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Illustration by Wenting Li

Montreal is a city of translators, the novelist Sean Michaels once observed.

Residents make the mental journey between French and English countless times every day. Sometimes they do it resentfully (when they’re served by a McGill student barista) and sometimes they do it badly (the grocery store display for poulet de ferme/hard chicken). More often, they translate by second nature, like the softball player who yells “heads up … attention” after an errant foul ball.

It’s probably no wonder that Montrealers are doing such interesting things with literary translation, the refined and formalized expression of this local mental habit. The recent collaboration between two writers on a novel about a luck-obsessed stand-up comedian shows how creatively some people are able to bridge the linguistic gap.

The writers are Michaels, a Giller Prize winner and most recently author of The Wagers; and Catherine Leroux, a novelist and translator who rendered that book into French as Les coups de dés, published last year.

Author Sean Michaels.Julie Artacho

The practice of translation is often discussed in terms of its difficulties (think: “lost in”). That is doubly true in Montreal, where language forms the divide between the city’s two historic solitudes. Literary translator Linda Gaboriau has talked about the trickiness of making playwright Michel Marc Bouchard’s grandiloquence sing on the English stage; the French-from-France translation of Mordecai Richler made the faux pas of calling Maurice Richard La fusée instead of the “Rocket,” as he was known by both anglophone and francophone Quebeckers.

Even someone as skillful as Leroux – who was just nominated for a Governor General’s Award for Les coups de dés – finds herself tripping over certain language barriers, she acknowledges. Elegant conjugations in her version of the book, such as attendirent and apparut (wait and appear), give certain passages a classical quality they lack in the looser original English. Written French is intrinsically more formal than its spoken counterpart, she explains – even more so than written English.

Or take “plum,” a significant word in a book populated by a family of grocers. Translating it literally as prune robs the word of its plummy assonance, Michaels points out, replacing a ripe, rounded sound with something more desiccated.

Both writers prefer to dwell on the possibilities of translation than on its problems, however – especially the possibilities that reveal themselves in a city blessed with what the poet A.M. Klein called a “double-melodied vocabulaire.”

In Montreal, author and translator are more likely to consult each other on stylistic decisions such as how to capture the evocative power of the word “plum.” When Michaels has been translated into other languages, such as Czech, he has let go of the reins completely. Here, the process is more of a back-and-forth.

He and Leroux were already friends when she signed on to translate Us Conductors, the novel for which Michaels won his Giller. When they met up at a café to discuss the project, one of her first questions was, When do these characters start to tutoie? That is, when do they start to use the informal second-person pronoun tu rather than the more formal vous – a question that doesn’t occur in English, with its neutral “you.”

Author and translator Catherine Leroux.Audrée Wilhelmy

Leroux was sensitive to the different inflection points that tip a relationship towards intimacy in English and French. When she first dated an anglophone, she stumbled into an embarrassing situation after saying “I love you” too early in the relationship, not realizing it was more charged than je t’aime, which can indicate both love and like.

Michaels was thrilled to hear all of this verbal nuance packed into the simplest of phrases.

“That was the moment with translation where I was like, ‘This is cool,’” he said. “I felt in that moment that what Catherine is doing definitely does not need to be this watered-down bad photocopy.”

With The Wagers, they agreed to do something even more ambitious. Because the book was about an unnamed city that could only be Montreal, the translation would be cultural as well as linguistic. For one thing, Leroux proposed making the French spoken by the characters distinctly Québécois. That sometimes meant leaving some English words in the text to replicate authentic franglais – loafers and cupcakes.

But Leroux went further, too, changing certain cultural references from English Canadian to francophone Quebecker. While in The Wagers the mother of the main character listens to Ideas on the CBC, she listens to the everyman public intellectual Serge Bouchard on Radio-Canada in Les coups de dés.

That decision would be unthinkable in a book about a unilingual city. The characters in Anna Karenina don’t suddenly read the Manchester Guardian in English translations. But even in bilingual Montreal, Leroux’s act of cultural transplantation was a dramatic choice, subtly changing the demographic background of the central Potiris family by turning the dial on their radio.

Michaels had faith in this unusual “loss of control” over his characters because he trusted Leroux. Leroux believed it would work because of The Simpsons. When she was growing up, most of the American movies and shows were dubbed into French with a French accent. The Simpsons was one of the few dubbed by Québécois actors with local cultural references. When characters in the original were meant to be talking about Oprah, they might mention Quebec TV personality Claire Lamarche instead.

“It just made it so much more funny,” Ms. Leroux said. “I now realize that I had that background in the back of my mind; that this had been done before, and it worked great.”

The interplay between French and English isn’t always so seamless and sparkling in literary Montreal. Anglophone and francophone writers often inhabit different worlds. “The solitudes and separations there, and the way we don’t see each other, living our lives and doing our work on the same streets, is sort of sad,” said Michaels.

He and Leroux want to show a different way, translating well in a city of translation. Last fall, they took part in a rare bilingual book talk at a bookstore near the border between culturally anglo Mile End and francophone Outremont. The friends joked about plum versus prune and CBC versus Radio-Canada. The conversation meandered between English and French as gamely as a softball player calling out “heads up … attention.”

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