Being on a literary jury is such a difficult business. You know the task before you, choosing "the best" novel published in a given year, is impossible. If the "best" novel published is the one that has the best chance of lasting, of being read long after the year it was published, it is arrogance to suggest that you (you and three or four other people) can predict which work that will be.
Time is the element that makes the "best" book and time is the thing a jury doesn't have. (I wonder if it wouldn't be better for juries to judge books published five years previously. They would still be guessing about the future of a book, but they would have at least a glimpse of the "best" book's standing in the culture.)
Being on a literary jury is such a strange thing, I hate criticizing one, but this year the Scotiabank Giller Prize jury has admitted two translated novels to its short list: The Perfect Circle and The Immaculate Conception. They aren't the first Giller jury to consider translated works for the prize. In 1999, Anne Hébert's Am I Disturbing You? was nominated, and that nomination was just as troubling (to me) as this one.
The problem is not, of course, with the original novels. Pascale Quiviger's Le Cercle parfait and Gaétan Soucy's L'Immaculée conception are really interesting novels, but they were written in French. Their writers worked to master the French language and both Quiviger and Soucy have been honoured for their accomplishments. ( Le Cercle parfait won the Governor-General's Award for best French novel in 2004 and L'Immaculée conception won a first-novel award in 1994.)
Their being written in French is not a trivial thing. A novel comes from a language and a tradition. It is written with a language (or languages) in mind, and taken from its original linguistic contexts, it does not have the same resonance, or the same meaning. Suggesting that novels do have the same meaning/resonance in translation is, in a way, a denigration of the "language-play" of the originals. It's as if one were saying that L'Immaculée conception, say, were only accidentally a French-Canadian novel, that Soucy could have written it in English or Russian or Italian but, due to trivial circumstances, didn't. I think this profoundly untrue. Specific languages and cultures are essential to the creation of a literary work. (It may even be best to think of it this way: that a writer is, in fact, a biographer of his or her language, that he or she writes the intimate life of his or her language, and that no two languages can have the same biography.)
The members of the Giller jury, in nominating The Perfect Circle and The Immaculate Conception for this year's Giller Prize have, I think, tacitly suggested that the original language of a novel is less than essential to the novel itself. At least, that seems to be what the Giller jury is saying, in that the names of the translators (Sheila Fischman translated Le Cercle parfait and Lazer Lederhendler translated L'Immaculée conception) are nowhere near as prominent in the announcements/press releases for this year's Giller Prize as the names of the writers of the French originals.
It's as if the prize were being given not to a book but to an "essence" (a story, a plot, characters) that can be, now, in French or, now, in English without losing any significance. Again, I think this is profoundly wrong and it is, besides, a great insult to the translators. The Immaculate Conception is in the English of Sheila Fischman (who is, I think, one of the least-heralded great contributors to Canadian literary culture).
If the Giller is a prize given to work written in English, the majority of the prize should be given not to Soucy but to Fischman. Same goes for The Perfect Circle by Lederhendler. Yes, Soucy and Quiviger are important to the English novels, but they do not write in English, have not written these novels in English and should not be eligible for the major portion of the Giller Prize amount. At the very least, Fischman and Lederhendler should share the prize equally with the writer of their book's original version.
This is all, of course, part of a long argument about the role of the translator. We are, these days, slightly more aware that books originally written in one language do not, without human intervention, turn themselves into books written in another. In the old days, the translator's name was not necessarily to be found on the translation's title page. These days, the translator's name usually shows up at least there, and sometimes even on the cover.
But in awarding a prize for a book in English, the translator (whose English is being judged award-worthy, remember) should figure prominently in the press releases, in the journalism written about the nominees, and in the celebration. The Immaculate Conception is a novel by Sheila Fischman/Gaétan Soucy, and The Perfect Circle is by Lazer Lederhendler/Pascale Quiviger.
If the Giller Prize is $40,000, then at a minimum $20,000 belongs to the translator. Otherwise, this whole process is nothing more than the exploitation of a translator by the publisher, by the original-language writer and by the Giller jury (who, as writers, should all know better than to allow any press material to go out without the names of the translators being prominent).
Personally, I have serious doubts about awarding a Giller Prize to a novel originally written in French. I find it a little ridiculous to be told that a novel-in-translation is comparable to one written in its original language. Isn't that rather like comparing apples to oranges?
Best would be to live in a bilingual society where it were possible for the population to read the novels in their original languages, a society in which both French and English cultures were familiar. Until we reach that point, if we reach it, it would be better, more realistic and more honourable to show our fullest appreciation for those who are at the interface of language and culture: our translators. God bless, and may man make rich, Sheila Fischman and Lazer Lederhendler.
André Alexis is a contributing reviewer to the books section of The Globe and Mail. He has written novels, short stories and plays, and, most recently, a book for young readers, Ingrid and the Wolf. His next novel, Asylum, should be out next year.
The Perfect Circle was translated into English by Sheila Fischman. Gaétan Soucy's The Immaculate Conception was translated by Lazer Lederhendler. Incorrect information appeared in Saturday Review on Oct. 14.