Sherry Simon, ed., In Translation: Honouring Sheila Fischman (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s, 2013). Paperbound, 222 pp., $29.95.
One of the strengths of In Translation: Honouring Sheila Fischman is its variety. Most pieces are short; they range from reflections on the art of literary translation, through interviews with the translator, to anecdotes about the lives and the events marked by Sheila Fischman's extraordinary presence. The body of work of an individual translator is rarely the subject of a volume of essays, or even a single article; it is as though only writers, not translators, can create a comprehensive expression of their agency, habitus, and engagement in literary life through their published works. By discussing all of these concepts, Kathy Mezei's article makes a key contribution to one of the unusual accomplishments of this book: the collection establishes the notion of a translator's body of work and studies it from various angles. Ironically, given her fight for the appearance of the translator's name on covers and in reviews, some of Sheila Fischman's own comments would seem to advocate for invisibility: "If I have a voice of my own, it absolutely must not appear." Yet her approach and selection are individual and, some would argue, recognizable.
Fischman's technique of fully inhabiting the language of an author, working and reworking the words, stretches the capacities of the English language a little further each time. Her engagement in the cultural life of Quebec has led her to emphasize important contemporary novels, most of which she translates soon after publication. Through her, English Canada has gained access to a large selection of Quebec literature. "The arc of Fischman's career corresponds to the coming of age of Canadian literary translation," writes Sherry Simon in the introduction. "Her work was among the first to be funded by the newly established Canada Council program (1971), an organized and collective endeavour, tied into Canadian cultural policy... She has now translated an entire library of Quebec literature, including most of the names that have marked Quebec letters in the past four decades: [Anne] Hébert, [Michel] Tremblay, [Jacques] Poulin, [Gaétan] Soucy, [Elise] Turcotte, and [François] Gravel." Fischman’s choices have determined which aspects of Quebec literature we see through her eyes; other translators have shown other parts of it by making different choices.
Simon points out that Fischman started translating as one of "a cohort of anglophone newcomers to Quebec who arrived in the early 1970s and were swept up in the cultural excitement of the Quiet Revolution." Born into a Jewish family living in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, in 1937, Fischman was already an outsider. Her move to North Hatley and her chosen profession reinforced that position. The Eastern Townships were in the midst of change. Historically an English-speaking area, its anglophone population represents about eight per cent of the total today. When Fischman arrived, North Hatley had an astonishingly high concentration of poets and craftspeople, with a growing number of francophones among them. Patricia Godbout's contribution to this collection focuses on an event that was not only symbolic of Quebec's political changes but also a turning point in Fischman's career. At a bilingual poetry reading Fischman organized at The Pottery in 1968, Pauline Julien heckled Ron Sutherland for introducing one of the anglophone poets in English. It would have been understandable if Fischman and other well-meaning organizers had called a halt to bilingual endeavours. Instead, Fischman co-founded ellipse magazine, and annual Seventh Moon poetry readings continued until the early 1990s. Both brought anglophone and francophone poets together; I remember Irving Layton, Michael Ondaatje, and Michel Garneau being invited to the Seventh Moon in the 1980s. Fischman saw the 1968 reading as "the beginning of the rest of my professional life...I determined I would devote the energy and skills I could muster to attempting, only attempting, to break down some of the barriers between French- and English-speakers." Whether she was initially confident or humble about her cultural mission, it carried her to extraordinary lengths; she has translated approximately 150 books, and has earned Canada's most prestigious prizes and highest honours.
Besides Godbout's and Mezei's essays, the first section of the book offers a piece by D. G. Jones and an essay by Graham Fraser on F. R. Scott. Part Two contains essays on literary translation by notable translators (Alberto Manguel, Lori Saint-Martin, Michael Henry Heim, and others), some of whom touch on Fischman's work. Next, Sheila Fischman speaks in interviews and through her translations (an interesting combination). The last section before the bibliography presents twelve tributes by translators, writers, and publishers. They show how Fischman's friendships and work are woven into Canadian and Quebec literary life. There are delightful synchronicities: Pauline Julien appears in a second anecdote in Louise Desjardins's piece. In J. Marc Côté's beautiful submission he wonders whether Fischman's other editors shared the same cultural goals; James Polk's and Karl Siegler's pieces give partial responses to that question.