In conversation with Linda Gaboriau

In the world of prestigious literary awards, writers of fiction and poetry often occupy most headlines across major media platforms. Many awards, however, broaden their focus to more accurately capture contemporary literature’s breadth of exciting work. Alongside drama, non-fiction, and young adult literature, Canada’s prestigious Governor General’s Awards features the category of literary translation. 

Linda Gaboriau claimed this top honour with her translation of Wajdi Mouawad’s play, Tous des oiseaux this year. Translated into English from its original French under the title Birds of a Kind, the family drama focuses on the issues of heritage and identity within the heated context of modern-day Israel. Having collaborated with the playwright for over 15 years, Gaboriau has translated several of Mouawad’s previous works, with many of them tackling controversial explorations of interpersonal conflicts within topical contexts. 

Born in Boston, Gaboriau moved to Montreal in 1963 to pursue French Language and Literature at McGill, where she obtained both a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree in the subject. In an interview with The McGill Tribune, Gaboriau spoke about how she had not always considered that literary translation could be a profession to pursue. 

“I had not thought of being a translator [….] I had one course in translation. It was so deadly boring,” Gaboriau said. 

Gaboriau has since translated over 125 pieces of fiction, most of them novels and plays, and has also undertaken a profession as a dramaturg. Gaboriau noted that the collaborative nature of translation stimulated her work and eventually changed her initial judgement on the discipline.

“The most meaningful, appealing thing about [translation] is to work that closely, that intimately, with writers,” Gaboriau said. “I really feel that writers […] are the witnesses of our time. They’re people who really take the time to look more deeply into what’s going on in human nature or in the political [and] social world around us. To be working side-by-side with people who have taken that risk of trying to raise their voices in the wilderness [is] fantastic. It’s a great privilege.”

This will be Gaboriau’s second Governor General’s Award in collaboration with Mouawad, having previously won the same honour for Forests. Gaboriau noted why his work in particular excited her: In addition to her respect for the source material, she shared the interesting reason why Mouawad wanted Tous des oiseaux translated to begin with. Gaboriau explained that, though Mouawad wanted to write his play in French, he didn’t want it to be performed in French. 

“[Mouawad] was going to write the play in French so that he was writing the story he wanted to tell,” Gaboriau said. “But it would then be performed in English, German, Arabic, and Hebrew, with French subtitles for the production in Paris.” 

Whether the work is groundbreaking or more humble in ambition, Gaboriau stressed the importance of maintaining the integrity of a text. The danger of reinterpreting a text comes from diluting its tone or meaning in the process of translation. Even after over 35 years of work, Gaboriau admitted that she sometimes doubts the accuracy of her translation. Gaboriau explained that, just as with any artist, translators obsess over tiny changes that could improve their material, even years after its publication. Nevertheless, Gaboriau noted that the meticulous nature of her work is what makes her work so fulfilling.

“What I love about translation is that it’s very exacting, it’s like lacework,” Gaboriau said. “It’s really like a very delicate handicraft. You’re alone in your study and you’re focusing on language and you’re weaving it.”  

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