S.W. Welch: The Nikolski Coincidence

Just last week a fellow translator mentioned the CBC's annual Canada Reads literary competition. She told me that the winner, Nikolski, was penned by Quebec writer Nicolas Dickner and translated by another Quebecer, Lazer Lederhendler. I was impressed because I had heard that both Ann-Marie MacDonald's Fall on Your Knees and Wayson Choy's The Jade Peony were in the running, and these were two books that I adored.

The next day, after dropping off my circa-1975 pink bike at the repair shop on Bernard, I popped in at the S.W. Welch used bookstore on St. Viateur. I have never actually gone into this store and left empty-handed, but this day looked as though it was going to be an exception. As usual, I had a chat with the owner and told him that I had visited his facebook page where he regularly posts a stack of his new arrivals. I was surprised by this undertaking, as the owner has openly expressed his opposition in the past to any kind of online book sales.

Just as I was about to leave, a 1994 bell hooks classic caught my eye, and then right next to it, I spotted what appeared to be a brand new copy of Nikolski.

"Someone just mentioned this book the other day," I said to the owner, as I flipped through it, looking for underlined words or the particularly abhorrent doodling in the margins. Then I noticed a note in red pen.
"What's this?" I asked.
"Oh, the translator, Lazer Lederhendler, signed that copy. He comes in here sometimes. He also translated that book," said the owner, pointing to a book by Gaétan Soucy on the shelf behind me.
"You'll also see that the book refers to my bookshop when we were on the Main, but the author changed the name to S.W. Gam," he said.

This was not a hard sell by any means, but I still found the price, $10.00, a little steep for a used book. But the coincidence won me over, and I was anxious to see how the bookstore had been immortalized.

The former digs on St-Laurent Boulevard were older, stuffier, dustier and a little less organized than the current location, but it nonetheless had its charm. From the street, one would invariably see a fat cat sleeping in the front window, and the owner sitting behind the cash with his head tilted back to make optimal use of his bifocals. For many, the cat was the main attraction, much to the owner's annoyance. He eventually put a stop to all question's related to the minutiae of the cat's life by posting a terse FAQ in capital letters and taping it to the front window. It answered all the commonly asked cat-related questions and warded off any future inquiries.

When S.W. Welch first moved to St. Viateur, I asked him how his new location compared to the old.
"Well, business was brisker, but at least there aren't any panhandlers coming in here with $20.00 in nickels and asking for two tens," he said.

Yes, I couldn't agree more. The difference in neighbourhoods, which are a 20-minute walk apart, is like comparing apples and oranges. Business may have been brisker, but the quality of books has improved tremendously.

In Nikolski, the bookstore owner is not a man, but a woman, Mme. Dubeau, who incidentally is a woman Dickner thanks by name at the end of his book for her merciless review of his grant application. S.W. Gam is the place of employment of one of the book's three main characters who are all tenuously tied by common DNA. Dickner makes no mention of the cat or the dust, but instead focuses on the sheer volume of books.

The S.W. Gam Bookshop is one of those places where humans long ago relinquished any control over matter. Every shelf holds three layers of books, and the floorboards would vanish altogether under the dozens of cardboard boxes, but for the narrow, serpentine paths designed to let customers move about. The slightest cranny is put to good use: under the percolator, between the furniture and the walls, inside the toilet tank, under the suitcase, even the dusty closeness of the attic.

Now, there are more than a few passing references to the S.W. Gam bookstore in Nikolski and some other Montreal landmarks, such as the Shamrock fish store at the Jean-Talon Market, but I won't spoil the book for any of you who, like me, enjoys visiting actual places that live on forever in the pages of bestsellers.

FYI, I will be giving this copy, signed by the translator, to the first person who either signs up for an e-mail subscription to my blog or who leaves a meaningful* comment in the comments section. Winner to be announced FRIDAY, MARCH 26.

*Meaningful means potentially leading to a discussion.

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François-B. Tremblay | March 22, 2010 at 12:54 PM

J'avais bien aimé Nicolski, un bouquin bien ficelé. J'imagine mal la traduction d'un livre comme ça. Ça doit être dans ma tête, mais ce livre là sent le Bas Saint-Laurent, peut-être à cause d'une amie qui m'a fait découvrir Dickner après qu'elle eut écrit une critique dans le Mouton Noir de Rimouski...

Ce qui est amusant, c'est la différence de prix entre un bouquin en français ou en anglais. En fait, amusant...

J'aime lire dans la langue de l'auteur et j'évite les traductions, à moins que ce ne soit pas une langue que je maîtrise suffisamment. Mais à cause du prix prohibitif des livres en français, j'ai commencé à lire les bouquins étrangers en anglais, même d'auteurs favoris dont j'ai lu la majorité de l'oeuvre en français, comme Jose Saramago, dont la traduction, anglaise ou française, n'altère pas sa façon très particulière de gérer les dialogues.

Note : il me semble que ce serait intéressant de construire une collection d'ouvrages signés par leur traducteur.

Heather | March 22, 2010 at 1:54 PM

Je suis complètement d'accord avec cet argument. En fait, j'évite Renaud-Bray pour cette exacte raison. Il y a deux semaines j'ai dépensé $56 pour un livre sur Lhasa de Sela savant parfaitement je peux acheter le même livre d'ici quelques mois pour $10 chez SW Welch.

Heather | March 22, 2010 at 5:05 PM

PS, Je voudrais savoir ce que tu penses de la traduction. La version anglaise se lit bien, mais le lien entre le type de l'Ouest était difficile d'imaginer. Bien que son nom soit Riel, j'avais du mal à imaginer qu'il avait du sang français.

François-B. Tremblay | March 23, 2010 at 10:09 AM

Je ne me souviens pas assez des détails de l'intrigue... Je l'ai lu en 2005, peu après sa sortie.

Mais l'émotion est encore très présente dans ma tête. J'avais l'impression de lire un roman. Sans affiliation.

Trop souvent, les livres québécois « sentent » le roman québécois. Je déteste entendre les gens dire : « bon pour une oeuvre québécoise ». Un livre, un film, l'art en général, doit être capable de se tenir sur deux pattes, à côté de ce qui se fait en europe, en asie, en afrique, etc.

L'histoire peut être campée n'importe où, mais elle doit être universelle pour fonctionner. Sinon, c'est juste une « inside » de 300 pages...

Heather | March 24, 2010 at 4:31 AM

J'avais la même impression des livres canadiens des années 70 et 80, mais ce n'est plus du tout le cas aujourd'hui. On est trop sévère envers nos propres artistes. Il faut prendre les petits pas avant les grands!

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