Meet the Publisher: Simon Dardick, Co-Publisher of Véhicule Press, on Publishing Translations of Francophone Literature and Social History

It’s wonderful working with translators. I love the whole complex process and appreciate how translators must have a foot in two cultures.

Véhicule Press is a Canadian publisher of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. Located in the city of Montréal, where French is predominantly spoken, Véhicule has been publishing francophone authors in translation since 1980. In recent years, half their catalog has been dedicated to works translated from the French. Véhicule started out in 1973 on the site of the artist-run gallery Véhicule Art Inc. with a printing press and equipment inherited from one of its members. In 1975, they became the only cooperatively owned printing and publishing company in the province of Québec. Nowadays, the press is run by Simon Dardick, who stayed on when the coop broke up in 1981, and archivist Nancy Marrelli. From the beginning, Véhicule has focused on titles that celebrate and examine Canadian culture and society. Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Argentina, Sarah Moses, stopped by Véhicule’s office in Montréal to chat with Simon Dardick about publishing francophone literature in translation and some of the titles he’s excited about. 

Sarah Moses (SM): I’d like to begin by asking you about the origins of Véhicule Press.

Simon Dardick (SD): It grew out of an art gallery called Véhicule Art. It was at a time when artists were renting large spaces—for performance art and for large-scale colour field paintings. Véhicule Art was an artist-run gallery—the second one in Canada; the first was in Vancouver.The artwork was interesting—it was very international but also showed work from local people from Montréal and Québec. The press was situated at the back of the gallery. One of the artists had bought a huge printing press and printed, I think, one or two copies of a magazine called Beaux-Arts. The apocryphal story is that the printer got his hand caught in the press and it stood silent for many months until some people gravitated around it and decided to learn how to use it.

That was six months before I arrived in 1973. I became typesetter and general manager. We were all middle class kids, lots of long hair, who were involved in literary stuff. We were painters, writers, dancers, and video artists who came together. There was at various times seven or eight of us. We were incorporated in Québec as a cooperative printing and publishing company. We really wanted just to publish, but we would print our books on offcuts, the paper left over from jobs we had printed for other folks. We were the popular grassroots printer in town. We printed posters and invitations for artists and flyers for demonstrations and community groups. So essentially we started publishing more and more books of our own although near the end we still did jobs printing for people. The end was really 1980, 1981. The technology was changing—printing was becoming more electronic, rather than lithographic. We did low-end printing, except for our own books. We didn’t envision committing to a life of commercial printing. So we dissolved the printing company and my wife, Nancy, and I continued the publishing end of things. In 1981, we moved to a greystone in central Montréal—we live above the office—and immediately eliminated tremendous overhead in terms of rent.

Our approach has been very much influenced by visual arts—I was a painter. So for me the look of a book is important: the cover art and the text of the book has to work together. To this day I still typeset all our books, with the odd exception. We’ve been doing it here since 1981. We have a poetry editor and a fiction editor. My wife and I do the non-fiction.

SM: Did you start out publishing all of those genres in 1973?

 In 1973, what we did was poetry and artists’ books because we were part of the gallery. The gallery also had French and English members, so it was a really interesting mix. It was international too. Those of us working at the press would arrive in the morning—none of the artists from the gallery would be there that early—and there would be a show that had just been set up the night before. It could be innovative work by the American installation artist Vito Acconci, or a show by the German Fluxus artist Joseph Beuys. This made the gallery a very exciting place to be. It was multi-dimensional in so many ways.

Pretty well it was only in about 1980 that we started doing non-fiction. I guess it’s because I’m a cultural nationalist, and realized, along with our colleagues, that there weren’t books being published on Canadian writers. Particularly in the seventies, when Canadian writers were not really being taught in schools. We believed it was really important for Canadians to read Canadian-authored and Canadian-published books. To that end, we started publishing books for use in colleges and universities such as the first mid-career evaluations of Michael Ondaatje and Margaret Atwood.

The seventies was a time of efflorescence for literary publishers: the economy was good and many literary publishers came into being across the country. We were preceded by only a few pioneering presses like Coach House and Talon books in the the sixties. They were the first wave of modern literary publishing in Canada.

SM: How has what you’ve published changed over the years?

 SD: For us, social history is very important—not only literary books but in a sense books that provide the context for literary books. It is important that we publish books that in some way document Québec and Canadian history and Canadian social conditions, and we’re still doing that today. We became serious about this approach since the nineties.

The big change—well, it’s not a huge change—is that three years ago we decided to publish more translations from the French. We initiated a policy of what we call “Writers Translating Writers.” We love the idea of an anglophone fiction writer in Québec who speaks fluent French, translating another fiction writer. For example, we published Anita Anand’s Swing in the House and Other Stories two years ago and next spring we will publish her translation of Nirliit by novelist Juliana Léveillé-Trudel. Novelist Neil Smith translated Geneviève Petterson’s novel The Goddess of Fireflies, which was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Translation. We find that really exciting. On the other hand, we’re still working with iconic literary translators such as Sheila Fischman, who has made a career out of literary translation.

SM: You’ve also published translations from other languages like Arabic and Yiddish.

SD: Translator and editor John Asfour brought us the poems of Muhammad al-Maghut, who was an important Syrian playwright and poet and it was just a wonderful thing to do. We published one book from the Spanish by Marilú Mallet, who came to Québec as part of the wave of refugees escaping from Chile during the Pinochet regime. Her work is mostly translated into French. Her story collection is called Voyage to the Other Extreme, translated by Alan Brown. Montréal has a very strong, vibrant Jewish community, so it seemed natural to publish historical and literary works translated from the Yiddish. It’s part of exploring our local history.

It’s wonderful working with translators. I love the whole complex process and appreciate how translators must have a foot in two cultures. How much do you alter the translation? How to make it work in the designation language? We have published two collections of essays on the process.

SM: If you’re working on a book that has been translated from French do you read the original as well as the English?

 SD: I don’t depend on myself to pick up the nuances of written French—I would not depend on that at all. It’s very rare that you have someone who can work both ways. But I think my English is pretty good. So I’ll read the translation and if I’m in doubt I can go back to the French, but most often query the translator, or the editor. There’s the whole editorial process. For our fiction titles, Dimitri Nasrallah, editor of our Esplanade Books fiction imprint, will read through the translation and make editorial comments. I’ll read it too. I also notice things when I’m setting the book into type. In the end, we arrive at what we think is a reasonable translation.

SM: How does being an English-language press in Montréal, where French is predominantly spoken, influence what you publish?

SD: That’s a good question. I guess in some ways it’s great being on the margins. I mean here we are a minority culture within a majority culture, which is a minority culture in North America—you can’t get better than that, really, for many different permutations to be happening. There’s really just a handful of English-language publishers in the province. Many of us publish translations, which is a natural and positive thing. As publishers living and working in Québec we have our nose to the ground and we hear about interesting books appearing in French. Sure, francophone publishers sell rights across Canada and elsewhere, but we see things sometimes a bit earlier, because we have our relationships, and as you know, in publishing relationships are so important. We work with dynamic francophone colleagues. We buy and sell rights from each other. We get together and chat and find out about a book while it’s in the manuscript stage. It’s exciting to have that kind of access.

But it’s also about respect. We’re living in this place: the majority culture here is definitely French, Québécois French. We respect the culture and don’t ignore it. We actively pursue literary works to translate but are also interested in social history.

SM: In what ways, if any, have the translations you publish changed since you started out?

SD: Neons in the Night by flamboyant rocker poet Lucien Francoeur was our first translation. It was also the first book translated by Suzannede Lotbiniére-Harwood, who’s gone on to become a really fine literary translator. It was published in 1980.

In our early years we translated fundamental Québécois literary books. For example, Philippe-Joseph Aubert de Gaspé, who lived between 1786 and 1871. We published his memoir and then his novel, Canadians of Old, a cornerstone of Canadian literature which appeared in 1863. It’s the story of the Conquest of Québec by the English seen through the eyes of a Scotsman fighting for the English and a francophone fighting for the French, and how they become friends. We have published every one of de Gaspé’s books—all translated by Jane Brierley.

Canada’s Forgotten Slaves: Two Hundred Years of Bondage is another book we translated from the French. It was published in 1960 by the Harvard-educated historian Marcel Trudel, a professor at Québec City’s Laval University. In 1960 the church still controlled much of Québec society. A few years later a Liberal government was elected in Québec and began what was called the Quiet Revolution. Québec society was modernized and the power of the Church faded away. When Canada’s Forgotten Slaves was published Laval was a Catholic-run university. They were not at all pleased with the book, particularly when Trudel listed all the slave-owning families in Québec. He was expelled. So much for academic security. He spent the rest of his career at the University of Ottawa. We were proud to publish the translation of this book.

SM: When did you publish the translation?

SD: We published it in 2009. And in a way it was a bestseller, because it took almost fifty years to appear in English. Again, this book happened because of our location in Québec. It’s worth mentioning that translators almost act like agents. When translators are passionate about a book they want to translate, they get the word out some way; they pitch the book to publishers. We published the Trudel book because translator George Tombs approached us.

So we have our literary titles, and we have our books on social history. It is this balance that makes us happy.

SM: You publish a lot of poetry as well, including the biannual Global Poetry Anthology. Can you tell me a bit more about how the anthology came to be and the process of putting it together?

SD: It’s very straightforward actually. A friend of ours, poet Asa Boxer, and his associates, created the biannual Montreal International Poetry Prize. The prize is 20,000 dollars for one poem chosen by an international editorial board of prominent poets.The Global Poetry Anthology is essentially the long list of 50 poems which we publish late fall. The winning poem is in there but we don’t know it because the book comes out just before or around the same time as the winner is announced.

SM: Are there any new or forthcoming translations that you’re particularly excited about?

SD: One of my favorite poets is Montréaler Pierre Nepveu. To me he’s a Renaissance man—a poet, essayist, non-fiction writer, and teacher. We’ve translated most of his books of poetry which are published in French by Éditions du Noroît. The first two poetry collections we published won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Translation. Donald Winkler has translated his most recent book, Hard Water, Hard Earth, which we will be publishing in 2018.


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