Berlin, August 12th, 2020
I am very happy about our writing to each other as part of the FIL 2020 program Regards Croisés (“Crossed Glances”) across the Atlantic. But how to get started? In my inner ear, I hear the words of your literary character Jean-Paul, who says "[...] has to do it without hesitation, just go for it.” Well, I’ll just go for it.
Our first encounter was as reader and author. Do you remember the interview we did in Montreal on Saint John the Baptist Day? I was pretty nervous to meet you that day.
Back then, I would have never thought that we would keep in touch, let alone that I would translate one of your texts one day. As a long-time passionate reader, and a reader of Quebecois literature since 2010, I had devoured your book La bête à sa mère (Mama’s Boy) and its sequels. It was of course the story and its polarising character that interested me, however, what impressed me the most was the language. It is so rhythmic and rich. I love how you express things and how you twist the turns that seem familiar. Do you keep a list of these phrases? For years, I have been keeping notebooks with Quebecois words and their translations, expressions, and quotes. Today they are useful to me when I translate. Did you know that it was because of Mama’s Boy that I started translating? I fell so much in love with this novel that I told people around me about it. One day, out of curiosity and impatience to see what the story might sound like in German, I opened a blank document on my computer, placed the book next to it, and started translating. My only translation experiences at the time had been a few courses at the university, during the year I lived in Quebec when I filled notebooks and hosted literary soirees in German and French. – Do you remember your first book project?
Translating the first few sentences of your novel was a pleasure and I knew pretty quickly that it was definitely something I wanted to keep doing. And here we are in 2020, with a bilingual anthology of Quebecois literary texts published in Germany for which I translated your short story Bien parti pour mal finir (“Too Good of a Start for a Bad Ending”). What a beautiful journey!
I hope this letter finds you well and healthy in Sherbrooke.
Many regards from Berlin in a heat wave :)
Sherbrooke, August 18th, 2020
It’s a great pleasure to reconnect with you and read your letter. Between the words, I can hear your voice and see your mischievous smile.
Of course, I remember our first meeting, at the corner of Rue Ontario and Rue Saint-Denis right before a show where I had to share the stage with Sans Pression and my friend Manu Militari. What an interesting transition going from a conversation about literary creation to a rap show. That the first conversation took place on the evening of our national holiday gave our relationship a good omen.
I did not know though that my first novel was responsible for your becoming a translator. That is an honour. Even if many people agree that “to translate is to betray”, I know my characters are in good hands with you. Above all, I must trust you, as my knowledge of German is rudimentary. You could sneak in a dragon and skip a few chapters, I wouldn't know. Don’t do that!
I liked the English translation by Book*hug Press, even though the novel loses in density. When translating from French to English, the ideas are condensed into fewer words. Juliet Sutcliffe did an excellent job with her translation, running certain passages by me and finding suitable alternative references. She did such a good job that my father, when reading Mama's Boy, declared, “It’s like rock ‘n’ roll, it sounds even better in English!” Obviously, I don’t agree with him.
Initially there was also the plan to translate the novel into the French of France, where it was released by Éditions Philippe Rey and chez 10/18. I refused; Quebecois French is not an exotic dialect and French readers in Europe can find their way with minimum effort. I did, however, agree to a glossary of several pages at the end of the book.
Yes, I do remember my first book project, a poetry collection entitled Premiers soins (First Aid). When the book arrived hot off the press and I could smell it, read my verses, it was a key moment for me and a confirmation. Because writing is at the core of what I desire. That first book is currently being translated in Mexico. I am learning Spanish these days and the publication of the book gives me additional motivation. Maybe the bilingual anthology will inspire me to learn German. We’ll see!
So how do you define your relationship with artistic creation? Does your work as a translator influence your style and your ideas? And what do you think is the ideal proportion of time spent on creation versus time spent on translation?
Tell me everything, dear colleague.
Berlin, August 19th, 2020
That’s great news that Premiers soins will come out in Spanish! Thanks to its similarity with French and a few language courses I am able to read Spanish but speaking it is a different matter. It would be great if you could come to Germany to introduce your books to the German-speaking public and read passages in German. Do you easily learn other languages?
“To translate is to betray” – yes, I've heard this before and also here and there that “translating is not possible”. I never agreed. I think that you only need the right person for each book to be translated. Translating begins with attentive reading, followed by a minute analysis of the text: what does it want, what does it do, and how. I get close to the text so that I can then move away from it because you also need to take liberties when the language and the culture ask for it. – I would not add a dragon, it would instead be an alien and a few chapters taking place in outer space :) – When there are uncertainties or doubts, it is always the best thing to seek the dialog with the author, as I think Juliet Sutcliffe did, and so did I. I am very grateful that you are open to a dialog. We work together so that a translation does not become a betrayal.
Have you ever had the opportunity to meet your English-speaking audience? Did they ask you the same questions, give you the same comments as the French-speaking Quebecois audience? And how did the Europeans react to Mama’s Boy?
I think I have always been a creative person; it’s something I got from my mom. I have tried different art forms, often leaning towards writing. Based on a thought or a feeling I wrote poems and short prose. Then I tucked them away in a box that I still have. Other bits of text are in folders on my computer. They date back to my time in Montreal. Discovering the vibrant Montreal life made me take out paper and pencil again after years of not writing anything because I felt I was too influenced by what I read. Last night I reopened that box and got lost in it. I don't feel ready to share these writings yet. I spend more time translating than writing.
In your case, I know that everything you do is based on writing whereas for me, reading is the foundation of everything I do. Talking about reading, I'm curious to know what you are reading. And does reading have an impact on your creative process?
Looking forward to reading you again soon.
Sherbrooke, August 22nd, 2020
I’ll jump right to responding to your last lines about the idea of time spent reading is not being devoted to writing. For me, literature consists of two stages of the same breath. Reading and writing go hand in hand. I even believe that in order to write a little, you have to read a lot. The time that you spend reading may already nourish your next text.
I fully use the influence of the books that I read for my own writing projects. Sometimes the lineage is obvious and even underlined in certain passages of my novels. Other times it is subtly interwoven and I am probably not even aware of it. Pure style, unattached genius doesn't exist. Our native language already forges our thinking and the foreign languages we learn in the course of our life (I learn new languages slowly, but I want to become a polyglot, so I stick to it). Also, what we are told to love, what we really love, and what we hate permeates us just as much, and it transpires in the books we write.
To date, my novels have all received positive critical reviews in Canada and Europe. Finding my readership, on the other hand, is somewhat a struggle. The publishers believe in me and continue to publish my books. The feedback abroad is similar to the one in Quebec except that the French and Belgians are more impressed by the freedom of my tone. Several readers told me that this was no longer possible in their countries and that it was redeeming to see an author taking so much liberty.
Keep your box in a safe place, I am convinced that there is some good, some very good stuff in it. Maybe the beginning of your first anthology or the plot of a novel. If you want a benevolent first reader, don't hesitate to translate some extracts for me; if my comments don't suit you, you can blame the translator! In the meantime, I’ll revisit Yukio Mishima and his uncompromising non-fiction. Sometimes it reminds me of Carrère. Maybe one day I might also get into a story like this, to terrorise my loved ones.
So long, my friend. Good night!
Berlin, August 23rd, 2020
Good morning David,
This is already the third and last time I am writing to you. I love our exchange, which made me realise how much and on how many levels I like the art of correspondence. I don’t know how it is for you, but I really took time to write these letters; there are several versions of each. It's a helpful exercise to organise one’s thoughts and also a nice exercise in rewriting. I reread my letters a few times before sending them off (hoping they did not contain too many typos).
I would like us to talk about a topic that is of great concern to our profession these days: money. Have you felt any financial uncertainty in recent months due to the shutdown of an entire sector of cultural life? Overnight, there were no more events and the future of any events still remains uncertain.
On the other hand, not all events were canceled or postponed. There were a few that moved straight to the internet. This allowed me to follow live on my computer screen discussions with authors from Quebec that I would not have been able to attend in normal times because of the geographical distance. The Librairie du Québec in Paris, for example, organised virtual meetings with the nominees of the literary award Prix littéraire France-Québec. You were nominated for your latest novel Ta mort à moi. How are you preparing for these new communication formats? Do you think this will be our future?
I also learned during another online event with you that Mama’s Boy will be turned into a film. Can you tell me more?
Now I'm coming to the end, but who knows whether our epistolary exchange won’t continue now that I know to whom I can send my writing to in order to be read for the first time.
I thank you for this exchange and send you my best wishes from Germany.
Sherbrooke, August 24th, 2020
The pleasure is mine, too, and I am grateful to the FIL for the momentum. Now it’s up to us to keep the momentum going.
From the outset, I reassure you, you have a good command of French, which reaffirms my confidence in you for the translation of my books. That reassurance is a non-negligible secondary benefit from our exchange.
You are addressing a sensitive subject, money. In literature, it is a bit of a taboo. Writing a “popular book” is dangerous for the author's credibility. A wonderful paradox, by the way, as it’s the bestsellers that allow distributors, publishers, and booksellers to survive, but their literary contribution to the industry is rarely celebrated. Obviously, the quality of a book has little to do with the quantity of copies sold, but the two are not mutually exclusive. We have to remind ourselves of that sometimes. My readership is loyal and I haven't suffered too much from the pandemic so far. Several conferences and shows have been canceled, but it leaves me time to write. I'm not to be pitied, but I miss the literary scene.
Today artists are being asked to reinvent themselves so they can reach the public in different ways. I do not believe in it. We bring people together and for thousands for years, writers had face-to-face contact with their audience. Finding an equivalent when either side only sits in front of a screen will be difficult. As for the lack of in-person encounters, that pains me even more. Besides the mess of reorganising one’s life with children, the main impact of the crisis for me is the lack of direct contact with people, the distance, the diffuse fear that came between us. But I have to accept that pain with patience as we won't get out of it any time soon.
Let’s write to each other again, yes. I will find the time to answer, between two projects. For the TV series (what an endless process), I intend to be a consultant only. My new album is almost ready (no tour, it will live on its own) and I want to take more time between the publication of my next novels and anthologies. Who knows, we may be on the cusp of a great transatlantic correspondence.
See you soon, my dear,