Culture & Conversation

A Worthwhile Postscript

It’s always interesting when a story is published years after it was written—56 years later in the case of Hubert Aquin’s Les sables mouvants. Interesting because Aquin committed suicide in 1977, leaving it slightly unpolished, long before editors got their hands on the text.

Interesting because the translator Joseph Jones—librarian emeritus at the University of British Columbia—used the original typescript to do his translation; a typescript he comments on at the end of the book, pointing out typos, inconsistencies, and erasures.

Though the short story appears in a critical edition available to researchers, Ronsdale’s edition offers the general public Les sables mouvants in both French and English for the first time.

In a Naples full of “serenades, strolls at the port in the evening, the sun,” François awaits his lover Hélène. She’s leaving Paris the next day and will be in Naples the day after that. As he’s waiting, François thinks of their rather unhealthy relationship full of pushing and pulling and frustrations. Only the sex seems to be worthwhile. In fact, the sex makes up for everything else. Unhappy about his memories to the point of doubting some of them, François waits and waits, driving himself crazy until the time comes to meet Hélène at the train station.

Aquin—whose novel Next Episode won Canada Reads in 2003—deftly wrote Les sables mouvants in a first-person stream of consciousness, pulling us into François’s obsession. Indeed, though we may start the short story slowly, savouring the poetry of Aquin’s words—even risking feeling claustrophobic alongside François—we can’t help but speed up as the story progresses, as François becomes increasingly frantic.

The original French, however, is much, much better than the translation. Peppered with awkward sentences and mistranslations, the English text makes us stumble where Aquin’s original words uplifted us. Because the text is written in the stream of consciousness form, many of the sentences are short and to the point. These seem to be translator Joseph Jones’s specialty. But when sentences get more complicated, or verb tenses shift, Jones loses his footing. One of the most flagrant mistranslations occurs when Jones changes items of a simple list into direct objects: “Nous avons scellé un pacte en pleine nuit parce qu’il faisait froid, que nous étions pressés et que nous ne pouvions plus attendre…/We sealed a pact in the middle of the night because it was cold, that we were in a hurry and that we couldn’t wait any longer…”

Though sold as a novella, Les sables mouvants, at thirty-four pages per version plus notes and critical essay by Jones, is little more than a short story. A very good short story whose sex scenes (frank for the 1950s, mostly allegorical for 2010) and frenzy couldn’t be published in the Québec of its time.

Mélanie Grondin is a writer and translator whose work has appeared in carte blanche, Room, Nashwaak Review and other literary magazines. Mélanie is also associate editor at the Montreal Review of Books.

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