Place: Quebec

Meet the Publisher: Coach House Books

It’s just coming across things that look really interesting and that I feel need a home in the English language.

Coach House Books publishes and prints innovative Canadian fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and drama. The press was founded by Stan Bevington in 1965 and takes its name from the old coach house where he began putting out early works by many Canadian authors, including bpNichol and Michael Ondaatje. Since 1975, translations of Québécois literature have been an important part of the press’ catalogue. Poet, translator, and science writer Sarah Moses met with Alana Wilcox, Coach House’s editorial director since 2002, to discuss printing presses, bookish books, and translating French-Canadian authors.

Sarah Moses (SM): Could you begin by talking about the history of Coach House?

Alana Wilcox (AW): Coach House has been around since 1965, so we celebrated our fiftieth anniversary last year—not me personally, but the larger undertaking. It’s always been a press that focuses on innovative work, poetry, more difficult fiction, that kind of thing. It’s a long and convoluted story, like that of many presses: more difficult years, less difficult years, but we’re still at it, still publishing translation.

SM: What do you mean by more difficult fiction?

AW: I would include translation in that. By difficult I don’t necessarily mean fiction that’s hard to read, but that’s hard for people to think that they want to read—even though they might love it when they get into it.

SM: Could you tell me a little about the printing side of Coach House?

AW: We print our books here: we have an old Heidelberg printing press and binding equipment. Printing on location has always been the thing with Coach House. It’s interesting when the means of production is available to the writers and the editors—it just makes publishing a more tangible, real process. We always make the authors come in and glue the first copy of their book, if they can. There’s just something so beautiful about that. READ MORE…

Translator’s Profile: Peter McCambridge

My first favourite writer was Roddy Doyle. I’d also enjoy sitting down for a pint of Guinness with Roddy.

Originally from Ireland, award-winning translator Peter McCambridge holds a BA in modern languages from Cambridge University, England, and has lived in Quebec City since 2003. He runs Québec Reads and now QC Fiction, which recently published Eric Dupont‘s Life in the Court of Matane, excerpted in Asymptote’s Translation Tuesday showcase on the blog and at The Guardian here.

Who is your favorite fictional character of all time?

At the risk of starting off a little lowbrow, I’d have to say Bernard Samson, the glass-half-full spy of Len Deighton’s “airport thriller” series. Nobody else comes remotely close, off the top of my head. I first read more or less everything Len Deighton had ever written when I was 11 to 14 and I’ve recently gone back to them in the new audio version. They go down perfectly after a hard day’s work. A hearty German meal in Berlin with Bernie and Werner and I’d be a very happy man, I think.

Who was your first favorite writer and how old were you when you discovered them?

In high school, the only thing I read and really loved was Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. Thomas Hardy and a lot of other writers who were forced upon me left me cold. It’s funny: I’ve spent a lot of my life reading books that I’ve had to read. At university, I studied French and German literature, which didn’t leave much time for reading for fun. Looking back, a very small percentage of those books were ones that I really enjoyed and would happily read again. When I was younger, around 10 or 11, I remember reading The Secret Seven and a Hardy Boys adventure every night. To answer your question, I think my first favourite writer was Roddy Doyle. I’d also enjoy sitting down for a pint of Guinness with Roddy.

What is your favorite word in any language? Which word do you find most difficult to translate?

I’ve always liked tamisé in French, just for the way it sounds. I always think it sounds soft, like the lighting it describes.

What 5 books would you want with you if you were stranded on a desert island?

To the Lighthouse and The Age of Innocence were both amazing and really left a mark on me. I’d also bring Ulysses and finish working my way through it with the help of Frank Delaney’s wonderful Re:Joyce podcasts. The next two books on my hopelessly long to-read list would make up the five.

Which under-translated author do you think deserves wider recognition worldwide?

The obvious, truthful answer is Eric Dupont. He’s been compared in Québec to our very own Gabriel García Márquez and John Irving. I’m working hard to raise his profile through QC Fiction and Québec Reads.

Do you have a translation philosophy that guides your work?

I worked for a few years translating advertising copy, legal contracts, recipes, and healthcare leaflets before thinking about translating a novel. More importantly, I was revised the whole time and I learned a lot. My employer’s philosophy rubbed off on me and that was to write what the author would have put had they been writing in English. It’s harder than it sounds. “The original sentence tells the translator what the sentence should say but not how exactly to say it,” Lazer Lederhendler told me recently, and I think that sums it up well.

Which of the translations that you’ve worked on was the most challenging? Why?

I felt a lot of pressure translating Lori Saint-Martin’s The Closed Door. But Lori is one of Canada’s best and best-known translators into French so she was a big help along the way.

How did you learn your foreign language and how did you begin working as a literary translator?

I learned French and German in high school in Ireland, then studied French and German literature at Cambridge. But I like to say that I began speaking French when I moved to Québec City in 2003. Moving to Québec meant I forgot all my German. Only for me to meet and marry a German girl here. Which meant I suddenly had to relearn everything. And then try to understand Schwäbisch. Now we speak German at home and French to our friends and children.

If you could have been born in a culture other than your own which would you choose to be a member of? Why?

That’s an easy one: Québec. I moved here so that my children would have that chance.

If you hadn’t been a translator what profession would you like to have tried?

At the minute, I’m kind of switching professions as I try to devote more time to being a fiction editor. But otherwise I think I’d be writing for a magazine somewhere (since soccer goalie is probably not a very realistic answer).

Finally, in your bio, you mentioned that Life in the Court of Matane is the book that made you want to be a literary translator. Could you explain briefly why?

It’s hard to explain. I read Bestiaire, as it’s known in the original French, when it first came out and just fell in love with it. I still love it today—even after spending a year translating it! Now it’s like living with someone: you can’t quite explain what attracted you in the first place, you just know your life is better with them in it.

 

Translation Tuesday: An excerpt of “Life in the Court of Matane” by Eric Dupont

"The funny thing about memory is that it always ends up chasing its own tail. The most important thing is to keep it moving."

Nadia Comaneci’s gold-medal performance at the Olympic Games in Montreal is the starting point for a whole new generation. Eric Dupont watches the performance on TV, mesmerized. The son of a police officer (Henry VIII) and a professional cook—as he likes to remind us—he grows up in the depths of the Quebec countryside with a new address for almost every birthday and little but memories of his mother to hang on to. His parents have divorced, and the novel’s narrator relates his childhood, comparing it to a family gymnastics performance worthy of Nadia herself.

Life in the court of Matane is unforgiving, and we explore different facets of it (dreams of sovereignty, schoolyard bullying, imagined missions to Russia, poems by Baudelaire), each based around an encounter with a different animal, until the narrator befriends a great horned owl, summons up the courage to let go of the upper bar forever, and makes his glorious escape.

***

From the first lot we lived on, if you went down a big grassy hill and crossed the road you’d find us by the river. In the summer, the sand could become burning hot in the sun, despite the glacial currents that flowed down from Labrador. Reels of dried-up seaweed revealed how high the tides rose and stretched out in arcs from east to west. We found green sea urchin skeletons, blue shells, and pink tampon applicators. Sometimes we would step on a piece of glass polished by the salt. It would slide so smoothly between our fingers that we could barely imagine its sharp past. When we held it up to the sun it would look like part of a stained-glass window washed up on the beach at Matane. Coke and Pepsi bottles produced translucent shards of polished white. The green bits of glass came from 7UP bottles. Beer bottles splintered into small, dark amber pieces. On this strip of beach, the waves deposited at our feet the shattered stained-glass windows of a church sunk off the Matane coastline. My sister and I picked up the pieces without ever beginning the impossible task of putting them back together. We knew that they had once been part of a whole, but that an earthquake had probably separated them. The sea salt had made them smooth so that their edges no longer fit together. They had taken on a shape all their own. They could be traced back to a family only by their colour. A distant kinship. They had ended up where the Gulf of St. Lawrence melts into the northern blue sky, leaving ships arriving from the Atlantic in July dangling from an invisible thread. The horizon gives way to a blue void that draws the soul northward. The trip is pleasant enough. When you really let yourself go, you soar high above the gulf, the taiga, and the permafrost, until you reach the tundra, where on a sunny January day you can drift off into the light of the north. READ MORE…

My 2015 as a BTBA Judge, and Reading Resolutions for 2016

Asked to review my year in reading and from it form reading resolutions, my immediate response is something I need to call an excited sigh.

Asked to review my year in reading and from it form reading resolutions, my immediate response is something I need to call an excited sigh. For months now, as a judge for the Best Translated Book Award, all I’ve read are eligible books, books published in the US translated for the first time this year. Yet, there were a few months before that reading took over. For years now, I’ve taken pleasure in not being partway through any books when the new year begins, so as to open each year fresh. This year, Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov’s The Golden Calf (trans. Helen Anderson and Konstantin Gurevich) made for a great New Year’s Day read. (To call it fitting, however, would be a lie.) The novel is hysterical, absurd, and clever, fueled by ambitious and clueless characters, fleeing and bumbling in pursuit of fortune.

Taking advantage of a bitter winter, I read the Your Face Tomorrow trilogy from Javier Marias (trans. Margaret Jull Costa). It is rare for a project so vast to also be unflagging in both its entertainment and ability to find new shades and twists for its ideas: of cultural memories, of what it is to read another human being, of violence and intimacy. But this trilogy accomplishes it. From it alone, I could pluck a number of examples of one of my favorite narrative tricks: to make a scene continue endlessly through digression after digression. Unlike any other art form, the novel is thus able to manipulate the experience of time, both of the readers’ and the characters’.

But yes, this year has been a culmination of reading more and more books the year they’re published. The best way I can think about it is by describing the books that stand out in little, meaningful ways. Starting with where I live, in Vermont, so close to Montreal, Quebec literature has had much of my affection this year. Not just the translations, like the Raymond Bock and Samuel Archibald story collections Atavisms (trans. Pablo Strauss) and Arvida (trans. Donald Winkler)­—so similar in their arc as collections and interest in familial depths but with different approaches and destinations—but also classics like the narratively unsettled Kamouraska (trans. Norman Shapiro). Anne Hébert’s novel is as much a story of a women trapped by culture and time, and her murder plot, as it is a stylistic achievement, melding aesthetic with the narrator’s psychology. READ MORE…

Oh Canada: Donald Winkler’s New Translation of Samuel Archibald’s Arvida

"It is not clear where one story begins and the other ends, or where the animal begins and the man begins."

A story that can be retold and rewritten, but can all the while retain its own thingness—a story that can evolve in the imagination—is a finger in the face of the insipid outpouring of gifs and memes we daily consume, like Technicolor marshmallows shot out of the all powerful maw of the Facebook-Disney machine.

We of the lower forty-eight are fortunate, then, that something like Samuel Archibald’s Arvida, has been recently translated from the French by Donald Winkler. We need stories. And these stories from a land we’ve all been living alongside our whole American lives will do nicely. These are American stories. But another America, a hidden America, maybe even more American than the America we think we know.

Canada. In Archibald’s Arvida, there is an echo of some of the wavering visions we have of our northern neighbor (evergreen, flannel), but they are woven into the fabric of a working-class town, both factual and fabulous, immediately calling up comparisons to Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin’s evocations of Winnipeg. Both Maddin and Archibald tell their tales utilizing a personal history of a family and a discreet location, while at the same time breathing into them a dream logic and fairy tale or fable-like tropes.

READ MORE…

Translation Tuesday: “Saliva” by David Clerson

I looked at the animal, at its lifeless eye that would never see another thing, and I thought back to the grilled cheese I had eaten at nightfall.

I’d spotted it lying in the ditch, one eye open, but perfectly still, its left side covered with black blood, its tongue hanging limply from its mouth. I’d stopped, as though the dead animal had been a boundary stone ordering me to a halt, and I’d taken the time to stare it down, thumbing my nose at death or bad luck.

It was a long-legged husky with lovely grey and black fur. Its half-open mouth showed off teeth more white than yellow. And even in this lifeless state, lying there in the ditch, it was impressively built. It was a dog from the north, well used to sniffing around bears and moose. It was also a pet, trained to warn humans of the dangers of the wild. But at the end of the day it was just another animal lying dead at the side of the road, hit by a pickup rattling by at 120 k.p.h. or a truck piled high with heavy logs.

And even though the sight of the dog was enough to spoil anyone’s appetite, I hadn’t eaten since the night before and hunger was gnawing away at my stomach. I looked at the animal, at its lifeless eye that would never see another thing, and I thought back to the grilled cheese I had eaten at nightfall at the rest stop in Hearst, the improbably French-speaking town in northern Ontario. I thought back to the coffee, too, paid for with my last few dollars, that I’d sipped slowly as I waited for morning to come. I recalled it sliding down into my stomach, whetting my appetite; I heard my stomach rumble and I thought of eating again, and told myself that I’d need to get to my destination before I could eat. And so I walked away from the dog, stuck my thumb in the air, and focused on the road. I walked. A cloud of smoke came out of my mouth and the frost creaked beneath my boots.

READ MORE…