The Three Rs: Michael Hingston

October 25, 2013 § 1 Comment

Earlier this year I had the pleasure of working on Michael Hingston’s debut novel, The Dilettantes, recently out from Freehand Books. Michael is the books columnist for the Edmonton Journal. Called “one of the sharpest young literary critics in this country” by 49th Shelf, his journalism has also appeared in the Globe and Mail, the National Post, Alberta Venture magazine, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.

When did you first know you wanted to write books?
Like most kids, I daydreamed about it when I was in elementary school. But when I tried to picture what would go between the covers, I would totally blank. I’m still not sure about the concept of books, plural, but I knew I wanted to write this one, at least, when I looked up one day towards the end of my university career and realized that I’d been subconsciously gathering material for years.

How does writing fit into your typical day?
This novel was written almost entirely between the hours of 12:00 and 12:30 MST, during my lunch breaks at work. So writing always has a spot. I write something every day, be it fiction or journalism or just “emails,” which can sometimes be enough of a task that I include it on my day’s to-do list.

Cover of The Dilettantes by Michael Hingston

Do you type or write by hand?
When it comes to actual sentences, typing only. But if I’m daydreaming, or making a list of characters or plot points or what have you, I use a notebook. I don’t know why. It can’t help that much, and honestly I wind up losing about 50% of it anyway.
What have you read recently that you loved?
Jess Walter’s We Live in Water is my favourite book of 2013. Second place is Lynn Coady’s Hellgoing. And I also loved Adam Marek’s The Stone Thrower. (Three story collections! How about that?)
What are your all-time favourites?
Moby-Dick is the G.O.A.T. in my books. It fires on just about every cylinder fiction can.
You can either write or read for the rest of your life – but not both. Which do you choose?
I love writing, but without the constant fuel of reading other people’s stuff, it would descend into nonsense pretty quickly. So: reading.
What’s your third R, and why?
Rotini. Ray guns. RSVPing for weddings. Ritalin? Rabelais.

The Three Rs in Translation: Pablo Strauss

October 18, 2013 § 1 Comment

Pablo Strauss is a Canadian translator working from French into English. His translation of Raymond Bock’s short story collection Atavismes will be published by Dalkey Archive in 2014. Together with Peter McCambridge, Pablo recently started the website ambos, an online magazine of Quebec literature in translation.

How did you learn your source language?

I learned French in school, in Victoria, B.C. Then I moved to Quebec in my early twenties and found out I couldn’t speak in any real sense at all. It took a few years of living here, working, reading, making friends, listening to the radio, and eavesdropping on people on the bus to get really comfortable.

How did you come to translation in general, and literary translation in particular?

I actually took one translation class in university, but nothing came of it. I studied literature, then worked in grocery stores, taught English, and moved back and forth between Quebec and Vancouver a few times.

There was one year in Quebec City, before I really knew anyone, when I spent a lot of time in the public library. I was forced  to read in French all the time because it was really hard to find English books. When I read something I liked I would sometimes copy it out in a notebook, and spontaneously I started translating the odd passage, either for myself or to put in a letter to a friend. All this to say that for me, and for many people I think, translation is a natural reaction to living in a language that isn’t your own.

Years later I got a first freelance job, through a friend of a friend. I realized that translation was something I liked doing and that it came quite naturally. I started doing jobs here and there, and finally quit teaching to translate full time.

I always knew that literary translation was what I really wanted to do. I started translating short stories and excerpts of authors I liked, and sending them off to magazines. Then I did an online certificate at University of Illinois, with Dalkey Archive Press, and they agreed to publish my final project, Raymond Bock’s Atavismes.

What does your day look like while you’re translating a novel?

I was working four days a week at my job when I translated Atavismes (a book of short stories). I’d work on it all day Friday and on the weekend. When the deadline approached I’d get up and do an hour or two in the morning before work, then an hour or two at night. I wouldn’t recommend that for people who work in front of a computer. In an ideal world I think I’d take a few months and do nothing but work on one book. In a cabin on an island somewhere.

What are your favourite contemporary books in the source language?

A book I loved recently was Sarah Berthiaume’s Villes Mortes—I was taken by the voice, from the very first sentence. I really enjoy almost every book I read from Le Quartanier, a really exciting publisher right now, including Raymond Bock, Samuel Archibald, Sophie Létourneau, and more. One of my favourite novels from Quebec is Maryse, by Francine Noël. I can’t believe it’s never been translated into English.

What have you read recently in English that you loved?

I just read A Field Guide to Getting Lost, by Rebecca Solnit, and right away I knew I’ll follow her anywhere. I guess I’m reading less than I used to and I don’t come across as many authors who take a powerful hold of me in that way. I love novels but personal essays even more, and have been rereading a favourite Vancouver author, Bruce Serafin, who died too young and only left two books. I really like Phillip Lopate too, and Elif Batuman whose The Possessed walked the perfect line between serious and funny. As Geoff Dyer does. The last novel that I read and really enjoyed was probably The Marriage Plot.

What book have you translated most recently?

I’ve only translated one book of short stories, Atavismes by Raymond Bock. It will be out with Dalkey Archive in fall 2014.

What were its particular interests and challenges?

Those would both be long lists. Atavismes is a collection of stories, each narrated in a very different voice, but the first one I read, “Peur pastel,” really hit me because it was a voice that sounded like people I know, a reality that looked like the world me and my friends live in.  A lot of translators probably recognize the feeling of coming across something that speaks to you so directly, and that you could also imagine making the crossing into your own language, a sort of twinge of recognition, like a key fitting into a lock. You know right away that you have to translate it.

The toughest challenges were cultural references and jokes. A great deal is always lost. I was working closely with the author and every loss was painful for him, For example, in one story the narrator makes fun of some houses in rural Manitoba by saying they looked like they were dropped in from Terrebonne. Terrebonne here is shorthand for “cookie-cutter suburb,” but English-language readers won’t know that. So I proposed Levittown, one of the first and most famous suburbs; this bothered the author because that’s not what his character would think. I see his point. We ended up with “some random suburb,” a paraphrase much weaker than the original but at least comprehensible. Translating a book involves thousands of decisions like this one, and there’s no rulebook to guide you.

Which is your favourite novel of the ones you’ve translated, and why?

Again, I’ve only translated one full-length book. One story I translated that will always hold a special place in my heart is the first I ever published, Mélanie Vincelette’s “Euclid’s Five Postulates.” It’s so compressed, pathetic, poignant.

Do you write (fiction or non-fiction)?

I have always tried to write both fiction and non-fiction but never finished anything substantial. Maybe one day…

What’s your third R, and why?

Running starts with an “r.” I actually hate running but love playing soccer. I didn’t have a true sit-down job until my mid-thirties, and now I realize just how important it is to get out and run, preferably after a ball.


Alice, What’s the Matter?

October 11, 2013 § 3 Comments

I’ve just been on the phone with Citizenship and Immigration Canada, and they’ve confirmed that I’ll probably lose my right to residency for publishing this post. Or they would have, if they actually had phone lines to call.

(The title of this post is not an entirely gratuitous Terrorvision reference, since the lyrics are oddly apposite to the case at hand.)

Alice Munro: Nobel winner. Every time I read an Alice Munro book, which is once every few years when I start to suspect, once again, that I must be missing something, I quite enjoy it. I admire her sentences and her clever ability to know people, to get at what is “true” in the small details of motivation and grey thinking. But once I’ve finished the book (and this year, wanting—and failing—to be Christian Lorentzen, I even read two back-to-back) I fail to find a bigger mental home for the ideas in it. When there’s a Munro on my shelf I don’t race to pick it up because I think I already know what’s in it.


Yesterday I spotted only one Canadian expressing disagreement with the general Alice-adoration. I’m sure there were many I didn’t see, but the people I saw referring to negative reactions to the gong were mainly talking about dreading the backlash. This tweeter enjoyed Munro’s early books but felt that later ones covered already-worked ground. Across the pond, various male UK critics and writers—all of whose opinions I respect—got into a little spat about Munro’s importance. I agreed with them all to some extent—with Lee Rourke’s opinion that Munro’s “work is necessary and great to read. It speaks to us, shows us ourselves. But what does it disrupt? What does it fracture?” as well as with Stuart Evers’ retort (admittedly not quite in response to this particular tweet): “Oh for fuck’s sake, Lee that is just utterly bollocking bollocks.”

Mine is probably the worst kind of philistinism, the kind that blows in the wind, veering first one way and then the other. Munro’s writing inspires admiration while I’m reading it but I don’t find it exhilarating. In the end, though, Rourke and Evers don’t find themselves quite as far apart as the above suggests. Their reactions and responses to Munro’s writing are similar, with both admiring her and recognising the “truth” in her writing. What they disagree about is its importance.


Since I’m female, the dismissal of a woman writer as unimportant purely because she doesn’t disrupt the dominant cultural energy is a luxury I can’t enjoy, however ambivalent I might feel about the writer’s works. Alice Munro is 82: we readers less than half her age and of a certain political persuasion have simply not had to live in the world whose dominant cultural energy she did in fact disrupt. The fact that a female author is considered worthy of transmitting these mainstream ideas is something I find just as significant as concerns over her adventurousness or lack of it. One of her collections is called Lives of Girls and Women. Does your average man-reader, one looking for fiction that reflects a majority experience back at him, go into a bookshop and pick that up?

Recently I heard Kathleen Winter talking about writing. A question from an audience member asked her if she felt social pressure to write strong female characters. The questioner (who was perhaps in his twenties) may not have intended it this way, but the implication was that this might not be representative of how women truly are. Winter pointed out that she spent many years writing—and feeling pressure to write—stories with strong male characters because that’s what the literary establishment likes and rewards. The dominant cultural energy is not so very changed after all.

The original point of this post, before I got sidetracked with working out what I actually felt about Munro and the critical scepticism, was to point out that beyond the big names (Munro, Ondaatje, Atwood) CanLit is a diverse place, even if much of its more experimental side never gets to travel beyond the borders. For readers whose taste is more Goldsmiths Prize than Richard and Judy, I’ll be writing next week about some disruptive Canadian writers you really should have a look at.

The Three Rs in Translation: Arunava Sinha

October 11, 2013 § Leave a comment

This week, prolific Bengali>English translator Arunava Sinha answers my questions.

How did you learn your source language?

Bengali, my source language, is what I grew up speaking and reading. It’s my ‘mother tongue’, spoken by the majority of the people in the Indian state of Bengal, where I was born and brought up.

How did you come to translation in general, and literary translation in particular?

Translation began as a parlour game, reaching industrial scale when a magazine I helped bring out began to run Bengali short stories in translation. This in turn led to being commissioned by the popular Bengali author Sankar to translate his best-known novel Chowringhee into English, as a bridge translation for a French edition. That was in 1992. Seventeen years later, Penguin India got its hands on this translation and published it. That was when I resumed translating seriously.

As for literary translation, it was no choice at all, because I only translate what I really savour as a reader. 

What does your day look like while you’re translating a novel?

I have a day job, which pretty much occupies me from about 8 AM to 7 PM. Because it involves managing a 24×7 online news portal, I am never entirely off the job. I usually translate between 10 PM and 1 AM on weekdays, and much of the time on holidays and weekends. I also seize any other minutes I might get during the day.
What are your favourite contemporary books in your source language?

Dozakhnama, and A Mirrored Life, both by Rabisankar Bal. The first (which I have translated) is a novel in the form of a dialogue from their graves between Mirza Ghalib, the famous poet who lived during the final years of the Mughal Empire in India, and Saadat Hasan Manto, the well-known writer of the Indian Partition of 1947. The second is a novel about the life of Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet and mystic, narrated by the traveller Ibn-Batuta. 

What have you read recently in English that you loved?

Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland. And, before that, Javier Maras’s The Infatuations (translated).

What novel have you translated most recently?

Bani Basu’s The Mound of Khana and Mihir.

What were its particular interests and challenges?

The novel speaks in several voices. There are the internal monologues of a mother and a daughter, telling the stories of five generations of women in a family. These are interleaved with a recreation of the transition of power from women to men in a  prehistoric society,  as imagined by an archaeologist. Capturing the different registers of narration as well as the cadences of thought was a formidable challenge.


Which is your favourite novel of the ones you’ve translated, and why?

Buddhadeva Bose’s When The Time is Right (‘Tithidore’ in the original Bengali). From a translator’s point of view, this novel was a delight to work on because of the importance of the language, rhythms and sounds, and the way they contribute to telling the story.  

Do you write (fiction or non-fiction)?

I write book reviews and occasional essays on literature and translation. Other than those, I only translate.

What’s your third R, and why?  
Translating poetry. It’s like a rock musician practising classical music. You only need to work on what moves you, without performance pressure.

The Three Rs: Joanna Kavenna

October 4, 2013 § 2 Comments

Earlier this year, Joanna Kavenna was named as one of Granta’s Best of Young British Writers. She has written four books, of which the novel Come To The Edge is the most recent.

When did you first know you wanted to write books?

I always wrote, ie as soon as I could form words with a pen I started writing poems, stories and plays. I never really thought consciously about whether I wanted to write or not, I just wrote for pleasure. I started writing books when I was about 12 or 13, and wrote probably a ‘novel’ a year after that, as well as annotating my paltry teenage agonies in diaries, notebooks, etc. I didn’t show anything to a publisher until I was about 24, and that was a slightly wild sci-fi novel which was summarily rejected. Then I didn’t approach publishers again for several years, though I kept writing novels while doing various dull jobs, scribbling surreptitiously in a notebook as I was pretending to work. So I have never really written determinedly and solely for publication, I just write, and then I send a fraction of what I write to publishers- but most of my ‘output’ either never goes before an editor, or gets rejected for being too weird.

How does writing fit into your typical day?

I write whenever I have time, within the dictates of being a parent – so each day I am working on my current novel, and then also on journalism for immediate cash, lectures for the same, letters/emails, personal meanderings, scrappy notes, recorded conversations, small tirades, etc.

Do you type or write by hand?

Yes, both. By hand for notes, first versions, early drafts. Then I type things up and I always edit on a screen.

What have you read recently that you loved?

The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers by Sarnath Banarjee. Brilliant graphic novel by an amazing, under-feted Indian author.

What are your all-time favourites?

George Orwell, Angela Carter, Anna Wickham, Mark Twain, Henrik Ibsen, Doris Lessing, Anton Chekhov, Knut Hamsun, Virginia Woolf, Robert Bolano, Margaret Atwood, Enrique Vila-Matas, Dino Buzzati, Iain Sinclair, Saul Bellow, Carol Shields, Chan Koonchung, Katherine Mansfield, Renee Vivien, etc.

You can either write or read for the rest of your life – but not both. Which do you choose?

I choose to implode…

What’s your third R, and why?

Ridicule – self-ridicule, crucial in order to do anything worthwhile, the gentle loving ridicule of those you most admire, and the ridicule of pompous absolutists and self-anointed experts wherever they might be…

Where Am I?

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