Retranslating a Quebec Classic

an essay by Steven Urquhart

First published in 1960 by René Julliard in France, Gérard Bessette’s Le libraire is a seminal work of Quebec literature, often compared to Camus’ The Stranger. The novel, which deals with censorship in pre-Quiet Revolution Quebec, was itself subject to indirect censorship: Quebec publisher Pierre Tisseyre initially turned it down to avoid confronting the moral authorities. While hardly scathing by today’s standards, Le libraire does paint an ironic portrait of the Church in Quebec through the observations of Hervé Jodoin, a former teacher who has moved to the rural town of Saint-Joachim to take a job in a bookstore. The first person narrative, presented as Jodoin’s journal, describes his arrival in Saint-Joachim, his daily drinking bouts in the local tavern, his confrontation with the local priest after selling a blacklisted copy of Voltaire’s Essay on Morals to a schoolboy, and his subsequent surreptitious departure.

Le libraire was first translated in 1962 by Glen Shortliffe, a professor of French and the author’s colleague at Queen’s University. MacMillan published the translation that same year as Not For Every Eye. According to Bessette’s correspondence the publisher chose the English title, a euphemism used in the story by the parish priest to refer to blacklisted books. Though a far cry from the original, which translates as the “the bookseller,” the English title is an enticing reference to the novel’s overriding theme, censorship.

Changing the title was not up for discussion when Exile Editions, who had republished Shortliffe’s translation in the 1980s, decided to publish a revised translation in 2010. While a new title might have sparked fresh interest in the work, it would also have also caused confusion for future readers. Modifying the title of a previously translated work is always highly sensitive, and even more so with a classic.

I did consider changing the title but decided it was not worth it. I then set about rereading the English version carefully to check the accuracy and quality of Shortliffe’s work. The translation was very well done. The translator clearly had a thorough knowledge and deep appreciation of his friend’s novel. But when I reread the translation alongside the French, I felt that certain areas called for revision. As Le libraire was turning fifty, the time seemed right to revisit the translation.

One striking example was Shortliffe’s translation of the French word “capharnaum,” the bookstore owner’s name for the vault where he keeps his stock of blacklisted books, as sanctum sanctorum. This decision was understandable – the word capharnaum is rarely used in English, whereas in colloquial French it means a “a shambles” or “jumbled mess” – but also problematic. Since Le libraire first appeared critics have been examining and interpreting Bessette’s peculiar word choice, which refers to two different but related aspects of the novel. Capharnaum is the Greek name of Capernaum, a fishing village on the Sea of Galilee where Jesus exercised his ministry. It is also, in Madame Bovary, the name given the pharmacist’s medical cabinet where Emma Bovary finds the poison she uses to end her life. Bessette’s use of the term is in keeping with both the novel’s religious backdrop and the poisonous nature, in the eyes of the Church, of this secret space and the volumes it contains. A single word, yet its omission in the original translation glosses over both the term’s intertextual value and its contribution to the novel’s symbolic layers of meaning. “Capharnaum” is a proper name, and an intriguing word from both a phonetic and semiotic standpoint, one that absolutely needed to included in any new version of Not For Every Eye.

Having proposed minor changes to Shortliffe’s version, I found both small and more substantial revisions that could further improve the text.

It struck me that Jodoin had been given a rather British voice. This may have been justified at a time when the British presence in Canada was still strong. Understandable, then, but problematic. Jodoin is not British; he is French Canadian.

Does the device whereby the story is a presented as a Jodoin’s written journal explain this aspect of the translation? Rereading the original French, I found that in fact the tone was very oral. Le libraire feels more like a dialogue than a true stream of consciousness, as if Jodoin were ironically recounting his petty adventures to another person. Witty but not exactly charming, Jodoin is more like a disenchanted smart aleck who finds joy in talking about life’s irrationalities.

The distinction between these two discursive modes was subtle but, in my view, critical. To convey this difference I paid particular attention to the oral nature of the text, which includes countless passages of dialogue. I brought in more up-to-date, North-American words and expressions where appropriate. For example, the verb “guffaw” used to describe Chicoine’s boisterous laughter in reaction to Jodoin’s wit felt somewhat dated; it is rare in everyday conversation in North America. My strategy was to paraphrase such “proper” verbs, substantives, and similar expressions to give the translation a more conversational, down-to-earth feel.

But finding the register to capture the ambiguous, in-between nature of the text and its protagonist’s demeanor was not easy. A translator’s age, cultural and literary background, and own speech mannerisms are just a few of the factors that influence his or her understanding of the text. I was a new translator but an experienced French professor and long-time student of Bessette’s work.

I felt torn: between my age and that of the text, not to mention Jodoin’s; between the desire to improve the translation and respect for the fine work that had already been done; between the words on the page and their broader meaning in the context the novel.

A case in point was the translation of the French expression “peu importe,” used repeatedly by Jodoin to express his disinterest in investing himself in any given situation and its ultimate inconsequence. Rendered as “no matter” by Shortliffe, the expression could have also been translated by the more flippant, modern “whatever.” After trying several other expressions, I decided to keep Shortliffe’s translation. “Whatever” seemed over-the-top and too strongly associated with younger people today. Jodoin may exhibit a certain childish playfulness but he is a mature, cynical, middle-aged man. Another option, “What does it matter?,” might have expressed Jodoin’s attitude toward and critical distance from life’s quirks, but it implies a sense of despair he does not possess. Jodoin may be negative but he never fully gives up on himself or life, and remains highly sensitive to the power of language. He is a man of few words, carefully weighed, especially when dealing with the priest. By unwittingly subverting what constitutes a censored book, and normal behaviour, Jodoin plays on relativism and the idea that words are always subject to context. Words do not always communicate precisely what they are intended to express, and so they are subject to interpretation. The linguistic sparring match between Jodoin and the priest evokes the question of translation as an interpretative gesture that must take into account a number of variables such as double entendres to determine the exact meaning, or meanings, of any given utterance.


Revising Shortliffe’s translation was daunting at first, especially given its excellence. But working with his text proved an interesting, fruitful experience. His translation served as a model against which to compare various ways of translating ideas and expressions, and a yardstick against which to gauge the consistency of changes I made to the text. Always an issue in translation, consistency is of paramount importance when revising a classic, because earlier translations affect how the new text is experienced. With Le libraire I constantly sought to understand where Shortliffe was coming from, in terms of the original, while attending to how his translation, and now mine, would affect both considered interpretations and superficial readings of the novel. When I encountered something significant and “untranslatable,” I opted for explanatory notes. Knowing that a novel is a translation does not detract from the work, to my mind; rather, it reminds readers that language constitutes and even shapes our thoughts.

Several people have asked me whether I would make the same choices if I had it to do over again. I believe I would. I understand people’s apprehensions about explanatory notes, or a hybrid version of a classic novel. But I cannot help but think ignoring Shortliffe’s work would not have produced a superior translation. Too many new translations seem undertaken in response to spurious critiques or without due recognition of previous versions. To revive classics or works that merit greater or renewed attention we must value the efforts of past translators while catering to contemporary readers. Should all translations be revised translations? Most certainly not. There are poor translations out there that are simply beyond repair.

In the case of the Le libraire I saw no need to censor Shortliffe’s efforts. Indeed, looking back, I see that further refinements could be made to the text. There is always room for improvement, in my own work or someone else’s. I like to think my revised version of Not For Every Eye builds on a solid foundation, and that my efforts coupled with those of Glen Shortliffe have yielded a translation that better captures the original French and the larger symbolic meanings contained in Bessette’s own words. ≈



From Not For Every Eye

by Gérard Bessette
≈ translated by Steven Urquhart

I’m aware that all these details are of no interest whatsoever. But no matter. The more I write, the more time I fill in. And can a Sunday ever be long! Especially as I wake up on that day just as early, if not earlier, since the taverns close right at midnight on Saturdays.

Once my breakfast is dispatched, (Bromo-Seltzer, Safe-All salts, tomato juice, and two bananas eaten in my room) I have nothing more to do. And so, I work on this journal. To think that it took four Sundays of nauseating boredom before this even occurred to me! But that’s over and done with. No point dwelling on it. So far, this journal has been effective. I only hope it keeps working and that I’ve got something to talk about…

That’s why I am in no great hurry to get rid of Mme Bouthiller when she knocks on my door at about eleven o’clock upon her return from Mass. I won’t say her visits please me a great deal, but they don’t annoy me, either. Besides, she never stays long because I never invite her to sit down. She stands leaning against the doorframe, one hip – the right one – more rounded than the other because of her posture, and her big bosom ballooning under her corsage. Of course, I remain standing too. I don’t see how I could do otherwise without offending her.

Our conversations invariably follow the same pattern. First, standard questions about my potential needs to which I always reply that nothing is missing. Then comes the remarks about the weather. Mme Bouthiller tells you that it’s cold when it’s not warm, that it’s windy when it’s blowing, that it’s snowy when we’ve had snow. I corroborate her observations and she proceeds to comment on the Mass she’s just attended. It’s at this point that the interrogation really gets under way. At the time of our first conversation, I hadn’t yet begun this journal and my Sunday mornings were spend wandering about the streets. Consequently, Mme Bouthiller didn’t know whether I was going to Mass or not, and so asked me what I though of Saint Joachim’s Church. I confessed that I wasn’t very observant and that I refused to pass judgement on any building without having seen it several dozen times. She wanted to know if I had at least noticed the belfries, the highest in the county, it seems. I replied that during my walks I had sometimes caught a glimpse of these two tall, pointed steeples between buildings. She informed me that some people were of the opinion that the inside of the church was too dark. I drew her attention to the fact that this was not necessarily a fault; that many Roman-style churches were also very dark, and that this didn’t detract in any way from their beauty. They were different from the Gothic; that was all.

At this, she changed the subject. Not that she had given up trying to get information out of me concerning my “convictions,” but she no doubt considered that the conversation had gone in the wrong direction.

Letting the subject of church then drop, her interrogation took on more breadth, embracing the whole town. Did I find Saint Joachim tiny compared to the big city – from which, no doubt, I came? I replied that everything was relative, that I had indeed seen larger agglomerations than Saint Joachim, but that I’d also seen smaller ones.

Then, she wanted to know my views on whether the Joachimites had a peculiar way of speaking. I expressed the opinion that every town, indeed every little hamlet, possessed it’s own idioms and accent, but that the way of speaking in Saint Joachim didn’t strike me as being stranger than any other. A Frenchman might have been a bit thrown off, perhaps, but I had no difficulty understanding for my part. I added that I was a quite poor judge in this matter, given that I always paid the least possible attention to what people were saying to me. This remark slowed up her chattiness somewhat and after that, she asked me only about a dozen more questions to which as I recall, my replies didn’t compromise me in any way.

When it comes right down to it, I don’t quite know why I’m playing hide and seek with her like this. There’s plenty of information that it wouldn’t hurt me to give her. But no matter. I started this way and might as well continue. It’s less tiring than changing.

As for her, I think that she unloaded her whole life story on me with the exception of her relations with her husband. Of him, she would say only that he was a “good-for-nothing, heartless weakling, the worst kind of crook, and a sleazeball, the likes of which they don’t make anymore.” She added that she was conveying this information so as to remain objective, and in no way for the purposes of giving me “a bad opinion” of him. As she seemed to be soliciting my approval, I uttered a few words in praise of her respect for the truth.

Next, she began to talk about her two daughters, Angèle and Ursule, both married. Angèle lives in Lowell, Mass., and has two children, Frankie and Tom. Her husband is a little too fond of the bottle. Ursule lives in Farnham and is married to an army officer. But, they don’t have any offspring, which is a great pity. Deep down, Mme Bouthiller suspects her son-in-law of impotency. He was wounded – by a shell – during the war, but there’s never been any way of finding out exactly where. And so, you could suppose everything and anything, couldn’t you. Mme Bouthiller wanted to know my opinion on this point and so I expressed the view that artillery shells were notorious for considering nothing sacred. This thought plunged my landlady into an abyss of meditation and she remained silent for a few minutes.

Then, abruptly, she touched on the subject of her boss, a cadaverous old man of at least seventy who still seems interested in a bit of skirt. He pinches the buttocks of his female employees whenever he gets a chance. Wasn’t that shameful? At his age! Once again, Mme Bouthiller demanded my opinion. So, I gave it to her: in my mind, age had nothing to do with the matter. It was more a question of temperament. Mme Bouthiller objected that in that case, M. Lesieur (such is the name of her photographer) should go after women his own age. While recognizing the logic of the argument, I advanced the hypothesis that business reasons perhaps prevented M. Lesieur from hiring septuagenarians to work in his studio and that consequently he had to confine his pinching activities to the female employees at hand. Mme Bouthiller agreed with this, while adding that, besides, M. Lesieur was a fine boss in other respects who had given her no reason to complain.

Then she left me. I’m not giving a complete account of our interview, obviously. Suffice it to say, that she told me a number of other details, more or less of equal interest. That’ll perhaps be for another time if I don’t forget them. ≈



Not For Every Eye

by Gérard Bessette

trans. Steven Urquhart

Exile Editions, 2011