On 9 July 2019, for the first time, the overall winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize was announced in North America, more specifically in one of UNESCO’s Creative Cities of Literature: Quebec City. Since Quebec inaugurated its Maison de la littérature almost 4 years ago, I virtually spend as much time there as I do at home. Indeed, it feels like home to me and to many members of the literary community in the Quebec region, and it was perhaps the best place to organise a ceremony where words, diversity, and culture were to be celebrated.
The ceremony was conducted both in French and English, and after the awards presentation, guests were invited to attend a show that highlighted Quebec’s native cultures. This provides a good picture of the complex linguistic panorama that makes up this part of the world. Canada has two official languages, but the Official Language Act does not take into account all the languages spoken by native people, and even less all the dialects and local variations. For instance, if you travel around the province of Quebec, you will hear dozens of accents and ways of speaking. The French spoken in Gaspesia is not totally the same as the French spoken in Lac-Saint-Jean or in Outaouais.
When I heard the regional winners of the prize read excerpts from their stories, I realised each of them were written in a different variant of English, coloured by the culture, the landscapes, and the history of their homeland. Perhaps if the Francophones knew that English, like French, is a multifaceted language, they would break the old habit of placing all English speakers in the same basket.
Francophones in Quebec have a very particular relationship with the English language and the Anglophones. In 1759, the Plains of Abraham were host to a 30-minute battle during which British soldiers, under the command of General Wolfe, defeated the Marquis de Montcalm and his French army, allowing the British to take control of the city. As the 260-year anniversary approaches, Francophones and Anglophones live peaceably, but there is undeniable tension between them. For example, the Bill 101, designed to protect the French language on Quebec territory, was not well received by everyone when it came into force in the seventies, some people—Italian immigrants among them—protested in order to protect their right to send children to English-speaking schools.
The debate continues. In recent years, newspapers have been covering what has come to be known as the ‘Bonjour, hi’ controversy, a reference to the tendency observed in Montreal for store employees to welcome clients using a bilingual formula: some say they should only be served in French. Since 1945, the lack of will to communicate between Anglophones and Francophones has been referred to as ‘the two solitudes’, when the expression was first coined by Hugh MacLennan in his novel of the same name.
I became a literary translator to build bridges between cultures. And during the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize award ceremony, I felt I was not alone; in fact, I was surrounded by people who believed in the power of literature, the power of language, and the crucial importance of translation.
I translated the English version of ‘Death Customs’ to French; this was the winning story which was originally written in the Greek. I decided to work, as far as possible, as if the English version were the original: I am strongly convinced that a translation is a new original, a whole new work of art with its own qualities, and flaws. But I still needed some linguistic context.
Thankfully I had the chance to ask Lina Protopapa, the Greek to English translator, a number of questions so she could help me take the right decisions in French. Among other things, I asked her about the title signification, because the two meanings of ‘customs’ are translated by two different words in French (‘douanes’ and ‘coutumes’). I was glad the word was only used to refer to ‘tradition’, because it would have been a puzzle to translate otherwise.
I also needed to know if the subject (‘we’) referred to by the narrator included only women, or also men, because of course in French, it changes the verbs and adjectives conjugation. And I needed more context to understand how to translate ‘you’; in order to know whether I should use the French ‘vous’ (polite form) or ‘tu’ (casual), which transforms the perception readers have of the characters’ relationships.
But the key for me is to place confidence in the text itself—to let the rhythm of it guide me. Constantia Soteriou is also a playwright, so she has a great sense of cadence and tempo; ‘Death Customs’ is all about repetition—words work like hammers, driving home their primal signification, to make you feel the story in your gut. I wanted to respect that characteristic of her writing—clearly emblematic of how history repeats itself in Cyprus and the world over— despite the fact that French has less tolerance for repetition than English.
Before I worked with the Commonwealth Foundation to translate Soteriou’s story, I was unaware of its activities. This can at least partly be explained by the ‘two-solitudes’ situation we face in Canada. But on 9 July, the Foundation announced that, from 2020, the Prize will be accepting entries in French. This is great news—and, let’s hope, a step toward a rapprochement between French Quebecers and the Commonwealth community.
Mélissa Verreault is a writer, lecturer in creative writing, translator, vice-president of the Union of Writers and Quebecois Writers, and a mother of triplets. Her writing includes Behind the Eyes We Meet, and she has translated Katherena Vermette’s The Break into French.