Why translating the Canada Reads novel Suzanne was an emotional process for Rhonda Mullins

CBC Books · Posted: Mar 12, 2019

Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette‘s novel Suzanne is a fictionalized version of the life of Suzanne Meloche, the grandmother she never knew.

Barbeau-Lavalette researched and wrote about her grandmother’s life as a way of understanding the decision to abandon her family in pursuit of her own fulfillment.  

Originally published in French as La femme qui fuit in 2015, the novel was translated for an English audience by Governor General’s Literary Award-winning translator Rhonda Mullins.

Now, Suzanne is a contender for Canada Reads 2019, where it will be defended by Gilmore Girlsactor Yanic Truesdale.

The debates take place March 25-28, 2019. 

They will air on CBC Radio One at 11 a.m. (1 p.m. AT/1:30 p.m. NT), on CBC at 4 p.m. (4:30 NT), live streamed online at CBC Books at 11 a.m. ET and will be available on the free CBC Gem streaming service.

Mullins recently spoke with CBC London‘s Afternoon Drive host Chris dela Torre about the emotional process of translating Suzanne and what it means to land on Canada Reads.

A unique voice

“It’s very intimate because it’s told in the second person, which is quite unusual. Anaïs’s reason for doing that is she wanted to speak directly to her grandmother — to have a conversation she was never able to have. It’s got this very close, intimate second person [narration] and yet it’s telling the story of a woman who left her family and headed out into the world to explore who she was and ended up in Europe, in the United States and back in Quebec. It was a mix between the intimate and the very global.”

An emotional process

“I cried quite a lot when I translated it. I would always cry at the same spot, which was when when Suzanne is getting ready to leave her children. I could edit the translation 10 or 12 times and there are certain points in the novel that would still make me cry. I had to be sure not to read those in public because it would happen in public too.”

“It’s quite an emotional book and and translation tends to be quite intimate. There’s this feeling of being very up close with the writer’s voice and the characters. In fact, I met Anaïs’s mother — the woman who grew from the child who was abandoned in the book. When I met her the first time I felt a bit uncomfortable as if I had invaded her privacy somehow, but I don’t know any more than readers know. But it’s that feeling of intimacy that sometimes you get when you’re working with characters in books.”

The weight of responsibility 

“Anaïs writes in very short sentences, which makes translation sound easy, but it’s one of those every-word-counts scenarios. Secondly, Suzanne was so well received in Quebec and I’d heard so much about it that I felt the weight of that responsibility. There’s also a slice of Quebec history in here, it’s a transition period between the Duplessis years and the Quiet Revolution. That’s very interesting, seeing these artists and activists who tried to take on the church. It’s instructive and it is incredibly moving. I hope that this comes through with the Canada Reads readers.”

Family ties

“It’s one of those universal stories because you’re dealing with this woman’s pain and this family’s pain. We’re all members of families — we’re parents or we’re children. Getting this up-close look of the dissolution of a family, it’s a very moving thing to witness and then set against this this fairly sweeping backdrop. It’s a lovely read.”

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