The Chat with Phyllis Aronoff and Howard Scott


The 2018 Governor General’s Award for Translation was awarded to the team of Phyllis Aronoff and Howard Scott for Descent into Night (Mawenzi House), their translation of Edem Awumey’s haunting novel Explication de la nuit.


The jury assessment committee says "Descent into Night, translated by Phyllis Aronoff and Howard Scott, is a beautifully assured rendering of a text offering many translation challenges. The translators agilely follow the text as it shifts between an ailing Quebec writer’s regrets about his life, and his long-ago involvement in a failed West African revolution, which haunts him into the present. This translation skillfully captures the lyricism of the French text."

Phyllis Aronoff translates fiction, non-fiction and poetry, solo or with co-translator Howard Scott. Her most recent solo translations include Black Thursday, a memoir by French journalist Maurice Rajsfus, and Message Sticks, poems by the Innu writer Joséphine Bacon. The Wanderer, her translation of La Québécoite, by Régine Robin, received a Jewish Literary Award.

Howard Scott translates novels and non-fiction, solo or with co-translator Phyllis Aronoff. He also translates poetry. His latest poetry translation is Blueberries and Apricots, by Innu writer Natasha Kanapé Fontaine. In 1997, he received a Governor General's Literary Award for his translation of The Euguelion by Louky Bersianik, and in 2017 he was a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Social Myths and Collective Imaginaries, by Gérard Bouchard.
Scott and Aronoff received a Quebec Writers' Federation Translation Award for The Great Peace of Montreal of 1701.



Trevor Corkum: Congrats on your Governor General’s Award. How does it feel to win such a prestigious prize at this point in your career?

Phyllis Aronoff and Howard Scott: It’s wonderful to be recognized by your peers. And it will be great if the award garners some attention for this extraordinary book. We’ve been shortlisted before for the GG, without winning, and we weren’t really expecting to win this time either. For Howard, who won a GG for one of his earliest translations, this one kind of bookends his career; for Phyllis, this GG is her first.

TC: Can you share one or two of the particular challenges you encountered translating Descent into Night?

PA&HS: The book has two timelines and two settings: West Africa, where the author was born and raised, which was unfamiliar to us, and Ottawa/Gatineau, which was familiar territory. It was a challenge translating the physical and cultural context of Togo in the 1980s, and we wanted to make sure we got things right. Luckily, we were able to find information, street maps, and even images of places on the Web.
Another kind of challenge was the emotional tenor of the book. It’s a dark book, as the title suggests, and in order to immerse ourselves in it day after day, we had to find the light in it—the humour and the glimmers of hope in the darkness.

TC: What do you feel is the key to an exceptional translation?

PA&HS: In many books, especially in fiction, voice is the key. You’ve got to imagine the way a person would speak if he or she were speaking English. You need to craft a voice that’s true to the original and that sounds convincing in English. When you do that, you connect with the reader, and everything else follows from that.

You’ve got to imagine the way a person would speak if he or she were speaking English. You need to craft a voice that’s true to the original and that sounds convincing in English.

TC: Why is it important for English Canadians to read the translated work of French Canadian writers, and how can this be encouraged?

PA&HS: So often, books by French-language Canadian writers, even those that have been translated into English, are left out of discussions of Canadian literature. They deserve to be included, if only because they are wonderful books created by amazing writers ... and translated by terrific translators. Don’t read them because they’re “good for you,” read them simply because they’re good. They will expand the boundaries of your world.

Don’t read them because they’re “good for you,” read them simply because they’re good. They will expand the boundaries of your world.

TC: 49th Shelf is built around a large community of readers and fans of Canadian literature. What Canadian authors are you reading these days?

Phyllis: English-language Canadian writers I‘ve enjoyed reading in the past year or so include Madeleine Thien (Do Not Say We Have Nothing is absolutely the best novel I’ve read in a long time!), Kathleen Winter (I loved Boundless), André Alexis (loved Fifteen Dogs), Sean Michaels, Michael Redhill, Alice Zorn, Claire Holden Rothman. On my night table right now are books by Lise Weil, Katherena Vermette, Dionne Brand, Nigel Thomas, and Veena Ghokhale. I read some poetry as well, but usually single poems as opposed to a whole book at a time.

Howard: Recently I've been reading more Indigenous authors, in both English and French. I’m impressed by the new wave of writing by mostly young people from Native communities, Cherie Dimaline, Katherena Vermette, Billy-Ray Belcourt, for example, in English. In French, I could mention Joséphine Bacon (whom Phyllis has translated), Naomi Fontaine, Niviaq Korneliussen, and I myself have translated three books by the wonderful young Innu poet Natasha Kanapé Fontaine.

Excerpt from Descent into Night

His nose pressed to the window of the train speeding through a world bleached white in the darkness of the night, Ito Baraka thinks back to the scene he has been rehearsing for days now. He stops in the middle of the basement that is his home. He looks up and examines the ceiling fan. He studies the housing and he thinks to himself that if he doesn’t have a rope, he’ll have to cut the sleeves off some shirts.

He looks at the fan with its rusty blades stilled, useless now, in a crumbling ceiling, and remembers his country and a failed spring. He hasn’t forgotten that on day three of their strike, the government sent the army onto the campus. Jeeps had taken possession of the space for three days, surveilling their flock of obstinate little intellectuals. Then, on the fourth day, the army charged, going after the leaders of the protest. It was a fine hunt, leopards chasing zebras in the wilderness, with beatings, clubs casually cracking skulls, stampedes in the corridors of the dormitories, arms and legs dismembered, the uniformed thugs tracking down their friend Neto, the vise closing tighter and tighter around him. Neto had chosen that nickname in memory of his idol, the Angolan poet and revolutionary Agostinho Neto. Because they were still at that age when you need gods. Ito Baraka hasn’t forgotten. Many years later, slumped on his sofa, he sees it all again, how the army finally cornered Neto on the third floor of the dormitory. On one side, the left, a window and a streaked sky.

Ito Baraka wants to be done with that past. Alone in his apartment, he rehearses the suicide scene. He looks for his scissors to cut off the shirt sleeves. Then he’ll just have to tie a good slipknot and let himself go. It will be a way, the final way, to put an end to the brutal invasion of those images that have so often kept him from closing his eyes, the vise closing around Neto trapped beside the window in the surrounded dorm, the kick of a boot, the glass shattering into a thousand sharp shards. The film is cruelly clear before Ito’s eyes. The army rearranges Neto’s face, uppercuts swelling his temples, uprooting his nose, and splitting his brow open. They lift the young man, who sees the shivering tops of the trees. The imperturbable majesty of the eucalyptus trees around the dorm, the ugly clouds, the corridor and the window floating, the impassive sky, and Neto thrown out the window. A hoarse scream, the scream of the little shit of a leader falling onto the hard ochre earth in the dormitory yard, a slick of blood around his head, a halo of sainthood won by the martyr with dilated pupils. Ito Baraka remembers, he was among the student rebels standing around their comrade’s body, its limbs twitching in a macabre dance, while the soldiers continued combing the corridors of the dorm looking for other black sheep. “A taxi,” shouted a girl in the group of students around poor half-dead Neto as his body’s dance came to an end with the death rattle of an ancient record player.

Ito and the others stood powerless looking at their fallen friend, the slick of blood becoming a pool, the lips of the dying man mumbling incoherent words, the first description and mapping of the beyond delivered still warm to those who, for the time being, were still among the living. Someone whistled, the army retreating, the taxi they found twenty minutes later, the hospital corridors strewn with other disjointed puppets. “Put him down there,” a man in a white coat said coldly. In the middle of the night, a doctor finally arrived, who shook his head as soon as he saw the poor guy. Ito thought of the rag doll his mother had made for him on her Singer sewing machine, that first companion he dragged around for a long time, holding on to it by one arm, and his mother’s warning, “If you pull him apart, I won’t be able to sew him up again quickly enough and he’ll die.” And since it was only then that the doctor arrived, he wondered whether the scalpels and the scissors had come too late for Neto.
This excerpt appears with permission of the publisher.

November 29, 2018
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