Wednesday 13 May 2020

Réjean Ducharme’s Masterpiece—Now In English

On September 2020, Véhicule Press will be publishing Swallowed, a new authoritative translation of L’avalée des avalés, the late Réjean Ducharme’s 20th century masterpiece. Originally released in France in 1966 by Gallimard, after being rejected by every publishing house in his native Québec, Ducharme’s debut has been unavailable to English readers since 1968. The story of Véhicule Press acquiring the translation rights to Swallowed is a fascinating tale in itself—one that is part ambition, part luck and part fate. You can read Esplanade editor Dimitri Nasrallah’s vivid account of attaining those rights below. (When you're done, you can pre-order the book here.)
I first discovered that L’avalée des avalés had been out-of-print in English since 1968 when The Walrus magazine asked me to write an appraisal in the weeks following Réjean Ducharme’s death. The novel’s absence struck me as a significant cultural omission. An important part of Québec’s literary foundation was missing from Canadian letters. As an editor, I immediately sensed an opportunity, though I wasn’t sure how realistic a pursuit it was.

On the one hand, times had changed since Barbara Bray’s translation of the novel had first appeared in 1968. Canada now had a publishing industry that was now half a century strong. The oft-tumultuous relationship between English and French Canada had calmed and matured over the past two decades. Generations of legislation in Québec pertaining to the French-language had also groomed a wealth of homegrown translators who were better equipped to tackle Ducharme’s slippery prose, complex wordplay. and multi-layered allusions. But there were other obstacles. Gallimard is half a world away and used to selling English-language rights on a global scale, while Véhicule Press is a boutique independent in a country that is itself a subset of Gallimard's North American territory. Surely a half-century-old book from their back catalogue was a low priority for an organization preoccupied with international book fairs and a raft of contemporary titles to sell. They could consider our market too small for them. Would we approach the venerable institution responsible for publishing many of the twentieth century’s great authors?

An exchange began with their rights department. They were initially receptive to the idea, but had little background on the linguistic particulars of our region and no prior knowledge of our publishing house. Would we not want to publish the existing 1968 translation by British academic Barbara Bray, they asked. Our ambition was to have the novel re-translated by someone who had a natural understanding of Québécois idiom, and who could communicate the particularities of the original French in a way they had never before been served. Without a track record in international publication deals to bolster our cause, we were concerned our publishing circles were too far apart; Gallimard probably had more pressing activities underway.

As luck would have it, in March 2018 I was invited to attend the Paris Book Fair to promote my novel Niko, which had just been published in France. With a trans-Atlantic visit in hand, we restarted the conversation with Gallimard, to see if I could meet with their rights director in person and articulate the unique case for bringing Ducharme back to Canada. I am grateful to Camille Cloarec, at the time the Book and Debates Officer at the Consulate General of France in Toronto, for taking up our cause and communicating our desires to Gallimard from a much more reputed vantage point than our own. A few days later, I found myself in Paris, standing outside the unassuming door of the legendary publishing house, with less than two hours’ sleep after an overnight flight.

Once we were able to sit down in the same room, we were fortunate enough to hit it off and an agreement emerged quickly. It turned out that Anne-Solange Noble, the head of English rights at Gallimard, was born and raised in Montreal. She understood the underlying cultural value of what we were proposing, and saw it as part of the ongoing unique relationship between the French and English languages in Canada. We rhapsodized about the city, its street life, as well as people she remembered from Montreal’s Anglo literary community of the seventies. A new English translation, she agreed, could be useful to Gallimard in brokering rights requests in other markets.

Two years have passed since that fortuitous meeting. In that time, translator Madeleine Stratford has produced this new translation of L’avalée des avalés. Swallowed differs from Barbara Bray’s The Swallower Swallowed not only in its translator’s proximity to the regional roots of the original French, but also in its rendering to a looser and more figurative, more acrobatic English. Stratford’s translation of Ducharme is, to my ear, playful and lyrical and utterly timeless.

After more than half a century of languishing out of print, the book that transformed Québécois culture during the Quiet Revolution is finally available for Canadian readers to discover.

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