By Peter Wuteh Vakunta (Reviewer)
Fidelity doesn’t make the News is Susan Ouriou’s first translation of Bismuth’s fiction. She translated her second book titled Scrapbook(novel) published in 2008 by McArthur & Company. Her third book,Etes-vous mariée à un psychopathe? Nouvelles (2009) has not been translated yet. With the publication of Les gens fidèles ne font pas les nouvelles Bismuth emerged as a budding Canadian writer noted for her innovative use of the French language. This compendium of short stories is a powerful depiction of Canadian psycho-sociological realities. Her stories are a snapshot of the morals, imagination, and sensibilities of the life and times of ordinary people living ordinary lives.
The distinctive feature of the Bismuth’s narrative style is her constant recourse to linguistic miscegenation as a narrative technique. Purposeful word-smiting serves as an effective tool for the depiction of the specificities of the bilingual/bicultural context in which the stories are woven. Regrettably, this linguistic hybridization that requires readers of Bismuth’s short stories to be not just bilingual but also bicultural is lost in the translation process. To choose an example from Fidelity doesn’t make the News, why translate “Tout le quartier sait que tu fais shaker tes petits tétons pis que tu te promènes la noune à l’air Chez Zazi” (22) by “The whole neighborhood knows that you shake your titties and strut your pussy at Zazi’s,” she told me (19) when it is obvious that by employing the English word “shaker” in a French language text Bismuth intends to ‘foreignize’ Canadian French? ‘Foreignization’ of French in the source text fulfills the specific literary function of underscoring the multiplicity of narrative voices and registers associated with the different characters and settings in which the narrative unfolds. The end product of Bismuth’s linguistic experimentation is a semantically laden mix of discourses.
Bismuth’s narrative style challenges the canons of French literary discourse. It could be perceived as the author’s attempt at indigenizing metropolitan French. By doing so, she aligns herself with linguistic nonconformists who take umbrage with the pontifications of the Académie française on matters pertaining to language purification and cultural imperialism. Bismuth deliberately transposes anglicisms into her French text as an emblem of subversion as this example seems to suggest: “Ici, on est clean, c’est pas comme Chez Zazi, qu’elle m’a affirmé” (23) which Ouriou translates as: “We are clean here, it’s not like Zazi’s”, she said. (20) Undoubtedly, this translation fails to capture the linguistic appropriation intended in the source text. Bismuth resorts to subversion as a narrative paradigm so often that it would be detrimental to formal equivalence were the translator to simply gloss over it as she does in this other example: “C’est comme cet employé que j’ai engagé le mois dernier, une espèce de freak qui fait de la méditation dans son bureau tous les midi. Je vais le foutre à la porte si ça continue” (38) which is translated as “Like the employee I hired last month, a freak of some kind who mediates in his office over the lunch hour every day. I’ll have to give him the boot if this keeps up.”(35) The hybrid matrix of the source text gradually fades away in the target text. Though she succeeds in reproducing the colloquial register of the original by translating “foutre à la porte” as “give him the boot”, it goes without the saying that an obvious challenge the translator faces is to replicate the code-switching of the source text, a device attributable to the preponderance of Canfranglais in Bismuth’s Canadian French.
A more obvious blooper in this translation seems to be the translation of ‘midi’ as ‘lunch hour’. The assumption is that the meal eaten by French Canadians at midday is called ‘déjeuner’ (lunch). As a matter of fact, the meal eaten by French-speaking Canadians at midday is ‘le dîner’, equivalent of the ‘déjeuner’ in France. In the evening Francophone Canadians eat ‘le souper’, equivalent of ‘dîner’ in France as this example indicates: “Lorsque mama est venue cogner à la porte de ma chambre vers sept heures pour me dire que le souper était prêt, j’avais déjà terminé la lecture de mon livre sur les planètes…(173) translated as “When Mummy knocked on my bedroom door around seven to tell me supper was ready, I’d already finished my book on planets… (168). In metropolitan French, ‘souper’ does not exist. Thus, it is inaccurate to equate the source text ‘souper’ with ‘supper’. This is a clear case of erroneous interpretation by the translator. These cultural differences result in a perceived need for adjustment in translation. I need hardly add that translators of Bismuth’s works need to be culturally savvy in order to attain dynamic equivalence. Keeping the register slightly less formal by opting for erudite terms and expressions does not mitigate the problem of lexical discordance that one finds in Ouriou’s translation.
At times Bismuth peppers her narrative with English slang expressions in order to make the language respond more realistically to the prevailing mentality of her characters : «Zen or not, so what ? You don’t believe in anything… do you really think you’re above it all ? Life’s a bitch and then you die ? Who cares? »(38) Anyone reading just the translation would hardly imagine how much linguistic tinkering went into the source text : « Zen ou pas, pis après ? Et toi, tu ne crois en rien… tu penses vraiment que tu es au-dessus de tout, hein ? Life’s a bitch and then you die? Who cares ? »(40) A characteristic feature of Bismuth’s writing is the presence of Franglais in the speech of her characters. She succeeds in making a French language text sound like an English language text as this example shows: “On n’a jamais fait ça avant, se contenter d’un “Tchin-tchin! Joyeux Noel!”Fuck!”(204) accurately translated as “We’ve never settled for a simple ‘Cheers! Merry Christmas! ‘before. Fuck!”(198) Bismuth has no compunction about resorting to vulgarity. The translator is under no obligation to shy away from the crudity of her word choices.
A reader of Bismuth’s book would wonder whether lexical and grammatical cross-pollination is a sign of the type of dynamic evolution that enhances communication or a sign of a form of bastardization that impedes clear expression. The answer is that language is, as it should be, the reflection of those who speak it; it is their signature as political, social, and cultural beings. Language can represent anything from the most basic communication tool to the most exquisite art form, depending on who uses it and for what purpose.This ambivalence is the hallmark of Bismuth’s prose narrative as seen in the following statement: “Plastic shoes, flip-flops, gougounes,”I insisted pointing at her feet” (132)”, a rendition of “Plastic shoes, flic et flac, gougounes, ai-je insisté en designant ses pieds” (177). Or, this interesting one: Ugh! Your hands are cold” (189) translated as “Pouah! T’as les mains froides” (196). I am not sure that the English onomatopoeia “Ugh!” accurately translates the sonic quality of the French ideophone, “Pouah!” Oralization fulfills a critical semantic function in Bismuth’s narrative. The alliteration resulting from “flic et flac” has oral quality which the translator manages to reproduce this by opting for “flip-flops” as an equivalent.
Ouriou’s partly successful attempt at approximating the colloquial register in Bismuth’s short stories through lexical manipulation is evident on every page as this sentence shows: “Ah! Winter too I suppose, looking for fish in the canal, of course, a must.] (39), rendered as “Ah! L’hiver aussi, j’imagine, aux poissons des chenaux, bien sûr, c’est un must” (41). The substitution of the colloquial “pis”, for the conventional “puis” [then] is totally lost in the English Translation. Bismuth’s transgression of the conventions of Standard French is reflected in her frequent juxtaposition of standard and colloquial French. On every page of her book, Metropolitan and indigenized French seem to jostle for space. She takes the liberty of flouting the rules of French grammar in order to translate Otherness. The usage of words and expressions in literature is often determined by the author’s private code or idiolect, dictated by the peculiar circumstance or context in which creative writing takes place. Bismuth writes in a jaded manner as if to remind her readers that she is under no obligation to write like native French writers do. It is important to note that the word-smiting characteristic of her style is not an expression of discomfort with the French language. It is simply a reflection of the way she speaks French as a Francophone Canadian. Her work straddles the divide between Francophone and Anglophone Canada.
Sadly enough, Fidelity doesn’t make the News does not convey the underlying message in its entirety. In the narration of her tales of cuckolded husbands and wives; of lovers locked in infernal love triangles, Bismuth constantly negotiates linguistic and cultural spaces. It behooves the translator of her work to find the appropriate balance between the formal and the informal; between the serious and the grotesque in order to blur line that separates the intent of the source text from the supposition of the target text.
It is worth mentioning, however, that without comparing the source with the target text, Ouriou’s translation reads quite well, and manages to convey the essentials of both narration and characterization. Although I have attempted to underscore the fact that certain types of linguistic particularities have posed considerable challenges for the translation of Les gens fidèles ne font pas les nouvelles, it is important to note that this does not detract from the overall success of the translation. The above-mentioned errors notwithstanding, the target text flows very well, and captures the polyvocality of the source text. In many instances, the translator’s lexical choices are germane. Stylistic considerations of the kind highlighted above are unlikely to be a major concern for most readers of the translation. Bismuth’s creative genius and stylistic dexterity certainly deserve to go beyond the confines of Francophone readership.© The Entrepreneur Newspaper 2009. All Rights Reserved
Translation by Susan Ouriou. Toronto: McArthur & Company.2008.223 PP. Paper $18.95. ISBN 978-1-55278-734-2