The importance of literary translation

Literary translation plays an important role in enhancing intercultural understanding, says Glendon translation Professor Agnès Whitfield.

"Not all Canadians feel comfortable enough in their second language to read a work of literature in  its original language," says Whitfield. "Translations fill the gap, and open up new worlds to explore."

Whitfield, a professor in the Glendon School of Translation, has spent the year as virtual scholar for the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada. As a SSHRC virtual scholar, Whitfield worked with Heritage Canada to examine to what degree anglophone and francophone Canadians have access to each other’s important literary works through translation. As part of her research, Whitfield examined books both groups consider to be classics to determine what works are taught in English-Canadian and French-Canadian literature courses in universities across the country. She has also surveyed bestseller lists and literary prize selections. "One aim of this study," she explains, "is to see whether the books that are being taught or talked about in one language are available in translation in the other, so that Canadians can all share in the buzz."

As part of her responsibilities as a SSHRC virtual scholar, Whitfield organized a national conference of stakeholders in translation which took place in Quebec City on April 13. The interdisciplinary conference titled "Bringing Books to New Readers: Publishing and Promoting Literary Translations".

"While literary translators, publishers, magazine editors, booksellers and librarians often meet within their own respective groups, the Quebec conference offered a rare occasion for representatives from all groups to discuss literary translation," said Whitfield. "The day-long conference addressed four main areas: the contractual dimensions of literary translation (grants, copyright, contracts); the translation, revision and editing process; promoting and disseminating translations; and literary translations and their readers."

Right: Participating in a conference panel are, from left, Linda Leith, director of the Montreal International Literary Festival Blue Metropolis; Michelle Ariss, a PhD candidate at the Université de Sherbrooke; award-winning translator Sheila Fischman; and Professor Agnès Whitfield

Attending the conference were Governor-General Award-winning translators Patricia Claxton, Sheila Fischman and Linda Gaboriau, all of whom shared their insights into the translation process with librarians Vickery Bowles, Diana Pepall and Louise Guillemette-Labory. Marian Hebb, a Canadian specialist in authors’ contracts and copyright, spoke in favour of greater recognition of translators’ rights as authors. Several publishers from Quebec and other regions in Canada expressed their concerns about acquiring translation rights, finding the right translators, and marketing translations. Louise Forsyth, professor emerita of Quebec literature at the University of Saskatchewan, called the conference "an important date in the history of literary translation in Canada".

Translation activity has expanded substantially since the introduction of the Canada Council Translation Grant Program in 1972, from one translation to some 70 titles a year, but Whitfield’s research shows that many of our important classics have still not been translated. "What’s even more surprising," she says, "is how little empirical data on literary translation in Canada is currently available." To remedy the situation, Whitfield is in the process of conducting four national surveys of librarians, publishers, booksellers and university professors in both English and French to explore attitudes towards translation, and ways of enhancing its role in cultural exchange between anglophone and francophone groups in Canada. Whitfield is working with a team of graduate student researchers from the Graduate Program in English at York’s Glendon campus. She has developed a new course, titled "Anglophone Literary Translation in Canada: Theories, Institutions, Practices, and Discourses", and a research group that will conduct research on literary translation in Canada.

More about Agnès 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. 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).

Right: Agnès Whitfield

In addition to her latest two books, Writing Between the Lines: Portraits of Canadian anglophone translators (2006) and Le Métier du double. Portraits de traductrices et traducteurs littéraires (2005), Whitfield 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).