‘I Never Talk About It’ by Véronique Côté and Steve Gagnon (Review)

Well, it’s been a long journey, but our Women in Translation Month travels are finally coming to an end, with one last stop before we wind up this year’s event – and we’ve made it to our sixth different continent, too.  Today we head to Canada, and just as was the case in Spain earlier this week, the focus will be on fairly brief stories.  However, there is a major difference in today’s choice.  Whereas the ambiguity in the last book was all textual, here it’s all a matter of identity – that of the speaker, the writer and even the translator…

*****
I Never Talk About It (review copy courtesy of QC Fiction) has had a rather unusual genesis.  The stories were originally a series of short, confessional pieces performed outdoors at an arts festival in Québec City in 2009 and 2010, eventually being written up by Véronique Côté and Steve Gagnon and collected in the book Chaque automne j’ai envie de mourir (‘Each autumn, I feel like dying’, or as is given in one of the stories, ‘Every fall, I want to die’).  There are thirty-seven stories in total, each just a few pages in length, with no indication as to which of the authors contributed each piece.

It’s an interesting process, and this English edition of the collection takes it all a step further, with a focus just as much on the translations as on the stories.  In his introduction, editor Peter McCambridge poses a question (or two):

Readers who are served a steady diet of faithful translations that cling to the original – translations that they seldom read let alone buy – are dying to read a faithful translation, aren’t they?  Well… what if they aren’t? What if they’re interested in a different sort of artistic creation?  In a new work that’s beautifully written in English and was inspired by words originally put down in French? Or in a version that lies somewhere in between?
p.11 (QC Fiction, 2017)

And that’s why QC Fiction decided to approach the project somewhat differently, seeking out thirty-seven different translators, one for each story.  The translators each had their own story, with some having translated for decades and others… not (something I’ll look at in more detail later!).  I won’t be naming them here as that’s part of the fun of the book, but there’s a full list of names at the QC Fiction site.

This is also a book that pushes the boundaries even further than the original.  The truth is that the original stories were submitted by the public, then polished by one of the two writers, then translated by people who had no idea about any of the other stories.  Some were faithful to the original, others less so, but each translator explains their approach after the story.  With the lack of French adjective endings masking the gender of the narrator at times and the order of stories different to that of the French-language version, the English-language edition is almost an interpretation rather than your usual straight translation.

For the most part, I Never Talk About It consists of short, confessional pieces in a multitude of voices, some elegant, some wistful, some angry and some vulgar.  The topics will be familiar to most readers as they touch on common concerns and experiences, albeit with a personal slant and the occasional sad note to end the story.  Unsurprisingly, many of the contributions touch on death, and the narrator of ‘Ants’ looks back to a childhood incident when they realised the true nature of death for the first time:

I’ve learnt to let those things that want to leave, leave; and to welcome those that want to come.
Things end.  That’s what makes them beautiful.

Stories end.  That’s what makes their beginnings make sense.
Countries, songs, hopes, gardens.  Ants.  People.  One day, everything dies.
Now I love death and I hate death; the same thing in the same breath.  I think of it every day.  And it fills me with life.
‘Ants’, p.28

There are many more stories dealing with this theme.  ‘Attic’ and ‘Nightmares’ look back at less-than-perfect relationships with parents, which must be reevaluated now that they’re gone, while ‘Cupcakes’ examines how a girl’s suicide has a ripple effect on family and friends.

Another common theme is love, and there are several pieces looking back at youthful romances, such as a crush on a fruit seller in ‘Orange’ and the overwhelming emotions of a first love in ‘Cinema’.  ‘Flood’, by contrast, takes a far more carnal approach, as the speaker reminisces about a time of constant passion.  However, some stories also contain nostalgia for lost loves, such as ‘Rice’, in which the narrator remembers a holiday taken long ago and the path not taken, or ‘Notebook’, featuring a woman who discovers a book discussing her partner’s former lovers – and in which she doesn’t appear…

All serious stuff, but luckily several of the contributions are a little more tongue-in-cheek.  Perhaps the funniest story is ‘Tractor’, an account of a holiday in the Pyrenees and an unfortunate, misguided attempt at love al fresco (without going into too many details, it features a variety of ‘distractions’…).  Then there’s ‘Conspiracy’, in which a Bridget-Jones-esque voice rages against a plague of smug pregnant voices

The other day I went to a baby shower and it was too much.  The shower was just too much.  Like, so surreal.  It was all pregnant women and young mums.  NO ONE else.  All around me.  I mean, it felt like a bad joke to wind me up – as if I was on Candid Camera or something.  I think that out of like twenty women in their thirties, there were five of us who weren’t pregnant and I’m not even exaggerating, not even if I wanted to.  Even if  I was allowed to.
‘Conspiracy’, p.72

How does she cope?  Well, she certainly doesn’t go into her shell, deciding that it’s time to fight back.  For the more delicate among you, a sex and swearing trigger warning is certainly justifiable here 😉

However, the confessional nature of the work also leads to secret contributions in which the speakers admit to all kinds of quirks.  The protagonist of ‘Spasm’ launches into a tirade about a barely contained bubbling rage while ‘Couch’ features a woman prone to anxiety.  The narrator of ‘Collection’ cheerily admits to a whole host of issues, including a compulsion to steal something, anything, whenever they sleep with a woman.  Perhaps the pick of these, though, is ‘Snot’, a defiant defence of picking your nose and eating it – well, compared to other people’s bad habits…

Regular readers will know that I’m more invested in the book than most people, mainly because I happen to be one of the thirty-seven translators.  The email came out of the blue last year, and when I first got it, it took me a while to understand what I was being asked to do (and why they asked me); however, I was very happy to accept the invitation.  My piece, ‘Olives’, is one of the shortest in the collection, but it was great fun to do, and having been placed at the start of this collection, it also provides the title (my first sentence!).  If you’re interested, it can actually be seen in the Amazon sample, along with a few thoughts on the translation process.

I Never Talk About It is a very different endeavour, one I’m proud to have been a part of, and I thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience (both the reading and the translating).  I’m not sure I’ll ever get another chance, but at least I can say I’m a published translator now…  I hope that people will agree that even if there is some male involvement, the final leg of the journey brought a fitting work to round off the month, a book I hope many of you will want to read – and talk about 🙂

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8 thoughts on “‘I Never Talk About It’ by Véronique Côté and Steve Gagnon (Review)

  1. By the way, I’m not sure I’ve mentioned this anywhere, but the stories in English are in the order the translators sent them back to me. It’s my way of giving a nod to the way translators shape the final work in unexpected little ways that usually go unnoticed. Similarly, some of the translators’ approaches are only a line long while some go into much greater depth. And one of the translators didn’t even get back to me with an approach. (The stories in the French version are in alphabetical order by title so I didn’t feel too bad rearranging them.)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Been away and out of wifi zone, hence the delay in commenting. Really interesting to hear of the origins of the stories – didn’t know they arose from the public initially. Puts the collection in a slightly different light. I thought it was an interesting project, and produced some fine stories. Congratulations on your own contribution: very brave, to venture into translating, rather than reviewing what others have done!

    Like

    1. Simon – Thanks 🙂 It’s something I’d love to do again some day, but that assumes that someone will ask me (I can’t see myself actively pursuing a career in the field!).

      Liked by 1 person

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