A Conversation with Lazer Lederhendler
by Sonya Malaborza.
Lazer Lederhendler wins his second Governor General’s Literary Award with The Party Wall, a translation of Catherine Leroux’s Le mur mitoyen. His work has earned him many distinctions including the GG Books award for Nikolski (2008), originally written by Nicolas Dickner and the Cole Prize for Translation of the Quebec Writers’ Federation. His work has been shortlisted seven times for the GG Books, including for The Lake, 2015 (original by Perrine Leblanc); The Breakwater House, 2010 (original by Pascale Quiviger); and Larry Volt, 2002, (original by Pierre Tourangeau). A full-time translator specializing in contemporary Québécois fiction and non-fiction, his work has introduced English-language readers to a new cohort of talented, innovative writers. Lazer Lederhendler is based in Montreal.
Let me start by asking you when and how you decided to become a literary translator.
I only wanted to become a literary translator after I already was one. It depends on what you mean by “wanted to become one”. I didn’t have a career plan to become a literary translator and I think a lot of my colleagues of my generation of translators fell into it or it sort of happened to them at some point. I was translating for a number of years as an administrative translator for the government of New Brunswick translation bureau and then the Translation Bureau in Ottawa, and then I was a freelancer in what you might call pragmatic translation – you know, non-literary translation – and then I decided to go back to university and study literature. What I wanted to do was write poetry. I got a degree in English at the University of Ottawa and an MA in Creative Writing at Concordia with a thesis in poetry. A friend of mine who had connections, who knew people – this was back in the early 90’s – said I know this woman who is looking for a translator for a collection of short stories and would you be interested? And that was Claire Dé. Working on her book was an opportunity to bring together my practice – which was longstanding as a translator – and see what would happen if I combined my interest with literature. I started with Claire Dé and went from one book to the next. Her third book was a very interesting experimental novel composed of 500 haiku called, in French, Bonheur, oiseau rare. The title in English, The Sparrow Has Cut the Day in Half, is from a haiku poet that I had read. That book was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award in translation. And you know, once you get on the shortlist, people start noticing. I got calls from the media when I was on that shortlist in 1998, and I got a call from somebody at the Gazette, and the first question she asked was “Who are you?” The fact is it’s a small circle of people in the publishing industry in Canada, especially those who are interested in translation. But I didn’t think of myself at that point as a literary translator yet. I just did it, you know.
So this would have been a second career for you.
If you had the video on, you’d see me smiling right now at the idea of a career because it’s sort of an elusive concept for me. I guess I’ve had several careers, but from the moment I realized my work was being taken seriously by somebody with that shortlisting and then getting more books proposed to me, I knew I was a literary translator. I didn’t really identify fully as a literary translator until later though, when I started meeting other literary translators and getting involved in the Association and at the Banff Centre.
As I was preparing to meet with you, I came across an article that Sherry Simon wrote about you and about your translation of The Party Wall that appeared in the National Post. Reading it, I learned that one of your first gigs as a translator was translating the FLQ Manifesto. Could you tell me a bit about this?
Yeah, it wasn’t a gig, I wouldn’t call it a gig at all. Actually, let’s step back a minute. I’d published an article in 2009 (Translating Fictions: the Messenger Was a Medium) in a journal put out by the University of Alberta in Edmonton called TransCultural. Sherry was referring to that article without actually citing it. The point being that I translated the Manifesto when I was 19 years old. It was during the October Crisis, and when I translated the Manifesto it was already in the papers here in French and had been read out on Radio-Canada. I was a young leftist in Montreal and I thought it was important news that people who don’t read French should have access to. Also, I was excited about the idea about translating something – I’d never translated a whole article or a whole document like that and I felt excited about trying my hand at it. It was a spontaneous gesture, and it was actually in view of a meeting that was being held at McGill University. When I showed up at the meeting, there were maybe a dozen other English translations of the Manifesto on a table that other people had spontaneously decided to put out. So it has to be understood in that context. I was like a volunteer translator.
Had you already started working as a translator at that point, or was that one of those things that made you decide that this was the career path you wanted to explore?
Listen, I didn’t know such a thing existed. I was involved with a theatre group that was involved in strike support and other causes—it used to be called guerrilla theatre. It was the kind of theatre that was going around those days that had a lot to do with the situationnistes in France where you would just go into a situation and perform within that situation. I was writing songs for the theatre group. I had no idea that professional translation was something you could do.
It’s interesting you should mention this, because it’s completely useful to me as context to understand other things you’ve done in future years. I think I can completely understand why you would have gravitated toward texts like those by Francis Dupuis-Déri and Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, or is that just me extrapolating?
You’re sort of right and you’re sort of extrapolating. I’ve always been a man of the left and remain a man of the left and my heart’s on the left and in terms of my outlook on the state of affairs and the affairs of the state so to speak, that’s always been my point of view. But within that framework, things have changed a lot. The circumstances around my translating the book by Francis Dupuis-Déri had a lot to do with the fact that we became colleagues at a college that we were both working at and then friends. He asked me to translate various things that he was writing—articles and papers and so forth —and then this book, which I thought was necessary or important or just basically worthwhile as an insider’s look into a phenomenon that was dealt with very poorly by the mainstream press. There were all these very stereotypical cut and dried opinions about the Black bloc phenomenon and nobody ever bothered to asked people involved in it what it was all about so I thought it was good to get an insider’s point of view out there in English. It was basically the same with Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois’ book.
Looking at your bibliography, it almost looks like there are two currents threading through it: there’s the fiction, and then there’s another category of books that are more political in nature. There’s a unity within everything you’ve translated, of course, because you are an agent of translation and that will give it some continuity, but it does seem like some of your translations are more explicitly politically engaged. Are these titles that you actively decided were important to translate?
You know, the whole thing about the politics of translation has a lot to do with the politics of literature and publishing. What gets published? What gets translated? What do people think is worthy to read or to put out? The fact is that most of the books that I’ve translated – I think almost all of them – were not books where I said I’m going to find a publisher who wants to buy the translation rights and then get hired as the translator for this project. The way it goes, rather, is that I get a proposal for a project and I have to decide to take it on or let it go. I’ve basically been very fortunate, because this is how I make my living.
For me the motivation for translating Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois’ book, for example, was similar to the other things that I’ve done which are explicitly political, and the motivation was that it was an important piece of writing for people who don’t read French to have access to. In Defiance was published by an excellent publisher in Toronto, Between The Lines, who has been doing this kind of book for decades and I think just recently began to put more resources and pay more attention to translation, especially coming out of Quebec. Of course it’s a different kind of writing, a very different kind of book, but it’s not separate in my mind from everything else I’ve been doing.
At this point in your career, do you feel that what you choose to translate is a bit of a political statement?
Anything that you write or publish is a political statement. That said, when I taught literature, I would always warn students against trying to find “the message” in a piece of literature, like when you would ask little kids “what’s the moral of this story?” And so political in that sense? No, not at all, otherwise it’s a failure as far as literature is concerned. But they are political in another sense, in that all the books I’ve translated raise more question than answers. And that for me is the kind of politics I like, because that means the reader is actively solicited as an agent of meaning and therefore an agent of what they draw from it, whether it be politically, socially, ethically, esthetically, whatever. Yes, political in that sense, but not in the sense of being an instrument of a message or a slogan. With Leonard Cohen’s death recently, all this stuff came out that I wasn’t aware of. In his last interview, which echoed another interview from years previously, he says that what he looks for when he’s writing and rewriting his stuff is to get rid of the slogans. What he meant by slogans is exactly that kind of explicitly political agenda. He said that when you’ve weeded out the slogans, even the hippest, even the most subtle slogans, then something will emerge. And that’s what I feel good writing is. If I find something that’s loaded with clichés and sloganistic ideas, where the latest fashionable buzzwords are all over the place, then I say nah. And I think publishers know that this is not for me. I know for a fact that I’ve sort of been branded, that my style as a translator coincides with certain styles that are out there among people who are writing these days. Recently, it has a lot to do with this whole new generation of Quebec writers, Nicolas Dickner being probably a pioneer with Nikolski.
A lot of those authors are on the roster at Les Éditions Alto – like Catherine Leroux and Dominique Fortier for example.
Yes, Alto, Quartanier—another excellent publisher in that very adventurous, innovative vein. I think that readers, when they’re looking for something to read, should follow the publishers. A publisher is a man or a woman who has tastes, and if they’re pretty close to your own, then chances are good that they’ll be putting out books that you’ll like. I do that too in terms of translation. And I think it works both ways, you know? Publishers who have seen your work and the kind of work you do will be attracted to you or they won’t.
Who has been calling you these days for work? Is there anything you can tell us about in terms of what you’re translating?
I’m at the tail end of a book of non-fiction. It’s a biographical study written by Andrée Lévesque, a historian based at McGill, about a woman named Eva Circé-Côté. Fascinating character. The book is all about the history of Montreal and Quebec from the end of the 19th up until the 1940s. I’m just finishing that project up, though it may take some time because it’s an academic book. The scholarly apparatus, the notes, the bibliography… It’s a lot of work. It’s absolutely fascinating, and I hope it does well. The other project is Nicolas Dickner’s latest novel, Six degrés de liberté, which won the Governor General’s Award for Fiction last year. I don’t think we’re going to be fishing around too long for the title, because it’s a great title in French and it translates very well: Six Degrees of Freedom. I’m well into that and once all this hoopla with the award season calms down I’ll get back to it because I’ve been having to put a lot of time into interviews and such.
Yes, the media has been keeping you quite busy I think.
It’s amazing you know. One of the questions people have asked me is what’s the difference between winning the Governor General’s this time compared to the first time I won it. One of the obvious answers is that the media seems to be a lot more interested. It’s a problem one likes to have, I guess. You know, it can turn into a thing about stroking your own ego and all that – we all have needy egos –, but it’s more about the fact that translators don’t get asked to express themselves publicly very often. It’s an opportunity that doesn’t comes around every day, and I think one should take advantage of it. If someone is asking my opinion about things, I’m happy to give it. And so much the better if other people find it interesting. So yes, it’s taking up a lot of time but it’s fun.
It must be especially time-consuming being nominated for two awards back to back, with the Giller shortlist and now the Governor General’s Award.
Yes, the Giller is huge in terms of the public attention that it draws. The first time I was on the Giller shortlist with The Immaculate Conception, it made a huge difference in terms of my name being on people’s lists of somebody to go to for projects. That’s one of the good things about these events, because there’s a lot surrounding these events that’s pure show business and circus, right? It wears you out. And I’m the translator. Imagine what the authors go through.
I was thinking it would be interesting to talk to Catherine to find out what she’s been feeling about being shortlisted.
Oh, I think she was thrilled, absolutely thrilled. But she had to take a week off afterwards to replenish and get back with her family.
Le Mur mitoyen must have been a great book to work on.
It’s a fantastic book. Translating it allowed me to see it in all its amazing dimensions. When a book rewards re-readings –second, third readings –, when you’re getting new things out of it and finding new levels of meaning, you know it’s good. I think it’s an indication of her talent. She has a hell of a career ahead of her.
I was wondering, in respect to your working relationship with Catherine Leroux and also with Nicolas Dickner, how different it is – if it’s different at all – to be working with someone who has experience working as a translator. I’m assuming the exchanges you have with them are quite different in nature from the conversations you might normally have with an author whose work you are translating.
Well, it depends on who the author is. As an author, you really have to trust your translator at some point. You can’t be micromanaging the translator’s work. In my case, I’m always open to comments or suggestions that might improve the translation, but sometimes – and I’ve done this with Catherine and with other authors – I have to say I hear you, I’ll think about this and I’ll have to make a decision. I haven’t had this experience very often at all, but a writer can crowd you too much and sort of look over your shoulder all the time and second-guess you. That can be very uncomfortable as a translator. I really have to insist on the fact that it has been very, very, very rare in my case. Most authors just learn to or already trust you as a translator. That has to be one of the base rules going in. But Catherine was tremendously helpful with many of her suggestions and comments.
Since some of LTAC’s members are still students of translation, I thought I would take this opportunity to ask whether you might have some advice to give to those readers who might be just starting out as literary translators.
One of the pieces of advice I’d give to somebody who is starting out as a new translator is just to be aware that if they’re thinking to make a lot of dough with this, they’re not going to. You’re better off doing administrative or technical translation which is paid at least fifty percent more per word. So you have to go into this with your eyes open that you’re not in it for the money.
Given the fact that I did choose at one point to devote myself exclusively to this work, I’ve been very fortunate in the sense that I don’t have to spend a lot of time pitching projects. Publishers call me up, they say are you interested in this book? They send me a copy, I read the book or I read enough of it to get a sense of what it is. I have certain criteria which don’t all relate to the quality of the writing. That is a huge part of it, but it’s not the only part of it. It could be extremely well written, but if it’s at odds with my own values, if it’s just ideologically unacceptable to me, then I’ll say no thank you. I would advise young translators to do the same because on one hand if you’re getting into this business, you have to build up a portfolio just like anybody else who’s in freelancing. You should not turn away projects because they’re not the ideal project. On the other hand, though, you have to have certain lines that you won’t cross. You have to have a basic affinity with what you’re translating. And you can do that when you’re a literary translator, but you don’t necessarily have that luxury when you’re employed by somebody who’s paying you to translate whatever comes across your desk. That being said, you have to be careful about saying no too often because then people will just go on to the next person.
Another piece of advice: don’t get into conflicts with publishers unnecessarily. Publishers are your collaborators, they’re not your enemy. They need you, you need them, so keep that in mind. And be the kind of person people like to work with. Don’t make life hard for yourself and for everybody else. That’s an important piece of advice. Of course you’ve got to stand up for your rights and you want respect like anybody else whatever the job is. But you’ve got to work with people.