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.