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The Chat with 2022 Governor General's Award winner Judith Weisz Woodsworth

Judith Weisz Woodsworth Photo credit Egan-Dufour

Judith Weisz Woodsworth is the 2022 Governor General’s Literary Award winner for Translation (French-English) for her translation of Pierre Anctil’s Histoire des Juifs du Québec: History of the Jews in Quebec (University of Ottawa Press).

This year’s peer assessment committee says "Judith Weisz Woodsworth’s flawless translation renders Pierre Anctil’s formidable socio-historical work accessible to an English-speaking audience. It replicates the engaging style of the original with enthusiasm and rigour. Weisz Woodsworth fully captures the scholarly but compelling prose of this essential overview. Her translation of the extensive documentation is equally masterful."

Judith Weisz Woodsworth is a translator and former university professor. She has published widely on translation history and theory, including Translators through History, with Jean Delisle. Her recent publications include the monograph Telling the Story of Translation: Writers Who Translate (2017), the edited volumes The Fictions of Translation (2018) and Translation and the Global City: Bridges and Gateways (2021), and Hutchison Street (2018), a translation of Abla Farhoud’s novel, Le sourire de la petite juive. She was founding president of the Canadian Association for Translation Studies and has served as a senior administrator at universities in Halifax, Sudbury and Montréal. Judith Weisz Woodsworth lives in Montréal, Quebec.



Imagine you could spend a day with any author, living or dead. Who would you choose, what would you do, and what would you talk about?

I would choose Gertrude Stein, one of the most famous "American-in-Paris" figures, who lived most of her adult life in Paris, where I was born. There, in self-imposed exile, she wrote what was considered to be radical, even quirky, prose, poetry and drama. She also translated, collected avant-garde works of art, and befriended a wide range of fascinating intellectuals, writers and artists.

I would accompany her on her daily walk through the Jardins du Luxembourg, past the statue of George Sand, whom she admired and emulated. I would gaze at the paintings by up-and-coming artists such as Picasso, Cézanne, and Matisse, which hung from floor to ceiling in her left-bank apartment. I would listen in on one of the salons she held, attended by writers like Ernest Hemingway and Ezra Pound, although as a woman I would more than likely be relegated to the circle of "wives" entertained in another room by Stein’s companion Alice B. Toklas.

I would be interested in talking to her about her tortured and complex relationship to the French language, and, in particular, about her claim that she stared at Cézanne’s portrait of his wife, and then began to translate Gustave Flaubert’s Trois Contes, as a prelude to writing her first novel, Three Lives.

But this is a fact that is perhaps best left unchecked. Since I found nothing to substantiate her claim—no manuscript, no notes, not the least bit of evidence of such a translation ever having been done—I drew the conclusion, in my book entitled Telling the Story of Translation: Writers Who Translate (Bloomsbury, 2017), that she had invented her story of translation. This is how she established her link to France’s beloved literary craftsman, Flaubert, thereby giving herself the credibility that she otherwise lacked. In the context of writers who translate, and who tell (or invent) stories of translation, this is a wonderful illustration of the "fiction of translation" and, in some sense, a means of giving translation greater visibility and status.

What advice would you give your ten-year old self about the future?

At ten, I was an eager student and avid reader. I was conscious of the myriad languages and cultures that surrounded me in immigrant North Winnipeg. A cousin had just arrived in Canada with his family, in the wake of the Hungarian uprising. Neither he nor his parents spoke English, and I was assigned to interpret for them. If I had to advise that ten-year-old self, I would say, enjoy the linguistic and cultural hybridity in which you are immersed, learn from it and realize that this is a road on which you will enjoy travelling. Do what you love, and you will always love what you do. That advice might have saved me the time and trouble of considering law or library science as possible careers, and set me more directly on the path I ultimately chose.

Your translation of History of the Jews in Quebec brings a vital part of Quebec history to English readers. What were some of the challenges you encountered translating the text?

In this book, which is the culmination of thirty years of research, Pierre Anctil recounts the 400-year history of a diverse Jewish community in Quebec. It is a serious scholarly work, comprised of nearly 500 pages, with numerous footnotes, an extensive bibliography, a glossary, and an index.

All of this required research on my part. I read widely in English to acquire the English terminology and style that was appropriate to the subject matter. At the same time, it was challenging to replicate the author’s eloquent prose, even stylistic flourishes. I tried to make the text sing the way Anctil had done, capturing the voices of the people he portrays: generations of immigrants, who sought to build a new home and a better life for their children, who remained true to their culture and heritage, and yet contributed to the social, intellectual and artistic life of the host society.

In your opinion, what is the mark of a superb translation?

A superb translation is accurate, faithful to the information and style of the original, and at the same time fluid and elegant.

These general principles have been articulated for hundreds of years, by Étienne Dolet in France in the sixteenth century, Alexander Tytler in Scotland in the late eighteenth century, and Yan Fu in China at the beginning of the twentieth century. Translation has always been a balancing act of finding the best equivalents and upholding the ideal of good writing. There is never a perfect translation, which explains why the most illustrious works—such as the Bible, the Arabian Nights, and Shakespearean plays—have been repeatedly translated and retranslated.

What was the last book by a Canadian author that changed you in some way?

Abla Farhoud’s Le sourire de la petite juive was pivotal. I was using excerpts from the book, along with other contemporary works of Québécois fiction, as exercises in my literary translation class. While working with my students, I decided I wanted to translate the novel in its entirety. It was a compelling book, depicting the life of different characters, including a girl from a Hasidic family, who populated Mile End, one of Montreal’s most diverse neighbourhoods.

I met with the author, ascertained that the book had not yet been translated into English, submitted a proposal to Linda Leith Publishing, and ultimately published the translation as Hutchison Street (LLP, 2018).

The experience of bringing the project to fruition enriched the classes I gave, but it also confirmed my interest in and passion for translating literary fiction and non-fiction. Over the years, teaching, research, academic writing, and administrative duties—including serving as president at two universities—had prevented me from taking on large-scale translation projects. Farhoud’s novel was an important stepping stone, and now that I have retired from my full-time teaching position at Concordia, I am in a better position to continue this kind of work.


Excerpt from History of the Jews in Quebec

New Context, New Arrivals, 1945–1960

The postwar period marked a critical break with the past and the unfolding of a new world for Montreal Jewry. Even more than the armistice of 1918, the end of the Second World War in 1945 redefined the political and ideological framework for Jewish communities dispersed throughout the world. The defining feature of the time was the murder of nearly six million Jewish people by Hitler’s forces through systematic and violent acts of persecution across the entire European continent. When the war drew to a close, the Jews of Montreal gradually became aware of the enormity of this loss, which would forever disrupt the balance among the different parts of the Jewish diaspora. With the calculated destruction of Jewish communities in Germany, Poland, Russia, the Baltic states, Ukraine, Romania, Hungary and, to a lesser extent, France, Belgium, Italy, and the Netherlands, the demographic centre of gravity of Jewry shifted to North America.

Ashkenazic Judaism, which developed on Germanic soil in the High Middle Ages, had been the point of reference for religious Orthodoxy and traditional Jewish knowledge for centuries. In the modern era, cities such as Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Vienna, Prague, Vilnius, Kiev, and Warsaw had been centres of brilliant Jewish intellectual achievement. In just a few years, these sites of Jewish culture had been devastated. This sudden and irreparable loss affected religious life, cultural output, and the scholarly knowledge of Jewish history. The genocide perpetrated by the Nazis, through different methods of unprecedented cruelty, led to the elimination of almost all the existing Jewish communities, large and small, in many regions of Eastern Europe. [ … ]


The genocide perpetrated by the Nazis, through different methods of unprecedented cruelty, led to the elimination of almost all the existing Jewish communities, large and small, in many regions of Eastern Europe.

Montreal Jews greeted the news of the destruction of their home communities with dismay and disbelief. They discovered that the cities and villages which many of them had left several decades earlier had been obliterated and their populations massacred. For Yiddish-speaking artists, poets and intellectuals, the loss was all the more unimaginable since most of them still drew most of their inspiration from the traditional way of life they had experienced as children. The Holocaust had wiped out the living source of Eastern European Judaism, from which Jewish social and cultural life had modestly sprung at the foot of Mount Royal in the early years of the twentieth century. The branch of the Ashkenzic diaspora that had recently taken root on Canadian soil was stunned by the catastrophe. With the brutal annihilation of overseas Jewry, not only had close friends and loved ones been torn from them, but the special ties that Canadian Yiddish speakers still maintained with their historical roots and European identity had been cut. Once, masses of immigrants had poured forth from the ocean liners that docked in Canadian ports, carrying with them the grand ideas of the Russian Revolution, unfulfilled dreams of Zionism, and prodigious ambitions of Yiddish writers. Under the weight of local realities, they had not yet had the time to realize their most ardent dreams and aspirations when news of the Holocaust sent shock waves through Jewish associations and literary circles in Montreal.

Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

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