David Homel on how to recapture a book’s spark in another language, and a changing Canadian literary scene
Some of you will have read Flaubert, Kafka or even Tintin in English. Can you name the translator? It’s hardly news that many books you read were originally written in a different language, but for some reason literary translation is an art form you don’t often hear about.
“It shouldn’t be a full-time business, it should be something you do when you find a book you want to [translate],” said David Homel, a part-time instructor at Concordia who is also an award-winning literary translator. Homel, who translates from French to English, came to prominence in the late ‘80s for his work on Dany Laferrière novels such as How to Make Love to a Negro. He has since authored several books of his own, including 2014’s The Fledglings.
“It sounds like you’re just sitting on your butt all day, whether you’re writing or translating, but actually it’s quite physically challenging,” said Homel, noting that the fatigue a translator may feel at the end of their workday is usually a good sign. While a lot of a translator’s work comes down to interpretation, a successful translation must be seamless enough not to pull you out of the story. “Bad translations are the ones that make you aware that they’re translations,” Homel said.
A novelist may not have an ending in mind as they start writing, but a translator is always limited to the original text, which Homel sees as a major disadvantage. This fact is reflected in his personal approach—he never reads a book before he translates it. “That creates a certain excitement and tension and energy,” he said.
Homel practices what he refers to as “strong translation,” meaning that he is usually unconcerned with finding a perfect equivalent for every word, and aims to replicate a text’s emotional tone instead. Having to take on someone else’s voice, a voice that may be very different from your own, is what Homel said makes translation comparable to acting. “It’s a lot of people to be at the same time,” he said.
Of course, knowing the author you translate is a plus. “In a couple of cases, and I’ve been lucky that way, I’ve become truly friends with the writers I’ve translated,” Homel said. “You should have some affinity with the voice of the person that you’re translating. If you don’t, sometimes it’s just mechanical … When I set out to translate a book, I like to meet the [writer], I like to just listen to [them] talk and hear the sound of [their] voice, because then when I read the book, it’s like [they’re] talking to me. And then I can sort of talk back to [them] in my translation.”
It’s uncommon for translators to be able to personally meet the authors they work with, but the fact that Montreal is a bilingual environment makes it a unique place for literary translation. “It’s a real phenomenon, and it doesn’t happen everywhere in the world, or maybe anywhere in the world, where your neighbour, or the person down the street, is translating your book into another language,” Homel said.
There is also a long history to literary translation in Montreal, and Canada in general, and much progress has been made since the ‘70s, as far as Homel is concerned. “There was a time when translators had this self-appointed political task of keeping the country together and allowing French and English Canadians to read each other’s work,” Homel said. “It was almost like a patriotic or political duty to help bridge the so-called ‘two solitudes.’ People don’t think like that anymore, they’re just looking for books they want to read. And that’s probably better.”
As Homel explained, part of the progress also seems to come from the fact that Quebec has allowed itself to explore English-Canadian literature in a way it previously hadn’t. “For a long time, English Canada was translating [creative work] from Quebec, but Quebec wasn’t doing the same thing. Now, French publishers here are doing many more English-Canadian novels … They now believe that English Canada has an imagination that’s worth looking into.”
David Homel and Marianne Champagne, who translated his novel The Fledglings into French, will take part in a bilingual discussion on translation on Feb. 10 at 7 p.m. at the Atwater Library Auditorium. Admission is free.