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A Perfect Gift for Any Language Professional on Your List

In Translation, Honouring Sheila Fischman

Simon, Sherry, ed., In Translation, Honouring Sheila Fischman, McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal, 2013, ISBN 978-0-7735-4195-5, 221 pages

Need a gift for a colleague’s birthday or retirement? I recommend the book, In Translation, Honouring Sheila Fischman, which pays tribute to Sheila Fischman’s very successful career spanning 40 years, during which she has translated some 150 book-length publications from French to English. Concordia professor and author Sherry Simon (Translating Montreal, Cities in Translation) has gathered together a group of literati, including Alberto Manguel, Pierre Anctil, Luise von Flotow, Roch Carrier and others, along with Sheila’s first and second husbands, D.J. Jones and Donald Winkler, to write about this great Canadian literary translator. As a result, there is some fascinating background material on Fischman and her career, and it is a treat to read.

The book focuses on the influence of translation on writers’ careers in terms of both insight into their own writing and access to a wider market. Each chapter stands alone, so you can read one, put the book down and go back to it later. Part II is on the Art of Translation. This is the first time
I have read such an expansive discussion of the fact that translating leads to the creation of a new literary work. The book also covers some well-known writers, Quebec nationalism, and the birth of literary translation in Canada, among other topics. As an added bonus, Canada’s Commissioner of Official Languages, Graham Fraser, writes about one of the leading Anglo intellectuals during the Révolution Tranquille, F.R. Scott, and his book with Anne Hébert, Dialogue sur la Traduction À Propos Du Tombeau Des Rois

Patricia Godbout writes that Fischman’s career began when she moved to the village of North Hatley in the Eastern Townships in the late 1960s.
It was a meeting place for some of the top Quebec writers and intellectuals of the “Quiet Revolution.” Almost by accident, Roch Carrier, who was visiting North Hatley, gave Fischman one of his early novels, La Guerre, Yes Sir! (1968) to read.She asked if she could translate it, and then found a publisher. The translation was published in 1970. Most of the profanity in the book and the title were left in French, which turned out to be a stroke of genius. The original title was meant to illustrate the linguistic divide, and so it makes sense to leave it as is. However, it is amusing to learn that most of the profanity in the text was left in French because of Fischman’s inexperience as a translator. Every Canadian has an excerpt from Roch Carrier’s short story, The Hockey Shirt (1979), in their wallet on the old five dollar bill. Fischman wrote the English version, of course, and is recognized as having played a key role in promoting Carrier’s work.

The poetry reading that started it all

In about 1968, Fischman organized a poetry reading by Frank Scott and A.J.M. Smith at “The Pottery” in North Hatley. The story of the poetry reading “fiasco” is discussed by several people in the book. Their recollections hint at the cultural excitement and linguistic tensions of the period. Paulien Julien and Gérald Godin were in attendance. Julien demanded that D.J. Jones speak in French and chanted “En français.” People started throwing mugs (p. 29). “Although Sheila Fischman was ‘in tears’ when she realized the turn her poetry reading had taken, that evening ‘was the beginning of the rest of [her] professional life’”. “… I determined I would devote the energy and skills I could muster in attempting, only attempting, to break down some of the barriers between French- and English-speakers. My chosen medium was literature, for I would later discover I had a certain knack for translating fiction from French to English.” (pp.9-10).

Fischman is credited with bringing an array of French Canadian writers to the attention of English Canada. Some would say that she ushered in modern literary translation in Canada as we know it today, with Canada Council translation grants and the Literary Translators’ Association of Canada. Fischman is one of the people who fought to convince publishers to put translators’ names on book covers. There is still progress to be made in this regard, however. One of In Translation’s contributing authors even suggests that the Canada Council pay translators directly rather than give the grant money to publishers (to make sure the translators receive the money).

A unique relationship with Quebec writers


The unique characteristic of Fischman, in my opinion, is her relationship with Quebec writers. Perhaps the most striking example of this is Jacques Poulin. Poulin was introduced to publishers by Fischman, who both translated and promoted his work. The experience led Poulin to write a touching novel with translation at the centre of the plot, La traduction est une histoire d’amour (2006), Translation Is a Love Affair (2009). Poulin’s story expresses the fact that Fischman “curled up inside his way of writing” by saying that the translator wore the writer’s clothes to get closer to him.

I particularly enjoyed the following description of Fischman as an “agent of translation” (agent of change) by Kathy Mezei, “Yet, although Sheila Fischman, the translator, may seek to draw a cloak of invisibility around her presence in the text, as an agent of translation for Canadian culture she has exerted a quiet but impressive power and persistently pursued and articulated her characteristic translation norms and practices for others to emulate.” (p. 36) In Translation is a worthy tribute to Sheila Fischman, and also a gift for translators and lovers of Quebec literature.

About Sheila Fishman

Born in Saskatchewan in 1937, Sheila Fischman moved to Quebec as an adult. She has won the Governor General’s Award for Translation, the Canada Council Translation Prize, the Felix-Antoine Savard Translation Prize, and the Molson Prize in the Arts. She holds two honorary doctorates, is the co-founder with D.J. Jones of Ellipse, a magazine dedicated to the translation of English- and French-Canadian poetry, and is a founding member of the Literary Translators’ Association of Canada. In addition, she is a member of the Order of Canada and a chevalier of the Ordre national du Québec.


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