I was reading an article in The Chronicle today about academic novels, those that, like Robertson Davies’ The Rebel Angels, feature academics as protagonists. This set me thinking about novels that feature translators and interpreters as the protagonists or even as secondary characters. Two Canadian novels immediately came to mind, although I will keep thinking of others, as this seems like an interesting topic for a paper about how translators are portrayed in Canadian literature.
Reta Winters, the protagonist of Carol Shields’ Unless is both a writer and translator. In the opening pages of the novel, Reta lists the works she has published thus far, but even though five translations figure on this list, Reta wavers over whether they should be given the same weight as her own writing. As she explains: “I am a little uneasy about claiming Isolation as my own writing, but Dr. Westerman [the author of the French source text], doing one of her hurrying, over-the-head gestures, insisted that translation, especially of poetry, is a creative act. Writing and translating are convivial, she said, not oppositional, and not at all hierarchical.”
In Jacques Poulin’s Les grandes marées, the protagonist is nicknamed Teddy Bear, for TDB, or “Traducteur De Bandes dessinées.” As his nickname indicates, Teddy translates comic strips for Quebec newspaper Le Soleil, and he does so on an small island, helped out by his Harrap’s, Websters, Petit Robert, and Grand Larousse. Teddy clearly suffers from a problem many translators encounter in their practice: an obsession with correcting and re-correcting his translations in an effort to get them just right. Consider the following scene from chapter 9, where someone is reading a map of the island on which Teddy is living:
Mariners should navigate
with extreme caution in this area.
La plus grande prudence
s’impose en naviguant dans ces parages.
Parce que le gérondif « en naviguant » ne se rapportait pas au sujet du verbe, Teddy avait raturé la traduction et il avait écrit au-dessous :
La navigation dans ces parages
exige la plus grande prudence.
Ensuite, il avait raturé cette phrase et l’avait remplacée par une autre :
Les navigateurs doivent être
très prudents dans ces parages.
Mais la phrase avait été remplacée par celle-ci:
La plus grande prudence
s’impose dans ces parages.
Cette phrase, raturée comme les précédentes, n’avait pas été remplacée.
While I was writing this post, I came across two articles that discusses translators in literature:
Sabine Struumlmper-Krobb’s “The Translator in Fiction”, which appeared in Language and Intercultural Communication 3(2) (October 2003). She discusses Ward Just’s novel The Translator, Javier Marias’ Corazon tan blanco, and Populärmusik från Vittula by Swedish author Mikael Niemi.
Rita Wilson’s “The Fiction of the Translator”, which appeared in Journal of Intercultural Studies 28 (4) (November 2007). She discusses how translators are portrayed in fiction, and mentions works by Jorge Luís Borges, Francesca Duranti, Ward Just and Ingeborg Bachmann.
If anyone knows of any other Canadian works where translators play a role, please let me know.