An interview with Helge Dascher and Aleshia Jensen on translating “This Woman’s Work”

Helge Dascher has been translating graphic novels from French and German to English for over twenty years. A contributor to Drawn & Quarterly since the early days, her translations include acclaimed titles such as the Aya series by Marguerite Abouet and Clément Oubrerie, Hostage by Guy Delisle, and Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascoët. With a background in art history and history, she also translates books and exhibitions for museums in North America and Europe. She lives in Montreal.

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Aleshia Jensen is a French-to-English freelance translator and former bookseller who lives in Montreal. She has translated two Quebec novels — Explosions: Michael Bay and the Pyrotechnics of the Imagination by Mathieu Poulin, shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award, and Prague by Maude Veilleux, co-translated with Aimee Wall — as well as several graphic novels.

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You recently translated This Woman’s Work. How did the fact of working together come about?

H: I often work collaboratively, from consulting on specific aspects of a text through to co-translation, in which I’m sharing responsibility for the final text with another person. Julie’s writing looks straightforward, but it has the economy and potency of poetry. So it was wonderful to be able to work with Aleshia, whose own writing has those qualities, too.

As we went along, with Julie herself involved in the final edits, it struck me how well suited the process was to the spirit of the book. In all her work, including her art projects, Julie invokes or opens up a space for the voices of other women, and I loved that we had the opportunity to let the translation come into being through that kind of discussion and exchange.

A: Co-translation had originally come up at a gathering our translator group had about revision, I think. And shortly after Helge asked me if I’d want to translate Julie’s book with her. I’ve always been very interested in collaborative translation; I usually work with revisers on both commercial and literary projects, and I find it helps a text so much, so I was interested to see what it would be like when two people are knee-deep in the text together. I’ve also always really loved Julie’s work. This was a dream project with a dream co-translator.

What was it like working on the project together? How did you go about it? Was the author involved too?

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H: We split the book into about ten sections that matched natural breaks in the text, and we each translated alternating sections. Along the way we’d meet — in person or via Skype [A: I’m interjecting to say that we met in Helge’s beautiful home that is filled with books and drank tea and ate lemon cookies] — to revise the drafts line by line. Revision happened in a Google document, with both of us writing in the same page simultaneously. Julie joined us for a final read-through.

A: A question I’ve had asked is if it was hard to get a cohesive voice since we’d split the book up. In fact the opposite was true. I found that as we went a cohesive voice emerged, and also influenced how we drafted our translations of subsequent sections, probably making the voice stronger than had it been a solo translation.

H: Yes, I agree! Collaboration also brings a beautiful energy to the translation process. That’s partly because you’re reading the source text so closely with another person, and because the translation is being made and received at the same time. As one of you writes or speaks various options, the other is responding, so you have an immediate sense of what’s working. The English title came about that way: when Aleshia suggested “This Woman’s Work,” it instantly locked into place.

A: Working together in person on translation is almost magical. It’s like having an extra lamp on in your brain. Sometimes we’d get stuck on one page for a long time, and Helge would say, Ok, so imagine we’re…, and then we’d imagine we were there on a balcony in Greece looking out at the sea, or walking down the street in Montreal, looking through the lit windows, and a solution materialized that way.

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Can you give me a few examples of some of the translation challenges you faced? (I like to get into the nuts and bolts.)

A: The title of the book, for one. Moi aussi je voulais l’emporter makes reference to the French grammar taught in school, that the masculine emporte sur (takes precedence over) the feminine gender. If there is a room full of women and one man — or even, let’s say, a room full of women and a desk in the corner, and we want to refer to all these women and the desk, then we use the masculine pronoun ils (example inspired by one in Mirion Malle’s graphic novel La ligue des super féministes). Though we definitely have problematic language in English, our grammar doesn’t work the same way. We don’t have this same reference point. So we had to go with something completely different.

H: Right. And Julie’s involvement helped unravel the problem. Working in Montreal on books created here in Quebec means that we translators have the opportunity to work closely with authors. Those discussions often open the way for bolder options than you might otherwise consider. Like in the case of the emporter passage, a good translation solution can look — superficially — very little like the source text.

Another intractable spot involved the very intense section describing a childhood experience of sexual assault. The passage came up for discussion in our final read-through, and Julie told us she had initially written it as a poem. Lifting the passage out of the text — literally isolating it on a new page and visualizing it as a poem — clarified the flow of the thoughts and set us up for a solution.

A: Yes! That passage was giving us so much trouble, and then suddenly we could see all the pieces in another light and they all tumbled into place.

H: Peter, since you’re asking for nuts and bolts… The first bump in the three-way edit was a funny one. It turned out that we had fundamentally misread page 2: Claire wasn’t, as we’d assumed, a mother overwhelmed by housework, but a tapestry artist starting a new work. That catch was the most glaring course correction, but it established — right at the outset — the relevance of the process.

A: In terms of challenges, I also remember Helge describing a certain quality of Julie’s writing as a vagueness; that fabric of the text was something that could easily be torn by over-translating, being overly specific.

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Any similarities/differences between translating this and previous books?

H: I’ve translated quite a few comics, so I’ll talk about some similarities specific to translating graphic novels. In graphic novels, words aren’t only units of text. They’re also visual elements. From the space they take up on the page to the shape of the lettering, they’re part of the art work, and that influences the translation. For example, in Julie’s book, one especially powerful sentence is written on a blackboard that extends over two facing pages, and it was clear that whatever we did, we’d want to maintain the percussive impact of the left and right sections.

In graphic novels, translation also needs to pay attention to the dynamics that exist between text and image in the original — the text needs to feel true to the images in the same way. When we’d be struggling with a passage, the best way out generally involved going straight to the image and building from there.

A: I’ll take differences then. As Helge mentioned, we’re so lucky in Quebec to have close contact with authors. I actually used to work with Julie at Librairie Drawn & Quarterly. There was something quite different about knowing the author and working with their unfictionalized text. In this case, I could almost hear Julie’s voice in my head while I was translating, and imagine how she would say things with much more clarity. Helge, you know Julie very well and this is also not the first book you’ve translated of hers. I wonder if it wasn’t similar for you?

H: Yes, absolutely. More than anything, I felt very aware of that emphasis on care — and on communication as a way of creating a safe space — that runs through her work. We’ve talked about this: it made the book feel especially personal and urgent.

What are you both working on next?

A: I just finished co-translating a novella with Aimee Wall that will come out in June, Prague by Maude Veilleux — I could write ten more paragraphs about that co-translation project but will save those thoughts for another time. And I’ll be starting the translation of the graphic La vie d’artiste by Catherine Ocelot this spring for Conundrum Press, and working on filling the horizon with other interesting projects.

H: There’s so much to be said about co-translation! Another collaboration is on the burner here, too: Rob Aspinall and I are working on Guy Delisle’s final “bad dad” book. Also for Drawn and Quarterly is Tian’s Year of the Rabbit, about Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge years. And next up are Little Russia by Francis Desharnais (Pow Pow), and The Unknown by Anna Sommer (Conundrum). All so different, and all such beautiful examples of the range in graphic novel publishing.

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