Rhonda Mullins, an award-winning translator and writer, and Dominique Fortier, a celebrated novelist and translator, are masters at navigating between and within French and English. The two women worked closely together on the English translation of Fortier’s novel The Island of Books and, more recently, ‘The Battlefield’, Dominique’s piece for Granta 141: Canada. In this conversation, they discuss everything they always wanted to know about one another’s craft.
There’s a question I’ve been dying to ask: What is the relationship between Dominique the literary translator and Dominique the author?
I would love to tell you that the links between the two crafts are many and mysterious, that both practices inform and enrich each other. But, in truth, I’m afraid it’s roughly the same relationship as the one between, let’s say, Rhonda the translator and Rhonda the paddle boarder, which is to say, the same person is doing both activities, but using a different set of muscles, abilities and reflexes.
That isn’t exactly true, though: maybe being a translator helps, to some degree, to better understand the inner workings of fiction, which is useful when you write, and perhaps being a writer makes one particularly perceptive to certain dangers and pitfalls that come with both crafts. When translating, a big temptation is to transcribe what you understand the author saying, instead of what is actually on the page – to overinterpret, in a way, which means doing part of the reader’s job and stealing part of the unique fun of reading literature. I also try to apply that lesson while writing my own books: you want to leave room for the reader to be part of the text.
Do you also write – fiction, non-fiction, or something else altogether? You have translated dozens of books, each very different from the other. How do you choose? Which are the most challenging?
No fair! That’s three questions! I’ll answer your first:
I don’t write, I scribble. I am now trying to get in the habit of writing things down, not as a proper journal, but just things that cross my mind or make me laugh or think. This is part of a larger effort to try to get more of a ‘writer brain’ happening. As you of course know, translation is writing, but with the ideas already on the page. After years of translation, I recently had the unpleasant experience of writing a book review, and my thoughts felt disjointed, as if I were doing a cut and paste from my brain onto the screen. The end result was fine, but I felt as though I had lost the ability to follow a thought through from beginning to end. It was disheartening. I suspect it is just a matter of using the muscles you mention, so I’m trying to do that more. At an impressive rate of fifteen minutes a day, but that’s how I settle into a habit, good or bad: it’s the thin edge of the wedge.
This is quickly turning into a discussion about writing but, as you say, translating is writing so we are not too far off. What you describe (writing fifteen minutes a day) resembles very much my own experience. The only way I was ever able to bring myself to try and write a novel – the thought of which still terrifies me – was to lure myself into thinking that I was not writing a novel at all: I’m writing a page. One page. And then I do it again the next day, and the next, for about a year or two.
That’s part of the reason I love translation so much: the house is already built, you can just move in and live in it for a few months without wondering if the floor is going to hold or if the roof is threatening to collapse on your head – not to mention that creepy door in the attic that you have not yet dared to open, and all those nameless rooms that still only exist in your head and have not yet made it onto paper.
What brought you to translation?
Oddly enough, initially it was money. I used to work as a marketing writer in tech, and when the bubble burst I started freelancing. One day I got a call asking whether I did translation, and in the spirit of ‘say yes to anything’, I said I did, and then hightailed it to university to study it. Translation gradually took over from writing. Eventually I got the urge to spend more time on a translation project. I enjoy commercial work, but it involves quick turnarounds, and I wanted something I could sink my teeth into. So I started casting about for longer projects and eventually convinced someone to let me translate a book of non-fiction. Fiction followed a few years later. I feel incredibly fortunate that I stumbled into translation, particularly literary translation. For me, it is one of the pieces of a happy life.