literary event

The Event: Will Ferguson (the Amusing) and the Translators (the Awkward) at IFOA 2011

“Pierre Burton showed me a Canada that was worthy of passion.”

Will Ferguson, IFOA, October 22nd, 2011

The events: International Festival of Authors: Shelagh Rogers interviews Will Ferguson; Wayne Grady hosts a roundtable on translation

When you’re preparing to host or be a guest at an International Festival of Authors event, part of your process should be a consideration of why people have purchased tickets. Why are you expecting a group of like-minded literary types to come down to Harbourfront and spend an hour of their time with you? What is the advertised topic of your event, what is the author’s style or genre, what interesting stories do you want to share with your audience so they feel like they’ve been a part of a fun or stimulating day?

October 22nd: Shelagh Rogers interviews Will Ferguson

I ventured down to the Festival twice this weekend. First up was Shelagh Rogers of CBC fame interviewing Will Ferguson, prolific humourist and most recently author of the book Canadian Pie. Rogers, I think, was as much of a draw as Ferguson. It’s always fun to see the face behind a radio voice, and Rogers was fearless as she started off the interview by reminiscing about the first time she and Ferguson met—“cheek to cheek” and naked but for a screen separating them as they received on-air massages at Temple Gardens spa in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. (Side note: I’ve been to Temple Gardens for some truly excellent mineral bathing and spa treatments, including an hour spent in zero gravity in the sensory deprivation tank.)

Ferguson began with an excerpt from Canadian Pie, an utterly charming tale about reading Hardy Boys books to his small son (“Every story: smugglers! You’d think the word would get out. Smugglers—avoid Bayport!”) and a hilarious reminiscence about being on a youth exchange program in Ecuador, where his group was constantly asked to demonstrate the national dance of Canada. They did what any group of resourceful Canadian teens would do: they made one up, loosely based on tv viewings of square dancing.

After the reading, Ferguson and Rogers settled in for a cozy interview. Their affection for each other came across as both genuine and inclusive—as a member of the audience, I felt like I was being taken into their conversation. Moments that could have veered toward inside references were explained conspiratorially to the audience, letting us in on the joke with relish. The time Ferguson tormented a new publicist by demanding a Tim Horton’s blueberry muffin without the blueberries; allusions of Rogers’ penchant for ocean skinny-dipping; discussions of Ferguson’s relationship with Pierre Burton; and Ferguson’s ever-so-casual mention of the fact that he used to write for Maclean’s Magazine until the time he expensed a helicopter ride: the stories rolled along and riffed off each other in an easy, affable manner.

When asked about the title of his latest book, Canadian Pie, Ferguson quipped that he initially wanted to call the book “Crackerjack Beaver.” While on tour, he’d read a “fun fact” in a Crackerjack box that the beaver is the only mammal that never stops growing. “What a great metaphor for Canada,” Ferguson enthused: a gigantic aquatic rodent sprawling over half of the North American landmass. (It’s really this kind self-effacing humour that Canadians love or hate in descriptions of Canada; certainly it’s what people from other countries identify as uniquely Canadian.) But his editors, he said, didn’t like the name, worried that it might bring up questionable content in related internet searches. So Ferguson said “How about Canadian Pie,” meaning it as a joke and euphemism for the same thing. For some reason, it didn’t raise the same alarm bells, and the title was born.

To kick off the question-and-answer period, Ferguson had Rogers guess what the top three questions are that he is always asked. She guessed:

– Where do you get your ideas?

– What’s your book about? (“About 400 pages.”)

– How much of your main character is based on yourself? (Ferguson quipped that it doesn’t matter if the character is a murderer, he’s always asked this question.)

To this list, Ferguson added the classic “if you could only take one book with you to a desert island, which would it be?” Ferguson’s response? “A book on how best to survive on a desert island.”

A fun talk, and a well-organized event: we easily made our way out of the Fleck Dance theatre to the demarcated autographing area. We were first in line, and had a great chat with Ferguson as he signed books for us. His dedications were personal and kind, drawing to a close an intimate, friendly afternoon.

October 23rd: Found in Translation roundtable

I wish, sadly, that I could say the same for the event the next day. Called “Found in Translation,” Sunday’s roundtable was supposed to “discuss the challenges of translating fiction within the diversities of Canada’s cultural shorthand.”

The Brigantine Room itself was beautifully set up, dotted with small, candlelit tables rather than rows of chairs. But the awkward tone of the event became evident soon after host Wayne Grady made a few stilted jokes and posed a “spontaneous” question to his panel (comprising Nancy Huston, David Homel, and Lazer Lederhendler), to be answered by a multi-page typed response Nancy Huston read out. Her thoughts weren’t uninteresting but the over-preparedness caught me off guard. From there the event spiraled somewhat out of control, with the panelists more bickering amongst themselves than genuinely creating a dialogue. They touched on some thought-provoking questions—for example, Huston sees the French and English versions of her work as the same book, while Lazer Lederhendler sees them as two different works telling the same story. Does this difference spring from the fact that Huston translates her own work? Hard to say, as the moderator didn’t facilitate a discussion of the topic in any way and instead the panelists meandered off in a different direction. Similarly, Huston had a fun story about entering her own translation under a pseudonym into a “translate Nancy Huston’s work” contest. She won, but the judges were quick to point out all of the things she had done “wrong” in her translation. More of this would have been welcome—what makes for a “good” translation? What are the dos and don’ts?

Awkward moments occurred throughout, most notably when Huston said that while many translators work for economic reasons, she does not receive any payment for translating her own works. (Again, an interesting topic that could have been fostered and furthered by a more engaged moderator. Why does she do it? Why do the other panelists only translate others’ works? What are the main difference between translating yourself and others?) David Homel jumped in to discuss cents-a-word payment (which felt very insider and not meant for the audience’s ears) and how to get the Canada Council for the Arts to give her grant money for translating her own works. At this point, a woman in the back of the audience piped up: she was there representing the Canada Council, she said, and they do not give grants for self-translations. Terribly uncomfortable, both for the people on stage and for the people in the audience.

And that was really the only time the audience was engaged, apart from the Q&A period. Whereas Will Ferguson and Shelagh Rogers had a frank and funny discussion with us, the translation panel seemed either unaware that they were in front of an audience or at times somewhat resentful we were there, as though we were intruding on their shop talk. At one point Homel waved his hand at us and said he wasn’t going to say anything about how he loves his son (also a translator) in front of all of these strangers. Perhaps it was a joke, lost in translation, but it felt more than a little dismissive.

But even with all of these issues, the biggest problem was in the talk itself: the panel barely touched on Canada at all. The point of the panel was to look at the foibles and challenges of translating for Canadian audiences and instead it was a vague morass of random views on random parts of the translating process. Only at the end did a glimmer of what this discussion could and should have been appear: Huston mentioned that Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter had posed a unique problem in how to translate the English slave dialect into French. For Canadian francophone audiences, the translator chose to use a version of joual to differentiate the dialect. Yet when the book was to be translated for European French audiences, it had to be redone. The Canadian joual made no sense for this other audience. Fascinating! I’d have loved to hear more stories like this. Are regional differences (beyond Quebec/everybody else) taken into account? How are colloquialisms and slang that don’t have Canadian analogues translates? Are there particular cultural concepts or taboos that need to be handled or explained in a certain way? Have there been titles that were expected to do well or poorly that performed in the opposite manner?

I hate to pick on Wayne Grady, an accomplished, award-winning writer and translator in his own right. His mumbly Bob Newhart style could have been endearing, but he floundered. It is the moderator’s job to stay on task, to choose good questions, and to foster stimulating discussion between panelists. This roundtable went on for almost double its advertised length and barely touched on the topic at hand. And indeed, Grady got several facts entirely wrong, saying, for example, that none of the panelists had actually worked with material set in Canada and about Canadians. First, if this were the case then why on earth would these panelists be on this panel? And second, both Huston and Lederhendler spoke up to say that they have worked on Canadian books. Lederhendler is perhaps best known in English Canada as the translator of Nicholas Dickner’s deeply Canadian Nikolksi. (It was this work that drew me to buy tickets to the event in the first place, and I was pleased to get Lederhendler’s autograph on a copy of Apocalypse for Beginners, which I’ve also had autographed by Dickner.)

Lederhendler was the bright spot of an otherwise disappointing afternoon. He was intelligent, erudite, and brought up some good points about the role of the translator (“You are in the interstice between the two languages”), the hierarchy between the author and the translator in the final version of the new book, and the fact that translation can only be approached in a writerly frame of mind, that translators must also be writers. The audience also asked some intelligent questions that brought the discussion briefly back around to questions of translating in Canada.

More of this would have been welcome, and I do hope that Grady prepares better the next time he acts as moderator. Glancing at the program to remind himself what the topic of the day is would be a start.

6 thoughts on “The Event: Will Ferguson (the Amusing) and the Translators (the Awkward) at IFOA 2011”

  1. Fascinating perspective on the two events! I’m glad to know that Ferguson is as engaging in person as he is on paper… I’m wading my way through “Hitching Rides with Buddha”, which is a bittersweet effort. The writing is fantastic, but he describes Japan so well that it takes physical effort to restrain myself from buying tickets to Tokyo!

    As for the “round table” fiasco… well, it’s unfortunate, especially considering the insight that could have been gleaned. Translating is often a thankless job: If you do it poorly, everyone blames you, but if you do it perfectly everyone credits the author! Bringing things back momentarily to Japan, I think translators of Asian languages actually have an easier run of things because there is far more freedom to insert their own “spin” on the work, and therefore gain either notoriety or fame for their ability to translate the author’s work. Regardless, it’s a shame they did such a poor job of it.

    Lastly, a question regarding a brief mention from the start of your post: What’s it like being in zero-gravity sensory deprevation!? An experience I’ve long wanted but am completely freaked out by!

    1. Interesting insights about translating from Asian languages. I was at first surprised to learn that all of the translators at the event were also authors of their own books, but then as I thought about it it made a ton of sense to me. Being able to translate word for word isn’t enough for literature; one has to be able to write the story as well.

      Sensory deprivation is crazy! I did it years ago because I’d finally come to grips with the horrifying reality that I will probably never get to be an astronaut, and I wanted to feel something similar to weightlessness. The water is pumped full of salts and is the same temperature as your skin, so once you’re in you can’t but float, and you can’t feel the water at all. You’re simply aware that you are floating in nothing. I highly recommend it. Apparently it’s tough if your claustrophobic, but because I was in pitch darkness I had no real sense of walls around me. Time goes a bit funny too, as though you’re in there for seconds and hours all at the same time.

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