The Sunday Magazine

Michael's Essay: In Praise of Translator Sheila Fischman

Cervantes called translation "the other side of the tapestry." According to the late, cranky British novelist Anthony Burgess, "Translation is not a matter of words only; it is a matter of making intelligible a whole culture."Sheila Fischman once said; "I'm just a translator." Right. And the Queen is just an elderly grandmother who lives in London....

Cervantes called translation "the other side of the tapestry." According to the late, cranky British novelist Anthony Burgess, "Translation is not a matter of words only; it is a matter of making intelligible a whole culture."

Sheila Fischman once said; "I'm just a translator." Right. And the Queen is just an elderly grandmother who lives in London.

It is certainly true that Ms. Fischman is a translator, with more than 150 works to her credit.
She has won numerous awards for her work and has garnered 14 nominations for the Governor General's Award for Translation, which she won in 1988.

She is to the traditions of Canadian translation what Margaret Atwood is to Canadian fiction. Yet she is largely unknown and unsung by the reading public.

It could be argued by people a lot better versed in literary politics than me. that Ms. Fischman has done more to bridge the gap between the two solitudes than any number of earnest Royal Commissions or Constitutional gas bags.

On her roster of writers and poets: Anne Hebert, Michel Tremblay, Marie-Clair Blais, Roch Carrier, Jacques Poulin and a dozen others.

In fact it could also be successfully argued that without Sheila Fischman, most of English Canada would have not a clue about Quebec literature.

Now she is being formally recognized by friends and colleagues with the publication by McGill-Queen's University Press  of "In Translation: Honouring Sheila Fischman".
She was born in Moose Jaw, not renowned as a seedbed of Quebec writing. Her first published translation was the novel La Guerre Yes Sir by Roch Carrier.

Translation is much more than finding one word to replace another of a different language.
It is, in many ways, as much an art as the act of writing itself.

In 1999, Ms. Fischman was awarded an honorary degree by the University of Ottawa. In her acceptance speech, she said;"Translating takes you deep inside the text, the language, the culture, the mind of the writer. It is a thrilling place to be but it can sometimes be dangerous also." Dangerous of course, if you get the tone and texture wrong.

Her aim is to get inside the characters and give them what she calls a second life.
But a friend says that she wants to draw "a cloak of invisibility around her presence in the text."

In the same Ottawa speech, Ms. Fischman said; "I believe that to make a successful translation you must choose books that speak to you, for which you feel an affinity, emotional as well as stylistic. Indeed without the emotional affinity, it is impossible, for me anyway, to render the style." 

When thinking about Ms. Fischman, you have to wonder if there is not a great writer lurking behind the veil of translation.

In his contribution to her honour book, Roch Carrier writes: " I cannot stop thinking of all the books  Sheila might have written, had she not devoted her life to translation."

But what might have been detracts not an iota from what is. May she long continue to deeply probe the musical blue waters of language and uncover the treasures therein.

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