An Interview With a Translator in Her Own Right, Danièle Marcoux


professor.jpgDanièle Marcoux

Sessional lecturer

Co-ordinator of Undergraduate translation programs, Graduate Diploma in translation and Graduate Certificate in language localization

Academic advisor (translation)

It was already dark outside when I entered Madame Marcoux's office at Concordia. I had come about five minutes earlier than agreed, paused before coming in, and, bracing my energies (it was my first ever interview!), slid into the frame of the door - it was wide open. Madame Marcoux was at her computer, tapping out some instructions to a student. Evidently, she was hurrying up - she knew I was about to come. Slightly startled at my knocking politely on the open door, she told me to come in and close the door behind me. As I was settling back into a chair taking out my elaborate Q & A notes, she let out some words of obvious irritation about her slow computer. Embarrassed, she pointed out that I had come a little bit earlier anyway, so I could excuse her taking time to finish off her interactions with the student. I felt a bit confused - I did not want to make her feel uncomfortable about it - so I just told her to take her time. I knew perfectly well how important the feedback she was giving could be to that student. Taking advantage of the minutes I had to wait, I observed the office. It was not too big, nor small, but, what I liked the most about it was its part where a wooden book cabinet stood. It was literally packed with numerous reference books, dictionaries, thesauri, and other language-related tomes. What stood out to me in the first place was, naturally, the bulky but priceless 'Le Petit Robert'. You could easily tell you were in the realm of a translator. At last, Madame Marcoux turned off the computer, turned to me in her chair and we started. I was later amazed at how full and detailed her answers were. Indeed, her French was beautifully smooth and coherent, she was by far one of the most articulate people I had ever heard talk. In the streets of Montreal, you rarely have the chance to come across a native speaker who does as much justice to the beauty of the French language as this woman does.

What inspired you to become a translator?

The love of writing, of written language.

Of written language in the first place?

Yes. I consider translation to be a written-language practice, which is primarily that of first-hand professional editing. One great translation theoretician once said that the most distinctive feature of translation is that it is a kind of reading that is given across writing. So I honestly think that it is first and foremost the love of written language that inspired me. However, I have to say that I only have a Doctor`s degree in translation. As an educational background, I have a Bachelor`s and Master`s degrees in Spanish literature and not in translation which I never had any special training for. Funnily enough, I became a translator by way of a learning-by-doing process.

Interesting! Did you bear any other professions in mind before making your final decision?

Frankly speaking, I never actually had any special carrier-related plans nor valued any particular profession over others in a determined way. I loved learning and knew for sure that I was going to study for quite a while. Also, being a woman of letters in the first place, I always found that literature was a privileged means of exploring the world. That being said, I would say that it was my desire to discover things by means of school and learning that guided me in my professional choices rather than craving for a successful carrier. On the contrary, I have always suffered from a shortage of clearly defined carrier objectives! Still, being a professional translator exacts indeed a wide range of general knowledge related to various fields; and since my general-knowledge base is pretty miscellaneous, someone of my profile can make a good translator.

The following question is more about Québec. Without a doubt, you grew up in Québec which is a true melting-pot of various languages and cultures, and the topic of bilingualism has definitely concerned you in this or that way. According to you, is the linguistic and cultural situation in the province an advantage or a disadvantage?

Well. First of all, I feel that it is important to note that Québec`s official, public language is French. This province is not bilingual even though Montreal itself is indeed very cosmopolitan and the English language serves as the major language of communication to immigrants. However, Montreal is the world`s second francophone city after Paris. If you move beyond Montreal, you will notice the dramatic difference in terms of language. Outside Montreal, people speak French. When it comes to me, I am from Lévis, the region close to the city of Québec, where the population is very homogenous - they do not speak English. I always encourage my students to explore the parts of Québec that lie outside Montreal. Besides, we are here at Concordia, an anglophone university! Should you study at the University of Montreal or at that of Québec, your impression that Montreal is a bilingual city will literally fade away. It is true that, unfortunately, the majority of immigrants use more English than French to communicate with us. However, it is fair to note that we, as Québec francophone speakers, are in large part responsible for this situation. We are oftentimes the first ones to switch to English as soon as we realize that we are talking to an allophone who needs to take some time to formulate their thoughts in French. Personally, I never do that! I am very happy and always very touched that some people have chosen to settle in my neck of the woods and learn my language. Therefore, I consider it my responsibility to speak French with them. And English is my third language, by the way. My second language is Spanish. So my English is pretty poor, probably that of tourists! Well, naturally, I am exaggerating but still... If I compare my English skills to what I have mastered in French and Spanish, I will go as far as say that English is my poor cousin! So coming back to your question, I would like to point out again that Québec is unilingual and francophone. Nowhere outside Montreal do they speak English as much as they do here. And that is because this city is cosmopolitan and not because it is bilingual. That being said, however, I think that deliberate resistance to learning languages other than French has to do with a form of mental retardation or something! One should, of course, learn English not least because it is the second official language of Canada and because, at the moment, it is the the lingua franca of the XXI century - English fulfils the function of Latin during the Renaissance. As for the role of French in Québec, Gilles Vigneault had this to say: "To say 'welcome', one needs to have a household - the household is the French language." And I am very happy to welcome everyone to my household.

It is true that the minute people figure out you are a foreigner, they start speaking English with you, which is disappointing.

Exactly. And some allophones and Anglophones, to whom I sometimes teach a course of intermediary-advanced French, complain to me that they often feel very confused but are too polite to point out to some Francophones, who speak English to them, that they have come to Montreal to learn and practice French, not English. Furthermore, those Francophones speak very bad English, which disappoints students even more. Therefore, in my classes, I make them think that I do not speak English so that they always speak in French with me!

They do not have a choice!

They do not have a choice, haha!

Technically speaking, what kind of method of teaching a second language do you endorse?

Hm. I know that there exists a plethora of different methods of teaching French as a second language... But it is not my specialization - I am not a specialist in didactics as to teaching French as a second language. So my answer is going to be limited to the little experience I got working here and teaching principally French composition, linguistic interferences of French with English, and the process of editing and proofreading translations. However, as I started out here, at Concordia, I had the chance to teach French as a second language for some time, and every time I would teach the exact same subject to students, my colleagues would come up with the idea of changing the method, which I found exhausting. As for me, specialists in didactics have invented a load of great oral- and written-communication-oriented methods, they are pretty much exhaustive. There is no need to reinvent the wheel. I would say that for me, there is no perfect method of teaching a foreign language. I am convinced that how successful your students learn depends in large part upon the pedagogic skills a teacher shows in the classroom. You have to be able to adjust the content of your teaching strategy to the strengths and weaknesses of your group of students. Doing so will help you create classroom conditions favorable to fruitful learning. Speaking specifically of French, I think that any method of teaching it, however perfect it is, is still incomplete in so far as learning a language comprises not only learning its grammar and vocabulary but also, importantly, immerging in the culture representative of it. And that is indeed a great challenge regardless of the kind of language you want to learn. Whether it be Spanish, German or Russian - the mechanisms are going to be the same. One should really make a great deal of efforts in the beginning, immerging completely within a particular culture, and that has little to do with teaching methods, I guess. I have to say that, as regards teaching French here in North America, a lot of teaching methods we use at Concordia are often based on the European teaching content which is often very chauvinistically Parisian - we are against it. To illustrate, here in Montreal, we buy metro tickets or use our OPUS cards and do not compost our train tickets, which they do in France, or else, we use the metro and do not have a HST (TGV). So it has been a couple years now since we decided to adjust the content of our textbooks to local realities to avoid confusion among learners. That effectively helps students who have chosen a city like Montreal to study French situate themselves in the North-American reality.

Did you learn Spanish in a Hispanic environment or did you learn it without having been surrounded by native speakers?

Good question. I started to learn Spanish at the Lévi-Lauzon Cégep more than 40 years ago. I had a professor from Québec who had a friend of Chilean origin and had thus greatly mastered the language. After the coup d`état of 1973 in Chile, Chilean political refugees were the first Hispanics to come and settle in Québec. And that moved me a lot. I would say that it was primarily ideological reasons that brought me to the Spanish language. I do not really know where I get that from but ever since I was a little girl, Spain has always been a country that has attracted me. I would read a lot about Spain. Thus, as I was gradually discovering its culture and its history, I was getting more and more motivated to learn Spanish. But, to start off, I learnt it in Lévis, in a francophone milieu with an excellent teacher. Straight after my college studies, however, I did leave for Spain to study there for a year and when I got back, I left again, but this time for Central America, as part of a cooperative program. So, yes, I started by acquiring the rudiments of the Spanish language in a very academic way at home and then I complemented my linguistic acquisition during my stay abroad. And after I finally returned to Canada, I completed my Bachelor`s degree in Spanish studies and obtained my Master afterwards. To sum up, I can say that the two learning experiences, both at home and abroad, have proved beneficial.

Describe in a few words the beginning of your carrier as a translator.

Well, sure. I started taking my first faltering steps in translation within the committee of Québec Solidarity. It was a committee located in the city of Québec and whose objective was strengthening relations with Latin America. So they had an enormous body of documentation to be translated from Spanish into French and I enrolled there as a volunteer. That is how it all started! I cut my teeth translating manifests and also some training documentation. There was a group called "The Fifth World" which was a small non-profit organization promoting and protecting women`s rights. Then again, they had a lot of documentation for translation. Sometimes when they received people from Latin America, I even worked as an interpreter. But all that was not in the very beginning, by that time I had already left cégep. And after I got back from Spain, I continued my rather political activities within those organizations. I once even worked as an interpreter for one of Che Guevara`s daughters!

Wow! That is incredible! And that point brings forth the following question. According to your CV, you also worked as an interpreter for a while. So, how was it?

Indeed. I did that a couple times for the government of Québec. As I have said, I am from the city of Québec where people are not perfectly bilingual or trilingual. Québec often has missions in Latin America or, vice versa, it hosts people from there. So the government of Québec often needs an interpreter. But my work as an interpreter has been quite irregular. For instance, I have worked for certain ministries, at Laval University at the Department of Anthropology - they would receive a lot of researchers, historians and other important figures of Hispanic origin - I would interpret for them as well. But that kind of work was never enough for me to earn my living - it was too irregular. And still I adored it! It is very difficult, like the Olympic Games of spirit, for all I know!

How did you manage to 'untwist' your tongue, to control the way you spoke during an interpretation? I am asking that because I am very interested in oral translation, specifically.

Well, yes. I think that, of course, you need to have rock-solid knowledge of the two languages that you are working with - that is the basis. However, that is not enough. You need to know the subject matter of a particular conference you are interpreting at perfectly well. You really need to get ready for it; if you do not know your subject, you will most likely do a poor job of interpreting. Well. When I worked as an interpreter for some Latin American militants, I had no problems - that was a part of the world I knew very well. I was very active at the time and, thus, had a lot of acquaintances keeping me abreast of what was going on in, say, Chile or Nicaragua. I had a very solid idea of the major political issues of the time - you know, you are reading the papers, watching news, listening to the radio. Besides, a lot of my friends were journalists. Still, however, I recall that, at some point, the government of Québec wanted to study the geomatic situation of a certain Latin American country that they aimed to establish a partnership with. Me, I did not have any clue whatsoever as to the sphere of geomatics! So, what I did was go straight on the site of the government of Québec to do some research related to the up-coming topic in order to prepare myself just as you did for this interview. So, coming back to your question... One needs to be really alert intellectually. I once had a student participating in a pedagogic session who came up to me and said she wanted to become an interpreter and asked me what she needed to do for that. So, here, in Canada, it is only the University of Ottawa that provides a special training for future interpreters; it is a very challenging program - there is only six to nine students chosen throughout Canada yearly.

So students are chosen on the basis of a competitive examination, aren't they?

Oh, yes, they are. The selection trial lasts for about a month. Besides, out of all those I have recommended for the program, there is only one person who has been accepted there - our former cooperative program student. And, naturally, when I learnt the exciting news from him, we just sat down and I was like: 'How is it all going?' Haha! And, in fact, he confirmed that the better part of the exam was focused on current events, on your knowledge of the world you live in, on Canadian political issues, etc. So, I told that girl, who was a pretty average student at the time but, nevertheless, wanted to become an interpreter, that, first of all, she had to obtain a Bachelor's degree in the specialization program of translation and that she had to be very, very strong in the sphere. "In the sphere" means being perfect not only at the two languages you are working with but also being highly perceptive of those languages` historical, social, and cultural aspects. Because, you know, sometimes people have a tendency toward going beyond their level of competence and thinking that speaking a foreign language fluently is actually equivalent to being a good interpreter. That is not exactly true. The quality of your interpretation hinges greatly upon your general knowledge of the world. I tell these things to students not to discourage them but because I really want to emphasize the importance of being intellectually alert at all times, which is understanding the world we live in, the history of ideas circulating, and where we are from, basically; one really needs to have a critical point of view as regards global and national issues - all that is of paramount importance to a future interpreter. Of course, there is probably a special training for interpreters out there, including special techniques for sight-reading, different memory exercises, and so on and so forth. But, just as with learning a second language, self-studying is your responsibility, not anybody else's; otherwise you will be no good for the work in question.

So, as far as I have understood, you have not really worked a lot as a translator.

That's it. I have barely worked as a professional technical translator. You have understood very well.

So, from the beginning, you wanted to work primarily as a teacher?

Neither. I wanted to have a baby! Haha! And I did have a baby at 25! After that, I was eager to continue studying all while bringing up my daughter. That is, in fact, what I did. I have really been very lucky all the way through: at university, I was a research assistant; then I became a lecturer... I am ultra-aware of how lucky I have been and I am really grateful for that. Sometimes I say to myself, even if today I were not sitting here in my office as a university prof, talking to you right now, and if I were talking to you as a coffee-seller at Tim Horton's, I would be just as happy. Haha!

That is super important! Now, you have worked at both the University of Montreal and Laval University. Finally, what brought you to an anglophone university?

Chance! At some point, there was a vacancy at Concordia and I applied and there we are! But it was so unexpected. As I have said earlier in the interview, I have never had any career-related plans but I have been really lucky. And in this particular case, I was very lucky because I was chosen. I am really fascinated by Concordia! I would not really want to teach anywhere else because, well, I know how it is at Laval University and at the UQAM. I also know the UdeM. So I do have some points of comparison! And I am really happy to work at Concordia because it is a university with a very representative population - it is like a microcosm, a melting pot of diversity wherein various influences and horizons cross over... I adore it!

Since you specialize in litterary translation, tell me, do you try to step into the author's shoes when translating a particular piece?

Well, of course! But not really as much into the author's shoes - I do not really care whether they are living or dead - as into the structure of their work, of the narrative voice so to speak. Otherwise... Personally, I do not translate things I do not like. Besides, I have already refused some advantageous contracts - there was something that did not work for me in terms of the things to be translated, they just left me cold.

What are your preferences in literature to be translated?

Hmm. I would not say that I have any generic preference - I have translated poetry, a couple novels... I would say that it is people who engage me to work for them that really matter and less what is to be translated. I am just in this lucky position where I can choose - I do not earn my living as a literary translator but as a professor at Concordia. So, I have the luxury of working uniquely with people who, I can tell, are really motivated for us to collaborate. Therefore, the starting point that determines my choice of text to work with is really people engaging me; by 'people' I mean any person that offers me a literary work, not necessarily its author albeit they may well be.

The following question is rather complex. Given the ever-increasing number of international marriages in the world and, specifically, here in Québec, the issue of languages and cultures is more and more often on the agenda. Do you think that it is important to preserve one's language and cultural roots within a family where the parents do not speak the same language and do not share the same cultural heritage? Or, do you think that one should get assimilated by one's husband's or wife's linguistic and cultural patrimony? And how, in your opinion, can one teach one's child both languages from the very first?

You are right - it IS a BIG question. It is complex because it has numerous aspects to it. And one cannot answer it in absolute terms. Besides, you have a worst interlocutor to give you an answer to it because I grew up in a unilingual francophone family - genealogically speaking, there were no Anglophones in my family in many generations preceding mine; nor had we ever been surrounded by any. But, your question makes me think about my good old friend from secondary school who has lived in Spain for 25 years now. She speaks perfect French, English, and Spanish, but her husband is a unilingual Hispanic. So when they had kids, they made a very unanimous and well-though-out decision that the children would also learn French. And indeed, since the kids did not go to daycare - in Spain they do not really have daycare - and before they went to school, she managed to teach them some French. Moreover, every summer they would come to Québec and spend two months here. The children would always speak French with their mother, Spanish with their father and, when all together, they would speak Spanish because her husband's French is not adequate. However, in spite of all that, at some point, the kids started to attend a Spanish school, which gradually caused their French to shade off completely. And her sons, who are now in their early twenties, understand French but barely speak it because they are ashamed of their heavy Spanish accent. So, personally, I think that, of course, the human objective should be to preserve as much diversity as possible but there must not be any fight for dominance between a man and woman who decide to have a family together. I believe that the majority of men and women who get married and love each other are willing to share everything including their linguistic patrimonies. And that is good. However, you know it better than me, sooner or later children leave home. You cannot bring them up in complete isolation from the outer world - they leave home, they make friends, they go to school. So, all that can interfere - not in the bad sense of the word, though - and somewhat confuse the issue. How many young Francophones have come to learn English all while playing with their anglophone friends outdoors? Many of them have attended francophone schools, everyone in their families speaks French but, oops... at some point, they start playing in English because their friends speak this language. So that is extremely important.

So, there must necessarily be something that will, at some point, stimulate kids to learn a certain language. It may be people around them and not necessarily their parents.

Exactly. So, that friend of mine, Sylvie, she never lost that motivation to make her sons learn French but, the thing is, the fact that they live in Spain has taken over that objective. Now, she speaks mostly Spanish with them - there is no one, other than herself and her sons, who understands French. Their house is often full of friends who are all Hispanic - it would be insulting for someone who does not understand the language to hear others speak it in their presence. So, that would simply be considered impolite. Naturally, I think that one should do one's best to preserve one's mother tongue within an international family but that is not that easy.

At what point of your life did you decide that you wanted to share your knowledge with the younger generation of future translators?

I think that I have always enjoyed the process of transmission. During my years in Central America, where I spent almost 4 years, in Nicaragua, I was even involved in some theatre productions with kids - that was already a kind of transmission! I think that I have always been very open to others, hence my passion for foreign languages. I have always loved travelling, I started travelling very young and all those experiences, probably like yours, were an initiatory means of self-discovery outside of my home. At school, I loved learning a lot... When you go to school for a long time like I did, you learn what makes a good prof and a bad prof. And when, one day, you find yourself in a classroom in front of students, you really try to be as good as possible! Haha! At least, not too bad... There is something very gratifying in teaching, and demanding as well. I very quickly became responsible for the translation programs here at Concordia and, after Chantal, the previous co-op organizer, left, I also became responsible for the co-operative program in translation. What that means is that, among other things, I also have to keep in touch with our trainees and their employers, which is very interesting. Teaching gives an opportunity to always be in the dynamics of transmission which is a constant, enriching give-and-take. So, when did I decide I wanted to be a prof... There is no exact date for that. At 20, I wanted to change the world but then, after listening to Paul Piché's 'Escalier' ('Staircase'), I realized that to change the world one has to make oneself loved - that is, in fact, the ending phrase of the song. That struck me a lot and that is when I decided that I wanted a child. Prior to that, I was indeed very egoistic and self-centered. So the birth of a child has had a strongest impact on my life - it has structured me as a person. My daughter organized me and made me realize I was not the hub of the universe! So, after that, I said to myself that there was something very fascinating in transmission. Maybe my coming into teaching has been an extension of what broke out after my daughter's birth.

What five pieces of advice could you give to a future translator? The ones you find essential.

Ok. Read - everyone should say that. Read everything from Publisac to the 'La Pléiade'. That is not a joke. One should read Publisac to keep abreast of the most common language errors. Haha! One should also read the 'La Pléiade' to be acquainted with the greatest collections of some of the greatest authors. One should be very open-minded - we admire the talent of a singer whose voice range is wide for a reason - a translator should also have a wide range of knowledge and interests. So, read a lot in correlation with working on your linguistic register in order to be able to write in all kinds of styles and tones, on all kinds of levels. Be curious and perceptive of others' opinions and tastes, be open, be generous... And last but not least... One should have a good sense of criticism as to the work one does - and that is very important in everything and not solely in translation. That means, among other things, leading a balanced intellectual life - people who can talk about nothing else but their jobs at a party are dull.

Haha! Thank you for this great interview!

The pleasure is mine, Olga!


Member of Literary Translators' Association of Canada

Member of the Canadian Association for Translation Studies

Jury member for the John Glassco Prize in literary translation (2005)

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