Author Leila Marshy and translator Sophie Voillot sat down to discuss the translation of The Philistine, its challenges, its rewards, and their somewhat unprecedented approach.
WHAT WAS IT ABOUT The Philistine THAT MADE YOU WANT TO TRANSLATE IT?
I can count on the fingers of one hand the books I have translated that were written by a woman. That you are a woman worked in your favour, followed very closely by the fact that it took place in Egypt, where part of my family comes from. I was very attracted to the idea of living in this universe for several months.
That was before I even read it! I was quickly won over by the character of Nadia, then even more so by that of Manal. Being queer myself, the love affair between these two women had it all. If we add to that the deceptive simplicity of your style, it was a challenge that I very much enjoyed taking on.
WHERE WERE YOU IN THE TRANSLATION PROCESS WHEN YOU STARTED TO THINK ABOUT MODIFYING SOME BASIC FEATURES OF THE STORY?
Not too far in. I early on felt a tension in portraying characters in French who express themselves in English. I thought it put too much distance between the reader and the main character, Nadia.
When we meet Brigitte, the owner of the gallery, who is French, we are still at the beginning of the novel. This element implies that Manal speaks French to communicate with her boss, and you confirmed that this could indeed be the case.
It was then that I got the idea to make Nadia French-speaking as opposed to anglophone. Then that we had to extend the transformation to her boyfriend Daniel, as their linguistic difference is one of the things that separates them. This metamorphosis subsequently spread to Claire, Nadia's mother, because French had become her mother tongue.
I HAVE A BACKGROUND IN FILM, SO THIS TYPE OF TRANSPOSITION FELT LOGICAL AND FEASIBLE TO ME. BUT I DON'T THINK IT'S DONE IN LITERARY CONTEXTS VERY OFTEN. WERE YOU WORRIED ABOUT OVERSTEPPING?
It must be said that to translate is often to transpose. For example, it often happens that words change grammatical category when switching from one language to another: When she came back (verb) becomes in French À son retour (noun). We readily replace ready-made expressions by another which already exists, for example Please hold the line becomes Ne quittez pas.
So, we have a border between the two languages, and metamorphoses always occur when certain elements cross this border. All this, despite appearances, is out of respect for the text. The goal is that the reader in the target language (in this case, French) is able to access the text with few to no barriers.
Most of the time, this transposition stays at the level of words or phrases. The difference here is simply in orders of magnitude. Rather than translation in its most strict sense, we can almost call this an adaptation. Indeed, it is done a lot in the cinema and before that, in the theatre, but rarely in literature. On the other hand, it is commonplace in advertising translation. It even has a name: transcreation.
Once the decision was made together with you, I wasn't worried at all. Throughout the translation of The Philistine, I always felt that I made the right choice.
WHAT DOES IT TELL US ABOUT THE INTEGRITY OF A LITERARY WORK IF THE TRANSLATOR CAN MODIFY SUCH IMPORTANT ASPECTS?
I never would have considered getting into the adaptation if I hadn't had your permission. So, what I think this tells us is that Leila Marshy has courage and imagination! And that a complicity can be created between an author and her translator to allow for this kind of freedom. As I know that you chose me to translate your novel, I also think that I benefited from your trust.
CAN YOU CITE ANOTHER LITERARY WORK THAT THE TRANSLATOR MODIFIED OR ADAPTED IN THIS WAY?
If we search for "adaptation and translation" in Google, we will come across examples like the ones I gave you above, which is to say that it remains at the level of words and expressions. I want to paraphrase Mark Twain: “They didn't know it was impossible so they did it.”
DID YOU EVER DOUBT THE MERITS OF THIS APPROACH? WHAT WOULD YOU SAY TO CONCLUDE?
Artistic creation is first and foremost the art of making choices. Literary translation may be considered a minor genre, but it is still an artistic practice. You could say that my job is to ask myself questions. I solve a bunch of them every day!
But that one, after you said yes, it didn't come back. The whole translation began to flow with a sense of correctness that confirmed to me that it was the right thing to do and I never doubted it. The important thing is that it "works" for the reader!
To read this conversation in French, click here.
Born in Marseille, Sophie Voillot grew up in Quebec and now lives in Montreal. She has worked as a translator for over twenty years and won her first Governor General's Literary Award in 2006 for A Garden of Paper (Salamander, by Thomas Wharton). Again a finalist at the GGs in 2007 in 2008, Sophie Voillot translated Rawi Hage's first novel, Parfum de Dust, winner of the Bookstore Prize and the Book Fight, in 2009. She won a Governor General Award again in 2010 for the translation of Rawi Hage's second novel, Le Cafard. Sophie Voillot third Governor General's Award was in 2013 for The Child of Thursday by Alison Pick. Her translation of Leila Marshy's The Philistine is her first collaboration with LLP.
[Photo: Pierre Crépô]