Antonine Maillet. La Sagouine. Trans. Wayne Grady (Fredericton: Goose Lane Editions, 2015)
By Chantal Richard
Literary translation is a risky endeavour. Translating an iconic work written in a dialect so specific that it requires a lexicon in its original language is unimaginably perilous. Yet this is what Wayne Grady took on when he decided to translate Antonine Maillet’s La Sagouine. What follows is therefore more a comment on the successes and limitations of the translation than on the value of the original work – in other words, I will focus more on form than content. Because the presumed reader of this translation is an Anglophone who has little-to-no familiarity with the original text, I hope to point out ways in which the translation is faithful, but also what is missing so that the reader may have a better understanding of what was lost.
Anytime a translator takes on the task of transforming a text from one language to another, there is a process of cultural transfer wherein the characteristic features of the original text must be digested and re-shaped into something else, which inevitably loses some of the uniqueness of the original work. In this case, the original text was written in Acadian French, a combination of 16th century French words, some First Nations influences, and the emergence of a new vocabulary – often inspired by marine terminology – to describe the physical and geographical environment of post-Expulsion Acadians in New Brunswick. This is the language of these people and as the eponymous character, la Sagouine herself declares “When you get to a point where a people … don’t even know what language they speak, well then, I’d say you got a people that don’t even know what kind of people they are” (132). Therefore, the very act of taking away la Sagouine’s language is necessarily violent. However, even if that voice is heartbreakingly disembodied in the new language (and in this case, the language of the conqueror), the only alternative is silence. This is not a criticism of the translation, but rather an acknowledgment of a moral dilemma facing all translators.
This moral dilemma can be expressed as finding the right balance between preserving the authenticity of a text and ensuring readability for the target audience. Furthermore, the translation of a text in a very specific dialect such as this one must straddle the fine line of providing enough linguistic markers in the text to represent an informal and believable level of language appropriate for the characters of La Sagouine, but avoid the temptation of giving this new voice a slang that resonates with a different linguistic group. In other words, la Sagouine and her people cannot speak in a rural Anglophone New Brunswick accent and still remain believable.
What the uninitiated reader must also understand is that this fictional character is only fictional in the strictest sense of the word. Much like Longfellow’s Evangeline who represented a generation of Acadians who remembered the Expulsion, la Sagouine is a figurehead. She is made up of many poor Acadian women who are naïvely clever and sometimes abruptly perceptive. She also comes with the same pitfalls – the dangers of stereotyping and folklorization must be underlined. Furthermore, la Sagouine excels at pointing out social inequality and the hypocrisy of church and politicians alike, but does not offer any answers and in fact, has been considered by some to be far too resigned to her fate. Despite all of this, she has been celebrated and adored to this day for her dry wit as well as her subtle, yet sharp intelligence. As my own grandmother (who, like Antonine Maillet, grew up in Bouctouche and could tell me the names of all of her characters in real life) would say, there are some who are intelligent and some who are smart. La Sagouine falls into the latter category.
Wayne Grady had to understand all of this and carefully consider these facts when he undertook this ambitious translation. Each turn of phrase, each difficult word had to be weighed and had to fit in a broader vision so as to distort la Sagouine’s voice as little as possible. This meant smoothing out a distinct dialect in one language to a slightly more standardized expression in the other without losing any of the content. It meant finding a rhythm that is compatible with this powerfully unique voice that wouldn’t be too jarring for a unilingual Anglophone reader. While some authenticity is lost, there is something gained in this approach. Reading La Sagouine in Grady’s translation, while slightly disconcerting for a reader intimately familiar with the original, is nonetheless a rediscovery of sorts. As the form loses some of its dialectal authenticity, content is privileged and the reader tends to focus more on what la Sagouine has to say than how she says it. This is, perhaps, the true genius of Grady’s translation.
Dr. Chantal Richard is an associate professor in the Department of French at the University of New Brunswick. Her research focuses on Acadian literature, culture, and identity.
 The original was written as a radio play and continues to be celebrated at a theme park in Bouctouche: “Le Pays de la Sagouine” where the character of la Sagouine is played by actress Viola Léger (Antonine Maillet. La Sagouine, (Pièce pour une femme seule). Montréal: Leméac, 1971).