈
Did you have any previous translation experience before Sweet Affliction?
No, nothing. I’d never done literary translation. I had done a few things for magazines, one for a magzine on gynecology, a bit for Liberté, some Stephen Harper quotations. That kind of thing.
What about theoretical background, some kind of base in translation theory?
No. I read a lot of English-language writing, and that made me ask a lot of questions about translation, about what it means to translate. But that was out of personal interest.
As you were translating, did you have a sense that your translation was fairly bold. That you were going a little further than other translators might?
No, I didn’t.
I might be wrong, but that’s my feeling.
I think it’s definitely a writer’s translation. There’s a writer’s touch to it, and maybe the publisher gave me more leeway for that reason. Maybe I was less afraid of certain things than a professional translator might have been. But in other areas I was more afraid, stuck closer to the original, where a more experienced translator might have had more ready-made solutions.
Could you give me an example?
Like in English you have “he said” or “she said” throughout the dialogue. In French we can cut them out more easily. I usually left them in. On the other hand, with certain adaptations, cultural references, I didn’t really think twice about it. Because it’s a book from Montreal, stories set in and about Montreal, I took liberties. And there are a lot of very Jewish references as well, that I couldn’t just leave unexplained.
Let’s look at one, from the story “Maitland.” I liked how you slid in an explanation of what Gefilte fish is before it appeared, something Anna Leventhal didn’t feel she had to do for an English-language reader. Here’s the English.
On Frieda’s left was Sophie, a coworker of Rachel’s. Sophie leaned over the gefilte fish and took a sniff, then turned down the corners of her mouth.
“Mais, c’est quoi ça?” she said.
“Pickled fish,” Frieda said. She heaped hot pink, toxic-looking horseradish on her own slice, then quartered it.
“I don’t understand how you can eat that.”
“It’s kind of an acquired taste, Rachel said.
But in your translation, you explained what it was before the character asks “What is it?” Then you name it, and then you slide in the English/Yiddish name, “Gefilte fish”:
À la gauche de Frieda, il y avait Sophie, une collègue de travail de Rachel. Sophie s’est penché au dessus de la carpe farcie et l’a reniflée; les coins de ses lèvres se sont tortillés.
- Mais, c’est quoi ça?
- Du poisson mariné, a dit Frieda. Gefilte fish.
That’s very subtle, and well done. Did you struggle with it, or did it just come naturally?
That’s exactly the type of passage I struggled with a lot. It was hard, and I remember that the copy editor cut out “Gefilte fish.” But I wanted to keep it in. Because in my head, that’s what the character, Frieda, would say. A French-speaking Jewish Montrealer might say that, Gefilte fish, while speaking French.
This brings me to a bit of a delicate question about your translation. Because you have your characters speaking very Québécois French, but they’re mostly anglophone Montrealers. In “Maitland” in particular I wonder if that gave you pause, if you were worried about making the anglo characters more Québécois than they are in the stories?
It’s interesting you bring up “Maitland”, it’s the most multicultural story I think. It’s a family gathering, a Seder, there are francophones, there are anglophones, both Jewish and non-Jewish, and it’s a sort of melting pot. And it’s true that in my translation everyone talks in the same way. But that’s true in the English too. And when I spoke to Anna Leventhal about that question generally, she said that, in her head, her characters weren’t necessarily speaking English (though they are on the page).
In a lot of the stories there are francophones, and it’s Montreal, I imagine that conversations must flip between the two languages. But in “Maitland,” when I read it in English, I felt more strongly that the francophones are a minority. Let’s look at a passage that immediately follows the one with the Gefilte fish.
She was a pretty, delicate-faced girl in an asymmetrical shirt, the kind you found at a boutique stocked with local designers who use a lot of gingham and paisley. She would be the target audience for these boutiques, Frieda thought – middle-class quirky, retro without the mildew and the pit-stains. Nostalgic for the pre-Quiet Revolution days. A lover of ornamental buttons.
I guess here and in a few other bits we feel a specific point-of-view, an anglophone character’s view of a francophone character, a view of certain differences between them that is personal, but cultural too. Did you think about that, worry about how to render that?
In that type of thing I was really focused on moving the text from one language to another. It was sentence by sentence. I was trying to capture the tone, and especially the idea behind. As for that kind of cultural question, I didn’t really take it that far. Didn’t really ask myself that question.
Another example of your handling of the translation I liked was in “Horseman Pass By,” the two characters are speaking on the phone—
I inverted it. I liked how it came out.
In English, the two characters use French; in French they use English:
“Don’t forget about me.
-Pense à moi.
Was that your first idea?
Yeah. But in the same story there was a passage, an Annie Dillard reference…
Here, look at this:
“You know how it is. Another day, another dollar.”
“Fourteen hours on showshoes and wish you had a pie?” She completes the Dillard quotation for him.
Wow. Plus it’s not really a famous Dillard quote, just a throwaway sentence from one of her books.
And Anna Leventhal must have thought her readers wouldn’t pick up on it, so she built the reference right into the sentence.
Probably. So I wasn’t really able to save that one.
-Oui, plus ça change plus c’est pareil.
Elle complète leur phrase pour lui.
-C’était du gâteau, mais t’aurais aimé ça que ça soit de la tarte.
“Another day, another dollar”: It’s super hard to translate, as an expression.
Really? There must be an equivalent.
I know exactly what it means, but… Nothing comes to mind.
It’s a pretty Protestant idea I guess. Let’s stick with the cultural references a bit. There’s a great passage in “Moving Day” where Lynnie is explaining the concept of a mix tape to future generations. In English the reference is to a group called The Brooks. I don’t know them. You? Are they real?
I don’t know if they’re real. That would be Anna’s style. There’s another group…
That you replaced with a real group…
No. The real group is Les Georges Leningrad. I put Les Georges Stalingrad. I felt like Anna was making a reference to someone, so I wanted it to be at least rooted in reality.
Right. So back to the mix tape passage.
Lynnie imagines herself explaining the phenomenon to a blurry group of children gathered around a hearth. “So this was how people in the olden days would tell each other they were special?” one would ask. “Yes,” Lynnie would answer, “but you had to be careful. You couldn’t be too obvious about it.” “Why not?” another would pipe up, a girl with chestnut ringlets who looked a lot like Lynnie’s sister. “Well,” Lynnie would tell her, “let’s pretend Uncle Sebastian gave me a tape where the first song is the one by The Brooks, the one that goes Hey hey baby you’re just a little girl, hey hey baby c’mon and rule my world. Des that make Seb a cool guy or a douchebag?” And together all the little children would chorus “DOUCHEBAG!”
And here’s the French:
Lynnie s’imagine en train d’expliquer le phénomène à un groupe d’enfants un peu flou, réuni autour d’un foyer.
-Fait que c’était comme ça que les gens, dans ton temps, ils se disaient qu’ils étaient intéressés? demanderait l’un d’eux.
-Oui, répondrait Lynnie, mais fallait que tu fasses attention. Fallait pas que ça soit trop évident.
-Pourquoi? S’exclamerait une autre, une fille avec des boucles noisettes qui ressemblerait beaucoup à la soeur de Lynnie.
-Bon, lui expliquerait Lynnie, supposons que Sébastien vient de me donner une cassette qui commence avec la chanson d’Éric Lapointe, celle qui dit viens-tu danser un beau grand slow collé? Est-ce que ça fait de Seb un gars plutôt cool ou un méchant Gino?
Et tous ensemble, les enfants s’écrieraient, en choeur, «GINO»!
Why Gino, not douchebag, like in the original?
Because douchebag is a real anglicism! We use it all the time in French. But Gino is a more French word, but from the 90s. It’s disappearing now in French because everything is douchebag, douchebag, douchebag
Yeah, it’s a popular word.
So I have an Éric Lapointe song. Except it’s actually a Richard Desjardins song.
But Éric Lapointe covered it. He’s the one who ginoed it out.
But still, you have anglo-Montrealers listening to Éric Lapointe. You weren’t afraid of doing that?
In this case I had to, to make the joke work.
I’m not asking because I think you made a bad choice. I really enjoyed this aspect of your translation. But it seems to me that many, maybe most translators, faced with the same choice, would choose to kill the joke before changing the reference. And I want to congratulate you for what you did, you said, “No. We’re keeping the joke. We’re going to make it work.”
Yeah. I wanted to find a joke that is somehow equivalent, in French. But in the book I’m translating now I wouldn’t take as much liberty. My feeling is that in Sweet Affliction, while it’s true that a lot of the characters are anglo Montrealers, there’s a sort of Quebec vibe… shared references.
But La vie la vie!?! [A Radio-Canada TV drama from the early 2000s, watched by a character in the story “Helga Volga.”] That show with the crazy video editing, and split-screen montages?
Yeah but… that was the only one. When the character wanted to listen to Ideas on CBC, I kept it. What was the English?
A show I don’t know. Other People’s Lives.
The title fits though, right?
It definitely felt like you had a lot of fun slipping in little jokes.
Yeah. But you know, it’s been done before in Quebec. There’s a precedent for this kind of translation.
Yeah. Slap Shot. The hockey movie. Have you seen the French-language version?
OK, you need to understand that for you guys, Slap Shot is just a B or C movie, that people have kind of forgotten, a bad movie with Paul Newman. But here in Quebec it’s a very important film, a classic of Quebec cinema, because it was one of the few films dubbed in Quebec French, real Quebec French. I’m not talking just the accent. It was like “Tabarnak hostie viens-t-en icitte mon crisse de gros chien sale je vais t’en crisser une mon hostie!” The lips don’t fit with the words coming out at all!
OK, so you do have a theoretical grounding in translation theory. Slap Shot.
New Jack City too.
Yeah. You got Wesley Snipes, speaking Quebec French.
And The Flinstones. When it played in French, it was Québécois. The Simpsons too.
So on TV. They always understood the importance of adapting.
Yeah. The Simpsons is a really good example. When you watch in Quebec it’s like there’s this distance, and a rapprochement, at the same time. I don’t know if it’s the same in France, but… In Quebec we’re in Springfield. In the States. You know you’re there. But the voices are Québécois. And sometimes, on the radio or TV or whatever, there’ll be a reference to Quebec. They’ll talk about the Champlain Bridge, for example.
They had fun with it.
Yeah. They, like I said, they still took us away, to another world, but at the same time there was a certain familiarity.
And I feel you were doing the same thing in your translation. One example was in “Moving Day,” the character says “typical Pepsi racist.”
Translated as “on se croirait à Hérouxville.” And by referring to Hérouxville, I think you’re giving the French-language reader a similar experience as the English-language reader had. It’s an automatic cognitive leap. It brings up, right away, the Bouchard Taylor commission, a whole bunch of things that haven’t been dealt with yet. It touches a lot of nerves.
Did you have an idea before you started, or develop one along the way, an idea that everything had to work at the same speed, the same rhythm?
No. It really depended on the reference. Some were easy, and I left them identical. Some were harder. And there were a lot of Jewish references. I didn’t want to change those. It didn’t bother me as much if anglophone characters felt more like francophones, but I didn’t want to take away their Jewishness.
What is something that was very hard to translate, but you were pleased with your solution in the end?
In “Frenching the Eagle,” we don’t realize that it’s a woman talking until quite late in the story. She’s in prison. Women’s prison. And she’s speaking in the third person plural, “we,” meaning “us women.” In English it’s a lot easier to conceal that from the reader, but in French we have subject-verb agreement, and so when she talks I have to add the endings, which would give it away.
What did you do?
It was hard! In the first three paragraphs I had to find passive forms, to avoid conjugating verbs. And I think I nailed it. I was able to retain the ambiguity until later in the story, and it was hard. I’m proud of how that came out.
Also in the first story, you had “Hadassa arms.” Which I translated as “gras de Bingo.” It was an adaptation, and I had to cast around, I asked all kinds of people. “What do you call that fat on certain people’s arms?” Some people call it “gras de Bye-Bye,” because it jiggles when you wave.
I like that approach, asking other people for help. As translators we don’t do that enough. We spend hours searching in dictionaries, and don’t even think to ask our friends.
It was the girl who works at the coffee shop who gave me that. She said that in her family they called it “gras de Bingo.”
So, moral of the story: when you’re stuck, ask the girl at the coffee shop.
Exactly. Then there are things that feel like they were just meant to be translated. Like there’s a pun on a protest sign: Asbestos = Asworstos. And it only took me a second or two. Amiante = Enemiante.
Yeah sometimes the pun works in both languages. And life is good.
On a more practical level, how long did it take you to translate? Did you have a system?
Three months. I just worked on it every day. Two hours a day, sometimes three or four. Read the book, and just keep on rereading and rereading. After that, I just took it one sentence at a time. But translating a book of short stories is totally different than translating a novel. Because in a novel, when you work on it over time, in many different sessions, it makes me slightly afraid of changing the voice. Whereas in a book of short stories it’s normal to change voice. You’re supposed to.
A different challenge, then.
Absolutely. It’s a huge challenge, translating a novel. The one I’m doing now is 300 pages [Waiting for the Man, by Arjun Basu, also for Marchand de feuilles]. Keeping a cohesive voice all the way through is a challenge. It’s harder to translate than short stories.
I’m interested in the idea of “what people really say.” Translators are always arguing over it, saying “no one says that.” But there’s little agreement. Did you ever have doubts about taking how you talk, how you and your friends talk, as a standard?
No. That’s just what I did, tried to make it reflect, as much as possible, how I talk, how my friends talk.
That’s what I felt. It reminds me of how my friends talk as well.
It’s subtle differences. You don’t say “donc,” you say “fait que.”
“Comon” [a francisized version of “come on”]. “Pis. Lots of “pis” [a colloquial "and" or "then"].
We had to cut out a few “pis.”
Really? There’s still a lot left in.
Yeah, Mélanie Vincelette [publisher of Le marchand de feuilles] had me take out a few. But in English, you’re less afraid of repetition, of saying and, and, and… And the fact is that in French we never say “et” for “and.” I never use the word “et.”
I learned French in school, in B.C.: je, tu, nous, vous. Then I moved to Quebec and there’s no “nous”!
Yeah. It’s only for expressions like “viens avec nous.”
Or “Nous, on…
Nous on aime ça.
How many times did you read the original.
Once, just as a reader. Then I read it as I translated. Then I reread my translation. I never reread Sweet Affliction, but I feel like I know it inside-out. The book’s lovely architecture, the way the stories fit together: I think I understand that. I spent a lot of time analyzing it.
And did you figure out the connections as you read? A lot of stuff you didn’t see the first time round?
I think we’re supposed to be confused.
Every time I read the book – twice in English, some of the stories a few more times, and once, one and a half times in French – I discover new connections I didn’t see at first. It’s one of the great qualities of Sweet Affliction.
It’s a complicated timeline. Some of the stories are in the future, like “Moving Day.” We have Abby and Marcus, perhaps we could take them as the main “present.” And later we have stories narrated by their kids. The timeline is very confusing, but it doesn’t get in the way of enjoying the stories.
While you were working on the book, did you get a lot of feedback from the author?
Anna answered questions for me. Explained references. But she doesn’t read French enough to look at my translation and say “that doesn’t work,” for example.
Do you feel like Douce détresse is “your” book?
It’s a tough question. I don’t feel like it’s my book. But I’m just as stressed, and nervous, about its reception as if it were mine. Maybe even more. Because when I translate, I feel like what I’m being asked to do is put my talent to work, for someone else. Sort of like a homage.
You have written a book of short stories, and now you’ve translated one. How do the two processes compare? What are the challenges of each?
In terms of actually producing it, the process is totally different. I’d say translation is like creation, but without the stress. Everything is already there! It’s just your intelligence, your work… that’s what’s so nice about it.
When you sit down at your desk to write a novel it’s nerve-racking. But when you’re translating, you know you’ll have to deal with the same questions as when you write, you have to look at the same issues – but everything is already there for you. It’s really, really pleasant. I loved translating Sweet Affliction. And I hope I’ll have more opportunities to translate other books, lots of them. It’s really nice work. And you’re doing it for someone else. It’s a great feeling.
For Anna. For the author. The author created their book, and you can bring it to another audience, bring attention to it. It’s sweet. And right now, in Quebec, it feels like there’s momentum building, something happening in Quebec literature, in terms of dialogue between English and French-language writing
Can you give me some examples. There’s Sweet Affliction/Douce détresse.
There are lots of great translations coming out.
It’s like there’s new momentum. I think it happens once every generation. Maybe it’s because I’m involved personally, but it does feel as if there’s a lot happening right now. And the two language communities are interested in each other. You can see it at Drawn and Quarterly, and Le Quartanier translating Jacob Wren. Mélanie Vincelette, at Le marchand de feuilles, who wants to start releasing more translations. Boréal.
Alto in Quebec City.
Yeah, it definitely feels like there’s something happening right now. And it transcends politics. ≈