Interview with Elaine Kennedy

This month, Ottawa Review of Books’ Caroline Vu interviews Montreal translator Elaine Kennedy about her first novel translation, This Country of Mine, by Didier Leclair.

ORB: Hello Elaine. Thanks for taking the time to talk with us. The brief bio on the back of the translation mentions that you studied in North America and Europe. That sounds very interesting. Could you give us more details?

EK: I did an honours degree in English literature at York University in Toronto and had some romantic notion about the Paris that Morley Callaghan and others were writing about. I ended up going to the City of Lights and taking an intensive French-language and civilization program for foreign students at the Sorbonne. When I went back to Toronto, I quickly made a plan to move to Montreal and do a Master’s in translation at U of M.

ORB: This is the first novel you’ve translated. What made you decide to go into literary translation? How difficult was the jump from non-literary to literary?

EK: I’d say that it was more of a natural transition than a jump. Very few people start out in literary translation. They tend to come to it from a wide range of backgrounds―the social sciences, film, journalism, creative writing―and many literary translators do commercial work at the same time. I’d always planned to “get back” to literature and do literary translation. While much of the translation I’ve done over the years has been in the corporate, academic and cultural sectors, I have translated many texts of a literary nature, such as essays for museum catalogues, memoirs and short fiction. The main difficulty in making the transition to literary translation was finding a publisher who would take a chance on me and on Didier Leclair’s novel, which I knew I wanted to translate from the moment I read it.

ORB: How did you come across Didier Leclair’s work? What attracted you to this novel?

EK: I was at the Montreal International Book Fair and started flipping through the GG finalists for French-language fiction. The first paragraph of the novel immediately grabbed me. There was something very direct, human, raw and poetic about it. It’s set in Toronto, a city I know very well because my family roots run deep there. But the city and its underbelly are seen through the eyes of a newcomer. It still fascinates me.

ORB: Could you sum up This Country of Mine for our readers?

EK: It’s about a doctor, Apollinaire Mavoungou, and his wife, Adèle, who have to leave their unnamed African homeland under curious circumstances. They settle in Toronto, and Apollinaire begins the long and arduous task of qualifying for his licence to practise in Canada. But he’s still a doctor at heart and feels the need to treat people. He drives around in a borrowed taxicab, illegally tending to the ill and injured. In the process, he neglects his family but meets a host of characters striving to understand what life means in Canada―in this new country which is now their own.

ORB: This Country of Mine is not just about an African doctor. It also tells the story of many other immigrants. Being non-African, did you find it difficult to translate the work? Were there terms/words/imagery that posed a particular challenge? Did you have to consult the author?

EK: There were lots of very interesting challenges in translating the novel and, yes, I did work closely with the author. Many of the characters―although not all―are from different African countries, including Burundi, Senegal and Republic of the Congo. They speak a number of languages: their mother tongues, in some cases a shared dialect, as well as French and English. The first question was what to do about their accents, if anything. Even the quality of their voices is non-North American. The original version of the novel is written in international French. That’s perhaps not surprising because Didier Leclair grew up in different African countries and was educated in the international French school system. I tried to use standard English and avoid overly “Western” expressions and regionalisms in the translation. That was a bit of a dance because of all the dialogue, which tends to be colloquial. There’s also a fair amount of African imagery and cultural references in the text, but beyond the words are the sensibilities. I enjoyed doing the research, but I loved trying to render the layers.

ORB: Didier Leclair has written eight novels. Ce pays qui est le mien was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award for French-language fiction in 2004. He’s won the Trillium Book Award and the Christine Dimitriu Van Saanen Book Prize, and he’s been a finalist for other prizes. Yet he’s unknown in English-speaking Canada, and none of his books has been translated until now. Can you comment on this?

EK: This is an interesting question. I think much of the French-language literature in Canada translated into English is written in Quebec. Didier’s a francophone living in Toronto and, as such, he’s somewhat on the outskirts. He writes about different issues―the struggles of immigrants in Toronto, the plight of First Nations in the Northwest Territories, the desperation of people smuggled across the Strait of Gibraltar, Rwanda. Some of his novels are set in English-speaking Canada. In them, there’s no real distinction between francophones and anglophones.

Didier’s published consistently high-quality fiction, and his work deserves to reach a broader audience. Now that the Translation Rights Fair is held annually in Canada, it should be easier for publishers to get their writers translated. In any event, I’m very pleased to have translated this novel and to introduce Didier’s work to the English-speaking public.

ORB: Your translation is published by Deux Voiliers, a writers’ cooperative. Why did you choose to go that route? What has your experience been?

EK: What I like about Deux Voiliers is the collaborative concept. The writers and translators provide each other with editorial and promotional support. I’ve also appreciated being involved in all stages of the project, from producing the translation to getting the book to readers. My experience has been that we can produce better work together and learn from each other. I’ve enjoyed the collegiality.

ORB: What’s your next project? Are you thinking of writing a novel?

EK: I have a number of balls in the air, including a couple of novel translation projects, which are still in the discussion stage. I’m not thinking about writing a novel, but I am anxious to get back to writing short stories. Who knows where it all might lead?