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The Translator Relay: Lazer Lederhendler

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 May’s installment, Helen Mintz passed the baton to Lazer Lederhendler, who translates from French and Yiddish.


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

High-school French in English-speaking Montreal in the mid-1960s was not a priority, either for me, the teaching staff, or the school authorities. We were cut off from (and full of the ambient prejudices about) Francophone Montreal and Montrealers. As far as I can recall, none of my French teachers were Québécois. Either way, they showed little, if any, interest in contemporary Québécois culture and literature.

My education in French really began later, in the proverbial school of life. Quebec was in the middle of its Quiet Revolution, and I was caught up in the political and social ferment of the times. I moved east across Boulevard Saint-Laurent, the symbolic boundary between English- and French-speaking Montreal. Back then, it was a bit like changing countries without changing cities. In 1969 I joined a radical political theater group; two of its members were Québécoises recently returned from France, where they had studied drama and participated in the events of 1968. They were my first serious French teachers. They corrected my pronunciation and grammar, introduced me to the drama of Michel Tremblay, the songs of Gilles Vigneault and Félix Leclerc, the poetry of Michèle Lalonde and Gaston Miron, the novels of Réjean Ducharme and Marie-Claire Blais, the political philosophy of Pierre Vallières.

I was a good student. I loved the language, its cadence and melody. I soaked up not just the literary French of Quebec but also the language spoken in the streets and squares and restaurants of Montreal. I enjoyed the irreverent humour of its writers and artists and identified with their thirst for freedom and justice. When the Manifesto of the Front de Libération du Québec was published during the 1970 October Crisis, I spontaneously set about translating it into English. That was my first bona fide translation (all traces of which have disappeared). I fell in love with a Québécoise, who became and remains my life partner. With her help I pursued my education in French culture, with more focus on the continental scene.

I started earning a living as a freelance translator in Moncton, New Brunswick, where we lived for a number of years. Practically all our friends and acquaintances there were Francophones, and I became familiar with the writers and artists of Acadia. Eventually I got a full-time job with the provincial government's translation service and, later, with the federal Translation Bureau in Ottawa. In both cases, there were no openings for French-to-English translators, so I was hired to translate documents from English to French.

In sum, I would describe my connection with French, with Montreal, with Quebec (and beyond), as profound, intimate, complex, and ever-evolving.


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

I don’t think I’d be a translator if I took the notion of “the untranslatable” too literally, especially when it comes to languages as closely relatedhistorically, etymologically, culturallyas English and French. Not that translators aren’t constantly coming up against problems of translatability. But isn’t problem-solving one of the things that make this line of work so much fun?

Of course, some problems are knottier than others. Aside from elaborate puns, which are in their own class of difficulty, I've found that it’s often the humble, seemingly innocent words that cause the most trouble. Take the word décidément. Dictionaries tell us that it’s a phrasal adverb meaning “ultimately” or “all things considered” or “obviously” or even just “oh.” Now, in a novel I recently translated (see question five), I came across décidément in dialogue, and it made me sweat and lose sleep. Here is the context (which, as we know, is everything): a young mother is visiting her badly injured husband in the hospital. When Steve, a male nurse, comes into the room and introduces himself, she points to his badge and answers testily, “I can read.” A while later, the woman's son arrives. Steve introduces himself to the little boy, who then places his finger on the man's badge and says, “It says that, right there.” Steve’s response? “Décidément.” Clearly, none of the dictionary definitions or anything similar would work here. After acting the scene out in my head several times, I settled on “Wow, unbelievable,” because that is what Steve’s answer actually means.

On a more serious note, I've also run into problems of translatability that are fundamentally ethical issues arising within the current social context. A few years ago I translated Dirty Feet by Edem Awumey, a Canadian writer originally from Togo. There are several occurrences of the word nègre in his novel and I was faced with the thorny question of how to render it in English. Fortunately, I was able to consult the author, and we agreed that “negro” or “black” was appropriate in some instances, while in others the only accurate equivalent was the n-word.


Do you have any translating rituals? 

I have habits that I don’t actually consider rituals but simply part of my work routine. In the morning, I ease into the work by indulging in a little healthy procrastination (checking email, social networks, weather forecasts, bank account, etc.). Then I review the pages I've translated the day before. As I work, I usually have a cup of tea within easy reach. I stand up, stretch, and move around every half hour or so. At the end of the day I count pages to see if I've met my output goal for the day. I never work in my pajamas.

Some things that come under the heading of work method have, inevitably I suppose, turned into personal rituals. For instance, when I start into a new book I usually curse a lot and mutter under my breath for the first fifty pages or so; I find this helps me work my way into the “skin” of the narrative, and it has the added benefit of relieving stress. Ahead of and during a new project I try to read English writing (including translations, of course) that I think is comparable in style and diction to the book I'm working on. When the book has a lot of dialogue (as in the example above), I pay special attention to the English subtitles of films and TV series (which offer both positive and negative models).


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?

The fact that translation and metaphor have very similar meanings goes some way to explaining, I think, the mind-boggling and still growing number of metaphors for translation. Over the years I’ve compared what a literary translator does to acting, conducting an orchestra, or directing a film. What literary translation shares with these professions, other than belonging to the interpretive arts, can rightly be called magic. Magic, in the sense of the art of the magician. Like a professional magician, the translator spends a long time laboring “behind the scenes” in order to produce an illusion. In narrative fiction, the illusion involves conjuring up for the reader the same narrator and characters going through the same experiences, having the same feelings, thinking the same thoughts as those first created by the author, the original illusionist.

But magic in a metaphysical or even mystical sense as well. Because when the illusion is successful and the original work, the translation, and the reading sing together—not in unison but in harmony—something transcendent happens. And, when it does, the reader isn’t the only part of that trinity left wondering “how it’s done.” All of which brings us back to the miracle of language itself and the human ability to make worlds out of words. For me, literature is a meeting of strangers. And few things are more mysterious—or more fraught—than the meeting of strangers. That’s especially true of literary translation, where the translator acts as the quiet yet active host discreetly enabling the conversation to unfold.


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

I’m currently putting the final touches on the manuscript of If You Hear Me, my translation of the novel Si tu m'entends, by Pascale Quiviger, a fabulous Québécoise writer and visual artist based in the UK. The English version will be published by Biblioasis later this year. It’s a powerfully haunting story centered on a construction worker and his family in the wake of a work accident that has left the man in a coma. The narrative combines gritty realism, extensive dramatic dialogue, philosophical discourse, and poetry, making this a very challenging, so all the more gratifying, project.

Meanwhile, I’ve started on a new project, also with Biblioasis, La bête creuse (English working title: Hollow Beast). The author is Christophe Bernard, a writer and translator who hails from the Gaspésie region of Quebec but has been living in Vermont for over ten years. This is Bernard’s first novel and it has already garnered accolades, including the prestigious Prix des libraires du Québec (Quebec Booksellers Award). It’s truly a beast of a book, not on account of its length (though it does weigh in at over 700 pages) but because of the writing, which critics have variously described as Pynchonesque, Rabelaisean, and Joycean. Talk about a challenge! The translation is scheduled for publication in 2020. Wish me lots of luck and Sitzfleisch.

I’m also collaborating with Helen Mintz on a translation of a selection from Melech Ravitch’s three-volume memoirs, Dos maysebukh fun mayn lebn (The Storybook of My Life), originally written in Yiddish. Helen did an excellent job of summarizing the project in the January 2019 installment of the Translator Relay. I would add only that I’m especially excited, and a little anxious, about this venture, as it will be my first substantial translation from Yiddish. Which is one reason I’m grateful to be working in tandem with Helen, who’s been there before and is no stranger to literary distinctions.  


(Helen’s question for you:) “You grew up in a French-language province, in a Yiddish speaking home, attending English language schools. How do you think this medley of languages influences your translations from French to English? From Yiddish to English?”

I’ve already sketched out my biographical and geographical connections to French. It’s the language we speak at home, the radio is tuned to a French language station more often than not, and when we go out to see a film or we watch a TV series on Netflix, we usually choose French subtitles if the original version is in another language. The effect this has on my work as an English translator is double-edged.

On the one hand, my daily immersion in a Francophone environment helps me grasp the subtleties of meaning, connotation, and tone in the original French. For instance, when I was working on Nicolas Dickner’s novel Tarmac (Apocalypse For Beginners in English), I encountered several occurrences of the word fesses, which can translate as “buttocks,” “bum,” “derrière,” “tushy,” or any of a long list of possible English equivalents, including, in a Québécois context, “sex.” It turned out that the appropriate solution differed from one episode to the next.   

On the other hand, I have to make a conscious effort to keep my instrument, English, in tune with the evolving parlance “on the street”—in the media, pop culture, academia, etc. This also means being alive to the ongoing cross-fertilization between languages and cultures, especially when, like English and French in Montreal, they’re in close daily contact. I’m averse to the idea of “contamination,” which implies that writers and translators should somehow be guardians of linguistic purity—a mythical concept with rather unsavory overtones. Still, you need to be very careful with lexical or syntactical imports, because they can easily mar the translation and thus do a disservice to the original work as well as the reader.

The influence of Yiddish on my translation practice is harder to pinpoint because I’ve only begun to translate Yiddish literature. But it’s obvious that the way I relate to language in general has a lot to do with the fact that until the age of about four, I spoke only Yiddish. Not to mention that my mother and father each spoke a different dialect of Yiddish—Lithuanian and Galician, respectively—and I would switch from one to the other as needed. I can also trace much of my fascination with the interplay among different languages back to the multilingual surroundings of my childhood. My parents and their friends and relations had all recently immigrated to Canada from Central Europe and peppered their Yiddish with Polish and Russian. Even though I didn’t—and wasn’t meant to—understand those parts of the conversations, I bathed in the music and texture of those languages throughout my early years.

Things got even more interesting, linguistically speaking, after I started elementary school. I attended the Jewish Peretz School, where the standard English-language curriculum was covered in the afternoon, while morning classes were devoted to Yiddish, Hebrew, and the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible). The Tanakh we studied was the Yehoyesh version: the original Loshn Koydesh (Ancient Hebrew-Aramaic) text is literally surrounded on the page by Yehoash Blumgarten’s (1872–1927) Mame Loshn (Yiddish) translation. Yitskhok Niborski, the renowned Yiddish scholar, has noted that people who had to grapple with this text during their childhood were “in translation” from the get-go. So maybe my vocation as a translator had been there, lying in wait, all along.

In any case, I feel compelled today to pay homage to my first language by helping to bring a few of the many buried treasures of Yiddish literature to light and making them available to English readers.


Lazer Lederhendler is a full-time literary translator specializing in contemporary Québécois fiction and nonfiction. His translations have earned many Canadian and international distinctions, including multiple nominations for the Governor General’s Literary Award (GGLA) and three Cole Foundation Translation Prizes, awarded by the Quebec Writers Federation (QWF). His rendition of Nicolas Dickner’s novel Nikolski won the GGLA in 2008, was runner-up for the 2011 Scott Montcrieff Translation Award of the Society of Authors (UK) and a finalist for the 2010 Oxford-Wiedenfeld Translation Prize (UK), and won the 2010 Canada Reads competition. He won the GGLA again in 2016 for his translation of The Party Wall (Le mur mitoyen) by Catherine Leroux, which was shortlisted for the 2017 French-American Foundation Translation Prize, the National Translation Award of the American Literary Translators Association, as well as the Scotiabank-Giller Prize for fiction. A previous translation, The Immaculate Conception by Gaétan Soucy, was also a finalist for the Scotiabank-Giller prize (2006) and winner of the QWF Translation Award. He taught English language and literature for many years at the Collège international des Marcellines in Westmount, Quebec, and he has lectured in translation at the Université de Sherbrooke and Concordia University. He lives in Montreal with the visual artist Pierrette Bouchard.

Published May 13, 2019   Copyright 2019 Words Without Borders

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