To celebrate the publication of Daniil and Vanya, translator Michelle Winters reflects on the surprisingly visceral experience of translating Marie-Hélène Larochelle’s novel into English.
Before I tell you about translating Daniil and Vanya, It’s important you know that I’ve watched The Human Centipedes I through III. The grisly discovery in the farmer’s field – I’m the first online to find the photos; there’s no Cold Case or Unsolved Mystery I haven’t watched, or serial killer whose work I don’t know by sight. I’m a ghoul since way back (I can’t think The Hilarious House of Frightenstein is without blame) and now that I’m an adult, I have to remind myself when I’m out socially to talk about something other than dead people.
Daniil and Vanya is the book for me.
I read the original French while visiting my family in Saint John, N.B. It may have been the feeling of reading a book on vacation, or reading a book while visiting my childhood home, but I was transported to carefree days of reading as a young ghoul, to the thrill of looking at the cover of a book knowing there’s something scary inside. Something bad is going to happen. Marie-Hélène Larochelle sustains such a pervasive sense of creeping dread throughout Daniil and Vanya that you feel it when the book is closed. I was reaching for it constantly, like a sicko.
That book gave me, for its duration and beyond, not just a tense, blood-tingling read, but the gift of really getting in and experiencing something unimaginable, while also exploring my own perverse need to look at things I shouldn’t.
It was so much fun.
Translating this, there were times I had to look away. The French, of course, is brutal, but lyrical; it’s French. Shedding the Gallic veil of the original leaves you with a somewhat naked and more direct English, which adds a harshness to already horrifying passages. I’d have the two versions open on the left and right sides of my screen, scanning back and forth between them with my eyes, while my fingers tapped out the English. There were times (you’ll find them) where I could only look at the French, because I didn’t want to see what my fingers were producing on the English side, knowing I was inviting all those words across a threshold to readers previously protected by the barrier of language. It felt a little like reciting the demonic resurrection incantation from The Evil Dead.
Marie-Hélène Larochelle has built a world of characters who, while not Good, are so vibrantly alive that their fear and despair, cruelty, suffering and bewilderment become yours. My professional distress is a testament to the potency of her writing.
If you’re open to being swept away to a place you’d never, ever want to visit in real life, but can’t stop yourself wanting to see, if you’d like to take a ride that challenges your perception of the goodness of the world around you (try taking a walk in Dufferin Grove Park) and return afterwards unharmed, completely alive, but with a lingering sense of implication in this nightmare, I can’t recommend Daniil and Vanya enough.
Michelle Winters is a translator and the author of the novel I Am a Truck, which was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize.