Interview: Élisabeth Vonarburg


I’m so pleased to have had the opportunity to interview award-winning author, editor, and translator Élisabeth Vonarburg! Along with writing numerous novels and short fiction, Vonarburg worked as fiction editor (1979-1990) and editor (1983-1985) of Solaris, the world’s oldest-established French-language sf magazine. Here she talks about her writing, SF in translation, and much more. Enjoy!

Here you can find more information about Vonarburg’s work that’s available in English translation.


Rachel Cordasco: What was the process by which you were first published in English translation ? When did you start working with Jane Brierley and Howard Scott to bring your novels and stories into English ?

Élisabeth Vonarburg: I met Jane before anything else happened, or more accurately, she met me. Asked to translate a Quebecois fantastique story for a Canadian anthology, she chose me because she had read something of mine she’d liked – I assume it was “La maison au bord de la mer” (“House By the Sea”), in Tesseracts 1, ed. Judith Merril, in 1985, because she translated it ! And I have absolutely no recollection of working with her on that one – but my memory is a terminally lacy thing. Judith Merril is the reason I was translated into English, and I am in her debt forever.

Jane phoned me, later, to tell me she wanted to translate my story “Le Pont du froid” (“Cold Bridge”) for Invisible Fictions, Contemporary Stories From Québec, something the editor (Geoff Hancock) said in his foreword would “startle” the reader who looks for “realistic settings, historical backdrops or sociological character studies” because the stories were of a “fantastic, surreal, gothic and grotesque” nature. (In retrospect, looking at the roster, wow – I’ve never been in such illustrious literary company since!). Totally bemused, but pleased, of course, by that offer coming out of the blue, I said “Please, do, be my guest, translate away!” Then, because of the Tesseracts I story, I got an offer for my novel Le Silence de la Cité (Silent City) from a Canadian publisher (Beach Holme), in 1986, and asked Jane to translate it, which she accepted. Now I think that is the order in which things happened with Jane, but my memory… see above.

After that, Jane translated some more stories of mine, for US SF magazines (especially Algys Budrys’ Tomorrow) and the Canadian anthology series Tesseracts. Then, in the early Nineties, through circumstances still mysterious to me, I got a three novels contract (and an agent ! Didn’t last) with the US publisher Bantam: it would be Silent City and two yet unnamed novels, the first of which would be published in the coming year. Surely I did have some novel in the works ? Er… ah… well… I suddenly thought of that thing I had been working on until 1979, when that which would become Le Silence had intervened, and I brightly said “Of course I have!” I didn’t. Not really. The final story doesn’t bear much resemblance to the original novels (yes, that ur-project was a trilogy !)

I wrote that first novel, yes, – Chroniques du Pays des Mères /In The Mothers’ Land in the US – and Jane translated it… as I was writing it. And rewriting it. Poor Jane, it must have been hell for her. I made regular visits to her home in Montreal for weekend revising sessions. The novel wouldn’t be what it is in English and in French without her and her pithy comments (as well as those of Candas Jane Dorsey, piloting that project for the Canadian publisher who would also publish the two new novels.) It went smoother for Les Voyageurs malgré eux (Reluctant Voyagers) the third novel, because I had more time to write it !

Jane is that perfect translator who is inside, actually, a writer (I think she did write some stories of her own later). That kind of translator has a different ear for words. But of course, being very good she was also quite slow. When the offer came to translate and publish the first book of the Tyranaël pentalogy, she declined – I understood quite well she didn’t want to be stuck with a possible five SF book translation considering the time it would take, which would not be good for the books, and would preclude her working on anything else – she was a professional translator, a GG [Governor General Award, the highest award in Canada]-awarded one, and much in demand ; I believe she also had urgent personal reasons to decline. She directed me to Howard Scott, another professional translator, younger but who knew and liked science fiction. We hit it off from the beginning, especially as, like Jane, he was willing to let me work with him during the translation process, not afterwards. That is why the translation of the two first Tyranaël books and of some stories later on is credited to both of us. We did translate together. I loved it. I learned so much from them both as a translator.

RC: You’ve translated Kathryn Rusch, Guy Gavriel Kay, Tanith Lee, Marion Zimmer Bradley, and many others from English into French. How has your work as a translator influenced your own fiction and vice versa ?

EV: I have an example, sort of, of the vice versa : I was translating Ian Watson’s excellent short story collection, The Very Slow Time Machine, and grooving so much while translating – it felt so easy, it came so naturally – that I began to worry I was rewriting his stories in my own style. Fortunately he read French well enough, and once consulted with a sample, told me to go on and that we were just soul mates. Or something to that effect. Phew. Never happened after that. But one writer has influenced my writing, in the technical department : Guy Gavriel Kay. Not because he writes historical fantasy novels – he does not own uchronie 🙂 – but because of his excellent use of multiple points of view. I usually write with a very focused point of view, generally that of the main character. I fervently dislike omniscient narrators, even though I understand their appeal and know how to use them correctly. It’s the whole problem of managing information in genres that rely sometimes heavily on it (SF and Fantasy, especially, because you create whole worlds from scratch and must give the reader ways to assimilate into them !) I used multiple POVs, sort of, in Tyranaël, but it was because many characters in there are telepaths and at least two of them spy on the rest, while another one (in the first book) re-lives others people’s lives through visions or technical means. For me, in fact, there is only one point of view in the whole series, the hidden narrator, who is one of the main characters – and I will let you guess which one ! 🙂 I also kind of cheated in Chroniques by using “passive agents” (letters, journals etc.) but there is also only one narrator in there, another hidden one, revealed only at the very end.

But then, after translating yet another novel by GGK, the little light bulb flashed over my head : “ah, that’s how you do it ! And I began experimenting with it in Reine de Mémoire. After trying to imagine it written in only one POV, I realized it was just impossible and I would have to switch to multiple POVs. I spent days agonizing, first, on which characters would be POVs and second on who knew or did what when and where, and who didn’t or wasn’t there and then, and how to alternate the sequences for rhythm – and suspense. And it is such helpful technique, albeit tricky ! I just couldn’t have written RdM, or the other trilogy, Les Pierres et les Roses, without it. (In the interim I went back to my good old trusted narrow main character focus in Hotel Olympia, first person even, for relaxation !)

Another way my doing translations influences my writing is that, at some point, while writing, I was thinking of translation problems for Howard and trying to spare him, i. e. to find ways of saying things that would sound OK in English (especially neologisms and names). I don’t do that anymore because I know there won’t be any more translations of my stuff, but it was funny for a while.

RC: I’m fascinated by the ways in which you bring together science fiction and alternate-world versions of Christianity (In the Mothers’ Land, Reine de Mémoire, etc.). Could you talk about this theme that runs through your work and how it informs your ideas about human origins and destiny ?

EV: My recurring theme is not so much religions per se but myths, i. e. the stories we tell ourselves and how they help us construct what we consensually call “the real”. What interests me in religions is the way they modulate our vision of the universe and of life, not only our own as humans, but the whole realm of living beings. Thus, religion for me is mundane (of the world) and so political (in the wider sense) and a different thing from faith. About human origins I have no opinion but what science is presently telling us, and as for “destiny”, I don’t believe we have one. I don’t believe (don’t want to believe) we are fated to destroy ourselves and the world we live in. Nor do I believe we are “destined for the stars”. But for a very narrow set of chance circumstances, we might well not have existed at all. I write science fiction, I do believe in change – I must. The mantra I desperately try to cling to these days is “Nothing is certain, even the worst, everything is possible, even the best”. It so happens that religions are currently part of the worst, so I try to introduce other sorts of religions/faith/myths, to change that parameter or parts of it in my stories, to see what could be changed IF. If things were different. Change and difference, that’s what science fiction is all about for me.

RC: What is your perspective on the increase in SF in English translation over the past twenty years ?

EV: Twenty years ? It seemed to me is was more the last ten years, but time flies when you whatever (in my case writing something else than “pure” science fiction). I am tempted to say it’s a fad, the same kind I benefited from way back in the early Nineties (and that I lived in Canada did help too; my French-from-Europe colleagues did not benefit from it) : there was a passing curiosity for non-English fiction south of the border. Simply, since things never occur exactly the same way twice, the present fad is more long-lasting because it is either driven or supported by ideology ; the socio-political environment has changed. A lot. So perhaps it is not merely a fad and is there to stay. It is an interesting phenomenon. I read (and have translated, even) long essays on the ideological problems it poses, for instance how “ethnic” writers are stuck between a rock and a hard place : either they have to write in English – thus becoming linguistic expatriates, if not “traitors” (I remember some French critics of Le Silence saying that of course the translation was well received in English because “even in French it felt like an English novel”); or they write in their own language, risking never to be translated and thus never becoming part of the “SF&F conversation” – which is, has been and will continue to be in English and specifically US-ian. I certainly wish the fad, or the trend (I’d rather it were a trend 🙂) continues.

RC: Tell us about the future! Are any more of your books and stories coming out in English soon, and is there anything you’re working on that you can tell us about ?

EV: I shall first sternly remind you that science fiction writers do not deal in prophecy 🙂. Second, there will very likely be no more translations. And yes, I am currently trying to write a science fiction novel – after fifteen years of writing parallel universe, pseudo-fantasy historical novels, it’s hard. Parallel universes again, but SF. With all the required gobbledygook gleaned from trusted scientific sources, gah. I say gah because I can deal quite easily with history, sociology, linguistics and the like, the so called “soft sciences”, but quantum physics is a whole other can of Shrödingerian worms. Mostly it’s about environmental changes, problems and catastrophes. However, I can never tackle what is really important to me in a direct manner so I am taking a very roundabout route, inventing iterations of yet another planet in tandem with various iterations of Earth. If I can prevail over that novel, there might be another one in the Silence/Chroniques universe. And then all bets are off. I’m turning 72 in August.

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *