Lazer Lederhendler’s French-English Wall

Lazer Lederhendler
photo courtesy Biblioasis

Canadian novelist Catherine Leroux’s second book, The Party Wall, won the Quebec Booksellers Prize and the Prix France Québec when it was first published in French in 2014. Lazer Lederhendler’s English-language translation, published this year by Biblioasis, has just won Canada’s Governor General’s Award for translated literature, and it made the shortlist for the Giller Prize for fiction, too. I’m pretty excited about this novel; at first, you don’t know how its various threads, from two young sisters walking through a threatening neighborhood to a Canadian prime minister in what now reads like an all-too plausible dystopian future whose wife uncovers an earth-shattering secret, connect to each other. But Leroux brings everything together in a way that still allows each story to maintain its separate power—you might spend some time trying to guess how she’ll do it, but it’s not going to distract you from the dramas she’s set up for her characters.

Leroux is just one of many Québécois writers Lederhendler has translated in recent years, making this literary scene accessible to English readers. In this guest post, though, he hits upon an idea that makes me think about just how thick (or thin!) we should make any line we draw between Québécois literature and English-language Canadian literature.

In a past life teaching English and, later on, translation in Montreal, I often made a point early in the term of quoting Wallace Stevens’s well-known aphorism, “French and English constitute a single language.” Granted, most people anywhere would find it hard to get their heads around this concept, let alone college students in Quebec, where the relationship between French and English is at the heart of a centuries-old conflict that is far from over.

My aim, though, was not to persuade students that Stevens was right but rather to bring into question some widespread and entrenched assumptions that draw a sharp, dichotomous boundary between the two languages: “English is the language of business, French the language of diplomacy”; “French is difficult, English is easy”; “English is concrete, French is abstract”; “English is demotic, French is elitist,” and such. Whereas to postulate that English and French somehow form one language is to floodlight the overlap, the liminal region where kinships and affinities as well as tensions (the dreaded “false friends” and their kind) are played out.


FacebookTwitterTumblrGoogle+Blogger PostRedditEvernoteSlashdotDeliciousStumbleUponEmailShare/Bookmark

16 November 2016 | in translation |

Peter Bush’s No-Hope Sucklers

Peter Bush
photo: courtesy Peter Bush

Black Bread is one of those novels that builds slowly, through the accrued detail of seemingly disconnected scenes… or, let’s say, a string of scenes where the narrative throughline is not immediately apparent to the reader. It attracted my attention because I know very little about Catalan culture beyond the fact of its existence, and I wanted to learn. And, too, I wanted to hear from its translator, Peter Bush—who wound up explaining how a novel about rural Catalonia stirred up memories of his own English childhood.

My very first memories are of a sow with the litter of piglets she’d just farrowed. Her sty was in our backyard and she was my first pet. On a Saturday morning in September, 1950, my elder sister walked me up to the Odeon to the kids’ session; when I came back, sections of the sow were hanging from our clothesline and the kitchen was full of blood and entrails. Cousin Ray the butcher had paid us a visit. (In post-war, still rationing Britain, it wasn’t unusual for people to keep pigs and chickens in their backyards, but by 1950, that era was coming to an end.)

Our domestic scene was gloomy for other reasons. My mother had arranged for us to move to a new council house with large gardens and light in a leafier part of town, from anonymous Seventh Avenue to a more optimistic Queen’s Road in the run up to a coronation, and my father had opposed this from the start. He didn’t want to leave the house my battling grandmother had forced out of the council when her husband, a village shepherd, fell ill one Christmas and was evicted along with his family from their tied-cottage by the Tory landowner. (As they bickered, I enjoyed the haslets, chitterlings, black puddings and pork-pies Ray had made from my pet.)

Many other memories, family stories and bits of our rural dialect and oral history kept flooding back as I translated Emili Teixidor’s Black Bread. Of course, pork and pig slaughtering have a different history in Catalunya and the whole of the Iberian Peninsula. The autumn pig slaughter is a time for festivities that are part pagan and part the legacy of an Inquisitional anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim tradition. But that’s not on the mind of the adolescents in Black Bread, as they hear about the deaths of those surplus to the litter, the runts, ‘the no-hope piglets, the no-hope sucklers’ who reach the tit too late: “Cry-baby and I shuddered when we heard those curious details, as if nature had also got it wrong with us, who through lack of tit and lack of parents were also destined to be abandoned and forgotten. No-hope children.”


11 September 2016 | in translation |

Next Page »