Interview with literary translator David Warriner
You recently translated The Coral Bride, your second novel by Roxanne Bouchard. What’s it like to return to an author and her characters? Does the translation get any easier?
It’s always a pleasure to dive into a Roxanne Bouchard novel and immerse myself in familiar waters. She writes with such authenticity about the people and places of the Gaspé Peninsula, it’s hard to believe you’re not there, looking out to sea and wondering what’s going to wash in on the next tide as you’re turning the pages. I love seeing Roxanne’s characters evolve from one book to the next as we discover snippets of insight into their lives and back story. Especially as they were never really intended to evolve. Nous étions le sel de la mer was written as a one-off literary novel about a woman travelling to the sea to track down her birth mother. It just so happened to have a dead body and a detective in it, and it was only when Orenda Books published We Were the Salt of the Sea that publisher Karen Sullivan told Roxanne she’d written a detective novel — and persuaded her to write a series featuring DS Joaquin Moralès. Does the translation get any easier? Um, nope. The language in The Coral Bride is just as lyrical and poetic as it was in the first book, if not more so. I think Roxanne goes out of her way to throw translation challenges in there for me, now she knows there’s going to be an English version :-)
Another recent translation of yours was Blood Song. Any differences in styles and your approach to the translations?
For sure. Johana Gustawsson’s novels are very different in style but just as rewarding to translate. I’m tempted to say they’re easier, because the style is more like a police procedural than a literary text. But there are lots of layers to the text, and lots of research and fact-checking as I go along, because her stories are always about present-day events that are intricately interwoven with past historical issues, which have one way or another influenced the murderer’s life and paved the way for their crimes. Blood Song, for example, harkens back to the atrocities of Franco-era Spain and intriguingly joins the dots to scandals in the modern-day fertility industry. Keeper, her second novel, the translation of which I heavily revised, draws on the legend of Jack the Ripper, and Block 46 takes the reader back to the horrors of the Buchenwald concentration camp. And there are so many subtleties in the dialogue between Johana’s protagonists, Quebec-born profiler Emily Roy and French-Catalan true-crime writer Alexis Castells, and the detectives in Sweden and the UK they work with that keep me on my toes. I never thought I’d say that it’s harder to translate French slang than Québécois religious cursing, but it’s quite the challenge to find the right tone in English for a rough-and-ready Swedish detective who’s reportedly exclaiming ‘Oh, la vache!’ in the novel while either actually speaking Swedish with his colleagues, or supposedly speaking English for the benefit of the non-Swedes in the room. I have to do a lot of stepping back and asking myself what kind of English a Swede would be exposed to in popular culture, and then figure out how it would come out of a particular character’s mouth.
Can you give me a few examples of some of the translation challenges you faced with The Coral Bride? (I like to get into the nuts and bolts.)
Fortunately, there were fewer unique character tics in The Coral Bride to wrap my head around than there were in We Were the Salt of the Sea (I’ll spare you the details of the thought process that went into translating ‘Saint-ciboire de câlisse!’ as ‘Christ in a chalice!’…). The biggest and most overarching challenges were the same though: Roxanne writes with such music and poetry in her words, the only way to even begin to do justice to her work is to zoom out of the words and the sentences and the paragraphs. I let the words flow over me and let the poetry sink in, then I set about rendering the feelings and the meaning in English. I try to imagine what Roxanne would have written in English if that were the original language of the novel. I don’t get caught up in keeping the words and the syntax the same as in French. Often I end up having to turn sentences on their head and restructure entire paragraphs to maintain the impact and the effect of the original; other times I’ll look at my translation and be surprised to see how close it is to the original construction.
I tore a lot of hair out over the boat names. In hindsight, Fille du midi, which I translated as Midday Girl, could probably have stayed in French in the translation (I wondered if there was a subliminal reference that needed to be rendered in the English, such as the noon hour, or the Midi region of France; Roxanne simply said it was a name she chose, no more, and no less). But L’Échoueuse II, the name of the lobster trawler belonging to Angel Roberts, the missing woman whose life the novel is all about, was *ahem* loaded with traps. Among other things, the verb ‘échouer’ can mean ‘to fail’ or ‘to run aground.’ There never was a L’Échoueuse I that ran aground, we read; Angel named her boat to reflect her sense of humour. It took weeks of mulling over different ideas in my mind, all revolving around the imagery of capsizing, running aground, and ending up on the rocks before I finally settled on the more abstract and (hopefully) equally amusing Close Call II.
Roxanne’s beguiling descriptions of the ever-changing seascape are arguably metaphors for the characters’ lives and experiences. Consider this snippet, which I think speaks volumes about the turmoil and temptation Moralès’s son Sébastien is feeling: Il avance lentement vers la falaise qui luit d’embruns. Les cris des goélands, le chant des mésanges, le roulis des vagues. The squawking of the gulls, the cooing of the chickadees and the tumbling of the waves were all he could hear as he inched closer to the edge of the cliff, which glistened in the sea spray.
Seabirds in particular seem to reflect what the characters are feeling, and that makes the choice of words describing a seabird’s flight or screeching particularly tricky. These descriptions of gulls in the background are peppered throughout a page of emotionally charged dialogue, and every sentence took what seemed like an eternity to translate:
Des goélands arrivent en criant, se posent sur les rochers vaseux, le bec dans le vent. […] Les goélands montent leur bec au ciel et poussent des ricanements aigus en faisant des mouvements de tête désordonnés. […] Un camion réfrigéré passe près d’eux. Les oiseaux, offensés par le bruit, s’envolent en hurlant, tournent en l’air. Les goélands reviennent peu à peu, acariâtres, reprendre leur place sur les roches et les monticules de varech. A flock of gulls swooped down with a shriek and landed on the muddy rocks, beaks to the wind. […] The gulls were jerking their heads haphazardly, lifting their beaks to the sky with shrill little snickers and smirks. […] A refrigerated truck rolled by. Offended by the noise, the gulls took off with surly shrieks and whirled around overhead before swooping down again to take their places on the rocks and mounds of kelp.
Broadly speaking, how would you describe your approach to literary translation and working with the author?
Depending on my relationship with the author and how well we know each other, I’ll either relay questions that come up in a translation through the publisher, or email, text, or call the author directly as I go along. I always read the whole book before I start the translation, and as I make my way through I’ll make a note of things that jump out at me as needing to be checked with the author. Then, I’ll take the manuscript, which typically comes to me as a PDF, convert it to Word, and strip away all the typeset line and page breaks. This gives me a chance to take a closer look at the text and familiarize myself with it before I get started on the actual translation. Then I break the text down into smaller, say, 10,000-word chunks for translation, which I’ll later stitch back together before I wrap up my first draft. This way, I work with a series of lighter files rather than one large file, which might be more likely to crash and give me all kinds of headaches. Having a few 10,000-word goals to achieve throughout a long novel translation keeps me motivated too. I’d rather have six or seven little carrots dangled in front of me as I’m going along than one big one and have to wait months to take a nibble of it.
Another thing I’d like to mention is that I use translation software for literary translation, which allows me to keep the source text and my translation side by side on the screen in one window. As soon as I’ve translated a sentence and hit Enter, it sends my translation into the translation memory I’ve created for this book or this author, which means that text is easy for me to refer back to later on in a job and helps me be consistent with terms and turns of phrase. It really helps avoid eye strain too, because you can change the font size and typeface you see on the screen without affecting the original document in any way, and there’s no flipping between windows either. I’m never overwriting the original text, which I might be if I were working directly in Word, so there’s also less risk that I’ll inadvertently omit something.
I like to think that using translation software instead of just using a word-processing program is like using a power tool to drill a hole in the wall or screw a bookshelf together, instead of slogging away with a manual relic from the past that’s only going to give me blisters.
What are you working on now?
I’ve just finished proofreading the PDF of Winterkill, my translation of bestselling Icelandic crime writer Ragnar Jónasson’s latest novel. It’s the final instalment in his acclaimed Dark Iceland series, and I’m still pinching myself that I got to translate it. The French version was released earlier this year as a world premiere, months even before it’s going to be published in Iceland, and as the French manuscript was the most complete and up to date, Orenda Books had me work on a relay translation. We’re launching that in early December, just in time for Christmas, and Jólabókaflóð. Yolabokawhat? you say… Book Flood is an Icelandic tradition that’s growing in popularity abroad, and one that we’ve embraced in our family for the last few years now. What’s not to like about giving each other a book on Christmas Eve and curling up in front of the fire to read it with a mug of hot cocoa? Not long ago we put the finishing touches to On Being a Bear, French biologist Rémy Marion’s philosophical musing about the interconnection between humans and bears, and Breton adventurer Guirec Soudée’s wacky (and self-explanatory) travelogue Sailing the World With a Chicken, which will both be out in the spring of 2021 from Greystone Books. I also just proofread The Woman in Valencia for QC Fiction, Ann Marie Boulanger’s translation of Annie Perreault’s haunting story of a woman who witnesses a suicide while on holiday in Spain (and the psychological aftermath), which is out in early 2021. It’s one of the best books (if not the best) I’ve read all year. With all that, it’s been a busy time lately, so I’m looking forward to relaxing a bit until my next full-length literary translation. Rumour has it, Johana’s next novel and Roxanne’s third DS Moralès book are already in the works. In the meantime, I’m working with an up-and-coming Belgian author and his agent to pitch a psychological thriller about confinement to English-language publishers. Watch this space…