Canadian literature: “Entertaining, insightful, diverse"
© Véronique Soucy
What is, in your opinion, Canada’s special appeal?
For ten years now, I have been living half in Germany and the other half in Canada, more precisely in Québec. There are many things I like about Canada: the relative openness of society, the friendliness of most people, the vast nature, the forests and lakes, the warm summers, the snowy winters. Of course, not everything is rosy here either, there are many social problems, especially the persistent racism against First Nations. But things are starting to happen, and the willingness of the mainstream to deal with this issue in society has grown considerably in recent years.
How would you describe Canadian literature in three words?
Entertaining, insightful, diverse
In your view, are there any characteristics that are particularly distinctive of Canada's literature?
One can’t really speak of ONE Canadian literature (which in principle applies to all countries, of course). But since literature always means grappling with reality in one form or another, it is indeed possible to name a few characteristics: Texts set in metropolitan areas often address aspects of immigrant society or indigenous life in the big city. Social utopias or dystopias also play an important role, and the relationship between people and nature is a recurring theme.
How do you see the 'Singular Plurality' of Canadian literature? What do you associate with 'singular plurality'?
When I think of plurality, the first thing that comes to mind is the multilingualism of Canadian literature: Canadian literature exists in English, in French and in indigenous languages: Cree, Innu Aimun, Inuktitut, Anishnaabemowin and many more. It is important to remember that most indigenous authors write in English or French because many indigenous languages are only spoken by a minority of the population as a result of centuries of colonial oppression. Fortunately, there are numerous initiatives to revitalise these languages.
And the plurality is precisely "singular", i.e. unique, because each piece of the mosaic that makes up the Canadian plurality is unique.
Please complete the following sentences:
Translating is … For me, translating means…
... a wonderful profession that I really enjoy and that gives me a lot of freedom.
What fascinates you about translation?
The fact that as a translator you are always mediating between different languages and thus different worlds.
Which challenges do you face as a translator of Canadian literature (e.g. regarding the cultural and linguistic diversity of the country)?
In literary translation, one should always be well acquainted with the language and society from which one translates a book. You should have an idea of what the landscape is like, what a typical gas station, pub or corner shop looks like, how the houses are built in villages and in the cities. These are difficult things to research. And, of course, you should be well informed about the country’s history and its social and political conflicts. In a country as big as Canada this is certainly difficult because you cannot know all the regions. You have to speak to locals, read on the internet a lot or ask the author questions.
What was your greatest difficulty in translating Canadian titles into German?
Terms from indigenous cultures or from the colonial system that are absolutely common in Canada, but for which there is no equivalent in German. The vocabulary available to us in German still comes from Karl May and is often tinted by colonial racism (just think of terms like „Stamm“ [tribe] or “Häuptling” [chief]). It is not easy at all to find words in German that sound as natural as in Canadian French or English.
What do you enjoy most about translating Canadian literature?
First of all, the same as with translating in general: rewriting a literary text in another language, that is, tweaking the language until all the images are coherent, until the rhythm fits, until the sound of the text is right. And in terms of Canadian literature: I'm always happy when I can apply my knowledge of Canadian society by subtly incorporating it into the German text. Because, of course, literature should not be instructive or explanatory.
You translated the GuestScroll for Canada into German. What kind of text is it? What is the special feature of Georgette Leblanc's poem?
It is a bilingual poem, originally written in French and English, which also plays with indigenous concepts. And then Georgette Leblanc also uses quotations from other Canadian authors: most of the lines of the poem are quotations from other literary texts. Thus, it is a polyphonic, intertextual poem.
What is the text about?
It’s about the different facets of Canadian identity: of multilingualism, of French and English heritage, of indigenous traditions, of immigration from all sorts of places around the world. About how all this is connected and how we are all interwoven. About the old and the new, about creative energy.
What challenges did you face in translating it into German?
The bilingualism, the jumping back and forth between English and French, was unfortunately not translated into German. Because the German audience does not understand both languages as a matter of course (although in Canada only a minority of the population does). That's why there is only an English sprinkling in the German version. Instead of multilingualism, I concentrated on content and rhythm.
What impact has the Covid-19 pandemic had on your work as a translator?
So far, fortunately, only in a minor way. With literary translation, you sit alone at your desk anyway, and the contracts are often concluded a year in advance. In spring 2020, however, several events I would have performed at – alone or with one of my authors – were cancelled. That has caused quite a financial loss, because moderations and readings are paid a tad better than the actual translation. But apart from that, the number of projects I’ve been asked to handle has not decreased so far. Of course, I was particularly affected by the postponement of the Guest of Honour performance in Canada. Some of my authors would have travelled to Germany and there would have been joint performances that did not take place in 2020. In the autumn, five books from Canada translated to German by me were published and three more have been postponed to 2021.
Sonja Finck, born 1978, lives in Berlin and Gatineau (Canada) and translates novels and plays from French and English. She is the German voice of Annie Ernaux, among others. One of her main focuses is francophone literature from Québec. In 2020, she was awarded the Eugen Helmlé Prize for her complete works.
Interview conducted by Ann-Kathrin Ludwig, Trainee International Relations at Frankfurter Buchmesse.