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The Translator Relay: Chantal Ringuet

By Words Without Borders

WWB’s Translator Relay features an interview with a different translator every few months. The current month’s translator will choose the next interviewee, adding a different, sixth question.

For August’s installment, Lazer Lederhendler passed the baton to Chantal Ringuet, who translates from English and Yiddish into French.

1. What is your connection to the language(s) you translate from and/or the place(s) where the books you translate are written?

Since I translate from English and Yiddish, two languages that have a very different status today in North America (and in the world), my connection to both languages differs considerably. I actually started my translating journey with Yiddish as a scholar in North American literature who did postdoctoral research on Yiddish writers in Montreal. So my first translations were part of my academic work. As I soon realized, there was—and still is—a very limited knowledge of Yiddish literature and culture among both French and English speakers in Canada, a situation that required more translations in order to make this fascinating culture accessible to the public. There is a whole literature written in this language that I find fascinating and makes it so rich in its texture and emotions. From the end of the nineteenth century to a few years after World War II, Yiddish carried so many different linguistic influences, as well as so many artistic trends and political debates, while being a “vernacular language” and having a tragic destiny in modern times . . . Now, because of  that tragic destiny, it needs translators—in many languages.

My connection to this language is particular, it is a vanished world and a precious one, all the more so because I was raised Catholic in private schools with no Jewish background, and the first time I heard Yiddish was when I moved to Montreal, where you could hear the language spoken by the Hasidim. In an essay for WWB, I mentioned that I envision my task as a translator as a huge responsibility, because the material itself—the text—is so fragile. So, part of my work is “to give the dead a chance to speak” because you can’t escape the fact that every text translated is, to a certain extent, a victory against history. In this sense, not only am I a “passeur” in the basic sense, as every translator is, but also a “passeur” of history, someone who tries to circumvent the reality of a “vanished or engulfed world.” No doubt this is a very emotional connection to Yiddish.

This work has also brought me to write more in English, something that I had not planned to do years ago. In 2014, I published a book of poetry inspired by the photography of British photojournalist Don McCullin, in both English and French. I plan to write my next book of creative writing in English; as a matter of fact, I will start working on it next October in Iceland. I have the honor to be the first writer selected to inaugurate the Grondhaus in Reykjavik UNESCO City of Literature. It is actually a poetic odyssey that I began ten years ago and in which I reinvent the Biblical narratives in a landscape with no trees. Through a sequence of five prose poems, my protagonist travels from the core of the Biblical text in Hebrew to the heart of present-day Icelandic landscapes, where a treeless journey invites her to reassess the centrality of the Bible in our time. In this context, working with other languages will bring me to redefine the notion of “sacred geography” in an environment free of war, conflict and genocide.

2. Can you give us an example of an “untranslatable” word or phrase, and tell us how you brought it into English?

In Yiddish, there are many Hebrew components that are not necessarily untranslatable but that may be problematic when you face them. For example, a couple of years ago, when I was preparing an anthology of Yiddish literature in translation, I found a passage in one of Melech Ravitch’s short stories, replete with ancient Hebrew. Although I had learned some Modern Hebrew at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, I was confronted with a sentence that I couldn’t quite understand. It was a description pertaining to a first-class dialectician meaning: “He was able to purify a filthy being a hundred and fifty times for a hundred and fifty different reasons.” I then asked three Yiddishists if they knew the significance of the original excerpt and nobody could respond. Finally, a translator friend contacted me saying that it was a passage from the Talmud. She had understood the significance of this passage, because she had a son who became religious and studied the Talmud on a regular basis—a situation which is quite unusual among Yiddish translators!

I encountered a similar situation when I translated Pauline Johnson’s Legends of Vancouver, which comprised some words in Chinook. Fortunately, I was able to find a dictionary of Chinook jargon dating from 1863. However, I decided to keep the original words in my English translation in order to give the reader a taste of the language. Along with the publisher, we decided to add a glossary in the book.

Another important aspect of Yiddish is that the language always carries an “external component,” that is, words or sentences borrowed from other languages, usually Slavic and West European languages (Russian, Polish, German, French, or Italian), which can be a challenge. When I translated Marc Chagall’s original autobiography from Yiddish to French with Pierre Anctil (a text that had been previously translated from Yiddish to English by Benjamin and Barbara Harshav), there were a dozen words in Russian, so we had to refer to someone who knew the language to help us.

Like the great French translator (from Russian) André Markowicz, I believe that translating poetry is a bigger challenge. Since it’s not the pragmatic use of language that is employed, the text is subject to distortions through a specific syntactic and lexical apparatus. It is difficult to render the evocative dimension that characterizes the poetic language, as the referential context is most often deleted, especially when you face the complexities of the target language. Translating Yiddish poetry into French involves facing some expressions with compound words, a situation which requires the constant use of one’s creative imagination.

3. Do you have any translating rituals? 

I usually write early in the morning and translate in the second part of the morning or in the afternoon. A latte next to me, at my desk with my dog, Walter, at my feet, I start by printing a few pages, taking notes, writing by hand. Reading the text a few times—including reading it out loud—is very important in order to get immersed in it, to hear its musicality and grasp the rhythm of the original text.

Since I practice yoga, I sometimes take a break from translation and do a few poses, including inversions. Seeing the room upside down for a few minutes is quite relaxing. It’s also a metaphor for my translation work from Yiddish, which requires me to read in the reverse order than what I was used to doing all my life using the Latin alphabet—that is, from left to right. That’s what Yiddish brings you: a new and fresh vision of the world that challenges the parameters of “mainstream” languages and cultures in the twenty-first century.

4. Do you have a metaphor you use to explain the translation process and the role of the translator in bringing a piece from one language into another?

My very own metaphor is that of the tailor. I might not be the first person to use it; however, it connects deeply to my own family history. When I was a little girl, I spent a lot of time with my grandmother, who was involved in different crafts, sewing in particular.

As I mentioned in my earlier essay, the parallel between these two crafts, sewing and translating, seems even more pertinent when it comes to translating Yiddish for two reasons. First, to translate the mame-loshn (mother tongue) into French, reading Hebrew is required, which also demands reading right-to-left. In doing so, something echoes from my childhood: “The finishing touches of a finely-sewn garment are always on the underside,” my grandmother would say. The second reason, historically speaking, is that sewing plays an important role for the Jewish populations of Eastern Europe. Among the many odd jobs of these Yiddish speakers, that of the tailor holds a place of prominence. Speaking of which, at the beginning of the twentieth century, a very high number of Jewish immigrants worked in the great textile mills of North American industrial cities such as Montreal and New York.

5. Tell us about a current, or future, translation project that you're excited about.

Since 2016, when I was a translator in residence at the BILTC (Banff International Literary Translation Centre), I have been working on Rachel Korn and Kadya Molodowsky’s poetry. I am very excited about this project, since these two women were great Yiddish poets and they have almost never been translated into French. All the more, I feel a personal connection to Korn’s sensitivity. She is very passionate—though marked by her experiences in the Holocaust—and uses metaphors of nature in a very intense manner, still with humility and starkness.

Also, these women poets express a different experience of the cities where they lived. I am particularly interested in the connection between women’s writing, archives, and the city as transactional spaces that intersect while being surrounded by other communities and languages.

6. (Lazer Lederhendler’s question for you:) Knowing that Yiddish has been (and for the most part remains) an “insider” language, written almost exclusively by and for Ashkenazi Jews, what are the main challenges you’ve had to deal with as a non-Jewish translator of Yiddish literature? Are there advantages to being an “outsider”?

As an outsider, I have some cultural and emotional distance that allows me to do this work in a creative way, without feeling engulfed myself.

At the same time, I find it very interesting to realize that translating Yiddish also shaped my professional translating and creative writing journey in many ways. For example, I translate texts written by authors from the Jewish diaspora who have been living in many places in the world, and not only in Europe and America. For the last five years, working on Yiddish literature and women poets (and also on Leonard Cohen) has required a lot of travel, so much so that I feel that I am myself recreating my own little diaspora while being immersed in these writers’ voices.

As an outsider, I think that I have some distance that allows me to do this work in a creative way. Obviously, this situation allows me not to be overwhelmed by what is often described as the “burden of Yiddish.” In this sense, this might be perceived as an advantage to a certain extent. I think every case is different, but what is similar for every translator of Yiddish, be he/she Jewish or not, is that this work has a strong significance in terms of “repairing history”—we might say that it refers to the Jewish concept of tikkun olam. There is a sense of gravity that is attached to this act and it cannot be avoided. At the same time, it makes this task even more precious.

Chantal Ringuet is an award-winning Canadian writer, scholar, and translator. She is the author of collections of poems (one of which received the 2009 Jacques-Poirier literary award) and of works on Yiddish Montreal. With Gérard Rabinovitch, she published Les révolutions de Leonard Cohen (PUQ, 2016), which received a 2017 Canadian Jewish Literary Award. With Pierre Anctil, she published a translation of an early biography of Marc Chagall (Mon univers. Autobiographie, Fides, 2017). She has been a fellow at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York, scholar-in-residence at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute (Brandeis University), and writer in residence and literary translator in residence at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. She will be the first writer to stay in the Gröndalshouse Literature City Residence in Reykjavik UNESCO City of Literature this October.

Author photo by Richard-Max Tremblay, 2016.

Published Aug 5, 2019   Copyright 2019 Words Without Borders

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