The double life of York Professor Agnes Whitfield

You might think one book about Canadian translators might be enough for one professor to produce in one year. But Professor Agnes Whitfield (left) of the Glendon School of Translation has edited two. Not only that, but one is in English about anglophone translators, and the other is in French about francophone translators. In essence, the two volumes are the very embodiment of Canada’s founding cultures, presenting the lives, careers and bibliographies of Canada’s leaders in literary translation, a field that often goes unnoticed.

Writing Between the Lines: Portraits of anglophone literary translators (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, winter 2006) is a collection of essays exploring the lives of 12 of Canada’s most eminent anglophone literary translators, among them such names as Sheila Fischman, Patricia Claxton, John Van Burek, Linda Gaboriau and John Glassco. Their individual portraits by different contributors, some of them translators in their own right, contain original, new material about their lives and the different routes and motivations which led them to literary translation. These texts highlight the complex challenges inherent in the translators’ work and their relationship with authors and publishers. What emerges is a fresh insight into the role and value of literary translation, its processes and the importance of the translator to culture and society at large.

The other volume, Le Métier du double. Portraits de traductrices et traducteurs littéraires, was published by Quebec’s Fides publishing house at the end of 2005, in the joint Université de Montréal and Laval University Centre for Quebec literature series. A beautiful edition, its cover is further enhanced by the reproduction of an original painting by Whitfield’s husband, Quebec painter and writer Daniel Gagnon. This companion volume to Writing between the Lines is currently being translated into English by Wilfrid Laurier Press.

The 13 translators profiled in this volume are stars in their own right, although they made their way to translation from widely different departure points. They include Michel Tremblay, Jacques Brault, Marie José Thériault, Hélène Rioux, Yvan Steenhout and Hélène Filion, among others. In her introduction, Whitfield points out that all of these translators started their careers in other fields — as diverse as typographer, cartoonist, Latin teacher, singer and dancer.

Whitfield discusses the invisibility of translators throughout most of Canada’s history and the fact that this is only recently undergoing change. Today, most publications pair the translator’s name with that of the author, and outstanding translators are recognized in their own right and even receive awards for their work. The issue of varieties of French, especially Quebec French and joual slang being used in literary translations is also broached, demonstrating that translation is not only a question of correct language but a social mirror, an accurate representation of different cultural contexts. 

 “I wanted to choose translators who are well-known and respected in the literary world,” says Whitfield, “individuals who have made a genuine contribution to the profession. I also wanted to offer a balanced representation of plays and other literary forms. I was searching for translators with a significant body of work, possibly bringing a new approach, people recognized by their peers. And this was also a chance to honour their contribution to the Literary Translators’ Association.”

Whitfield is an active member of the Literary Translators’ Association of Canada founded in 1975 — a professional organization dealing with issues of copyright, the selection of winners for special awards, and serving as a link between those working in the two languages. Members are active in the marketing and production of literary work; they are frequently intermediaries, bringing writers and publishers together. “Many of the founders of this association are close to retirement,” adds Whitfield, “and I felt that it was time to record their work and provide a history of the profession in Canada for future generations.”

It has been a long process — Whitfield has been working on this project since 1990. Her own university was a help. “Literary translation has some depth at York,” says Whitfield. “Two of the translators profiled in the anglophone volume, Ray Ellenwood and Barbara Godard, are on York’s faculty, and two other York colleagues, Sherry Simon and Robert Wallace, contributed texts.”

Whitfield has recently learned of another important recognition for her work. She has just been awarded a major Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council grant to be a “Virtual Scholar in Residence”, doing research “with specific focus on the contribution that literary translation can make to building an understanding of the value of linguistic duality in Canada, and to promoting stronger links among francophone and anglophone Canadians.” And her next project? “I would like to develop a new book on a comprehensive history of literary translation in Canada,” replies Whitfield.

More about Agnes Whitfield

Born in Peterborough, Ont., Whitfield is among the few translators working in Canada to be so fully bilingual that she can write and translate in both languages. She studied French and Quebec literature at Queen’s University, Université de Paris IV-Sorbonne and Université Laval (PhD,1981). She has worked as a professional translator with the Canadian Secretary of State Translation Bureau (1976-1980), and taught both translation and Quebec literature, first at Queen’s (1980-1990) and, since 1990, at Glendon, where she is a professor and former director of the School of Translation (1992-1996). Visiting Professor at the University of Bologna’s Centro di Studi Quebecchesi and Scuola Superiore di Lingue Moderne per Interpreti e Traduttori in May 2003, she was Seagram Visiting Chair at the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, McGill University (2003-2004).

In addition to her latest two books, she is the author of numerous books and articles published in scholarly and literary journals, and is currently the translation review editor for the University of Toronto Quarterly. Whitfield is also a poet and fiction writer, who was short-listed in 1991 for the Governor General’s Award for Divine Diva, her translation of Daniel Gagnon’s novel, Venite a cantare. She was also president of the Canadian Association for Translation Studies for two mandates (1995-1999).

This article was submitted to YFile by Glendon communications officer Marika Kemeny.