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Translator Lazer Lederhendler on ferrying Nikolski across 'the tricky gulf between French and English'

During the book signing at the tail end of the Canada Reads launch event (in the photo at left, I'm on stage with Jian Ghomeshi) on December 1, a man waiting to have his copy of Nikolski signed asked me if I had translated it line by line or adopted more of an overall approach. Under the circumstances, I could offer only a quick, "bit-of-both" response. I can't say whether he was satisfied. As for me, I was struck by his uncommon curiosity about the particulars of the process, about exactly how you go about morphing Nikolski from a novel written in French into one that would be read in English.

Well, this may sound like a truism, but translators are, at the outset, readers. As a reader, I share the thrill that all readers experience when they open a new novel — say, Nikolski. It's the excitement that a traveller feels when embarking on a long voyage with only a vague idea of what's ahead. But unlike most other readers of Nikolski, it was my privilege and duty as a translator to extend the voyage even further by ferrying the original text across the tricky gulf between French and English. The trick, as always, being to bring Nikolski safely ashore, intact yet transformed.

The travel metaphor is especially apt when applied to Nikolski. Not just because the narrative covers thousands of kilometres on land and sea, but also on account of the history behind the writing and then the translation of the novel. Dickner drafted most of the book during a writing residency in Bamberg, Germany, and I started translating it, some months later, in Arles, France, at the Collège international des traducteurs littéraires. What's more, the translation was eventually completed in Montreal (not to mention the e-mail consultations with editor Pamela Murray in Toronto), though only after a large chunk had been drafted in the Rocky Mountains while I was a resident at the Banff International Literary Translation Centre.Talk about a long, strange trip!

It was in Banff that I first met Nicholas Dickner, who was there thanks to the centre's policy of bringing together translators and writers. Fortunately, the proverbial chemistry was favourable and we got along well. But there's one incident that can serve as an allegory for a peculiar feature of successful literary translation.

All through his stay in Banff, Nicholas was preoccupied with his baby daughter, who was busy teething back in Montreal. One afternoon, he and I were preparing for a public reading and having problems printing out the French and English versions of the excerpt to be read. At one sweaty point, I removed my eyeglasses and placed them near the uncooperative printer. When I reached for them again they'd vanished. Growing more and more desperate and obsessed, I asked Nicholas for the umpteenth time if he'd noticed where I'd put my %&?!$ glasses. For the umpteenth time he shook his head.

Prompted by my nearsightedness, I approached him so that we stood almost toe-to-toe. His own glasses were sitting on his nose, and sticking out of his shirt pocket was a second pair. "Do you need two pairs of glasses?" I asked. "No," he said. "So what were you planning to do with mine?"

This anecdote speaks to the "double vision" that an effective translation produces. What's involved is a sort of optical illusion where the reader (in this case also the writer) reads "through" the translation and "sees" the original text. To illustrate, here's a passage from Nikolski, one actually alluding to the novel's mysterious title.

"Je jette un coup d'oeil au compas Nikolski. Je donne trois délicats coups de jointure sur le plastique, comme on frapperait le hublot d'un baromètre. La sphère oscille et se replace obstinément 34° à l'ouest du nord. Jamais un degré d'écart. Rien á comprendre."

Now the translation:

"I glance at the Nikolski compass and gently tap the plastic three times with my knuckles, the way one would hit the glass of a barometer. The globe oscillates and obstinately returns to 34° W. Never one degree off. Go figure."

A quote from the German thinker and translator Walter Benjamin may help to further clarify this idea: "A real translation is transparent: it does not cover the original, does not block its light, but allows the pure language, as though reinforced by its own medium, to shine upon the original all the more fully."

By the way, if you're wondering what I actually told the man at the December 1 launch, it was simply this. Translating a novel is like driving a car: you're vision is constantly shifting between what's right in front of you, what you see in your mirrors, and what's ahead, coming down the road.


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