Translation of Mavis Gallant’s Work as Transcreation

Mavis Gallant held a decidedly apathetic if not outright hostile opinion of translation. Despite being proficient in both French and English, she chose to write exclusively in English. When asked about the possibility of taking on the task of translating her own work into French, she bristled at the thought, stating, “translating my own work would be like writing the same thing twice” (qtd. in Woodsworth 52). In an introduction in Home Truths, she pointed out that “if I were to write in French, not only would I put things differently, but I would never set out to say the same things” (Gallant xvii-xviii). These two statements may seem somewhat competing on the surface, but they are rooted in Gallant’s belief about the ontology of language.

In Gallant’s view, to be perfectly bilingual is virtually impossible and languages are, in a sense, untranslatable, because “one needs a strong, complete language, fully understood, to anchor one’s understanding” (Gallant xix). Gallant’s value judgment of translation rests on the notion that the act of translation should relay for readers all the nuance found in the original work, which is impossible.

However, David Katan, author of Translating Cultures and a linguistics professor at the University of Salento, argues for a conceptualization of translation as transcreation. Transcreation accounts for the fact that the translator acts as reader, analyzer, mediator and ultimately interpreter of the text. Beyond this though, the act of transcreation is a creative process in which the translator aims to translate not just the text itself but to emulate the effect that the text is intended to have on the reader. Sometimes, this process involves altering the text to “create something clearly based on the original, but not directly inferable from the original text” (Katan 25).

Let’s consider how transcreation could be applied to Gallant’s “Voices Lost in Snow”. Uncle Raoul’s poetic diagnosis that “votre fille a frôle la phtisie” (Gallant 705) juxtaposed against Dr. Mackey’s straightforward statement that Linnet is “subject to bilious attacks” (Gallant 705) highlights the cultural difference and tension that existed between Anglophone Protestants and Francophone Catholics in Montreal during the 1970s. Transcreation could perhaps entail leaving Dr. Mackey’s diagnosis in its English form in a French translation of the text, as opposed to translating it into French. While the original work features Uncle Raoul’s insertion of French amid a sea of English, a French translation might invert that to have Dr. Mackey’s English stand out against the French text. 

Or, the translator could, instead of doing a direct translation, rephrase or create a whole new sentence to bring to the fore Dr. Mackey’s plain-spoken and frank nature. In this case or that of the previous example, the candour of Dr. Mackey’s proclamation would be better preserved and the difference between his diagnosis and that of Uncle Raoul’s would still be emphasized as opposed to obscured within a French translation of the text.

Translation as transcreation calls for the active involvement of the translator and assumes the translator also acts as creator in the final translated product. While Gallant seemed to deem translation as an act that was merely reproductive as opposed to productive and therefore believed it would be futile to translate works, Katan sets out a theoretical and practical framework for translation that aims to infuse the text being translated with a new dynamic while invoking in readers the reaction intended by the original text.

Works Cited

Gallant, Mavis. Home Truths. Laurel Press, 1987.

Gallant, Mavis. “Voices Lost in Snow”. The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant. Random House, 1996. pp 700-712.

Katan, David. “Translating the “Literary” in Literary Translation in Practice”. The Practice of Literary Translation: An Italian Perspective. 2015, pp 7-29.

Woodsworth, Judith. “Writers and their translators: the case of Mavis Gallant.” TTR: traduction, terminologie, rédaction 1.2 1998, pp 47-57.

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