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While Éric Fontaine was working on the translation of my novel The Blondes from English into French, I was in Brooklyn and he was in Montreal. This was the first time my fiction had been translated, and it was very exciting for me to see the translation process and the final result. Fontaine’s translation was published by Editions Alto in Canada and by Asphalte Editions in France. The Blondes is a novel about a virus that affects only blonde women, whether their hair color is natural or dyed. Like rabies, the virus causes the women to “rage out” and attack passersby. The book is a satire, a voice that is notoriously difficult to export. In our emails, Éric and I would debate word choices, idioms, and jokes. In the process, I learned that translation does not create an analogue work, but something new altogether.
In this interview, conducted over email in February 2015, we look back at that process and ahead at Éric’s upcoming projects.
Emily Schultz: When you begin a new translation, what things do you accept from the get-go will be different than the original?
Éric Fontaine: In The Blondes, what I knew would be difficult from the get-go was the word play. For example, I spent a lot of time trying to find an adequate translation for Women's Entry and Evaluation Center (WEE), the quarantine center where Hazel, the main character, is forced to stay for eight weeks. I only found the solution, an allusion to Quebec’s Local Community Services Centers (CLSC in French), after I had finished the first draft of the translation. WEE became Centre local d’isolement temporaire (CLIT). At your suggestion, I spelled it out to avoid funny jolts in the middle of sensitive scenes, but it works in French because it is at once funny and familiar to French readers, both in Quebec and France.
Another thing that comes to mind is the description of the way one of the characters becomes infected with the virus after having an orgy with a group of prostitutes. We're told that he “got a bad posse.” Puns are very difficult to translate, so I was very happy when I came up with “II est tombé sur une bande de chattes enragées.” (He met up with a band of enraged cats.) The word “chatte” has the same double meaning as “posse.” And in French, enragé also means “infected with rabies.”
ES: It’s funny you mention that, because I remember you asked me if the acronym CLIT was too much. But, for me, it was perfect! When I got that email from you, I almost fell out of my chair laughing. I immediately knew I would love your whole translation. You had a lot of great suggestions. Something my other editors had missed was that the women in the book often had similar hairstyles—the bob, either long or short. In a novel with such a focus on hair and on beauty we couldn’t let this error remain. I was very grateful you challenged me to fix it. How much editing is done at the translation stage?
EF: Most of the editing I did for the French version, like the bob, was very minor, and often technical. When I did make more significant changes, it was to make the language more vivid and relatable for a French reader. Near the beginning of the book, for example, Hazel imagines her fetus bobbing around between her hips like “a thimble in a tub of water.” Instead of doing a literal translation, I made an allusion to a well-known verse from Rimbaud’s The Drunken Boat: “comme un bouchon sur les flots” (“like a cork dancing on the waves”).
ES: Do you think French and English readers are looking for different things from a story? For instance, I notice that here in the United States readers really respond to a story with a hero journey.
EF: I think that English and French readers look for many of the same things in a story. There seems to be a greater tolerance for experimentation in French, for the ambiguous ending, but the hero journey does have resonance in Quebec and France. However, I think part of the appeal of The Blondes in French is that there’s no real tradition of apocalyptic zombie literature, while the market is saturated in English.
ES: Tell me about what it’s like to switch from one project to another after familiarizing yourself so intimately with an author's style and story.
EF: It’s bloody hard! I spent nearly an entire year with The Blondes. Adjusting to a new author afterwards was a huge shock, like getting off a bike after a really long ride and then trying to go for a run.
ES: When you read for pleasure, which language do you gravitate towards, or do you read French and English equally?
EF: I went to French schools growing up in Alberta, but I’ve lived, worked, and studied in Montreal for the last twenty years or so. I earned a degree in French literature from the Université de Montréal and then worked in French publishing before moving on to my current job as an editor at Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec, where I deal with the textual aspects of our rotating exhibitions on Quebec's artistic, literary, and intellectual history. Because of my work, I’ve naturally gravitated towards French literature. However, getting into literary translation has brought me back into regular contact with contemporary English writing. When I read for pleasure, I don't have a real preference.
ES: What are you working on now?
EF: Right now, I’m translating Sarah Court, a very gritty novel by Craig Davidson, the author of Rust and Bone and Cataract City. It takes place in St. Catharines, Ontario, “an oddly beautiful place containing a few right bastards.” Sarah Court is set in a housing development on the wrong side of the Canadian Pacific tracks. In each of the five interwoven stories, a character suffers brain damage from a lack of oxygen: an Evel Knievel copycat goes over Niagara Falls in a barrel; a baby is abandoned in a Walmart toilet; a hired assassin who is autistic smothers his foster mother with a pillow. Although the material is clearly dark, the characters are oddly endearing.
ES: What is your favorite thing about translating?
EF: Reading an imperfect translation is like looking through a dirty window; you can see what's going on, but you're constantly aware that there's something between you and the story. My favorite thing about translating is polishing and repolishing the surface of the novel I’m working on to erase all the fingerprints.
Éric Fontaine works as a literary translator in Montreal. His first translation, T'es con, point (You Comma Idiot), by Doug Harris, won the 2012 Cole Foundation Award for translation. His second, Les Blondes (The Blondes), by Emily Schultz, was shortlisted for the Governor General's Award for English-to-French translation.