It was the curse words that stumped Sheila Fischman during her first stab at translating a French novel into English. She had recently moved to Quebec’s Eastern Townships from Ontario in the late 1960s. “I had all this university French but I couldn’t say a sentence,” recalls Fischman, now the best-known literary translator in Canada. To
improve her fluency, Fischman began looking for a French-language text she could easily translate. Diane Carrier, a friend, then married to Roch Carrier, suggested his newly published first novel—La Guerre, Yes Sir! “It spoke to me,” says Fischman, of the bestselling story set in a Quebec village during the Second World War. “I understood instinctively or intuitively why he had written this.” But the novel’s Catholicism-derived swear words—tabernacle (the eucharistie receptacle), hostie (the eucharist itself) and Vierge (the Virgin Mary)—would have meant little in English, a language that usually derives its invective from bodily functions. ‘When I came upon these words out of the blue,” recalls Fischman, “I hadn’t the faintest idea what they were about.” In the end, she left
them in French, to highlight the characters’ intense relationship with their church.
Such linguistic conundrums are all in a day’s work now for the 61-year-old Fischman. During her illustrious 30-year career, she has played a pivotal role in bringing Québécois fiction to English Canada. Fischman has translated about 80 French works—mostly
novels, many by Quebec’s most celebrated writers, including Carrier, Anne Hébert and Marie-Claire Blais. In November, she won the Governor General’s Literary Award for translation for Bambi and Me, her version of Les Vues animées by novelist and playwright Michel Tremblay. Fischman says the award is an important validation because a translator’s job is a lonely one without much feedback. “I have the equivalent,” she adds, “of serious paralyzing stage fright before I sit down to translate every book.”
Fischman also translates news releases and letters for Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard’s office. Still, her main passion is her literary work, including promoting francophone writers to English-Canadian publishers. That job, she says, was a tougher sell in the 1970s
because publishers were reluctant to take a chance on unknown writers, especially ones whose style and subject matter differed markedly from prevailing trends elsewhere. “So when English-Canadian publishers got hold of these books,” says Fischman. “they didn’t really know what to make of them.” Pitching the Quebecers’ works eventually became easier as they became some of the leading authors of their generation.
Fischman’s love of literature began early. A shy child growing up in tiny Elgin, Ont., where her parents ran a general store, Fischman retreated to books. Inspired by a francophone teacher, she excelled at French in high school. Although she took French literature courses at the University of Toronto, Fischman studied chemistry and then obtained a master’s degree in anthropology before settling with her husband in North Hatley, Que. After the Toronto-based House of Anansi Press Ltd. printed her version of La Guerre, Yes Sir!, Fischman forged ahead with other translations, relocating in Montreal in the mid-1970s after her marriage ended. These days, she shares her comfortable grey stone home with her partner, filmmaker Don Winkler, who also has won a Governor General’s Literary Award for translation (in 1994, for a nonfiction work, The Lyric Generation by François Ricard).
Saying she prefers staying in the background, Fischman has thrived in her lowprofile role. She is currently working on another Tremblay novel. She starts work by making a fairly literal translation, frequently consulting her collection of 12 dictionaries. She then tackles the text more creatively, revising it until she is satisfied. Titles especially often require an imaginative touch: for Blais’s 1996 novel Soifs (thirsts), Fischman opted instead for These Festive Nights, a recurring phrase in the book. She believes a translator should be invisible and inaudible. “It’s not the translator’s voice that should be coming out,” insists Fischman, who strives to remain faithful to the author’s own style and voice. “I hope my translations read like perfectly good English with just a hint—that I can’t define—of foreignness.”
Fischman meets with writers to resolve lingering questions and usually gives them a finished manuscript for their approval. She often approaches publishers and offers to translate novels she feels merit wider dissemination, as she did after reading Lise Bissonnette’s acclaimed first novel, Marie suivait l’été (Following the Summer). Bissonnette, the former publisher of Montreal’s Le Devoir newspaper, likens Fischman’s intervention to “a bit like winning a literary prize, because I consider her the best translator in Canada.”
Even after 30 years, and countless words, Fischman still finds translating literature challenging—and fun. “I love my work so much that I quite literally look forward to it every day.” Spoken like an eager novice—with the experience of a distinguished veteran.
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