Culture  St. Henri’s writer-in-residence

Quebec studies professor lectures on Gabrielle Roy in translation

The fever of the bazaar rose in her blood, a kind of jangled nervousness mingled with the vague feeling that one day in this teeming store things would come to a halt and her life would find its goal… Everything in the place summed up for her the hasty, hectic poverty of her whole life here in St. Henri.”

With these first few lines of the novel, The Tin Flute, Gabrielle Roy began a prolific and meaningful writing career, becoming a respected literary figure in both English and French Canada. Her novels weave together story and memory, creating a portrait life for the urban poor in St-Henri before the outbreak of WWII in The Tin Flute, or of idyllic rural existence in Where Nests the Water Hen.

Roy began her first novel after teaching in rural Manitoba, fleeing the war in Europe, and working as a journalist in Montreal. Hoping to learn more about this enigmatic literary personage, I attended “Montreal and Quebec as Seen by Gabrielle Roy, a lecture given by McGill Professor Jane Everett. I spoke with Everett, the author of In Translation: the Gabrielle Roy-Joyce Marshall Correspondence, to discuss translation, style, and all things Roy.

The McGill Daily: In the lecture, you discussed that, in the first translation of Roy’s The Tin Flute, the class issues in the novel were emphasized over language issues. Do you think translated works can ever compare, or discuss in depth, themes written into the originals, such as in Roy’s novel?

Jane Everett: I feel that with the first English translation, done by an American editor, Hannah Josephson, in 1947, it’s clear to me that she’s more sensitive to the class issues. I don’t think she’s as aware of the linguistic issues. They’re there in the novel, the author talks about French and English without problematizing it explicitly. I don’t think the translator knew enough about Quebec and Montreal, and the history, to bring that out. The other thing is, in terms of the translation itself, there are some classic errors in the translation that have to do with her not knowing Quebec regional expressions, that have to do with how we talk about the weather, and stuff like that. Roy herself, when the translation was shown to her, she had 24 hours to give feedback on it, so she said it was fine. She regretted that afterwards, which is why she always followed her English translations so closely, and wanted to have a final say on the decisions. For example, the original French title of The Tin Flute means second-hand happiness in French.

MD: Do you think Roy was negotiating between the two different literary backdrops of urbanism and ruralism as a young author, or negotiating between her own past experiences?

JE: Certainly something that critics have suggested is that she was trying to find her voice. The life story of a writer, some author’s use them directly, some don’t, some use them as a well-spring. What becomes literature may have no connections with the facts of your life, but it has been informed by your life experience. I think Roy was aware, very aware, of how her whole life experience had informed her outlook, and how her life story was an important element of who she was. What’s interesting with Roy, and which she suggests in her own autobiography, is that all these fictional works are all preparations for the autobiography. She was working things out in fiction. Not as an intentional project, but you get a sense from the autobiography, that she feels that’s what she was doing unconsciously. What’s interesting is that some of these works – the ones where you have a young woman who chooses to teach, and then becomes a writer – what you have there, with different degrees of explicitness, is the adult writer, looking back on the child, and trying to explain something that happened that might have been informative. In the autobiography, sometimes she will refer to own of her novels as having already described her experience, because what she feels has been captured there is not factual authenticity, but authenticity of the experience.

MD: Which work do you suggest people start with, who are just discovering Roy for the first time?

JE: I would go with The Road Past Altamont.