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(August 9, 2001, Gazette)

The challenges of translation
The Devil’s in the details

Dr. Neil BishopPhoto by Alexander Dalziel

Dr. Neil Bishop

By Alexander Dalziel
SPARK Correspondent

A scholar in Memorial’s Department of French and Spanish is doing his part to better acquaint English-speaking Canadians with the literature of their Francophone compatriots.

Dr. Neil Bishop is a well-recognized expert on, and translator of, French-Canadian literature. Among other honours, he was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award (Translation) in 1992. His most recent work to receive special honours comes from The Whole Wide World, his translation of Le vaste monde, a collection of short stories by French-Canadian author Robert Lalonde. Translations of two of these short stories, The Devil Knows and The Trickster Teacher, got Dr. Bishop a commendation from an international translation competition in the United Kingdom.

“Robert Lalonde is a major figure in French-Canadian literature. He has published about a dozen books and has won a Governor General’s award,” Dr. Bishop told the Gazette. According to Dr. Bishop, Le vaste monde is an exploration of childhood and growing up, showing “childhood’s boundless creativity, capacity for marvelling, exploration and discovery, and for joie de vivre.” Woven with a playful, Robertson Davies-like humour, the short stories are rich vignettes of the superstitions, beliefs, fears and dreams of the people of rural Quebec. “I’m reminded of the work of Mark Twain,” Dr. Bishop commented.

As one of Lalonde’s characters says in The Devil Knows, “the Devil hides in the details,” and getting Lalonde’s richly textured world across the linguistic divide demanded culturally-sensitive scholarship, research in various fields, and a healthy dose of creativity.

“Scholarship is a prerequisite for literary translation,” Dr. Bishop said, “for the translator must be thoroughly familiar with the languages in question and sometimes with their dialects and sociolects. For instance, knowledge of French-Canadian dialect specifics was essential for accurate translation of Le vaste monde.

“Moreover, a good general knowledge of the cultures involved is required, a form of scholarship all the more difficult to acquire when the source text deals with a time frame different from that of the translator’s ‘here and now,’” he continued. “In the case of Le vaste monde, set in the Quebec of the 1950s, scholarship had to include knowledge of the agricultural dynamics of the time and especially of Roman Catholicism as experienced and practised in our next-door province in that era; extensive research was necessary to acquire that scholarship.”

Adjusting to the cultural divide of time demanded Dr. Bishop learn something about disciplines far flung from his daily research. “As I am a specialist in French-Canadian literature and civilization, my scholarship already included familiarity with Canadian French. However, (further) research was necessary. For example, I had to do much additional research to develop knowledge in certain specific lexical fields – notably botany, zoology, the human olfactive sense and the lexicon of scents in a semi-rural, 1950s Quebec environment.”

Besides involving diverse research, Dr. Bishop also emphasized that translation demands creativity: “It is impossible to separate the noun ‘research’ from the adjective ‘creative,’ because university research is intended to provide new knowledge. Literary translation provides new knowledge of a different culture and especially of one aspect of that culture – its literature – to the target audience: in this case, the world-wide English-reading public. In addition, it contributes to the target culture a new cultural artefact: the translated work itself.”

The translator also needs a creative and flexible methodology. “The literary translator (must) make decisions of the same nature as those of any creative writer: lexical, syntactic, grammatical and stylistic choices, not all of which ... are obvious, for reasons of dialect, sociolect and diachronic linguistics. As an example, Latin was the language of Roman Catholic mass in 1950s rural Quebec, as it was in much of the English-speaking world – yet the translator is translating for English-speakers of today, not those of 40 or 50 years ago. So, should the translation for ‘Ave Maria’ be ‘Ave Maria’ or ‘Hail Mary,’ when referring to prayers assigned as penitence? If one opts for English, should one use ‘the Lord’s Prayer’ or ‘Our Father(s)’ when referring to ‘Paters?’ Here again creative decisions required research: I sought counsel in Roman Catholic documents and from English-speaking Roman Catholics of three different generations.”

The end result was a world-class translation.

“The main reason (for translating this work) was to make my little contribution to better mutual knowledge, understanding and appreciation between Canada’s two main language groups,” Dr. Bishop concluded. Little, maybe, but a fiendishly enjoyable contribution, one hopes, for readers.

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