The View From Here – In a bilingual society, translations of French and English books should be more available

Tom Henihan

I read an article in 0Walrus Magazine recently about Sheila Fischman, a renowned Canadian translator who has rendered numerous Francophone novels into the English language.

Fischman says that she sees the process of translation as “a means to heal a country’s fractured identity by creating an understanding of how others see the world.”

Political matters aside, and in spite of Fischman prolific output as a translator, it is surprising how little overall effort is made to bridge the cultural chasm that exists between both Canadian traditions.

From an English speaking perspective, I believe it would greatly enhance Canadian arts and culture if French Canadian literature, art and music were more readily accessible to Anglophone Canadians.

It may also be a cultural boon, adding a different sensibility to Anglo-Canadian literature if Francophone Canadian work was a constant influence on English Canada.

It may also give rise to something new, and create some exciting and uniquely Canadian.

The failure to bring Francophone literature to all Canadians is in large part the failure of self-important cultural institutions such as the CBC and Canada Council for the Arts, institutions that pay lip service to the notion of Canadian identity and the Canadian experience.

Such institutions are mostly interested in their own preservation and in promoting some defunct, tired notion of Canada.

They see Canada as a brand rather than something culturally viable, and rather than do anything imaginative or take a second look at what it is to be Canadian, they rely instead on the fluctuating novelties of multiculturalism.

Not having Francophone literature available in translation to all Canadians is a missed opportunity that along with depriving Canadians of experiencing a large part of their shared culture also exacerbates the sense of alienation that exists between both the French and English sides of the tradition.

Although Fischman, who is eighty years old, has translated numerous Quebecois novels, she says she has had to fight to have her name printed on the covers of the books she has translated.

Publishers such as TalonBooks and House of Anansi have both tried to justify the omission of Fischman’s name as translator from book covers, saying that it is hard to get a readership to embrace books that are translated.

Fischman ultimately prevailed reminding these publishers that omitting her name is “downright dishonest.”

Nevertheless, it is remarkable and regrettable in a French/English bi-lingual society that it is hard to engage a readership in translated work.

It gives a whole other dimension to the phase “two solitudes,” and points to a perverse lack of curiosity.

Language is the most profound area of access to any culture but it is not the only channel, and though translations can be suspect, I think the critical means exist to establish the artist accomplishment and veracity of a work rendered in English from French or any other language.

During my formative years in Ireland, my contemporaries and I read Guy de Maupassant, Gustave Flaubert, Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud in translation as readily as we read James Joyce or W.B. Yeats.

Continental European literature, German, Italian, Spanish as well as French was not read as a curiosity or an exercise in the exotic; it was seen as relevant to our experience and was a welcome influence for those with literary aspirations.

The same is true in England and throughout the UK.

However, in Canada even those with a consuming interest in Canadian literature have only marginal access to the Francophone literary canon.


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