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Conjuring Up a Nocturnal Montreal: Stéphane Larue and Pablo Strauss on Translating “The Dishwasher”

By Pablo Strauss Stéphane Larue
Translated By Pablo Strauss

When Stéphane Larue’s The Dishwasher won the 2020 First Novel Award (formerly the Books in Canada First Novel Award), it was the first translated novel selected in the prize’s forty-four-year history. Originally released as Le plongeur in 2016, the novel has won multiple awards, including Quebec’s prestigious Bookseller’s Award and the international Prix Senghor.

Le plongeur, and now The Dishwasher, have also attracted an unusually broad and loyal readership, perhaps because the book faithfully depicts fields of experience rarely seen in literary fiction—the restaurant industry, gambling addiction, and heavy metal music—in a poignant and propulsively readable coming-of-age story.

The Dishwasher’s translator, Pablo Strauss, talked over Zoom with author Stéphane Larue about pandemic life, Larue’s influences and vision of the novel, and the challenges of the translation process. The interview has been translated from French to English, and condensed and edited for clarity.

Pablo Strauss (PS): Stéphane, you’re not only the author of a book set in the restaurant world, but also the co-owner of a bar. Can I start by asking you to share a little about your experience of the pandemic, in Montreal, as both a writer and a hospitality worker? Has our changed world also changed how you see your novel?

Stéphane Larue (SL): The book describes life in the restaurant industry over fifteen years ago—a vanished world. So first of all, my life as a bartender in 2020 is very different from what you see depicted in The Dishwasher. I usually write about experiences only much later, so if I ever write about this period we’re going through now, it will likely be in ten years.

As a bar owner, I experienced great insecurity during the pandemic, but there were also swift government measures to help business owners and workers. And as a writer, I found it easier to step away from my routine at the bar and develop a writing schedule that is much saner and healthier. Bar work is good for me as a writer, because I can work a lot of hours in just a few days and then spend the rest of my week on my writing. But it’s exhausting: the shifts are long, and we work late into the night. It’s hard on my brain! Confinement forced me to take a break and helped me concentrate better, and I was able to focus on reading and writing in a way I hadn’t for years.

PS: So a silver lining . . .

SL: I was lucky . . . It gave me an opportunity to slow down and refocus. My life has always revolved around reading and writing, but the pandemic cut through the static from my second life as a bartender. I was able to make progress on my next book, and inroads in my to-be-read pile.

PS: Any books you found especially inspiring?

SL: I finished the first Donna Tartt novel, The Secret History, which for me is an example of a perfectly mastered novel. I read volume two of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, The Story of a New Name, which was fascinating. It made me pick up her Incidental Inventions, a collection of notes and letters that discuss the writing process. It’s great to see such an accomplished author reflecting on writing and its implications in private and public life, something vital to me because I do write about real people I know.

I finally finished La bête creuse by Christophe Bernard, and I loved it. The author warns us that people from the Gaspé region of Quebec are epic exaggerators. This massive novel is a collection of tall tales, and the sense of exaggeration is there at the sentence level as well. I laughed out loud.

PS: And it’s coming out in English, translated by Lazer Lederhendler (forthcoming from Biblioasis). He’s brave to take that book on—what a challenge. The jokes alone!

SL: It’s like a conveyor belt of nonstop jokes, and the humor works on so many levels.

PS: For me, that type of humor is the hardest thing to translate. I can’t wait to see the result.

: I also read La Morte by Mathieu Arsenault. It came out during the lockdown, and is a meditation on death, the place of death in our lives, and our dreams. It’s about Vickie Gendreau, of course [a renowned Quebec author who died tragically young, and whose work is published in English in Aimee Wall’s translation by Book*hug].

PS: And you knew Vickie?

SL: [Holds up his arm to the camera, to show me a tattoo.] Yeah. That’s the date of her death, tattooed on my arm. I got to know Vickie at readings, and we wrote blog posts together. And toward the end of her life, when she was sick, I got to know her better— we started a correspondence, a dialogue on writing.

I’ve really been trying to reconnect with women writers, the ones I’ve known personally and the ones in my bookcase. Annie Ernaux is a huge influence. Especially La Place (A Man’s Place in English, translated by Tanya Leslie), where she writes about her parents. It’s one of the most powerful books I’ve read recently. The way she can bring a specific place to life in its full social and socioeconomic reality. Her work on memory, and violence between social classes—it’s all so relevant to our specific moment.

My reading is always related to my writing, because it’s a form of conversation between us and other writers. This nourishes our own writing, which is also a conversation with other writers, and of course with our readers.

“I’ve had readers come to me and say, ‘Finally, you helped me understand the gambling problem of a loved one.’”

PS: I like this idea of a conversation with other works: What books would you say The Dishwasher is in conversation with? I’m especially thinking of your style, which (like much new writing from Quebec) feels influenced by English writing in its shorter, more straightforward sentence structure.

SL: It’s also a matter of narrative form. There are huge formal differences between the French tradition of the novel and its equivalent in the English-speaking world.

Like a lot of writers my age, I was influenced by movies, which are in a tradition of storytelling you see more in the English-speaking world.

Down and Out in Paris and London was of course important. [George Orwell’s novella even makes a cameo in The Dishwasher, whose narrator urges his friend to read it.] It was the first book I ever read that talked about dishwashing, and it’s an example of the universality of restaurant work. What Orwell describes in the restaurant scenes was around a hundred years ago, but it could have happened five years ago. That was the first clear sign for me that maybe I could write a work set in the restaurant world. 

Cormac McCarthy is a big influence, especially Suttree—the way it develops slowly, the way he creates an entire world from very quotidian life. It’s a way of looking at the world you could call “hyperrealism.” When I describe the dishpit, or the city of Montreal, my focus on description owes a lot to McCarthy.

PS: And as you’ve said before, The Dishwasher is very much a novel of the night. You wanted to evoke the nightlife of a specific time and place?

SL: I write from memory. And writing itself has a mnemonic effect: when I start writing it takes me to a place. So I’ll try to describe it in the greatest possible detail, to render the memory on the page. It can result in a level of description you might call obsessive. It can be overwhelming, in the first draft, and then I’ll reorganize it over time, so it isn’t just a raw memory but something that works as fiction. I definitely wanted to conjure up nocturnal Montreal of the early 2000s, as I remembered it.

A lot of what I’ve read in this vein lacks precision . . . the places aren’t described, or the streets. The characters are archetypes. 

PS: Let’s talk a bit about the reception of Le plongeur/The Dishwasher. Your book has connected with a very broad audience. I wanted to ask you, since you’ve done a lot of touring to support the book, what are some things readers have told you that have stayed with you?

SL: People really connected with the characters. I think one of the book’s strengths is that there are a series of characters who readers felt deep affection for. People want to know how it’s going to end for Bébert, whether Bonnie is going to be okay—they seem to feel they’ve known the characters personally, in their own lives. The narrator, meanwhile, is only really interesting for the light he sheds on other characters. In general, I think the narrator-protagonist is rarely enough to create a strong novel; I see the novel as a place for a community of characters.

A lot of readers really appreciated seeing a novel set in a kitchen, seeing their own experience depicted. There is also the gambling aspect. I’ve had readers come to me and say, “Finally, you helped me understand the gambling problem of a loved one.” Gambling seems less well-understood than other addictions, and it’s often portrayed as something romantic—a poker player going all in and winning—whereas in real life it’s a much more morbid problem. 

And yes, readers responded to the heavy metal side of the story. It was my way of celebrating metal culture, which was crucial to me in my teenage years and young adulthood. 

One thing that comes back again and again is readers telling me they recognized a real person they knew. And people who were involved in the Montreal nightlife of the early 2000s, and have since gotten older and mellowed out, seem to really enjoy taking a trip back in time, reconnecting with their past selves. It’s funny, though: European readers have told me the same thing, about their own cities.

“I think you can never have the ‘ideal translator.’” 

PS: Turning to the translation, was it stressful for you to see your book come out in another language?

SL: No, I’d say I was more touched. Because like a lot of Quebecers, I was very much influenced by English-language writing (and film), and to see my own work join that corpus felt like a form of consecration . . .

I was a bit more nervous about seeing the book published in France, where French-language writing is often localized for the French market. My publisher, Le Quartanier, chose to sell its own books directly in France for that very reason, to defend the integrity of the text.

PS: Was there a difference between what you thought would be hard to bring into English, and what turned out to be challenging when we worked through the translation together?

SL: I think working with you, since you live in Quebec and have lived in Montreal, and have firsthand experience in the kitchen world, made me feel confident. I guess my fear was that we would efface certain social and linguistic aspects of the text.

But the way we worked on it together, and discussed specific references, I feel like we were able to save as much as we could. There were some tough decisions, but I couldn’t have imagined a truer version of my text than the English one we ended up with. It’s not in American English, it’s in Canadian English, and it seems to fit with the milieu we’re depicting. 

I talked to an American reader who didn’t agree with keeping certain terms—like CEGEP for the Quebec junior colleges—because he said it would confuse readers. My answer to that is that when I’m watching an American movie, and they talk about sophomores and freshmen, I don’t turn it off. 

I liked that we were able to keep so many local references. We didn’t try to flatten them over with universal references that everyone could understand. Because I believe every reader is capable of figuring out every reference if they go deep enough into the text. 

PS: Why was keeping Montreal references so important to you?

SL: The Dishwasher is a Montreal novel. When I read Elena Ferrante, the translators don’t take out all the Neapolitan references—it’s full of street names, plazas. When you read Knausgård, it’s full of references to Malmö. I’m using those examples because even though the authors are huge stars now, they both write in less dominant languages. 

To take a parallel example, say we were reading the literature of a minority community. It wouldn’t be doing anyone a favor to gloss over references just because not everyone will understand them. I think this is a fundamental question for translated literature. Luckily, when we worked together, we were on the same page.

PS: Finding the right translator for a book (and vice versa) is tricky too. When I saw your book title, because I’d spent a lot of time as a dishwasher, I knew I wanted to translate it, even before reading it. But in an ideal world, we’d find a translator who was a dishwasher, and was your age, and had had a gambling problem, and loved metal . . . [laughs].

SL: I don’t know, Pablo. I think you can never have the “ideal translator.” 

PS: But it’s good to have a variety of translators working in a given language, to increase the odds of finding a good fit.

SL: Every translator has their biases, and if the same translator does every book, what’ll happen is these biases will show in every book that is translated.

PS: I think the situation is getting much better here in Canada. We have a larger pool of translators working into English. Of course, there’s still room for improvement.

SL: There always is. But translators are like writers: when you’re describing a universe, you have to do research. That’s the basis of your credibility with the reader.

PS: Sure, but there’s also a huge difference between research and experience, one I felt keenly translating your book. As translators, research is pretty much all we do all day. We find two or three reliable sources and call it a day. But it’s a totally different story when we get to translate in a field where we have firsthand experience—kitchen work, in our case. That’s one challenge of being a translator. We’d love to stay close to our experience, but we can’t.

SL: I think you just have to develop your sensitivity. If you’re translating (or writing) something outside your personal experience, you need to be more careful, more sensitive and aware of your limitations.

Related Reading:

The City and the Writer: In Montreal with Nyla Matuk

The Translator Relay: Chantal Ringuet

Imagining Our Own Death: Amanda Michalopoulou and Patricia Felisa Barbeito on Writing Times of Crisis


Published Oct 20, 2020   Copyright 2020 Pablo StraussStéphane Larue

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