Local author short-listed for Governor General’s award for translation of Lepage’s 887

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Photo: Stéphane Bourgeois

Louisa Blair has been nominated for the Governor General’s award for her translation of an updated version of Robert Lepage’s play 887.

 

Poetry is a notorious challenge for any translator. It was Louisa Blair’s prowess at translating poetry that caught the attention of renowned Quebec City playwright and producer Robert Lepage when he began looking for a translator for his autobiographical one-man play, 887, in 2015.

Four years later, Blair is a finalist for a Governor General’s Award for translation for an updated version of the play, published in book form earlier this year.

“I had translated some poetry for [Lepage] in the past, so I think that’s what caught his attention,” said Blair, a writer, historian and translator who wears many hats in Quebec City’s English-speaking community. “What was really fun about this play was that about a quarter of it was written in verse.”

The poetic play tells the story of Lepage’s own childhood; the title comes from his family’s address, 887 Murray Avenue, in the Montcalm district. “The whole play is so deeply Quebec City,” Blair said. “It’s a memoir of growing up in the city in the 1960s and ’70s, with the October Crisis and the War Measures Act and all the tumult that came with that, and [Lepage’s] perspective is interesting and original and deep. I know it very well, considering I translated it twice, and I never tire of it. What could be more wonderful than getting to translate a great play about my own city?”

The play also explores the theme of memory more widely. “What’s really brilliant is the way Lepage weaves in more universal themes about memory – about memorizing poetry, about what technology is doing to our memories, about what Je me souviens really means,” Blair said. “You’d think that a play that is so local, about one boy growing up in Quebec City – why would that be interesting to people around the world? I first saw it in Nantes, France, and wondered how people could relate to it, but the audience just drank it up, which gave me an understanding of how universal the themes are. Worldwide, the French audience is relatively small compared with the English audience, and [the English version] has toured in Hong Kong, in Denmark, in Scotland, in Australia – it’s been right around the world.”

Blair said she has translated “pretty much anything that has come [her] way,” including non-fiction and poetry, but 887 was her first full-length play. “There is a whole other rhythm to spoken language that we don’t think about much, but we should,” she said. “How things sound is important in any work, but it’s primordial in drama.”

Two of the larger challenges for Blair as a translator were translating Lepage’s original poetry and translating portions of Michelle Lalonde’s poem “Speak White” – a deeply felt, bitingly sarcastic response to English speakers who try to impose English on francophone Quebecers. “I did meet Lepage to talk about the poetry part, because I had to [make it work] with the way he speaks,” Blair said. “Otherwise, he was very hands-off, very trusting.”

In fact, the translation adheres so closely to Lepage’s voice that some early reviewers thought Lepage, who is fluently bilingual, had done it himself, Blair recalled. “That was a bit annoying, but [capturing the writer’s voice] is what you’re trying to do with a thing like this.”

The nomination for a Governor General’s award came as a shock to Blair. She thought the email congratulating her on becoming a finalist was a scam. “Then the publisher emailed me and said, ‘Well done,” and I got a registered letter from the Canada Council for the Arts [which sponsors the prize and selects the finalists] and I thought ‘Oh, it’s real!’ I didn’t even know I’d been nominated, and it was so exciting! I feel honoured to be up there with so many great translators.”

The winners of the Governor General’s awards, which cover seven categories including fiction, poetry, drama, children’s literature and translation, will be announced Oct. 29. Each winner receives a $25,000 prize. Whatever the result, one thing is certain for Blair. “I’ve decided I’ll start going to all the plays I can, and look for plays to translate!”

The “soft launch” of the English-language book version of 887 will be held at the Literary Feast at the Morrin Centre on Oct. 30, where Robert Lepage is scheduled to be the keynote speaker. Lepage will perform 887 in French at Le Diamant from Nov. 19 to Dec. 20. A full schedule is available at lediamant.ca.