Translator Profile: Katia Grubisic on Contemporary Canadian Literature

They push at these familial forces, the draw of the origin story, and the magic and tragedy as they try on and define new selves...

In this email interview conducted by Editor-in-Chief Lee Yew Leong, award-winning poet and translator Katia Grubisic took time out of her busy schedule to discuss the state of Canadian literature (in English and in French) as well as the challenges she faced translating David Clerson’s lyrical novel, Brothers (recently featured in our Translation Tuesday showcase at The Guardian), including “the ‘bitch’ problem.”

Lee Yew Leong (LYL): David Clerson’s haunting novel Brothers, in your outstanding translation, would not be out of place in the fiction section of our Winter 2017 edition, not only because of the seaward-facing figures connecting many of the pieces but also because of the strong animal motifs. Among the other elements that make up this story’s poetic permutation: brothers and fathers, dreams, the very act of story-telling. As the translator—and therefore arguably the closest reader of the novel—what do you think David Clerson is trying to say with Brothers, and how do you think these elements come together to fit the overall arc?

Katia Grubisic (KG): Thank you for your kind words.

Yes, the novel’s sea-journey theme, the search for the father, the pretty far-out cynanthropy, the origin story, the twin motif—it almost feels mythological, and David’s baroque style in this book lends it a kind of timeless timbre.

As the translator, I may, in fact, be the worst placed to comment on what it’s about, second perhaps only to the author himself! What drew me to the narrative was first the landscape, the way the sea and the briny hills become almost their own character, anchoring and tormenting the brothers (who try to escape their identity as determined by the place they’re from), and drawing them to their inevitable return. Brothers explores how who we are and who we become is shaped by those who make us, including in this case, literally the knife-wielding though well-intentioned mother, who wants to give her firstborn son a companion as a buffer against the cruel world. The brothers are shaped also by their absent “dog of a father,” or rather—and this is telling—by the often conflicting stories told about him. Yet they push at these familial forces, the draw of the origin story, and the magic and tragedy as they try on and define new selves, and their own universe, has such compelling pathos. You don’t want to be them, but you can’t look away.

LYL: The novel at once reminds me of The Return, a film by Andrey Zvyagintsev about two brothers waiting for their father’s return, and Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, which not only involves an odyssey on a boat, but also similarly injects a magical realism into the story-telling. What other literary ‘predecessors’ might I, as a non-Canadian, have missed? 

KG: I don’t know that Brothers’ ancestry is nationally bound. When I first read the book, it reminded me of Agota Kristof’s Le Grand cahier—the brothers, the old mother, the violence. Pas du tout, David told me; in an interview, he said he had been reading a lot of Cormac McCarthy at the time! He wrote it too at the height of the Printemps érable student and popular uprising in 2012, which subtly tinged the narrative. Though I agree that both The Return and Life of Pi could be seen as kin, in terms of devices and preoccupations.

The wonderful thing about fiction is that it can belong to whichever reader happens to crack the spine. The region David evokes spoke to me so vividly of the Baie des Chaleurs shores in eastern Quebec and northern New Brunswick, but when I asked him about it, he conceded that many had pegged his setting as the Gaspésie region, but spoke instead of the imprint left by work he had read in his youth, including Golding and Stevenson, and even of a dream he once had, in which he saw himself fishing a dead dog out of a lagoon.

LYL: How did you get matched to this project? Did you communicate with the author, David Clerson, at all, during the process of translating this novel? How would you characterize the author-translator relationship?

KG: Peter McCambridge, the editor at the helm of QC Fiction, was casting about for new translators to help launch the imprint. When I approached him, he suggested the book. I had heard of David, but I hadn’t read Frères yet. I took to its stylistic contortions, to the book’s mythic dimension, and I sent a sample translation to Peter. I asked David questions along the way—why did a pier become a bridge two pages later (answer: oops), some things about pronominal clarification, questions about how he had seen particular scenes in his mind. His command of English is sufficient—he was able to read a fairly close-to-final draft and make a few suggestions and observations, which were really useful. I’m also indebted to Peter’s keen editorial eye. Not all publishers can boast such attentive editors. He was willing to discuss the intricacies of whatever issues arose, and his instincts were exactly right in saving me from my worst inclinations.

One of the hazards of time that characterized my translation of Frères was that the book had been published several years previously (it came out in 2013 with Héliotrope, and won the 2014 Archambault literary prize that recognizes especially the work of upcoming authors). By the time I had undertaken the translation, David was already at work on his second novel (the utterly different and equally compelling En Rampant, published by Héliotrope in fall 2016). The deformed brothers, their sea journey, and all the details that fed the first book felt far away to him; I suspect the novel almost seemed to have been written by someone else, as tends to happen. The result was that, while he was very generous with his insights and feedback, he gave me a lot of leeway with the English version. And so perhaps it mattered less what sources may have influenced the original; perhaps what lends the English translation whatever honesty it manages to achieve is that I allowed myself to sink into a sea, a hillside, a quest that I fully envisioned and conjured.

LYL: Did you find that being of a similar background as the author helped you with the translation? What do you think a non-Canadian translator might have trouble with in rendering the novel?

KG: The thing with Canada is that background is a pretty layered and sometimes fraught notion. Yes, David and I are both middle-class, educated, bilingual; we both live in Montreal. But—I can speak only for myself—I’m just as much a product of being born here to recent European immigrants to Canada, of my father’s stateless past, of growing up and living with multiple languages, of my somewhat nomadic upbringing, including among the rocks of the Canadian Shield, which had such a magnetic impact on me.

Brothers is not a book that depends on national context or on geopolitical setting. Indeed, one of the novel’s strengths is that it tells a story that is outside of time, and, while the specific setting of the narrative is intrinsic to the boys’ adventures, Frères could really have been set on any cliff-carved, windy coastline anywhere. Nor is the French of the original particularly regionally inflected. All this to say, I didn’t face the challenges posed by local vernacular or signposting (I’m thinking for example of the first French translations of Mordecai Richler—French from France—which got Montreal laughably wrong, or of the playfully impossible rendering of Acadian chiac or Montreal joual in English). Perhaps a writer not from here would have been tempted to over-Canadianize the translation, whatever that would have looked like; it’s hard to say. In any event, this book, and the QC Fiction series in general, is a great chance to promote and disseminate novels that might not be sufficiently commercially mainstream to garner a broad international readership.

LYL: Can you tell us about some difficulties you had translating this book? Was there any particular passage you kept revisiting, trying to make it ‘right’? 

KG: Ah, yes; the “bitch” problem. In the section in which the older brother inhabits the skin of a dog, he falls in love with a grey female who has suffered similar indignities and absences as his own. In French, naturally, she is merely referred to as “la chienne.” What to do in English? The recurring use of “bitch,” with all that it connotes beyond the merely canine, seemed too heavy; the linguistic choice stood out, which didn’t reflect at all the diction and emphasis of the original. In the end, I began by making it clear that his yard-mate is female, and subsequently referred to her by colouring, pronoun, or relationship to him or to the scene. The couple of instances of “bitch” I kept were moments especially tinged with violence, which I felt called for or made possible the sharper edges of that word.

LYL: Apart from a translator, you are also an award-winning poet and an editor. Can you tell us more about the Canadian literary scene (and its reading culture)? Would you care to recommend some exciting poets or authors (working in English or otherwise) who might represent the future of Canada’s literature?

KG: Increasingly, since English-language Canadian literature came of critical age about 35 or 40 years ago, Canadian work has been read, translated, and studied based on literary merit and on interest rather than on compartmentalization.

In terms of specifics… where to begin? There are so many authors of poetry, long-form prose fiction, and short stories, many of whom have been chipping away at their craft for years, whose work is worth discovering, and rereading. Dionne Brand, Eden Robinson, Catherine Bush, Lee Maracle, Miriam Toews, Sue Goyette, M. Nourbese Philip, Anne Carson, Erín Moure, Emma Donoghue. Madeleine Thien published her magnum opus last year. Also working in Montreal are short-story writers and novelists like Saleema Nawaz and Alice Zorn, to name only a couple. I discovered Kayla Czaga’s work a few years ago—hers is a totally fresh poetry, and strong. Gwen Benaway’s second collection just came out. Sina Queyras is a force, both as a poet and as a critic.

Our national bookshelves (and libraries, and cafés, and, in some cities, even buses) are stocked with well-wrought words! In St. John’s, Newfoundland, you can’t spit without hitting a wordsmith. And Fredericton, New Brunswick has one of the most thoughtful and attentive poetry scenes in the country. And that’s just in English! In French, the list is just as long, and as rich: from eminent writers like Nicole Brossard, Antonine Maillet, or Josephine Bacon, to mid-career authors like Martine Delvaux or Catherine Mavrikakis, to emerging writers like Perrine Leblanc and Catherine Leroux…

There are the big names, of course, the prize winners. But there are also so many writers who have been quietly and eloquently publishing poetry and fiction for years.

Brothers is available from QC Fiction, a new imprint of Quebec fiction in translation. Click here for more information about the book.


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