Ex-pat Ottawa translator makes Man Booker International shortlist

Alison Strayer

So, just how does an Ottawa anglophone translate a French book into English that is filled with esoteric Parisian historical and pop culture minutiae and then land her translation on the shortlist for the very prestigious £50,000 Man Booker International Prize?

Well, Alison L. Strayer was already an experienced translator and author when she tackled Annie Ernaux’s memoir Les Années (The Years).  (Strayer was nominated in 2010 for a Governor General’s Literary Award for her translation from English into French of the Mavis Gallant book A Fairly Good Time. She also was shortlisted for a GG for her own fiction, Jardin et prairie, in 2000.)

Strayer has learned some tricks along the way, including visits to some of Monsieur Google’s more obscure domains. It also helps to be living in Paris with a French husband whose family could apparently win any French Trivial Pursuit contest.

“I had only to present a snippet of a popular song, an advertising jingle, joke or spoonerism, a quip from a ‘50s comedian, whatever the case, and someone would promptly recite it in full and provide necessary explanations,” Strayer said in a recent email interview.

Les Années is billed as an “autobiography of a generation,” the swath of life in France experienced by the 78-year-old Ernaux. The New York Times, in a praise-filled review, called the book “a collective autobiography.”

The £50,000 (about $87,000 Canadian) Man Booker International Prize will be announced on May 21 in London. It is awarded annually to a book translated into English, equally recognizing the author and the translator. The better-known Man Booker Prize is awarded to the best book originally written in English.

Along with The Years (Seven Stories Press), this year’s shortlist for the international prize includes Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi, translated from Arabic by Marilyn Booth; The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann  and translated from German by Jen Calleja; Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk and translated from Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones; The Shape of the Ruins by  Juan Gabriel Vásquez and translated from Spanish by Anne McLean; The Remainder by Alia Trabucco Zerán and translated from Spanish by Sophie Hughes.

The following is a partial transcript (edited for brevity) of an interview with Strayer as she discusses the art of translation.

Q. What was the most difficult aspect of translating The Years?

A. The main challenge in The Years was getting used to the author’s voice, ‘getting inside it,’ and finding ways of translating certain turns of phrases she uses that are idiosyncratic to her style but don’t have dictionary definitions and which are not helped at all by anyone’s explanations of what they ‘mean.’ In this regard, by far my greatest guide and inspiration were the superb translations of Tanya Leslie, Ernaux’s translator for (publisher) Seven Stories, New York throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. I read them at the time they came out (after I’d read the French originals) and have reread them many times since.

Q. Did you regularly consult with the author?

A. As it happened, I did not consult Annie Ernaux at all during the translation of Les Années. It took me a long time (while translating) to orient myself within the book, and try out different approaches (these involved degrees and types of ‘fidelity’ to the original text — do I adhere to word-by-word translation, within reason? Use sentences without active verbs? Replicate slippery gerunds or progressive modes of verbs? ‘Standing at the door’ rather than ‘as she stands at the door,’ etc.). These were things the author could not help me with and I admit the prospect of contacting her filled me with trepidation. Months passed, and I simply continued. …  

After the book was published and won a prize in the U.S., we started to correspond on a friendly basis, and now, (while translating Ernaux’s) Mémoire de fille, I do submit questions once in a while, usually (at least so far) about obscure idioms that no one else and no site or book can explain to me, or very precise details about concrete things (shapes of hairdos or designs of clothes hooks that are not clear to me from the book). By far, most of the work I have done in my 30-odd years of translation-of-all-trades (‘have dictionary, will travel’) has not required much in the way of conferring with authors or clients.

Q. Was translating into French Mavis Gallant’s novel A Fairly Good Time along with co-translator Geneviève Letarte in 2009 a different experience?

A. At the beginning, Mavis asked the publisher (based in Montreal), to have ‘the translators’ send her chapters as we went along. She read and annotated them and I received them by post or scan. Then, teeth chattering, I would phone her — we both lived in Paris. There were many words that neither Geneviève nor I suspected were inaccurate. For instance, translating ‘coffee cup’ as ‘tasse’ would not do. ‘The French say mug,’ Mavis told me. (I’ve often heard that word said, and it sounds like ‘møg’ or ‘moög’ in local pronunciation). ‘Bluet’ was not ‘blueberry’ but ‘cornflower,’ and so on.

Q. Compare the joy of writing and of translating:

A. At the moment the two processes — and joys — are very similar and intertwined. I have an unfinished book in a bottom drawer, where it has been for quite some time. However, I find that translating The Years, and now Mémoire de fille, not only puts into play a process that feels very much like writing, but also instructs me in what I may need to do to complete my book in the drawer. 

The joy of translating The Years (and Mémoire) has to do with the palpable sense of living inside the book. It is an experience akin to an intense listening that grows increasingly precise, listening to the words, the way they are put together. What is most striking in all this is the rhythm.

By the end of the translation process, my problem sentences are engraved in my mind, and I can say them out loud, or walk them out when I am going about my daily errands and, always, a solution eventually comes to mind, such as to how to make the sentence flow smoothly so it doesn’t stand out like a sore thumb … find a cadence for the English sentences that somehow echoes the original French but is faithful to the native metres of English. A couple of other books I have translated have brought me joy comparable to that of writing … and ‘coached me’ for writing, though not in terms of rhythm; rather in terms of character and construction.

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