The Translated Author and the Author-Translator in Literary Translation: Celebrating Asymptote’s 5th Anniversary in Ottawa

Ottawa - Apr 4, 2016

featuring Luise von Flotow and Caroline Lavoie and hosted by Marc Charron and MARGENTO. View photos here.


Close to 40 people gathered in Ottawa to celebrate Asymptote’s fifth anniversary. Editor-at-Large for Canada, Marc Charron, kicked off the event by welcoming Asymptote back to Ottawa. He described Asymptote’s place in the world literary scene and the opportunities it presented for Canada’s many multilingual writers. Editor-at-Large for Romania and Moldova, MARGENTO, then introduced the Asymptote website and listed some of its awards and partnerships with other major literary publications and platforms. 

Our guests for the evening were Luise von Flotow, a major figure in the field of Translation Studies and a prolific polyglot translator, and Caroline Lavoie, a prominent English-French translator. Luise began by recounting her first project, a contribution to an anthology of Quebec writers translated into English, Ink and Strawberries, while vividly evoking the atmosphere in the Montreal of that age, with the old-fashioned, classy, and sometimes pretentious writers that presented her around as “ma traductrice.”  She then gave us a quick  overview of her career, presenting  some of her books with brief but fascinating anecdotes related to each of them.  A 007 kind of operation involving translating a writer from the former Democrat (Communist) German Republic, for instance, resulted in the publication of a book where the secretive attitude of the publisher and editors triggered a terrible oversight—they failed to mention Luise’s name anywhere in the book (or on the cover) as the translator…  Another author whom she has translated, a lady in her 70’s would persistently ask the people around her, the translator included, about their sex life while being anxious to reveal details about her own… Luise also gave us a tour of some of the most significant publishers in Canada and the US specializing in literary translations while providing really captivating inside stories and tips for prospective translators, doing this also in response to a question coming from the audience.  She also strongly encouraged everyone to attend the major book fairs in Canada—the one in Montreal, and not only—and the US which are great venues for getting the pulse of the literary translation scene and for networking.  And, she concluded, “Also, submit to Asymptote and become a star.”

Caroline Lavoie then took over by going directly into her prolific experience as English to French translator and provided captivating details about the various difficulties she had encountered in her line of business.  She said, for instance, it’s always a bit easier to translate writers who “are still around” and available for questions regarding their work, but then, she added, none of those she translated so far spoke French well enough to really be able to check if her translation was really faithful to the original.  Specific linguistic options that pose questions related to the kind of relationship between people in French, such as the distinction between “tu” and “vous” in addressing somebody (informal versus formal) that is inexistent in English—where we only have “you”—is one of the constant dilemmas the translator has to deal with. Among the many very interesting anecdotes—recounting the challenges of rendering for instance Pidgin English, doing research into the age and region a certain colonial novel evoked, dealing with literature that gravitates around (famous) art and painting, English acronyms, etc.—the one that stirred significant interest and an animated discussions was about an idiom she could hardly track down anywhere else except the novel she was translating, “donkey’s waistcoat”…  The challenge addressed to the native speakers of English sitting in the audience triggered a number of really exciting and funny exchanges.

The questions and comments focused on Asymptote’s M.O., submission policies, the “Translation Tuesdays” and our partnership with the Guardian, the relationship the talkers have with various publishers and how things work for starting translators, other publications and journals that specialize in literary translation, the hosts’ work as editors at Asymptote, MARGENTO’s own work in applying graph theory apps in poetry analysis and composition, the upcoming conference in translation studies at uOttawa, the weather (and the wine) in Canada versus the US and Europe, etc.