challenges of translation
The Devils in the details
Photo by Alexander
A scholar in Memorials 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 Generals 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 Generals
award, Dr. Bishop told the Gazette. According to
Dr. Bishop, Le vaste monde is an exploration of childhood
and growing up, showing childhoods 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. Im
reminded of the work of Mark Twain, Dr. Bishop commented.
As one of Lalondes characters says in The Devil Knows,
the Devil hides in the details, and getting Lalondes
richly textured world across the linguistic divide demanded culturally-sensitive
scholarship, research in various fields, and a healthy dose of
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
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 translators 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
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
Lords 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 Canadas two main language groups,
Dr. Bishop concluded. Little, maybe, but a fiendishly enjoyable
contribution, one hopes, for readers.