Wednesday, May 1, 2013

In a Word... Ray Ellenwood, translator of The Charge of the Expormidable Moose

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: For those who don't know him, tell us about your Claude Gauvreau. (For instance, do you think he fell or killed himself?) 

ELLENWOOD: As a young man, Claude was introduced to the gang of artists that would become the Montreal Automatist Movement.  That was around 1943. Already a precocious thinker and writer, he became a major spokesman for the movement and for "living art" in general.  Besides diatribes against a moribund cultural establishment in Montreal, he wrote poems and "dramatic objects" that stretched the boundaries of the genres, experimenting with what he called "explorational language," insisting that he had gone beyond the French surrealists and the lettristes.  In the beginning, his efforts were often met with ridicule, but he gradually developed a following of young people struck by his intransigent sense of liberty and his courageous experiments. In 1952, the death by suicide of Muriel Guilbault, an actress whom he admired to the point of obsession, caused a breakdown that was a precursor to a series of mental and emotional problems that dogged Gauvreau for the rest of his life.  But he continued to militate, and to create a substantial body of work. The first production of one of his long plays, la charge de l'orignal épormyable, happened in 1970, and it was a flop.  Within a year, rehearsals had begun for a production of another major play, les oranges sont vertes, and that was well received.  Between these two events, Gauvreau fell from the roof of his apartment to a death many regard as suicide, though it was never officially called that.  Since then, he has become a kind of cult figure in Québec identified with the anti-conservative forces that have shaped its modern culture. 

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? 

ELLENWOOD: What do you mean by rarely?  Between 1989 and 1992, there were three productions of la charge, two for theatre and one for television. Beauté baroque was produced in 1992, la reprise in 1994, le vampire et la nymphomane in 1996, les oranges in 1998, l'asile de la pureté in 2004. In 2009, l'asile de la pureté and la charge were done in Québec City and Montreal in the same month. Not a bad track record for plays that have large casts and present large challenges to actors and directors, not to mention audiences.  And I'm not sure I'd use the word "academic" to describe the many productions I've seen. 

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.   

ELLENWOOD: No great mystery. The stage directions and about ninety percent of the dialogue are quite straightforward linguistically, no matter how strange they may be in substance.  The names of the characters (such as mycort mixeudeim and dydrame daduve) are as startling in French as they are in English.  I decided it didn't make sense to try to find anglicized equivalents, so I left them as they were, but in the printed version I had the luxury of a little comment on hinted puns in a name like laura pa. It always seemed strange to me that the translators into Glasgow Scots of Michel Tremblay's les belles sœurs made a mistake keeping the original names, but that's because the play is basically naturalistic and there was a clash between the implied Scottish context and the names.  But in Gauvreau's play, the context is not naturalistic, so the strange names seem appropriate. 

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.       

CHARPO: The play also comes with its weight in the history of Quebec (Refus Global) - do you think that resonates still in his writing and can you even consider that in a modern translation? 

ELLENWOOD: I've been struck by the number of young people who go to see Gauvreau's plays in Québec.  I doubt that many of them know very much about the history of Gauvreau and Refus global.  They may have some vague notion of him as a "poète maudit," but I think (at least I'd like to think) that all the biographical and historical baggage has begun to take second place to the impact of the plays themselves.  The older audience in Québec might remember some of his public performances or have read about connections between his life and his plays.
But the Toronto audience can't be expected to know much about him because this production is the first of any of his major plays in English (in fact, as far as I know, the first production of one of his major plays outside Québec in any language).  So part of my job as a translator has been to spread the word.  Not surprisingly, my translations are not "innocent":  the published versions all come with notes that give the kind of biographical and historical information I actually hope people in Québec are starting to leave behind when they attend his plays.  Go figure. 

The Charge of the Expormidable Moose runs in Toronto May 10-26

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