canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Writing Between the Lines: Portraits of Canadian Anglophone Translators
Agnes Whitfield, ed.
Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2006

Reviewed by Brett Jocelyn Epstein

As a bilingual country, Canada has two distinct languages and cultures, and this of course extends to the literary realm as well. Historically, there has been little contact between anglophone and francophone writers, but as a new book, Writing Between the Lines: Portraits of Canadian Anglophone Translators, describes, the work of dedicated translators has helped change this.

Writing Between the Lines is made up of twelve essays, each focusing on a specific French-to-English translator who has influenced Canada’s literary scene. An unfortunate limitation of this book is that there are no portraits of people who translate to French (with the exception of Susanne de Lotbiniére-Harwood, who translates feminist works in both directions). As the essays emphasize, translation is a necessity, especially in a country with two or more cultures separated by languages, religious and/or political beliefs, and ways of viewing the world. So by leaving out francophone translators, this book seems to have missed its own point. Despite this, however, Writing Between the Lines does have plenty to offer any reader interested in translation or Canadian literature, because, as the introduction says, this is the “first comprehensive, inside view of the practice of anglophone literary translation in Canada.” The essays give biographical information on the translators, review their work and their working processes, discuss some of the authors they have translated, and explain what the translators have done for Canadian literature.

Most of the translators profiled also produce, or produced, their own writing, as poets, novelists, academics, journalists, essayists, and one pornographer. This suggests that writers make the most successful literary translators, although this isn’t inevitably the case. But though they have creative writing in common, they certainly don’t share the same techniques for literary translation or opinions on what a translator’s role is. For readers not familiar with translation, the book might be an appealing surprise in that way, because the translators have a variety of different viewpoints on translation, and the essays make it clear that along the scale ranging from strict literalness (faithfulness to the original text) to total freedom (the translator takes liberties), there is no one perfect method of balance. 

Some translators featured in this volume, such as Patricia Claxton, believe that it is their responsibility, even a civic duty, to be loyal to the original author and his text and intention. William Hume Blake, for example, thought of translation as a way of preserving and sharing a specific sort of French Canadian life with English-speakers and thus used “Gallicized vocabulary and turns of phrase,” rather than anglicizing them for his audience. 

Others, including poet D.G. Jones, who helped found the bilingual literary magazine ellipse, see translation more as a transformation of the text that sets fewer restrictions on the translator. And Sheila Fischman believes translators and the original authors should get “equal billing,” which suggests something about how she sees her position in the creation of a text. Meanwhile, Barbara Godard has a somewhat different way of working; she includes a translator’s preface, not agreeing with the “concept of translator and translation as transparent.” In the prefaces, she explain the author’s ideas and style, and her choices as the translator.

These translators also choose, or accept, to work on very different types of assignments. de Lotbiniére-Harwood only translates writing by women, as a “political activity” that makes “the feminine subject reciprocally visible in two cultures.” Similarly, Ray Ellenwood sees translation in a political light and has therefore worked on documents as diverse as political satire, an artistic manifesto, and surrealist works. Linda Gaboriau has translated more than sixty plays, while John Glassco translated thirty-seven of the fifty poets in the anthology The Poetry of French Canada in Translation, and Patricia Claxton has translated, among other things, books on the history of Québec and articles by former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.

No matter how they go about their work or what topics or genres they prefer to translate, all the translators seemed agreed on why they were translating. Not only do they want to introduce great Québec novelists, playwrights, and poets to those who can’t read French, but they also see translation as the way to “bridge the cultural and political gap between English Canada and Québec,” and literature as a step towards bringing anglophone and francophone Canada closer together.

Brett Jocelyn Epstein is a Swedish to English translator, copy editor, and writer. She has a BA in English and creative writing from Bryn Mawr College, an MFA in fiction from Queens University, and will matriculate as a Ph.D. student in translation at Swansea University in the fall. Please visit her website or her blog on translation for more information or to contact her.







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