Language

How One Translator Brought Quebec's Greatest Authors to English Canada

For Sheila Fischman, translation represents the hope that our country’s fractured identity can be healed by understanding how others see the world

Photography by Terence Byrnes

In august 1968, a chanteuse Québécoise named Pauline Julien was dancing in a pink miniskirt atop a dining-room table. F. R. Scott, a poet and eagle-nosed constitutional lawyer thirty years her senior, held her steady. As Julien twirled, the gathering of artists, writers, and their spouses—including painter Marian Scott, poet Gérald Godin, and memoirist and occasional pornographer John Glassco—laughed and cheered. The booze was having its effect. Someone tipped back in his chair, which promptly broke. More uproarious laughter. This, mind you, was just the dinner party. The main event, a bilingual poetry reading, had yet to start.

They had assembled in the home of Sheila Fischman, an Ontarian who, just a few months earlier, had moved to the lakeside village of North Hatley, Quebec, to live with her then husband, the poet D. G. Jones. North Hatley was the summer retreat for many of eastern Canada’s literary and political elite: a mosaic of intellectuals, celebrities, journalists, hippies, federalists, separatists, anglophones, and francophones. These were still the salad days of Quebec separatism, before the October Crisis of 1970 split the country. But as an outsider, Fischman observed what long-time residents had stopped noticing: the town’s artists, whether through habit, ignorance, or mutual disdain, rarely socialized across the linguistic divide. Feeling a “wooly sense of universal love,” as she later put it, she decided to organize a literary event to bring Canada’s two solitudes closer together.

When the dinner party moved to an apartment above a nearby studio, the group was raucous. Novelist Ron Sutherland rose to make introductions, starting in English, and things turned confrontational. From a corner of the room, Julien started to heckle, “En français, en français.” Sutherland was thrown off. Suddenly, there was shouting and arguing. People stood up. More chests inflated. Mildred Beaudin, one of the studio owners, yelled at Julien—in French—that it was a bilingual event, not the Saint-Jean-Baptiste parade, and she should leave if she didn’t like it. Some people stormed out, most stayed for the readings and skirmishes. “Fuelled by alcohol of various sorts,” Godin later recalled, “the event took on apocalyptic proportions.”

The rowdy poetry reading in North Hatley has been written about by more than half a dozen participants and chroniclers, all attempting to clarify what happened (conflicting versions include details such as wineglasses shattering and mugs being thrown). The outcome of the bagarre that erupted, however, was more lasting than a hangover: it launched the career of one of Canada’s most important translators. Although Fischman was left in tears, that evening in August 1968 was, for her, “the beginning of the rest of my professional life.” She had worked at the CBC, been a columnist for the Globe and Mail, and written promotional copy for the University of Toronto Press. But she was now determined, she wrote years later, “to break down some of the barriers between French- and English-speakers”—and eventually discovered she had “a certain knack for translating fiction from French into English.”

A certain knack? In the annals of Canadian modesty, has there ever been a greater understatement? Over a fifty-year career, Fischman has won the Canada Council Prize for Translation twice and the Governor General’s Literary Award for Translation once—as well as being a finalist a further seventeen times. A Member of the Order of Canada, she has translated close to 200 major works, or roughly 15 million words.

Fischman has focused on novels, those great synthesizing social documents, and has turned Quebec’s often inscrutable identity—by turns bucolic, nationalist, aesthetic, philosophical, historical—into something recognizable to English-speaking readers. There are other anglophone translators; great ones, even, such as Patricia Claxton. But Fischman is unrivalled in her productivity and cultural impact. “Many translations have made an impression on readers,” says translator Lazer Lederhendler, “and every translator leaves their mark on the literature. But given the sheer numbers that Sheila has done, her imprint has been large.”

From the late 1960s onward, Fischman’s career parallels not only the rise of literary translation in Canada but also the boom of Canadian literature itself. Even a selected list of her major authors is long: Anne Hébert, Michel Tremblay, Jacques Poulin, Hubert Aquin, Gaétan Soucy, Marie-Claire Blais, Yves Beauchemin, Victor-Lévy Beaulieu, Naïm Kattan, Dominique Fortier, Kim Thúy. Towering above them is Roch Carrier, whose book The Hockey Sweater, about a young boy’s crushing disappointment following a mail-order mishap over a Montreal Canadiens jersey, has become a children’s classic. When the Bank of Canada updated its paper money in 2002, it inserted a passage from Carrier’s story and Fischman’s 1984 translation onto the five-dollar bill.

“She should have a statue raised in her honour,” Carrier has written. For Lise Bissonnette, discovering that Fischman had decided to translate her first novel felt like winning a literary prize—better, in fact, because she knew the translation would endure. Someone once asked Gaétan Soucy, author of the bestselling The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches (2007), why he wrote. His answer: “to have the pleasure of rereading myself a year later in Sheila’s translation.” When Dominique Fortier showed her fiancé Fischman’s translation of On the Proper Use of Stars (2011), her novel about the lost Franklin expedition, he exclaimed, “It’s even better than the French!”

The idea that reading a novel in another language can bring people together remains a powerful part of Fischman’s practice. “When she started out,” says novelist and translator David Homel, “she was very much of the opinion that translation was going to save Canada.” Two referendums and failed attempts to modify our constitution in the 1980s and ’90s have made Canadians wiser about the limits of such enlightenment. Given the turmoil that Quebec’s struggle for independence triggered across the country, it’s tempting to look back on Fischman’s great effort to break down linguistic barriers and cultural misunderstandings with a sense of futility. But for Fischman, translation represents a “best intention.” It embodies the hope that our fractured national identity may be healed by understanding more fully how others see the world.

At nearly eighty, Fischman moves and speaks deliberately. The prodigious pace she sets for herself has clearly taken a toll. The morning of our first interview, at a crepe-and-dessert restaurant on Montreal’s Saint-Laurent Boulevard, she has just finished translating Marie Hélène Poitras’s novel Griffintown, which explores Old Montreal’s calèche drivers in the style of a spaghetti western. After ordering, Fischman peers with a piqued, almost surprised expression at the red banquettes and young people seated around us. Every English speaker in the room, I couldn’t help thinking, would likely read a translation of hers at some point in their lives.

“I haven’t had a luxurious two-hour lunch in a long, long time,” Fischman sighs. She has a melancholy smile. It feels as though she has just emerged from a mental underground, and, indeed, that’s how she describes Poitras’s novel, which was published last year. “It has a surface simplicity, which hides an underlying syntactical complexity. I thought it would be easy, but it took several months.”

Photograph by Terence Byrnes
Fischman’s translations, more than 200 in total, are stacked two deep and fill nearly two metres of shelf space. “And there are others in press,” she says.

Translation, she says, requires obsessiveness and humility. “You’re inside someone’s mind for months. You have to love being in that space. I don’t see how you could do it otherwise.” Her process is painstaking: once she has read the manuscript, she starts on her first draft. She rewrites, revises, researches the smallest problems she encounters, and almost always queries the author (she used to meet with them in person, but now corresponds mostly by email). “A translator, I think, has a right to ask authors anything and everything and to be very indiscreet in our questions. I have to immerse myself in the world of the author, not just the words on the pages.” Sometimes the process can be bruising. Translating Hubert Aquin’s sexually disturbing, violence-ridden book Hamlet’s Twin gave her nightmares.

Marc Côté, Fischman’s publisher at Cormorant, praises her gift for capturing a writer’s style. “Someone on an awards jury told me once, ‘Oh, Jacques Poulin is an easy writer to translate, because he writes in simple sentences,’” he says. “They were casting aspersions on Sheila as a translator. And I said you’re confusing simplistic with simple—Poulin is simple. That’s hard to do. The really great translators make it look easy. Sheila makes it look effortless. And when she’s done, I can hear the original author in my head. She always gets the voice perfectly.”

I mention to Fischman Woody Allen’s film Zelig, about an enigmatic figure whose personality and appearance change radically depending on the people around him. She laughs. “I’ve been compared to many things—an ambassador, a living bridge straddling a cultural divide, a chameleon,” she says. Does she bristle at the negative connotation of chameleon? “No, of course not. Translators have to be chameleons. It’s our professional obligation. Over the weekend, I was Larry Tremblay. Last week, I was Anne Hébert. Their books are totally different, but if I’ve done my job properly, they sound as if they were written originally in English. It’s a vocal chameleon-ness.”

Among English-speaking publishers, Fischman may be regarded as “a kind of revered figure,” in Homel’s words, but that hasn’t stopped her from occasionally needing to defend her rights as a translator. In 1981, Karl Siegler, then editor of Talonbooks, decided to publish Fischman’s translation of Michel Tremblay’s The Fat Woman Next Door Is Pregnant without her name on the cover. Translations tend to sell poorly, and publishers are only legally obligated to place the translator’s name inside, on the title page. Fischman’s response was swift: she told Siegler she would never again translate for Talonbooks if it did not clearly acknowledge her on the cover as translator. This happened to Fischman again in 2002 at House of Anansi with Lise Bissonette’s novel An Appropriate Place. “It’s hard to get a readership to embrace a book that’s translated,” an editor at Anansi told the Globe and Mail. Once again, Fischman pushed back. “It’s downright dishonest,” she says.

Translators in Canada are a tiny tribe—the Literary Translators’ Association of Canada (LTAC) claims only 139 full and honorary members. The community is so interconnected it’s no surprise that Fischman lives with another translator: Donald Winkler, her partner of thirty-eight years. The couple met when Winkler was making his documentary Bookmaker’s Progress in 1978. “Don interviewed me at length but left me on the cutting room floor—his lighting man had made me look green,” Fischman explains dryly. “Great way to start a relationship.” Winkler already had a successful career at the National Film Board (his documentaries about P. K. Page, Irving Layton, and Al Purdy are models of the form), but he then began a second career as a translator of Quebec poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. His translations have won three Governor General’s Awards since then.

In the late 1980s—a few years after her marriage to Jones had ended and she had relocated to Montreal—Fischman and Winkler moved into a modest row house in Montreal’s Plateau neighbourhood, where they still live. A typical work day finds her in her second-floor study and him in his basement studio. They call each other on the telephone when Winkler has questions about word choice or scenarios that require knowledge of Catholic ritual. Decades of translating Quebec fiction have given Fischman an insider’s sense of the province’s fraught relationship with religion. “Don grew up in Winnipeg and has no idea of these things,” she says.

Fischman was born in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, in 1937. When she was two, her parents—prairie-raised children of Eastern European immigrants—moved to Elgin, Ontario, to run a general store. Growing up as a member of the only Jewish family in the community gave Fischman her first experience of cultural difference. Elgin (population 300) had a two-room schoolhouse that went to grade eight, a doctor, a dentist, a furniture store run by a man who doubled as the undertaker, and three churches: Catholic, Anglican, and United. “Everyone was a member of one of those churches,” says Fischman, “except us.”

When Fischman was thirteen, her family relocated to Toronto so that Sheila and her two younger sisters could continue their studies at Forest Hill Collegiate Institute. (Her father stayed behind to run the store and visited them periodically.) Inspiration for the future translator came in the form of T. J. Casaubon, a Franco-Ontarian teacher who sparked her love affair with la langue de Molière. “Mr. Casaubon’s hint of an accent made me realize, ‘Hey, this French is not just a subject like geography, this is the language that this man speaks. Maybe someday I’ll be able to speak it too.’” Fischman continued French classes at university but also got a master’s in anthropology, which, she says, “prepared me, in a way, to become an observer of what was happening right next door—to see myself as a privileged visitor to another culture.”

By 1968, following the now infamous poetry reading, Fischman was determined to improve her grasp of French. D. G. Jones had started translating Quebec poetry and suggested she render a short story by Anne Hébert into English as an exercise. It proved too challenging. “I couldn’t even read it,” says Fischman. But a few weeks after, she met a then unknown young writer. “Roch Carrier and his family were renting an apartment for the summer in North Hatley. I learned about his just-published first novel, La Guerre, Yes Sir! His wife assured me it was written in simple French. I realized it could be an interesting way to get across to non-francophones the root of some of the tensions between French and English and why Quebec was the way it was.”

Over the next several months, Fischman worked through Carrier’s darkly funny tale, which includes the story of a young man who cuts his hand off to avoid the draft in the Second World War. “I found it tough at first. I was very uncertain of myself.” She turned to friends for help, and she consulted dictionaries. When she was done, she sent out letters of inquiry to publishers, who weren’t encouraging. The manuscript languished for a year or more.

The lack of interest is easy to explain: most anglophone presses didn’t have the resources to make Quebec voices available in English, and the vast majority of translation in Canada was still an anonymous and commercial activity. According to Agnès Whitfield’s book Writing Between the Lines, there were a total of sixty-seven literary translations between 1900 and the start of the Quiet Revolution in 1960—about one title a year. It wasn’t until 1972 that the Canada Council established financial support for translators and 1975 that the LTAC was established. These initiatives helped raise the quality of literary translations, created a representative body to speak to Ottawa, and separated literary translation from its commercial cousin. When Fischman mailed out her Carrier manuscript, the concept of literary translation in Canada basically did not exist.

On the advice of William French, literary editor at the Globe and Mail, she contacted a new small press called House of Anansi, founded in 1967 with a mandate to publish Canadian writers. “I sent the Carrier manuscript to them, and they were interested.” When La Guerre, Yes Sir! appeared in 1970, it proved a huge hit in English. At the time, the political climate in Canada was tense. FLQ terrorism, the Vietnam War, and the rise of Quebec separatism produced in English Canadians an urgent need to look more closely at the other nation “warring in the bosom of a single state,” as Lord Durham phrased it in 1839. Carrier’s surrealist fable was the right book at the right time. It taught anglophones many of the things we now take for granted: French Canadians’ different attitude to war, their difficult history with religion, and, most of all, their resentment of being second-class citizens in what they perceived to be their own country: Quebec. La Guerre, Yes Sir! was soon adapted for the stage in both languages, and the book has never been out of print since.

The success of La Guerre, Yes Sir! convinced Fischman that translation could satisfy her ambition to be a kind of passeuse, ferrying cultural information across a troubled linguistic divide. “At the launch party in Toronto, a translator named Alan Brown told me that a nice way to live, if one could swing it, would be to find three or four books and take a year to translate them,” says Fischman. “I decided to give it a try.”

As has often been the case in Fischman’s career, many of the titles she has chosen to translate—sometimes by happenstance, sometimes deliberately—have played a part in the literary growth and shifting impulses of English readers and publishers. “I believe that to make a successful translation,” she once said, “you must choose books that ‘speak’ to you, for which you feel an affinity, emotional as well as stylistic. Indeed, without the emotional affinity, it’s impossible, for me anyway, to render the style.”

In following her affinities, Fischman has, almost single-handedly, introduced English Canada to Quebec fiction, a field as rich and magical as Latin American writing. Over the past century, the province’s relative lack of diversity has imbued its nationalist message with certain racial overtones decades after the rest of the country began diversifying, post-1945. The notion of “one people,” while it can foster xenophobia, nonetheless helped create the conditions of Quebec literature’s golden age during the 1970s and ’80s. It meant that authors such as Carrier, Tremblay, Poulin, Hébert, and Beauchemin could write for an audience with shared values and experiences, allowing for stories that featured a sublime linking of local detail with universal concerns. Writing became a liberating process of group self-discovery never before attempted by francophones, and the resulting literature helped to consolidate Quebec’s cultural and political identity. It was a watershed period, and Fischman was right there while it was happening. “She’s very good with lyrical narrative,” says Homel, “and, of course, that’s a lot of Quebec fiction—moody, poetic, enclosed worlds.”

Her deep sense of the Québécois identity shaped Fischman’s translating practices, particularly her principal need to be invisible. The translator’s most important attitude, she argues, is deference. Fischman sees her job as preserving as many traces of the original voice as possible: from run-on sentences and sentence fragments to syntax and verb tenses. This has informed one of her most talked-about habits: her decision to keep key language in her books untouched—specifically the sacres, Quebec’s religious swear words. A literal rendering of Québécois profanities might read, for example, “chalice of the host in the tabernacle!” or “holy sacrament!” While technically faithful, these expressions become absurd in English translation: the names of Catholic objects, uttered sincerely or in vain, have no special resonance in English. Thus, most translators discard the literal shells of such words and focus instead on their meaning: ostie de câlisse de tabernacle becomes something akin to “motherfucking son of a whore!” and saint sacrament! becomes, conceivably, “shit goddammit!”

But even these approximations, as most translators would admit, lack the colour and cultural context inherent in specific idioms, and, to some extent, miss the point. If there is an art to swearing, the poetry of the profanity is what gets lost in translation. So the riskiest option a translator can take—apart from inventing untested new words and neologisms—is not to translate at all but to build a new meaning for the original terms within the destination language.

This is the route, for example, that Fischman took with Carrier. In her “Translator’s Note” in La Guerre, Yes Sir!, she defends her choice: “Whatever the results of attempts to make Canada officially bilingual, a little personal bilingualism never hurt anybody. Learning to swear in the other language may be an unorthodox way to begin, but it could stir up some interest. And create some understanding that might even help to eliminate one of the most frequently used expressions—‘les maudits anglais.’”

Fischman’s intuitive impulse to educate her readers, however, became more complicated once the Parti Québécois (PQ) was elected in 1976. Fischman was friends with Godin, by then a minister in the René Lévesque governments. Through discussions with Godin, she began to understand the reasons behind the separatist cause. “Gérald talked with passion and a lot of knowledge of this new politics, which was theoretically going to give people a new way of being. Meaning, in Quebec, as Quebecers, without a tie to Canada.” A translator is a messenger, sensitive to both original and target cultures, but it seems clear that she came to feel a kinship with the indépendantistes artists and writers she was translating, and she wanted to provide accurate information to the anglophone community who deemed separatists “the enemy.”

Fischman had always done commercial work on the side, including translating speeches for politicians of various parties, but by the 1980s, she was so trusted by Quebec’s political elite that she served on perhaps the most charged committee the province has ever convened: the Conseil de la langue française, which advised the government on how to implement its proactive language policies across the province. When the 1995 referendum came around, the PQ announced in the newspapers that Fischman would be providing all the translations for their side. By then, she had decided to vote for separation. “I felt that independence was inevitable, and we might as well bring it into force sooner rather than later,” she says.

But in October, one night before the election, on her way home, she walked past a church that had a soup kitchen. There was a lineup of people to get in. “I kept seeing the expression in the eyes of these people. It was unbelievably sad,” she says. “I had read a large number of PQ documents to be put into English and had a pretty good idea of separatist priorities. But nowhere in what I read did I remember seeing any kind of policy that would do anything for those people lined up in the cold. I was really upset.”

“The PQ had always talked about being a compassionate party, representing the little person,” Fischman says. “At that point in the campaign, I didn’t feel the little person had been taken into account.” She billed for her services and changed her vote.

In the past fifteen years, Canada and Quebec have been growing away from many of the linguistic tensions that have dominated Canadian politics. A new cultural understanding is breaking through. Not only has the separatist fervour waned but many young Quebecers increasingly see themselves as North Americans and citizens of the world—to the point where they may now have more in common with young people around the country than they do with their pure laine grandparents.

The work of translators such as Fischman reflects this shift: Quebec literature has moved on from nationalist-tinged novels of self-discovery to explorations of multicultural subjects and perspectives. Kim Thúy’s award-winning bestseller Ru, which Fischman translated, narrates a family’s immigrant experience moving from Vietnam to Quebec. Larry Tremblay’s The Orange Grove is a brilliant fable about the effects of terrorism on one family after a bomb from “the other side of the mountain” kills a pair of aging grandparents. A new generation of francophone novelists—Geneviève Pettersen, Catherine Leroux, and Nicolas Dickner—are connecting with a younger guard of translators, which includes Dimitri Nasrallah, Katia Grubisic, and Neil Smith. The worldliness now found in Quebec writing is in line with the fiction English Canadians are reading—a sign, perhaps, that literary translation has a healthy future.

Did translation help hold Canada together? In the literal sense, no. Lederhendler notes that while a bestseller in Canada can easily sell more than 10,000 copies, translated books still make up a small part of any publishing program and, thus, represent a miniscule percentage of sales. “Have translations between French and English taught us anything about the other culture? Probably not,” says Homel. “I don’t know what saved Canada. We probably just ignored the problem, and it went away.”

Fischman doesn’t see it that way. “Obviously there were racists in anglophone Canada as in francophone Canada,” she says. “But there were also, and in much larger numbers, people who were avowedly ignorant but who did not want to be—they wanted to learn, to know. They weren’t intellectuals, but books were something accessible to them.” In other words, if we draw on the sense of translation as part of a national movement to create a permanent transfer of ideas across linguistic barriers, then the work of translators such as Fischman did play a role in saving the country from breaking up. “Sheila has been indispensable in fostering real cultural understanding in our fragile and bewildered Confederation,” wrote James Polk, her editor at Anansi. “She has purveyed Quebec’s literature and culture to the Other Solitude like a literary Laura Secord bringing the word to the English about what’s really going on over there.” By the time of the 1995 referendum, this cultural exchange had circulated enough knowledge to tilt the balance from cynicism to hope.

Given the ways in which translation in Canada has been inextricably linked to the politics of nation building, it’s no surprise that literary translators have ended up assuming such importance. “I see myself as someone who has a small talent in a small field that’s been very good to me,” Fischman explains. “I like to bring people together. I used to do that with dinner parties, inviting people with differing political beliefs. I see myself doing the same thing with books. As the novelist François Gravel once said to me about Canada, ‘C’est un drôle de pays, mais bien beau quand même.’”

Derek Webster is the founding editor of Maisonneuve.

Terence Byrnes is an English professor at Concordia University in Montreal.

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