Lazer Lederhendler believes every translator needs an imaginative mind

The three-time Governor General's Literary Award winner reflects on his career in letters and why imagination has been essential to his success.

'That's the great paradox of translation: it's the same and not the same at all'

Lazer Lederhendler is a translator and academic from Montreal. (Monique Dykstra)

Lazer Lederhendler is one of the pre-eminent literary translators in Canada. He's won three Governor General's Literary Awards for French-to-English translation: in 2020 for If You Hear Me by Pascale Quiviger, in 2016 for The Party Wall by Catherine Leroux and in 2008 for Nikolsi by Nicolas Dickner. He's been nominated for the award several times over.

Lederhendler grew up in a working-class immigrant family in Montreal. A career in letters wasn't on his mind until later in life, when Lederhendler discovered he had a knack for translation. Mostly self-taught, Lederhendler only partially completed a course in translation while living in Moncton. His professor told him he was wasting his time there — he was already good enough to start working.

Lederhendler went on to work for government agencies before completing a Master's degree in English and becoming a literary translator. These days, he's semi-retired and has decided to focus on translating works from his mother tongue, Yiddish.

The acclaimed translator spoke with CBC Books about his career, approach to translation and more.

    You say you're now semi-retired. How have you been defining success over your career? What is success for you? 

    Success is really a matter of just having fun doing what you do for a living. In that sense, I feel I've been successful. I've managed over the years to stay interested and passionate about my work.

    Of course, there's always this small degree of celebrity in the mix. I don't know if it's a measure of success, but the fact of having the quality of your work validated on a larger scale is satisfying. To be satisfied in your work, it's what a lot of people are striving for and it's not always there, right? So I feel good about that.

    I've managed to build a career, I guess. And now, you know, semi-retired means I'm still working, but at a much more relaxed pace. I actually said this publicly a little while ago, so it's not a secret — for the time being, I am not going to be translating from French anymore. I'm shifting into another kind of translation, which is from my mother tongue, Yiddish. I started on a project to translate an author who's spent the last decades of his life in Montreal, but who wrote in Yiddish, and I'm translating some episodes from his memoirs.

    Is that a passion project for you, in terms of pivoting to translating Yiddish? 

    It's something I always wanted to do; I never felt that the time was right. It's also a new challenge, so it keeps the level of interest and motivation up.

    As a translator from Yiddish, I'm a novice. It's a different proposition than if I'm translating from French, which I'm very familiar with in terms of the language and literature. Even though Yiddish is my mother tongue, I didn't have any kind of advanced education in Yiddish literature.

    So it's a challenge and I thrive on challenge, like a lot of people.

    How did you fall into translation work? 

    When I started out translating, there were very few translation courses given at a university level, let alone translation programs. Now there are legions of them. 

    I started translating just to make some money. Many years ago, I was living in New Brunswick and I realized that I was good at translation. I had a knack for it. I did take a couple of courses in translation and my professor, who I became quite friendly with, told me that I was basically wasting my time there and I should just go out and work as a translator. So I did that.

    I worked for the New Brunswick government. I worked for the federal government in Ottawa, and then I moved back with my family to Montreal in the late 1980s and went back to university to do my Master's in English. I was asked at one point, "Would you like to translate a book or short stories?" And I did.

    That was like 30 years ago.

    What would you say is the secret sauce, so to speak, in order to translate French to English? Particularly in terms of retaining literary nuance while still incorporating your own style?

    There's no secret sauce. There's just a lot of hard work, which is true, I guess, in any endeavour. 

    My approach is that the translator starts out the way anybody who reads literature starts out, which is that you read a book. You have an image in your head of the narrative voice that you're hearing; you picture what the characters look like, you picture the scenes the way any reader does. You pay very close attention, much more than the average reader.

    After that, it's just like what any writer does. You draft, you re-draft, you draft again and rewrite and polish. 

    In terms of colour and energy, particularly when you're translating French for the English-speaking Canadian audience, what's involved? How are you making it relatable and still retain its specificity?

    It's a very complicated question. When I read the narrative on the page where a character is speaking, I get a picture of what they're sounding like. That's what I try to achieve in English. It's not going to be the same, right?

    That's the great paradox of translation: It's the same and not the same at all. It's a new work in its own right. But on the other hand, it tells exactly the same story in exactly the same sequence, and uses the same factual details as the original. 

    It's like any artistic endeavour. There's intuition and instinct. You don't know exactly why you made a certain choice, but you did.

    There's intuition and instinct. You don't know exactly why you made a certain choice, but you did. In the end you realize, well, that was the right choice, and maybe later you understand why.

    Would it be fair to say that your background in film and poetry gives you a proverbial "leg up" in terms of having a cinematic sense and scope? 

    Anything that helps your imagination work at its best capacity — reading, art, film, whatever — is going to be helpful to you. It will make the difference between something that's okay or mediocre — and something that has sparkle to it.

    Do you have favourite translations that you've done? 

    I'm going to give you a big, fat cliché, which I've heard people say often when they're asked this kind of question: My favourite is the book I'm working on at the moment.

    It's a cliché, but in a way it has to be true. You have to be totally focused. I want to be wholly and only focused and engaged with the text. That's the best approach for me.

    What tips would you give to up-and-coming translators of French to English fiction? 

    Well, make sure you have another source of income. You can make a living, but it's a modest living. You have to have something else going on, I think, if you want to live a life of luxury. A lot of translators are academics, and so they are comfortable that way. I think that is a help because they don't have to worry so much about this or that. 

    In many ways, being self-taught is a plus because you don't have that whole kind of training. You have to be able to approach it with a lot of freedom and imagination. These are things that people have to cultivate as a newcomer to the profession.

    You have to find a way of getting enough distance between yourself and the original so that you can free yourself from it.,

    There's one principle I think people should always keep in mind: It's not a rule, but I always find it helpful to think that one of the things about solving problems in translation is a matter of making a virtue of necessity. 

    You have this constraint, which is that the book already exists in the original language. Sometimes you come across these Gordian knots in the original, and you cannot figure out how are you going to do it. You have to find a way of getting enough distance between yourself and the original so that you can free yourself from it, imagine a solution which is your own creative solution and then bring it back into the text so that it actually renders the original point as well as it can be rendered.

    I think over time, with a number of translations under your belt, you see that the imagination doesn't take you away from the original, it brings you closer to it in the end.

    What has traditionally been your decompression process after a project's finished? Has it been reading another book or has it been just another pursuit?

    I think it's the same for anybody who's involved in writing or the arts in general. Once you finish the project, it's done and you put that behind you. You stop worrying about it and you stop getting up in the middle of the night saying, "Oh God, that was a mistake. I should have done this in such or such a way."

    You just put it behind you and take a break. How long that is, depends on you.

    What kind of reading did you do in childhood?

    I mean I never planned to be a translator. It wasn't until I was well into my adulthood when I realized that you could actually make a bit of a living translating. It hadn't even occurred to me at that point. And it was somebody else actually who clued me in.

    I come from a working-class immigrant family. We had books in the house. My parents were readers, but they were far from being intellectuals. You see a lot of people of letters and in a lot of their backgrounds, they had a house filled with books. That wasn't my case. My parents were just working people who newly arrived in Canada. One of the situations that any immigrant kid finds themselves in is they're immediately translating anyway, because there's a language spoken at home and there's the language on the street and the new school.

    There's all these different languages going on and you have to navigate all that.

    One of the situations that any immigrant kid finds themselves in is they're immediately translating anyway...

    My elementary school was at the time what was called a parochial school. It was a Jewish school where half of the day was devoted to Jewish subjects and the other half was devoted to a regular general curriculum. In my schooling, I think it's the case for anybody with a similar background, you study a very particular version of the Torah, which has the original Hebrew Aramaic set in one corner and around it. I don't know if you've ever seen the Talmud, but around it there's a translation in Yiddish of the original. When you're very small in the fourth grade, you find yourself already faced with this translation of the basic book of Western literature, which is the Bible. I think that somewhere, somehow had its influence.

    As far as my general reading is concerned, my parents and the general community we grew up in were socialist. So all of my reading, when I was very young, was social realism: Jack London, John Steinbeck and John Dos Passos. Poets like Whitman and Sandburg. I would read Robert Frost. I read Tolstoy when I was very young, too.

    But I didn't have a classic education [in literature]. High school literature courses can make you fall in love with literature — or do the opposite, depending on who is teaching. In high school, we studied Shakespeare, we studied the romantic poets. But it was all very superficial, right? There's not much I can remember that I got really excited about. Dylan Thomas actually was my favourite poet when I was in high school. And Allen Ginsberg. 

    That brings us pretty much full circle to what you're embarking on now in terms of translating Yiddish.

    Yeah. I actually started working on this project for a long time. I'm at the point in my life where you do it now, or you're not going to get it done. 

    This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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