ARS POETICA: An Interview with Edem Awumey, Phyllis Aronoff, and Howard Scott

Curtis John McRae

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A conversation on translation featuring Edem Awumey, author of "Mina Among the Shadows", and the work's translators Phyllis Aronoff and Howard Scott.

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Yolk began as an electric conversation around a picnic table in Saint Henri Square.

Our scruffy pioneer and present prose editor had previously approached each of us with an idea, a vision: We would establish our own literary magazine in Montreal. And so it was, or so it would be. After that original encounter, eight individuals devoted to the word resolved that they would gather bi-weekly, on Sundays, and bring something new into this busy, manic world—something that might slow its spin down somewhat and cause its patronage to say: “You know what, it ain’t so bad, is it, Susan?”

We are undergraduate, graduate, and graduated students of writing. Some of us learn our craft formally from accomplished authors in seminar courses, and some of us learn by looking out the window of the world and onto the streets that sing below. Some of us learn from screaming squirrels, old curtains, departed grandfathers, and bowel movements. We learn from old lovers, long winters, imperfect mothers, and from the deep internet where a musical genius remains entombed.

Yolk is cold floors on Sabbath mornings, home-brewed ginger beer in the endless afternoon, and downpours of French-pressed coffee in assorted artisanal mugs. Our first official gathering was scheduled for a duration of two hours; most of us remained for six, departing only to attend to the summons of our own beckoning realities. Together, with time suspended, we talked endlessly of contributing something to disrupt Montreal’s literary ecosystem. Something unparalleled, something true.

But what? There was nothing to discuss. There was everything to discuss.

We volunteer our time, hounding some elusive beast composed of combustible words and works. We are hopeful, truly hopeful, that we can give something new, a new way, a new light, and that if we cannot, we might at least uphold the traditions of our predecessors, cast star-wide nets to capture their echoes. We are a thousand decisions. We are a sanctuary for the orphaned word, the solitary writer, the cereal-eating artist who yearns for company, for the comfort of a like mind; we sit together with them at foggy dawn, it rains a baptism, with our arms and hands intertwined, we form an umbrella—underneath, they scribble madly, the perfect picture.

Yolk in no way presumes to be superior to its contemporaries, but its contemporaries should not presume yolk to be anything other than loud—quite, quite loud. We are yippidy jazzed to address the oh-so-technicolorful magnificence of the human experience, but we are prepared also to address the ugliness, to stare at its wet, hairy snout and into its square depth and to roar in return at the things that yearn to devour our skin, beset our ethos, and dig graves in our own backyards.

There’s so much to say, there’s so much we don’t know, but together, with you, we can placate that ignorance, render it peaceful, tolerable, and perhaps even, fucking beautiful.

And Susan says, “Amen.”

It can be difficult to get an author and the translator of their work in the same room. Throw a global pandemic and an additional translator into the mix, and you’ve got yourself a logistical maelstrom. Though we couldn’t all gather in the same space, I had the lucky opportunity to get Edem Awumey, Phyllis Aronoff, and Howard Scott on the same Zoom call. Awumey’s most recent novel, Mina Among the Shadows (Mawenzi House, 2020), was translated from French by Aronoff and Scott—though this isn’t the first time the trio has collaborated. Aronoff and Scott also translated Awumey’s novel Descent into Night (Mawenzi House, 2017), which won the Governor General’s Award for translation in 2018. Together, we discussed how translating is the most intimate form of reading, how Google Maps and Track Changes have helped translators with their work, and how one can begin to learn French from watching TV and reading the back of cereal boxes.

Edem Awumey was born in Lomé, Togo and currently lives in Gatineau, Quebec. He is the author of four previous novels. Descent into Night, the English-language translation of Explication de la nuit, won the Governor-General’s Literary Award in Translation in 2018. Port-Mélo won the prestigious Grand prix littéraire d’Afrique noire in 2006, and Les Pieds Sales was shortlisted for the Prix Goncourt in 2009. Edem often works with Phyllis Aronoff and Howard Scott, who rank among the most acclaimed translators working in Canada today.

Phyllis Aronoff translates fiction, non-fiction and poetry from French to English, solo or with co-translator Howard Scott, with whom she won the Governor General’s Award for translation in 2018 for Descent Into Darkness by Edem Awumey. Among her recent translations is Message Sticks, by Innu poet Joséphine Bacon. In addition to literature, she has translated widely in the humanities. The Wanderer, her translation of La Québécoite by Régine Robin, received the Jewish Book Award for fiction in 1998. Her co-translations with Howard Scott include four books by Madeleine Gagnon, as well as Two Solicitudes, conversations between Victor-Lévy Beaulieu and Margaret Atwood. Scott and Aronoff received the Quebec Writers' Federation Translation Award (2002) for The Great Peace of Montreal of 1701 by Gilles Havard; several of their translations have been finalists for various other awards. Phyllis Aronoff is a past president of the Literary Translators’ Association of Canada, and has represented translators on the Public Lending Right Commission of Canada.

Howard Scott is a Montreal literary translator who works with fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. His translations include works by Madeleine Gagnon, science-fiction writer Élisabeth Vonarburg, and Canada’s Poet Laureate, Michel Pleau. Scott received the Governor General’s Literary Award for his translation of Louky Bersianik’s The Euguelion. The Great Peace of Montreal of 1701 by Gilles Havard, which he co-translated with Phyllis Aronoff, won the Quebec Writers’ Federation Translation Award. A Slight Case of Fatigue by Stéphane Bourguignon, another co-translation with Phyllis Aronoff, was a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award. Howard Scott is a past president of the Literary Translators’ Association of Canada.


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It can be difficult to get an author and the translator of their work in the same room. Throw a global pandemic and an additional translator into the mix, and you’ve got yourself a logistical maelstrom. Though we couldn’t all gather in the same space, I had the lucky opportunity to get Edem Awumey, Phyllis Aronoff, and Howard Scott on the same Zoom call. Awumey’s most recent novel, Mina Among the Shadows (Mawenzi House, 2020), was translated from French by Aronoff and Scott—though this isn’t the first time the trio has collaborated. Aronoff and Scott also translated Awumey’s novel Descent into Night (Mawenzi House, 2017), which won the Governor General’s Award for translation in 2018. Together, we discussed how translating is the most intimate form of reading, how Google Maps and Track Changes have helped translators with their work, and how one can begin to learn French from watching TV and reading the back of cereal boxes.‍ Edem Awumey was born in Lomé, Togo and currently lives in Gatineau, Quebec. He is the author of four previous novels. Descent into Night, the English-language translation of Explication de la nuit, won the Governor-General’s Literary Award in Translation in 2018. Port-Mélo won the prestigious Grand prix littéraire d’Afrique noire in 2006, and Les Pieds Sales was shortlisted for the Prix Goncourt in 2009. Edem often works with Phyllis Aronoff and Howard Scott, who rank among the most acclaimed translators working in Canada today. Phyllis Aronoff translates fiction, non-fiction and poetry from French to English, solo or with co-translator Howard Scott, with whom she won the Governor General’s Award for translation in 2018 for Descent Into Darkness by Edem Awumey. Among her recent translations is Message Sticks, by Innu poet Joséphine Bacon. In addition to literature, she has translated widely in the humanities. The Wanderer, her translation of La Québécoite by Régine Robin, received the Jewish Book Award for fiction in 1998. Her co-translations with Howard Scott include four books by Madeleine Gagnon, as well as Two Solicitudes, conversations between Victor-Lévy Beaulieu and Margaret Atwood. Scott and Aronoff received the Quebec Writers' Federation Translation Award (2002) for The Great Peace of Montreal of 1701 by Gilles Havard; several of their translations have been finalists for various other awards. Phyllis Aronoff is a past president of the Literary Translators’ Association of Canada, and has represented translators on the Public Lending Right Commission of Canada. Howard Scott is a Montreal literary translator who works with fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. His translations include works by Madeleine Gagnon, science-fiction writer Élisabeth Vonarburg, and Canada’s Poet Laureate, Michel Pleau. Scott received the Governor General’s Literary Award for his translation of Louky Bersianik’s The Euguelion. The Great Peace of Montreal of 1701 by Gilles Havard, which he co-translated with Phyllis Aronoff, won the Quebec Writers’ Federation Translation Award. A Slight Case of Fatigue by Stéphane Bourguignon, another co-translation with Phyllis Aronoff, was a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award. Howard Scott is a past president of the Literary Translators’ Association of Canada.