Lazer Lederhendler is one of Canada’s foremost literary translators. He has won three Governor General’s Literary Awards for translation from French to English: in 2020 for If you hear me by Pascale Quiviger, in 2016 for The dividing wall by Catherine Leroux and in 2008 for Nikolsi by Nicholas Dickner. He has been nominated for the award several times.
Lederhendler grew up in a working-class immigrant family in Montreal. A career in letters was not on his mind until later in life, when Lederhendler discovered he had a gift for translation. Self-taught for the most part, Lederhendler only partially took a translation course while living in Moncton. His teacher told him he was wasting his time there – he was already good enough to start working.
Lederhendler then worked for government agencies before completing a master’s degree in English and becoming a literary translator. Today, he is semi-retired and has decided to focus on translating works from his mother tongue, Yiddish.
The acclaimed translator spoke with CBC Books about his career, his approach to translation and more.
You say you are now semi-retired. How have you defined success throughout your career? What is success for you?
Success is really about enjoying what you do for a living. In that sense, I feel like I’ve succeeded. I have managed over the years to stay interested and passionate about my work.
Of course, there’s always that little degree of celebrity in the mix. I don’t know if it’s a guarantee of success, but having the quality of your work validated on a larger scale is satisfying. Being satisfied in your job is what a lot of people are looking for and it’s not always the case, is it? So I feel good about that.
I managed to build a career, I guess. And now, you know, semi-retired means I’m still working, but at a much more relaxed pace. I actually said it publicly a short time ago, so it’s no secret — for the moment, I won’t be translating from French. I move on to another type of translation, which comes from my mother tongue, Yiddish. I started a translation project for an author who spent the last decades of his life in Montreal, but who wrote in Yiddish, and I’m translating a few episodes of his memoirs.
Is this an exciting project for you, in terms of pivoting towards Yiddish translation?
It’s something I’ve always wanted to do; I never felt the time was right. It’s also a new challenge, so it keeps the level of interest and motivation going.
As a Yiddish translator, I am a novice. It’s a different proposition than if I’m translating from French, which I know very well in terms of language and literature. Even though Yiddish is my mother tongue, I did not have a higher education in Yiddish literature.
So it’s a challenge and I thrive on challenges, like a lot of people.
How did you get into translation work?
When I started translating, there were very few translation courses offered at the university level, let alone translation programs. Now there are legions of them.
I started translating just to make money. Several years ago, I was living in New Brunswick and realized that I was good at translating. I had a talent for that. I took a few translation classes and my teacher, whom I befriended, told me that I was wasting my time there and that I should just go out and work as a translator. So I did this.
I worked for the government of New Brunswick. I worked for the federal government in Ottawa, then I returned with my family to Montreal in the late 1980s and went back to university to do my master’s degree in English. I was asked at one point: “Would you like to translate a book or short stories?” And I did.
It was 30 years ago.
What do you think is the secret sauce, so to speak, for translating from French to English? Particularly in terms of retaining literary nuance while incorporating your own style?
There is no secret sauce. There’s just a lot of hard work, which I guess is true in any business.
My approach is that the translator starts out like anyone who reads literature, that is, you read a book. You have an image in your head of the narrative voice you hear; you imagine what the characters are like, you imagine the scenes like any reader. You are very careful, much more than the average reader.
After that, it’s like what any writer does. You write, you re-write, you write again and re-write and polish.
In terms of color and energy, especially when translating into French for English-speaking Canadian audiences, what does that entail? How to make it accessible while retaining its specificity?
It’s a very complicated question. When I read the narrative on the page where a character speaks, I get a picture of what he looks like. That’s what I’m trying to achieve in English. It won’t be the same, will it?
This is the great paradox of translation: it is the same and not the same at all. It is a new work in its own right. But on the other hand, it tells the exact same story in the exact same sequence and uses the same factual details as the original.
It’s like any artistic activity. There is intuition and instinct. You don’t know exactly why you made a certain choice, but you did.
There is intuition and instinct. You don’t know exactly why you made a certain choice, but you did. In the end, you realize it was the right choice, and maybe later you’ll understand why.
Would it be fair to say that your background in film and poetry gives you a proverbial “boost” in terms of cinematic meaning and scope?
Anything that helps your imagination run at its best – reading, art, movies, whatever – will come in handy. It will make the difference between something going well or mediocre – and something that shines.
Do you have any favorite translations you’ve done?
I’ll give you a big, fat cliche, which I’ve often heard when asked these kinds of questions: My favorite is the book I’m working on right now.
It’s a cliché, but somehow it has to be true. You have to be completely focused. I want to be fully and uniquely focused and engaged with the text. This is the best approach for me.
What advice would you give to future French to English fiction translators?
Well, make sure you have another source of income. You can make a living, but it’s a modest life. You must have something else going on, I think, if you want to live a life of luxury. A lot of translators are academics, so they’re comfortable that way. I think it helps because they don’t have to worry about this or that as much.
In many ways, being self-taught is a plus because you don’t have all that kind of training. You have to be able to approach it with a lot of freedom and imagination. These are things people need to cultivate as newcomers to the profession.
You have to find a way to have enough distance between you and the original to be able to free yourself from it.,
There’s one principle that I think people should always keep in mind: it’s not a rule, but I always find it helpful to think that one of the things about solving translation problems is to make virtue a necessity.
You have this constraint, which is that the book already exists in the original language. Sometimes you come across those Gordian knots in the original, and you don’t know how you’re going to do it. You have to find a way to have enough distance between you and the original that you can free yourself from it, imagine a solution that is your own creative solution, and then bring it back into the text so that it actually returns the point of origin as so it can be rendered.
I think over time, with a number of translations under your belt, you see that imagination doesn’t take you away from the original, it ultimately brings you closer.
What has traditionally been your process of unwinding after a project has ended? Did he read another book or was he just another chase?
I think it’s the same for anyone involved in writing or the arts in general. Once you’ve completed the project, it’s done and you put that behind you. You stop caring and you stop waking up in the middle of the night saying, “Oh my God, that was a mistake. I should have done this this way or that way.”
You just put it behind you and take a break. How long it is, depends on you.
What kind of reading did you do as a child?
I mean I never planned to be a translator. It wasn’t until I reached adulthood that I realized you could really make a living by translating. It hadn’t even occurred to me at the time. And it was someone else who gave me clues.
I come from a working class immigrant family. We had books at home. My parents were readers, but they were far from being intellectuals. You see a lot of people of letters and in a lot of their circles they had a house full of books. It was not my case. My parents were just newly arrived workers in Canada. One of the situations in which any immigrant child finds himself is that he immediately translates anyway, because there is a language spoken at home and there is the language of the street and of the new school.
There are all these different languages and you have to navigate through it all.
One of the situations in which any immigrant child finds himself is that he translates immediately anyway…
My primary school was at the time what was called a parochial school. It was a Jewish school where half the day was devoted to Jewish subjects and the other half was devoted to a regular general curriculum. In my schooling, I think for anyone with a similar background, you study a very particular version of the Torah, which has the original Aramaic Hebrew in a corner and around it. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the Talmud, but around there is a Yiddish translation of the original. When we are very small in fourth, we already find ourselves faced with this translation of the basic book of Western literature, which is the Bible. I think somewhere, somehow, had his influence.
As for my general readings, my parents and the general community we grew up in were socialists. So all my reading when I was very young was social realism: Jack London, John Steinbeck and John Dos Passos. Poets like Whitman and Sandburg. I would read Robert Frost. I read Tolstoy when I was very young too.
But I didn’t have a classical education [in literature]. High school literature classes can make you fall in love with literature — or the opposite, depending on who is teaching. In high school, we studied Shakespeare, we studied romantic poets. But it was all very superficial, wasn’t it? There’s not much that I can remember that really got me excited. Dylan Thomas was actually my favorite poet when I was in high school. And Allen Ginsberg.
This pretty much brings us full circle to what you are doing now in terms of Yiddish translation.
Yeah. In fact, I started working on this project for a long time. I’m at the point in my life where you do it now, or you’re not going to.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.