November 7, 2013
New magazine focuses on Quebec literature
by Sal Robinson
The relatively small degree of overlap between the Canadian and U.S. literary scenes is one of the mysteries of American publishing: we all live on the same continent, after all, and only some of us speak French. But every so often, in a review or an article, someone will rattle off a list of names of new and prominent Canadian authors, and not a single one will ring a bell.
Of course, there are major exceptions: Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Yann Martel. But the broader Canadian literary landscape is often unknown to American readers, even when there’s no language barrier. And when the language barrier is factored in, it’s even worse. Which is why a venture like Ambos is especially welcome. Ambos is a new online magazine specifically dedicated to Québec literature — its content is in English and includes translations of excerpts from recent Québecois fiction, reviews (both long and short), and essays, such as Steven Urquhart’s on translating a Quebecois classic, Gérard Bessette’s Le libraire, toothsomely described as the story of “Hervé Jodoin, a former teacher who has moved to the rural town of Saint-Joachim to take a job in a bookstore,” and recounting Jodoin’s “daily drinking bouts in the local tavern, his confrontation with the local priest after selling a blacklisted copy of Voltaire’s Essay on Morals to a schoolboy, and his subsequent surreptitious departure.”
Ambos started up in August 2013, the brainchild of literary translators Peter McCambridge and Pablo Strauss. McCambridge and Strauss were interviewed for the translation blog Intralingo last month about why they founded the magazine:
PMC: I’ve lived in Quebec City for ten years now and I love so much of the stuff being published in French here. I was getting more and more frustrated by the fact that so little of it ever attracts the attention of readers and publishers outside Quebec, let alone outside Canada. Authors like Eric Dupont, Samuel Archibald, Mario Brassard, Éric Plamondon, Charles Bolduc—I could go on for a while here—they’re so, so good and yet virtually unknown elsewhere.
There are obviously other magazines and reviews that talk about literature in translation, and some of them deal with Quebec fiction, but we wanted to come up with our own blend of reviews, translations, and comment to help generate a wider audience for some of the great fiction being published here, literary fiction in particular….
PS: That’s quite close to how I feel. I think it’s an exciting time in Quebec literature, a changing of the guard with new publishing houses appearing and lots of new writers emerging. We’re both literary translators who have specific books we would love to see in English, books we feel would make the crossing to English well—not every good book can—and we want to share these with people who don’t read French.
The early entries in Ambos, which puts up a new piece approximately every week, demonstrate broad and encouraging tastes, from a book on parkour, to a novel about a poacher working an excellent caviar scam, to a book on “the pleasure of hating,” to a short story from noir novelist François Barcelo, who describes himself as a “minor writer… who will be very happy indeed if, in the annals of the future, I am mentioned as part of a list of Quebec authors who, at the turn of the third millennium, produced literature that was more fun than profound.”
Sometimes the avenues for French-English literary exchange seem dustier than others — since the dethroning of Paris as a capital of world literature (described in n +1’s recent article on “world lite” and its patterns of exchange), there’s a sense that contemporary French-language literature has been slightly sidelined in translation: in a way, it’s a terrain that’s almost too familiar, as many Americans are raised with some knowledge of the language and a better sense of French literary history than of other national literatures.
So the genuine and unpretentious excitement of McCambridge and Strauss about the literature being made in Québec these days feels like a breath of fresh air in what’s been a somewhat stilted relationship. They also get a prize for describing their own reviews as “plain-speaking.” We expected no less!
Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.