Interview with Madeleine Stratford

Madeleine Stratford is a poet, a literary translator, and an associate professor of Translation at the Université du Québec en Outaouais. Her first poetry book, Des mots dans la neige (Éditions anagrammes, 2009) was awarded the 2009 Orpheus Poetry Prize in France. She has published literary translations in various journals and anthologies, including Calque, Corresponding Voices, K1N, and Alba Londres. Her French translation of Ce qu’il faut dire a des fissures / Lo que hay que decir tiene grietas by Uruguayan poet Tatiana Oroño (Paris, L’Oreille du Loup, 2012) was awarded the 2013 John Glassco Prize for Literary Translation by the Literary Translators’ Association of Canada, and also received a commendation from the jury of the 2012 Nelly Sachs Translation Prize in France. In June 2014, she was selected to participate in the Banff Literary Translation Centre Program for her latest project, a French translation of Voluptés by Marianna Apostolides (La Peuplade, 2015).

PETINF14-QuebecReads-Favicon-32x32What is your relationship to Quebec writing? Can you remember the first time you picked up a book from Quebec?

I love Quebec literature, especially poetry. It’s hard to remember the very first time, of course, but right now, the title that comes to mind is Cent dangers, a comic book by Caroline Merola that my uncle André Boisvert gave me when I was a child. Years later, when I was in a cégep, I went to Montreal to interview Caroline for a course on comic books and graphic novels. I guess that shows the impact it had on me!

Also, when I was 15, they made us read Marie-Claire Blais’ La belle bête in highschool. I was shocked, and wasn’t sure I wanted to read more. But then, that summer, I discovered Bonheur d’occasion, Nelligan’s poetry, and Saint-Denys Garneau’s, and Michel Tremblay’s Les belles soeurs. And I just fell in love. I discovered that it was possible to write in a language that resembled my own, as opposed to the French from France that had always felt somewhat foreign to me.

Another thing that struck me when I started cégep was that you didn’t have to be an “actual” Quebecer to belong to Quebec literature. I’m thinking here of Gabrielle Roy, for instance, who’s originally from Manitoba, or of Franco-Ontarian Daniel Poliquin, who are both often presented as Quebec writers. But I’m also thinking of the wealth of authors we’ve come to call “migrant writers,” such as Dany Laferrière or Sergio Kokis. When Quebec loves a given writer, it tends to make him or her its own. However, this seems to be a French-related phenomenon. When it comes to English-speaking writers—even born and bred in the province—the cultural scene is a lot more hesitant to treat them as Quebec writers. The obvious example here is Mordecai Richler. But there are others. And this has always bugged me.


What, if anything, would you say defines Quebec literature? Do you tend to read literature from Quebec mostly in French or in English?

I’ve read more Quebec poetry than prose, I suppose, so my answer will focus on that. I find that there is a particular will to “own” written French. And this can take many forms: sometimes, poets will be “more French than the French,” but generally, French will be subverted, interspersed with English words or joual (like in the work of “counter-culture” poets who started in the 1970’s) for instance, or heavily womanized (I’m thinking here of poets like Nicole Brossard or Yolande Villemaire). Sure, poetry has always been about exploiting language, deconstructing or reinventing it, but in Quebec poets, it takes on an ontological or indeed a political meaning: language as a way to speak out a sort of difference, a singularity, a uniqueness.

Because Quebec likes to stand out. The desire to construct an “identity” is omnipresent in all of Quebec literature, I believe, not only poetry.

And I suppose I’m including myself here. When I write (be it French or English, or even Spanish or German, but mainly in French), I too am striving to take form on paper, so that I can read what I wrote as if I were looking at myself in the mirror for the first time or hearing myself on tape and discovering what makes me speak the way I do, what makes me who I am.

To your second question, I’ll start by giving you a “trick answer”. During the last few years, I’ve read quite a lot of Quebec poetry in Spanish (mostly Latin American) translation. And some of it is amazing. Mónica Mansour did a fine job translating Nicole Brossard, as did Silvia Pratt with countless Quebec poets. But now to answer your actual question: I tend to read Quebec literature in the original language, that is, either in French or in English, depending on the author’s mother tongue. Sometimes, it makes me want to translate them into the other language, so that I can share my love. This is what happened to me when I read Louise Desjardins’ poetry. I just started to translate it into English. Compulsively. Because I loved it so much and wanted to share it with the English-speaking world. We’ll see where that leads!


What excites you most in the books you read?

I like when authors mix different registers, not only in dialogues, but in the narrative itself: when this is well done, it shows true artistry. I also love when different narrators are involved or when there’s an unforeseen switch of point of view. But mainly, I like to be told a good story, one that makes me want to devour the book in one sitting… And I’m not excluding poetry, here: poems also tell stories. But I guess with poetry, it’s not so much about wanting to read the whole book in one sitting as about wanting to read some specific poems again, and again, and again. Out loud and inside my head.

And I’ll add that this is precisely what drew me to the work of Marianne Apostolides I’ve been translating for La Peuplade: poetic phrasing, mix of registers, multiple narrator shifts, and good old storytelling. When I started translating Voluptuous Pleasure (Bookthug, 2012), I knew it would be a challenging book. Composed of nine “true” stories inspired from the lives of the writer and her family, it constantly blurs the boundaries between real life and fiction, questioning the very act of writing stories and history itself. Rhythm was also important, especially in the dialogues, as well as keeping the balance between spoken and written language. When I read the book, I thought: this could (or indeed should!) have been written in Montreal. So this is what I had in mind when I translated it into French. It was my first book-length fiction translation (I had translated mainly poetry before), and the first time that I felt allowed to translate a text into a French of my own, without trying to hide my Quebec roots.


What are some of the most important novels and books to come out of Quebec, in your view? I was thinking about this the other day. What is the best book to ever come out of Quebec in English or French? I haven’t a clue. Do you?

My most spontaneous answers would be, for poetry, Regards et jeux dans l’espace by Hector de Saint-Denys Garneau, and for fiction, La love by Louise Desjardins. Both books speak to me on a level I can barely describe. In their own way, they both reach me to the core. And make me speechless. And when a chatterbox like me is at a loss for words, you know it’s something special, very special indeed.


Do you think there’s a reason so little of what is published in Québec in French makes it over into English? (And do you think much of it would be translated if it weren’t for translation grants?)

I wouldn’t restrict the language pair to French-English. A great deal of Quebec literature is translated abroad, especially into Spanish. And this is impressive, actually, considering the size of our literary industry. I mean, Quebec literature is peripherical to Canadian literature and to French-language literature. And for a “minor” literature, it enjoys quite a wide distribution. Sure, Quebec books are being translated mainly thanks to the Canada Arts Council (and, to a lesser extent, SODEC) translation grants. (And I can’t stress how vital those grant programs have been and still are!) But they are also translated because Quebec has exported cultural goods (both in the original French and in translation) as a means of “putting the province on the map.” And it worked, to some extent. The second time I went to Mexico City, for instance, I was staying at a friend’s house, and her roommate, who has nothing to do with the literary industry (he studied Philosophy but became an entrepreneur), said to me, “Hey, you’re from Quebec! I have this poetry anthology that’s from there. Great stuff!” And he showed me said anthology.

I was awestruck. I thought, “Quebec literature travels. Beyond Canada. For real.”

Something similar happened to me in Berlin, when a guy I didn’t know (Till Bardoux) came to me and said: “Hey, you’re from Quebec! Can you help me with my German translation of L’avalée des avalés? I just fell in love with the book and had to translate it.” How could I say no? We met several times, poring over the intricacies of Ducharme’s French. Till had translated philosophy books before, but that was his first fiction translation, and his own pet project. He’d fought to get a publisher and when he finally did, they learned that the rights had just been sold to another. So he fought to get to translate the novel for this other editor. And he succeeded. That’s how much he’d fallen in love with Ducharme’s work. I can’t think of a more beautiful love story involving Quebec literature!


If you were to recommend that someone who has never read anything from Quebec pick up a book and start reading it today, which book would it be?

I’d like people to consider a literary translation “made in Quebec,” which also contributes to Quebec’s cultural heritage. So, you know… pick up Howard Scott’s and Phyllis Aronoff’s latest Madeleine Gagnon (As Always, Talonbooks, 2015), for instance, or Pier-Pascale Boulanger’s brand new Howard Roiter (De perte en fils, Éditions Le bout du mile, 2015). To me, those books are doubly Québécois, because they were written here and translated here. Isn’t that amazing? But books from anywhere translated here can become our own… Just like books written here, regardless of where the authors are from, are often made our own.

This interview with Madeleine Stratford first appeared on, a new webzine that helps bring the best of Quebec literature to the English-speaking world with weekly reviews and translations.


George Henry Borrow (1803–81) Lavengro, Philologist, Translator

By Karin Montin

My interpretation teacher used to joke that someone who knows two languages can be a translator, three an interpreter, six a taxi driver.

By that standard, George Borrow could have spent his life at the reins of a London hackney cab. But he knew he was a philologist from a young age, although he saw it at first as a dead-end profession.

Like all educated English boys at the time, George was well versed in Latin and Greek. Additionally, by age 16, he spoke Scots and Irish and, most unusually, was starting to learn Romany. At 18 he had a total of 12 languages under his belt: Italian, French, Spanish, German, Welsh, Danish and Portuguese, not to mention ancient Armenian. Incredible.

His father was an army recruiting officer so the family moved around frequently. George learned Scots on the streets of Edinburgh and in Ireland traded a deck of cards to a classmate for conversational Irish lessons.

He acquired the basics of French and Italian from a “tesseraglot grammar” and then took daily lessons after school from a Norman priest, who also taught him Spanish. Eventually he found a German tutor, too.

He was always fearless and a tireless walker, so when not studying, he wandered all over the countryside, talking to all kinds of people. He cultivated a special relationship with a friendly Romany family. They were initially impressed by his snake-handling abilities and called him sap-engro, meaning viper catcher, but that’s another story.

Being an eager learner with almost total recall, he picked up new words every time he met them and gained extensive knowledge of their stories and traditions over the years. He was always asking how to say certain things and sharing terms he’d acquired from other people. His genuine interest and egalitarianism worked in his favour, as the Romany generally faced prejudice. As he got to know other travelling families, his reputation as a Romany rye, or Gypsy gentleman, began to precede him. And being six foot four with prematurely grey hair, he wasn’t hard to spot. They gave him the new title of lavengro, or word master.

After finishing school, he had to earn a living and became a law clerk. While doing an endlessly boring apprenticeship, to “keep up [his] character,” he decided to learn a new language, Welsh. That wasn’t too hard, since he already spoke Irish. In his spare time, he translated the great Welsh poet Dafydd Ab Gwilym.

Then he was given an old, wooden-bound book of Danish poems. Finding the language extremely difficult, and unable to procure a grammar or dictionary, he came up with the idea of learning the language by reading a more easily procured Danish Bible along with the St. James version he knew inside out.

Quitting his apprenticeship, he headed off to London with a few pounds and his two translations. He made the rounds of the publishers, but—surprise!—they didn’t think there was much of a market for them.

He found work with a publisher, however, producing a compilation of “Newgate lives and trials” (all research materials to be purchased at his own expense), reviewing books and translating the publisher’s book of philosophy (the world is shaped like a pear, not an apple) into German. He had to do it to keep the other work coming. But eventually he gave up. He could manage the German, but not the philosophy.

Just as he was down to his last few pence, he saw an ad to write a tale or a novel. He churned it out within a week, hardly eating or sleeping.

That’s the tale told in his masterpiece, Lavengro. In the continuation, Romany Rye, he hits the road in a caravan and sets himself up as a petulengro, or blacksmith/tinker for a few months. The two books provide a fictionalized account of his life and adventures travelling around England and Wales.

As George learned different languages, he was constantly comparing and contrasting them, wondering how they related to one another. And he was frequently interested to find words he learned from his Romany acquaintances popping up in Armenian, Welsh and other unexpected places. At the time, the Roma were generally thought to have come originally from Egypt (hence the name Gypsy), but some scholars were starting to realize they had actually originated in India. Philologists were seeking and finding linguistic evidence of their trajectory. George was one of those putting the pieces together, relating Sanskrit, Hindi and Romany.

Eventually he began working for a Bible society and spent two years in Russia (yes, he’d somehow picked up a working knowledge of Russian), overseeing the translation of the Bible into Manchu (language of northern China). Are you skeptical yet? While there, he published Targum; or Metrical Translations from Thirty Languages and Dialects. He went on to spend five years in Spain “circulating the Scriptures.”

He’d already published his translation of Klinger’s “Faustus,” and the Danish poetry (The Romantic Ballads), but now he gained instant fame with two very successful books based on his time in Spain: The Zincali: An Account of the Gypsies in Spain and The Bible in Spain. Lavengro and Romany Rye came a dozen years after his return to England. He also put together the first Romany-English dictionary, Lavo-Lil, rushing to finish it as soon as he learned he had competition. When he died, he apparently left a number of completed treatises on poetry and translations from the Norse, Russian and Turkish.

But George Borrow, although an original writer, was perhaps not quite the scholar he thought he was. John Sampson says, rather, “A great but careless linguist, Borrow was assuredly no philologist.” He goes on to give numerous examples of the “curious Borrovian variety” of his Romany, saying that “while he has been the means of attracting others to the study of that interesting tongue, his own command of it was of the slightest.”

And you have to wonder about his accent in all those languages learned mostly from books or tutors who were not native speakers.

All right then, maybe he wasn’t the world’s most thorough scholar or perfectly fluent in all the languages he had dabbled in. He nonetheless led a very interesting life and wrote some fascinating books. Many of them are available free from the University of Adelaide or Project Gutenberg. And he was a translator.

Warning: Some long disquisitions are well worth skipping and e-books aren’t great for flipping ahead to see where a passage ends.


“Borrow, George Henry.” Micropedia (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1992) 2:396.

Borrow, George. Lavengro; The Scholar, The Gypsy, The Priest (London: John Murray, 1852).

Borrow, George. Romany Rye. With Notes and an Introduction by John Sampson. Derived from by the 1903 Methuen & Co. edition. Adelaide: eBooks@Adelaide, 2014.


Welcome to the blog of the Literary Translators’ Association of Canada. In the digital age, many of our conversations happen right here, on the screen. How better to reach translators around the world and into the future?

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