Translating Montreal: Where Blueberries Are Not Myrtilles by Neil Smith

Last time I was in Paris, two men travelling on my train got into a fight when one dared address the other using tu.

Vous m’avez tutoyé, monsieur! Vous m’avez tutoyé!”

A face was slapped. A beret was knocked askew.

Their hullaballoo over tu reminded me of the time I was at my Montreal gym and asked a fellow if he’d finished with the bench press.

Avez-vous terminé?” I said.

Looking vexed, he replied, “Pourquoi tu me vouvoies, ’stie?

If you haven’t lived in Quebec long, you might foolishly think Quebec French and French French, c’est du pareil au même.

They aren’t the same diff. As a writer, you must understand this.

Say you publish a novel in English that creates enough buzz that a publisher in France – call it Éditions Les Nombrilistes – buys French rights. You’re thrilled: your franco friends can discover what a creative artiste you are.

Les Nombrilistes hire a Frenchman named Didier to translate your Mile End novel, The Fractured Hipster. Sadly, Didier has never set foot in Montreal.

When Le branché débranché comes out, your young protagonist, Julian, buys his cigarettes chez l’Arabe, goes out with a nana, wears pull-overs and baskets, washes his clothes at a pressing, and eats myrtilles and pastèque. He swears by yelling, “Putain de merde!”

Quebecisms – dépanneur, blonde, chandail, espadrilles, buanderie, bleuets, melon d’eau, câlisse – appear nowhere in your book. Didier and the Nombrilistes have Gallicized both Montreal and Julian to death.

If this erasing of Quebec colour and culture happened to Leonard Cohen’s Les perdants magnifiques and Mordecai Richler’s Le monde de Barney, it can happen to Le branché débranché.

Should you be upset? Would Michel Tremblay be peeved if that pregnant fat lady next door, in her English incarnation, watched the telly, travelled on the tube, ate crisps and swore by screaming, “Bollocks!”?

How to ensure this tragedy doesn’t befall your hipster? Consider doing what Ann-Marie MacDonald did for Fall on Your Knees. In her contract with French publisher Flammarion, she specifically requested a Canadian translator, someone who can render an English Quebec story more faithfully.

If your publisher still foists Didier on you, insist he preserve your novel’s Quebec colour. If your French is weak, have a Québécois friend read Didier’s translation far in advance of the pub date.

Remind the publisher that if the book is too France-ified, the Quebec press will lampoon it and Quebec readers ignore it.

Les Nombrilistes and Didier might insist les Français will be perdus and even démoralisés if they come across a word like dépanneur.

Tell them that when you read a book set in, say, New Zealand, you don’t expect to understand every expression either, but the context usually helps you make a good guess.

Tell them one of the joys of reading is discovering a new culture.

Tell them les Français desperately need to learn that.

And if they still argue with you, you may need to slap a few faces and trample a few berets.

Neil Smith is a French to English translator from Montreal. He’s also the author of the book of stories Bang Crunch, which was published around the world. His next book, a novel called Boo, is out in 2014 with Knopf.

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17 thoughts on “Translating Montreal: Where Blueberries Are Not Myrtilles by Neil Smith

  1. Thanks for an insightful and amusing essay about the importance of local culture and expressions. My (Quebec) kids laughed when they heard the France French dubbing of “Prison Break,” with words like “pénard” and “que dalle.” “Putain de merde” is always popular too.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great article. (Translators have a boring name for this crucial process about rendering meaning in the target language – localization. It’s what any translator worth her salt does, and yet…publishers aren’t always savvy.)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Good subject. The worst are translations of north-american sport movies made in France. Baseball and hockey are popular in Quebec, but not in France. So hearing the words “crosse”, “palet”, “bonne balle” or “hômereune” instead of “bâton”, “rondelle”, “prise” or “circuit” makes our ears bleed.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. As a fellow-translator, I thank you for writing so wittily about a major problem for us. Too few people seem to recognize that the culture depicted in a book needs adaptation in some cases and complete fidelity in others. Who was it that said the English and the Americans were divided by a common language? That goes in spades for the French and the Québecois!

    Liked by 1 person

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  6. Deliciously witty. Gave me a few belly laughs on an otherwise sombre day.

    (I wonder how belly laugh would be translated in France-French.)

    Like

  7. Ka pai! A New Zealand expression that you might use context to guess that it means something like “too right!” (another Kiwi expression that’s easy to translate).

    Like

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