Québécois French into English: Neil Smith and Simon Boulerice in Conversation with Patrick Grace

"The Mascara Kid," which appears in the Malahat Review's Winter 2018 Queer Perspectives Issue, consists of two chapters from Simon Boulerice's novel L'enfant mascara translated into English by Neil Smith. Malahat Review volunteer and past Publicity Manager Patrick Grace talks with both Smith (in English) and Boulerice (in French) about the story in our first ever interview conducted in two languages.


Simon BoulericeFormé en écriture, en danse et en théâtre, Simon Boulerice est un touche-à-tout épanoui. Chroniqueur radio (Plus on est de fous, plus on lit !) et télé (Formule Diaz et maintenant Cette année-là), il navigue également entre le jeu, la mise en scène et l’écriture. Il écrit du théâtre, de la poésie et des romans, tant pour adultes que pour enfants. Parmi sa quarantaine de titres, il est l’auteur des célébrés Simon a toujours aimé danser, Martine à la plage, JavotteEdgar Paillettes, PIGLes Garçons courent plus viteFlorence et Léon et L’Enfant mascara. Ses œuvres, traduites en sept langues, ont été nommées, notamment, au Gouverneur Général, aux Prix des libraires et aux Prix de la critique. À 36 ans, Simon Boulerice fait encore la split au moins une fois par jour. Pour l’heure, ses os et ses muscles tiennent bon. 


Neil Smith

Neil Smith is an author and translator from Montreal. His novel Boo (Knopf Canada), about a heaven reserved for thirteen-year-old Americans, was published in ten countries around the world. Fresh TV has optioned the book for television. Bang Crunch (Knopf Canada), his collection of stories, was also published internationally. He’s the winner of the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction and has been nominated for the Governor General’s Award for Translation and other prizes. He’s now working on a new novel.

How do you work with translating Quebec idioms into English? Do you find a close equivalent, or do you adapt them based on a story’s tone and mood? I’m thinking specifically of terms like “lucky dog,” “had it in spades,” and “for Pete’s sake” that are peppered throughout the story.

“The Mascara Kid” consists of two chapters from Simon Boulerice’s novel L’enfant mascara based on the true story of Larry King, a fifteen-year-old kid murdered in 2008 in California. In other words, Simon put Québécois French into the mouth of a Californian. I then translated Simon’s French into American English, keeping in mind the person who Larry was: a self-aware, articulate, creative kid bursting with self-confidence.

Regarding idioms, I adapt them to the tone and mood of the piece and ensure they reflect the character, setting, and time period. You bring up “for Pete’s sake,” an expression used by Joy Epstein, the vice-principal at Larry’s school. In French, she says bazwel, a mild oath expressing impatience or annoyance, so “for Pete’s sake” fit the bill in English.

Joan Crawford is the actress who, according to Larry, had style “in spades.” It seems like something a flamboyant kid might say about a favorite screen legend. Speaking of Ms. Crawford, Larry points out in the French original that she changed her name because her real last name, LeSueur, evoked perspiration (sueuris French for “sweat”). Since English readers mightn’t know the French word, I instead say that sueursounds a lot like “sewer,” another malodorous term. This isn’t a true idiom, but rather wordplay, one of the toughest things to translate.

As for Marlene Dietrich, Larry describes her as pas piquée des vers. This expression was used in the past to refer to furniture that wasn’t full of wormholes. Over time, it became an idiom describing anything of excellent quality or top-notch. In English, I simply opted for “awesome,” an adjective favored by teens.

Larry claims he owes his life to Michelina’s frozen entrées since his mother never cooks. He says that without them, he’d “be toast.” In French, he says he’d be rien (meaning “nothing”), but since he talks about food throughout this scene, the idiom “be toast” works nicely.

As someone who completed his master’s degree focused on French translation, I’m curious about your opinion vis-à-vis liberties taken in literary translation. Do you try to stay as close to the original text as possible, or do you allow yourself freedom to move and write within varied types of syntax, punctuation, and diction?

I do take liberties, provided they’re justified. Definitely, syntax changes since word order can differ greatly in French and English. I sometimes even move sentences around in a paragraph if I believe that a different order seems more logical in English.

Punctuation often varies between the two languages. For example, French novels use a different system for quoting dialogue. A quoted passage may begin with a guillemet («), include em dashes (—) to set off various speakers, and end with a final guillemet (») once every character has spoken. In other words, a single set of guillemets can enclose dialogue occurring between several characters. Even dialogue tags like “he said” can be placed inside the guillemets. Hence, a very different system from English.

But beyond the minor syntactical concerns, I might also adapt certain passages so they make more sense in English. In this piece, Larry describes how girls at a prom photograph their high heels after first placing their feet in a circle like the petals of a flower. I rearranged the information somewhat so the reader can more easily picture the “flower.”

The two consecutive chapters in “The Mascara Kid” are in fact separated by eighty pages in the original novel. In the second chapter of the piece, I even added information from an earlier omitted chapter. In my translation, Larry’s mother suggests he tell people at school that his skirt is a kilt since boys, too, can wear kilts. That sentence is from a previous chapter and replaces a reference in the original to a French nursery rhyme that English speakers mightn’t know.

In addition, the two languages use gender differently. French often specifies gender in nouns (l’enseignante/l’enseignant), pronouns (elles/ils), adjectives (belle/beau), and some past participles (venue/venu). Words like “spouse,” “vice-principal,” and even “they” are gender-neutral in English but not in French. The title of the second chapter in English is “Joy Epstein Has a Wife,” whereas its original French title literally translates as “The Vice-Principal Loves a Woman.” To add gender to vice-principal, I simply stated her name.

Can you talk about your other translation experiences? Do you ever translate from English into French, and if so, how would you compare it to translations from French into English?

In the past few years, I’ve translated a novel (The Goddess of Fireflies by Geneviève Pettersen), a graphic novel (Jeremy: The Boy with the Spinning Heart by Guillaume Demers), and several short stories for magazines (Granta, Walrus, enRoute, Malahat Review). I also do regular translation for Montreal’s Planetarium and Botanical Garden.

I translate in one direction: from French to English. However, my own fiction has been translated by others into Chinese, Czech, Dutch, French, German, Portuguese, Spanish, and Russian. The wife-husband team of Lori Saint-Martin and Paul Gagné, who have won several Governor General’s Awards, translated my noveland story collection into French. After they sent me a draft of their translation of each book, we went for brunch to discuss any unresolved issues. Unlike for the other languages, I was allowed to participate in the translation process and make suggestions here and there.

You ask how translation differs when a book is translated into French. In Canada, literary translators must often decide whether to adopt Québécois French, Parisian French, or a mixture of both (sometimes called mid-Atlantic French). For example, how do you translate “blueberries” and “sweater”? Do you use bleuets and chandail (Québécois terms) or myrtilles and pull (words used in France)? This isn’t an issue when I translate Québécois fiction into English; I don’t, for example, say that a character is wearing a “jumper” instead of a “sweater.” Sometimes, novels set in Montreal, like The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and Lullabies for Little Criminals, are translated into Parisian French, which ends up sounding ridiculous to Quebecers. (Luckily, both novels are being retranslated into Quebec French.)

My novel, Boo, originally came out in French with a Quebec publisher, but it recently sold to a publisher in France, too. I’ll soon find out if the French publisher wishes to change the original French translation to suit the European market.

Larry est fasciné par les stars de cinéma féminines, surtout Joan Crawford. Comment est-ce que cette fascination l’aide à découvrir sa vraie identité et personnalité?

Larry perçoit de Joan Crawford une grande force et une grande théâtralité, ce qui sommeillent en lui. Ses stars féroces hollywoodiennes viennent réveiller chez lui l’envie de briller, d’étinceler à la mesure de sa beauté et de son talent. Par émulation, en regardant ses idoles de jeu ou de chant, il parvient à se déployer. Tout au long du roman, Larry s’épanouit en tant qu’artiste, par le chant et le théâtre, mais aussi en tant qu’amoureux, puis éventuellement amoureuse, lorsqu’il deviendra Leticia, sa vraie nature.

Le lecteur ne voit pas de communication directe entre Larry et ses parents adoptifs dans cet extrait de votre roman. Pouvez-vous décrire l’interaction familiale pour nous donner une idée de comment ils agissent à la maison?

Le lien familial est sclérosé. Le père adoptif déplore l’absence de virilité chez Larry/Leticia. C’est une famille profondément patriarcale : la mère, pourtant aimante envers son enfant, ravale sa tendresse pour se placer derrière son mari violent et colérique. Mais il existe une complicité entre elle et Larry/Leticia. C’est leur amour pour le magasinage, pour la décoration, pour Céline Dion. Il y a un terrain de rencontre qui sauve Larry du marasme familial.

Mais l'univers intime de Larry/Leticia dépasse largement celui de sa famille. Sa solitude est vaste, mais remplie de fantasmes et de rêves de lumière.

Les programmes comme SOGI visent à établir les espaces inclues et ouvertes pour les élèves de toute identité et orientation sexuelle. Cela ne veut pas dire que l’intolérance n’existe plus; d’ailleurs, l’homophobie est toujours endémique dans plusieurs régions. Comment est-ce que la situation pour les ados trans était différente en 2008 comparée à 2018?

Je suis parti d’un fait divers qui a véritablement eu lieu à Oxnard en février 2008. Raconter cette époque, pourtant près de nous, révèle le chemin parcouru. Il y a dix ans, la question de la transsexualité (ou de manière plus ample : la question trans) ne faisait pas partie des sujets d’actualité. C’était obscur, alors que 11 ans plus tard, il y a pratiquement des ados trans dans toutes les écoles de l’Amérique du nord. Raconter ce meurtre et cette histoire d'amour à sens unique est, pour moi, un travail de mémoire nécessaire.

Patrick Grace

Patrick Grace

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