Books·Borders

Thoughts on Translation by Phyllis Aronoff & Howard Scott

Phyllis Aronoff and Howard Scott won the 2018 Governor General's Literary Award for translation for the novel Descent Into Night.

An essay from the 2018 Governor General's Literary Award winners for translation

Thoughts on Translation is an essay by Phyllis Aronoff & Howard Scott. (Ben Shannon/CBC)

According to the book of Genesis, all human beings once spoke the same language. It was in punishment for our arrogance, the story goes, that God divided us into a multitude of languages, scattering us across the face of the earth, each nation with its own tongue, each with its own borders. Humans were thus condemned to no longer understand one another's speech. Since then, many have dreamed of a common language.

Like many people crossing borders between countries, translators try to take as much as we can with us.- Phyllis Aronoff & Howard Scott

The word translate comes down to us from a Latin verb meaning "to carry across," and the notion of crossing borders is implicit in the concept of translation: translators carry meaning across linguistic borders. There's a term in French that's often used to describe the literary translator: passeur. This can be translated as "ferryman," but it can also mean "smuggler," someone who gets goods or people across borders clandestinely.

Like many people crossing borders between countries, translators try to take as much as we can with us, but sometimes something gets lost along the way. And sometimes things are found in translation — a turn of phrase, a musicality, a new perspective — and welcomed into the new language, contributing something original to our literature and giving it new vitality. Sometimes, too, translators smuggle something across, something that will give the reader a hint of a book's homeland, the place it was born.

Italo Calvino said, "Without translation, I would be limited to the borders of my own country." Virtual travel through translation allows us to experience other ways of thinking, other ways of being than those we are familiar with. It enables us to view our own culture in a new light, making us see even the things we knew, or thought we knew, differently.

Borders have taken on increased importance in today's world. Hardly a day passes without a news story about borders. Governments are reinforcing borders with fences and walls, defending them with troops and weaponry. Migrants are crossing borders in record numbers, leaving behind everything familiar in their flight from violence or starvation. It seems harder and harder for nations and individuals to look beyond the borders and to value both our shared humanity and our diversity within that humanity. At the same time, the need to do so has never been greater.

Writing in English or French, Indigenous authors are bringing new perspectives into our literature, expanding the borders of our cultural reality.- Phyllis Aronoff & Howard Scott

Within Canada, perhaps the most impenetrable border is between the Indigenous nations and the descendants of settlers and immigrants. But there are signs that this is changing, in part through literature. Writing in English or French, Indigenous authors are bringing new perspectives into our literature, expanding the borders of our cultural reality. And their importance in Canadian literature is being increasingly recognized. The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline was a selection on Canada Reads 2018 and won the Governor General's Literary Award for young people's literature in 2017, and there were Indigenous authors among the finalists for the Governor General's Literary Awards both in English and French. In the English non-fiction category, Darrel J. McLeod won forMamaskatch: A Cree Coming of Age.

Crossing the divide between Canada's official languages and Indigenous languages is more difficult. Indigenous languages have not traditionally been written, and they are obviously less accessible to a wider audience, so these authors usually write in French or English. Notable exceptions are An Antane Kapesh, who wrote her 1976 work Eukuan Nin Matshimanitu Innu-Iskueu (translated into French as Je suis une maudite sauvagesse) entirely in Innu, and Inuit writer Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk's 2002 novel Sanaaq was written in Inuktitut, translated into French by Bernard Saladin d'Anglure, and then translated from French into English by Peter Frost.

It seems that the old dream of a common language will never be realized. Or perhaps translation is our common language. There will no doubt always be borders, but translation makes the borders more permeable, makes them places where peoples and cultures meet and exchange rather than erecting walls. As novelist Kim Echlin has said: "Translation from one language to another — across time and geography, race, gender and culture — may be one of our greatest acts of shared humanity."


Howard Scott and Phyllis Aronoff accept the 2018 Governor General's Literary Award from Governor General Julie Payette. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

About Phyllis Aronoff and Howard Scott

Phyllis Aronoff and Howard Scott are the translators of the novel Descent Into Nightoriginally written in French as Explication de la nuit by Edem Awumey. The 2018 Governor General's Literary Award winner for translation, Descent Into Night follows a playwright named Ito Baraka as he strives to complete his memoirs.​

About the series Borders

CBC Books asked each of the Governor General's Literary Award winners to contribute an original piece on the theme Borders: lines that, when crossed, mark a change. Thoughts on Translation is Aronoff and Scott's joint contribution to the series.

Read the rest of the series:

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