Interview: Louise Ladouceur, Dramatic Licence

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When Louise Ladouceur was working as an actor in Montreal in the 1980s, she was asked to translate a play from English to French. Technically, this was no problem: Ladouceur is bilingual, and she’d be translating into the stronger of her two languages (a rule of the trade).

But early on, she started running into problems.

“You reach a certain moment in the play where you know that [a reference] might not be understood by the audience,” she says. “What do I do? Do I modify the play, and put something in the translation that will make it understandable? Or should I stay totally faithful to the source text, but knowing that the audience won’t understand what I’m talking about?” And this kind of thing happens over and over again, no matter what play it is. “You have to make a choice.”

That dilemma stuck with Ladouceur, and when she left the theatre world to become an academic, she kept that challenge at the front of her mind. Now a professor of theatre studies and translation at the University of Alberta’s Campus Saint-Jean, Ladouceur has a new book out on the subject called Dramatic Licence: Translating Theatre from One Official Language to the Other in Canada.

It turns out, by the way, that for decades translators tended to take the first option: swapping out confusing or unfamiliar references and replacing them with more recognizable ones. Dramatic Licence, which was originally published in French in 2005 and has been translated by Richard Lebeau, runs a fine-toothed comb over 12 plays—six that went from English into French, and six the other way—from the past 50 years, including works by Michel Tremblay and Edmonton’s own Brad Fraser. What Ladouceur discovered was that all of her samples underwent significant changes along the way. Sometimes references to specific street names or cultural figures were erased; sometimes the entire tone of the play was altered to make it more palatable for the new audiences.

Ladouceur partly chalks this up to the nature of the medium.

“Theatre is very specific in time and space,” she says. “It’s now that it’s going to be produced, for this targeted audience. So you have a tendency to take that audience into account.”

But it also has a lot to do with the politics of the day, as well as those of the translator him/herself. A feminist translator, for instance, can take a play with feminist leanings and magnify them; similarly, someone looking to produce a comedy is able to introduce new jokes and even entire scenes to make that tone more obvious. Especially within the Quebec of the 1960s and ’70s, language itself was a point of major contention; one of the reasons Tremblay became a breakout star was his use of joual, an informal working-class dialect that nobody had seen onstage before.

“Theatre is, for francophones, a very important form of art,” Ladouceur says. “It’s a verbal form, therefore it makes the language resonate in the public space—it is an art of affirmation of that threatened language.

“You don’t need to affirm the English language,” she adds. “It’s everywhere.”

She’s right, of course. And it really is shocking to see how much gets shifted around in the course of an average translation. Often for good reason, of course—but it’s all invisible if you aren’t paying attention. (Ladouceur says not even the actors she used to work with understood what was happening.) In that sense, Dramatic Licence is a valuable resource for anyone interested in issues of translation, Québécois culture, or Canadian theatre in general.

One factor that may sink the book for casual readers, however, is that large chunks of quoted French are included in their original language. Personally, I’m about a country mile from bilingual, and it didn’t really bother me, or distract from the book’s larger message. But it’s something to keep in mind.

Ladouceur, meanwhile, says it couldn’t have been any other way.

“It is a book about translation, so obviously it is based on the existence of different languages,” she says with a laugh. “If you’re bothered by that, well, maybe you’re not the [right] reader for the book.”

Try not to let that get you down too much, though. The truth is, people who only speak English could use a little humility every now and then.

University of Alberta Press, 292 pp., $34.95, paperback

(profile originally appeared in the Edmonton Journal, October 5, 2012)