Ray Ellenwood standing next to a portrait of Claude Gauvreau done in 1993 by the Ontario painter Milton Jewell (photo by Brenda Ellenwood)
No Small Task
Translating a dense, enigmatic work
by Gaëtan L. Charlebois
Ray Ellenwood is a retired professor of English, York University, author of ten books of translation, French-to-English, mostly of Québec literature, including the manifesto, Refus global, by the Montreal Automatist Movement. Besides a number of articles on the Automatists, he has published Egregore: A History of the Automatist Movement of Montreal (Toronto: Exile Editions, 1992) and expects to see an augmented French version published in 2013. Meanwhile, he amuses himself by writing catalogue essays on the Automatists in general, on visual artists such as Pierre Gauvreau, Rita Letendre, Ludwig Zeller and Peter Por, as well as texts for the Toronto archive, Dance Collection Danse, on choreographers Jeanne Renaud and Françoise Riopelle.
CHARPO: There is a huge academic weight put on productions of Gauvreau here in Quebec (one of the reasons they are so rarely done, I believe). How much of the biography of the man and that weight did you feel as you translated?
Gauvreau's biography is irrelevant to me as a translator. The weight I feel comes from his work and its unique qualities (the translator came before the historian -- see below). Sometimes I think I've been a little timid translating him. That's one of the reasons why I look forward to seeing how the English version sounds on stage.
CHARPO: Of all the plays I have read produced in this country, I cannot imagine a more difficult task than translating this one. Tell us about your process.
The word "épormyable" in the title is explained by one of the characters in the play. Based on that explanation I came up with "expormidable", and I think you can see what I mean when I say I've been timid.
When Gauvreau goes fully into his "langue explorienne" (libualdivane, drétlôdô cammuef), I'm often left simply looking for phonetic equivalents in English. When I think I hear hints of "real" words such as "dret" and "dos" (drétlôdô), I hint at an equivalent, coming up with "libualdivan, stretback cammuef". If you challenged me, I'd probably have trouble justifying my specific choices on many occasions. Sometimes they seem purely intuitive, sometimes they seem much too rational. Like all translators, I do what I can, and until a few weeks ago, I've worked exclusively with text and never had a chance to see how anyone else might turn the words in the mouth.
The Charge of the Expormidable Moose runs in Toronto May 10-26