In early 2015, I stood in front of a window at Renaud-Bray, looking at a poster that was taller than I was. The poster had my name on it – it was the cover of the French translation of my first book. More than amazement, more than excitement, I felt bemused. This isn’t my book, I thought. Is this my book? Ceci n’est pas mon livre.
Translation seems to be on everyone’s langue these days, with Kim Thuy’s translated Ru winning Canada Reads, several new translations of Nelly Arcan hot off the presses, and a renewed curiosity about cultural hybridity in the air. The ethical and aesthetic considerations of moving between languages seem like fertile ground for conversations we ought to be having, especially in Quebec.
“Translation seems to be on everyone’s langue these days””
When I found out that there would be a French translation of my newly published book, I was thrilled; as a transplanted Winnipegger, I felt it implied a level of acceptance in a city where I’m still considered “an outside eye” after fifteen years. I was excited to think that my stories, most of which are set in Montreal, would be accessible to the roughly two-thirds of the city’s population that read in French. But the work of translation isn’t just about making stories accessible. It’s about making them legible: creating a context so that they don’t just exist in another language, they live in it.
In Neil Smith’s funny and pointed column on this blog from February 2013, he writes about the dangers of translating English Montreal into France-French, where, as he says, a dépanneur becomes chez l’Arabe and câlisse becomes putain de merde. The result: a work that’s as absurd as Duddy Kravitz sipping Earl Grey and exclaiming “jolly good, old fellow!” There was no danger of this for my book, as its translator, Daniel Grenier, is a Québécois writer. Any fears I had were laid to rest when I saw he had titled one story “Un hostie de câlisse de gâteau” (“A Goddamn Fucking Cake”). It’s a richly Québécois translation, a translation full of pis and vinegar. Grenier gamely took on an exhausting number of puns, cultural references, word-plays, and dumb inside jokes, and made them legible to a Franco-Québec audience.
Some of the equations were simple, he told me. One of my friends wondered how the translator would handle a sign held by an environmental protestor that read ASBESTOS? ASWORSTOS! Easy, Grenier responded: AMIANTE? ENNEMIANTE! He turned a porn star named Iona Dildo into Jaymon Dildo and some misread graffiti from AUNT to FLOTTE. He may have been having almost too much fun.
But there were complications. At one point, Grenier wrote me to ask about the expression “Hadassah arms.” How to go about making it legible for a Québécois audience?
Now, even among Jews, “Hadassah arms” isn’t especially well-known. It’s a mean and fairly misogynistic way of naming that particular upper-arm sag/jiggle – so called because Hadassah, a Zionist women’s organization, mainly consists of older women. But it’s not a Jewish term that’s been popularized, like chutzpah or schlemiel. I know it because my friend’s dad used to tell us to lay off the Doritos or we’d end up with Hadassah arms. It may have been specific to her family; I’ve never heard it since. But I stole it for a family I was writing about, because I liked the specificity of it, the suggestion of a family joke or family mythology. Grenier could either do some creative idioming and write “bras style-Hadassah” or something like that, or find a new way of saying it that would make the image clear, but lose the Jewishness of the phrase.
So what to do? Keep the image, lose the Jewish? Or the other way around?
How important is it to make your work accessible to an audience unfamiliar with your culture, whether it be ethnic, geographic or social? Do you want your readers to immerse themselves in a warm bath or a cold lake? In a sense this is what writers are always doing: walking the line between over-explaining your characters’ world, and letting the world speak for itself.
“How important is it to make your work accessible to an audience unfamiliar with your culture, whether it be ethnic, geographic or social?”
In the end, I told Grenier that, in this case, the image was more important. I didn’t want readers to trip over an unfamiliar word and fall out of the story’s world; there would be other opportunities for them to be seduced by unfamiliar expressions and identities.
The solution? Les gras de bingo. Equally mean, and equally evocative, but of a slightly different family than the one I wrote. In a small way, my characters lost a bit of their identity, and were given a new one, as though they had passed through the Ellis Island of literature. This, I’ve decided, is what I love about translation. My book; not my book. My city; not my city. A beautifully imperfect balance.
Anna Leventhal‘s short story collection Sweet Affliction was published in 2014 (Invisible Publishing). It won the 2014 Quebec Writers’ Federation Concordia University First Book Award, and the French translation (Douce détresse) came out in 2015 with Marchand de feuilles. She lives in Montréal.
5 thoughts on “Hadassah Arms and Other Quandaries: Translating Cultures by Anna Leventhal”
Great look at the challenges and the fun of translating a literary work and maintaining its original character.
Some terms have to be translated in a totally different way, giving the sense and not the translation of the term.
In my book-still waiting for the agent to get back to me- I introduce the general audience to Jewish terms, such as Shabbat, Kiddush and even the word Nu. At some point, you may have to decide that the book will have a certain flavour, do what you can to inform the audience, then hope for the best.
My book is called Dark Muse, and is set in Mile End- Outremont.