Sometimes when I translate, I feel the weight of my country on my shoulders. Canada has two official languages, English and French, in a sea of unofficial ones that merit more thought and attention. When talking about literary translation in Canada, it is tempting to fall back on an old trope, that of the “two solitudes,” the title of a 1945 novel by Hugh MacLennan that has been used to represent the unbridged gaps between French and English Canada. Ironically, it would take almost two decades before MacLennan’s novel would become available in French, and, more ironically still, it was first translated in Paris.
All this is to say that we live with a cultural and linguistic divide, one that plays itself out geographically: some 85% of Canadian Francophones live in Quebec, with the other 15% scattered across the country, in higher concentrations in certain provinces. And of course, this notion of two solitudes erases the presence of Indigenous peoples, the original custodians of this land.
Cultural production, and particularly literature, has long been given the heavy task of bridging our divides. To do this, Canada has a particular framework for literary translation, in the form of grants from the Canada Council for the Arts, for which we are grateful. But the grants are given for translating among French, English, and Indigenous languages, with the de facto result being translations between French and English. Works originally written in other languages get more limited airplay here.
The model is entrenched, and it can feel like golden handcuffs. We have a rich culture of translation and phenomenal translators, but unless we go rogue and find alternate sources of funding (a foreign arts body, a flush spouse), we have to color within the lines. To me, it can feel like a responsibility. There is the weight of bringing the solitudes together, as if translation becomes a duty to the country. Then one is stalked by the shadow of underrepresented cultures. It can be a lot to take on.
I am a translation acquisitions reader, which is to say I still write book reports. A publisher looks to the current catalogs of houses with a similar sensibility on the other side of the linguistic divide to identify books they might want to buy the rights to, and I read them and report back. I have been told that, in this role, I am a gatekeeper. And again, I feel the weight. So many wonderful, worthy books go untranslated every year, because of some bend in the market, a similarity with another book, having too many words to qualify for a grant, or just being one of many projects vying for attention.
I had concerns when I first started writing reports that I would be the person who missed a literary jewel or a commercial triumph. But then my editor, Alana Wilcox at Coach House Books, an independent publisher with a robust translation program, freed me from my fears by confirming them. She said to me, “That could happen. We all live with that.” She gave me permission to put such concerns aside and focus on whether I like the book, whether I can feel it sing, whether it is in line with the publisher’s list and sensibility.
Now I leave the what-ifs to Coach House, because I have nothing to bring to a conversation about sales potential and literary landscapes. Book sales in Quebec are not a predictor of book sales in the rest of Canada, in part because the Quebec media ecosystem is a tight-knit one, and an appearance on a particular talk show or a review in a particular publication can fuel a novel’s sales for years.
Happily, smart, seasoned publishers can spot the book they need through my four pages of impressions, diversions, and meandering thoughts. They have perspective; they can lift their heads and get the lay of the land to see where a book might fit in. And with that confidence in them, I can keep my head down and just look for pretty shells on the beach. Here, English Canada, look what I found in the Gaspé. Isn’t it beautiful?
Rhonda Mullins is a literary translator who translates from French to English. She lives in Montreal.