As a translator,writer Neil Smith has a nose for bad translation. “Living in Montreal, I often come across awful translations, where you can almost hear the French behind them, as if they’ve been translated word for word,” he says. “Those translations are very clunky, smelling of French.
“My approach is to ensure all traces of French disappear, from grammatical construction to cultural allusions…. It has to be smooth.
“I see it as more adapting than translating.”
Smith’s skills at adaptation are beautifully displayed in Bang Crunch, a clever, touching and eminently readable collection of nine short stories published by Knopf. Smith’s range of characters is exciting: a single mother, a confused gay teenager, a 29-year-old hack of an actor, a glove (yes, a glove). Two stories have recurring characters (the gay teen and his alcoholic mother), but they are told from different points of view and detail different episodes in their lives.
Smith made the conscious choice — refreshing for a new writer — to stay away from autobiography. “None of the stories reflect my life at all,” he says.
“I like to get into the heads of other people. I’m interested in other people’s lives. I’m not interested in my own. I don’t want to reveal myself. I don’t want to write a blog and talk about my day.”
Smith, who is 42 and lives in Montreal with his partner Christian Dorais, has degrees in translation from Laval and the University Of Ottawa. He works as a freelance translator for companies like the CBC and the NFB. Six years ago, he began writing stories for fun and he took a couple of writing courses. Amazingly, each of the first four stories he wrote got published in literary magazines. The very first, “Green Flourescent Protein,” was shortlisted for the Journey Prize, as were two others reprinted in Bang Crunch.
There was a bidding war over the book in Canada and it has already sold to Vintage in the US and Weidenfeld And Nicolson in the UK. Heydey Films, the company responsible for Harry Potter, has inquired about film rights. Smith uses the word “surreal” to describe all the positive attention the book is getting.
“Even now, when people ask what I do, I say I’m a translator. I might add that I dabble in fiction.”
But that’s what good fiction writers do: Translate lives.
In one story, a character wonders why the French use the same word for love as for like. It’s a translator’s observation, one that hints at Smith’s strengths as a writer. He attempts to render on the page love’s innumerable shapes.
In my favourite story, “Isolettes,” Smith’s fondness for word play is shared by An, who has given birth three months prematurely. Her bitter black humour offers the slightest of respites from self-recrimination and grief. The word “semidetached,” for example, becomes the launching point for An’s thoughts on the birth — a semidetached placenta. It’s also shorthand for her domestic situation — she’s perennially single and her gay friend and sperm donor has moved in to the same apartment building but on a different floor. And the word describes the ambivalence An feels toward her daughter, who may or may not survive — the aching heart of the story.
The conflicted emotions of a new mother, the affection between a straight woman and her gay friend, the connection between a man and a child only partly his, self-forgiveness — the word “love” doesn’t do it all justice. Smith’s heartbreaking story does.
Each story in Bang Crunch assays love’s mysteries in imaginative, compassionate prose.