The Unlikely Tale of Lazer Lederhendler.

Ian McGillis has a Montreal Gazette piece on translator Lazer Lederhendler, who specializes in Quebec’s young French-language writers. His life is a story in itself:

Born and raised in Montreal, Lederhendler is the second son of parents who came to Canada in 1949, having met in a displaced-persons camp after the war. His father was from Warsaw and spent the war years as a refugee in the Soviet Union; his mother was from Lithuania. […]

At home, Lederhendler’s parents were careful to see that the life of the mind was nurtured, as he recalled in a St-Henri café last week.

“My mother and father were working people,” he said. “They’d had very little formal education, but because of certain cultural particularities, books were important.

“We were part of a circle of maybe 1,000 who would meet almost every weekend — for recitals, concerts, choir singing — at the Workers’ Circle, located where La Sala Rossa is now.”

In those divided days, French and those who spoke it were barely in the picture for Lederhendler. (“It’s an Ashkenazi name. It means leather merchant. Nothing too glamorous.”) […]

At McGill, starting in 1967, Lederhendler got involved in the political scene — radical theatre, strike support work, Vietnam War protests. Compelled by both the document’s anti-capitalist perspective and the challenges of rendering the joual in English, he translated the FLQ manifesto (“It seemed the natural thing to do”), and mounted a “weird” version of Hamlet with French-speaking actors.

By the way, does anybody have the same problem with that last sentence as I do? I started off reading “Compelled by both the document’s anti-capitalist perspective…” and immediately thought “What document?” and went back looking for a referent before discovering it was later in the sentence. Bad writing, or lazy reading?

At any rate, he fell in love with a French-speaking woman and that pushed him farther into the language, as it will, and he got into literary translation, winning awards and getting more work as a result. I found this conundrum interesting:

Every year, when the Giller’s long and short lists are announced, an elephant reappears in the room: If translations are to be eligible alongside books written in English, why are nominations still so much the exception, and a win still seemingly an extreme long shot? Lederhendler has some thoughts on the question.

“For the media who cover books, there’s a difficulty there,” he said. “Who gets the credit? How do you talk about it? If the words that you’re reading are the words of the translator, who are you really giving the award to?

I can see that being a stumbling block, but it shouldn’t be. Just value the experience of reading the book, and don’t worry about whether it’s filtered through translation. (Thanks, Trevor!)


  1. marie-lucie says

    Very interesting!

    Compelled by both the document’s anti-capitalist perspective and the challenges of rendering the joual in English, he translated the FLQ manifesto

    It took me a half-second to realize that “the document” was, but I was not otherwise bothered by this sentence. I don’t usually read much French these days, but it seems to me that the construction is much more acceptable in French than in English Alternately, the text has been edited to make one sentence out of two and the original has “the manifesto” in one sentence and “the document” in a later one.

    If the words that you’re reading are the words of the translator, who are you really giving the award to?

    There should be a separate award for translations. You are reading the words of the translator, but the topic, structure, ideas, images, etc are those of the author.

  2. marie-lucie says


    Is this name the Hebrew original of Lazarus, or a different name? By coincidence, a friend with relatives in Cuba mentioned a San Lazero (NOT Lazaro) apparently well-known there.

  3. The Old Testament features several characters named Eleazar and several others named Eliezer. Or rather, two similar but differently-spelled-in-Hebrew names that are commonly transliterated in those two ways in English but probably come out differently in various other Latin-scripted languages especially when there may have been multiple intermediate stages. The New Testament name spelled Lazarus in English is apparently generally thought be to a Latinization of a Hellenization (i.e. Λάζαρος) of Eleazar, and comes out in the clipped form Lazar in various languages spoken in the Balkans. Whether Lazer is just a spelling variant of Lazar or instead relates back to Eliezer rather than Eleazar is unclear to me.

    Not that I have any Spanish, but a modest amount of googling suggests that in a Cuban context “San Lazero” is a minority spelling variant (and/or typo …) for “San Lazaro,” rather than specifying a different referent.

  4. @marie-lucie: Apparently it’s a Yiddish name from Hebrew Eli’ezer, whereas Lazarus is apparently from Hebrew El’azar. The Hebrew names are distinct (different Biblical figures bear each), but arguably related: each is a form of “G-d” plus a form of “help”.

  5. San Lazero started out as a hospital for lepers, so the name would refer to Lazarus, the patron saint of lepers. Lazarus is from the Hebrew אֶלְעָזָר ’el‘āzār. The Yiddish לייזער Leyzer is a version of the Hebrew אֱלִיעֶזֶר ’ĕli‘ezer. Their literal meanings are, respectively, ‘God helped’ and ‘My God’s help’.

  6. It’s quite a manifesto. This English version seems to shift around quite a bit in register (from a loose and informal style that sounds like a guy in a bar yelling at the television to a more jargony-Marxist-harangue style). I don’t know whether that’s bad translation or captures an unexpected variability of register in the French. I’m also idly curious whether “Trudeau the fairy” is rendering some French pejorative implying that Trudeau pere was homosexual (I guess in 1970 anti-gay slurs were not yet considered in poor taste on the revolutionary anti-capitalist Left?) or whether “fairy” is being used to English some totally different sort of French pejorative.

  7. There is a separate a/e variation issue, as the surname this fellow spells Lederhendler is spelled by some of its other bearers in North America as Lederhandler.

  8. Not sure I’d go so far as to call it bad writing, but it does make the reader’s life unnecessarily difficult, since there’s a lot of content between the cataphor and its referent: especially if the word joual is new to you (as it was to me), at that point in the sentence you’re trying to solve two puzzles at once, which is a little too much to ask.

    Cataphora of any kind is rare in spoken English, but my sense is that this kind of nominal cataphora in particular is restricted to formal writing. I wonder how such written-only constructions originate.

  9. David Marjanović says

    There is a separate a/e variation issue, as the surname this fellow spells Lederhendler is spelled by some of its other bearers in North America as Lederhandler.

    German splits the difference and uses ä…

  10. fairy seems a little weak for tapette, though faggot is probably too strong. But, yes, definitely a pejorative with that implication.

    Attacking then Minister of Justice Trudeau’s sexuality was, I believe, standard after the 1967 “There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation” Omnibus Bill, which decriminalized homosexuality, contraception and abortion and simplified divorce.

  11. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    He fell in love with a French-speaking woman

    That can be a strong incentive to learning French! There was a student I once knew at the university where I worked before coming to France who was the unique example of someone admitted to the department without satisfying the language requirement. His French (not to mention Latin, German, etc.) was virtually non-existent, but he was admitted anyway because his science and mathematics results were superlatively good. Later on he went to work in Quebec (in a job where he could survive without knowing much French), and I was surprised to discover on a visit to Montreal that he had become fluent in French in a matter of months. The reason? You can guess.

  12. “Sleeping dictionaries”.

  13. J.W. Brewer says

    As to the surname, it seems possible that some immigrants to Anglophone countries might have initially tried to transliterate the umlaut, yielding “Lederhaendler,” but the “ae” then proved unstable in subsequent generations and got simplified to either a or e on a semi-random basis.

  14. That can be a strong incentive to learning French!

    For, if it comes to that, arbitrary values of French.

  15. le joual

    I think that this word refers to a kind of pidginized French with a lot of English borrowings, (formerly ?) spoken by uneducated members of the Montreal working class, exposed to English in factories, mines and other companies dominated by English-speaking bosses and foremen. If so there is very little (if any) of it in the manifeste. What is most notable (in the central paragraphs) is a syntax typical of colloquial French of any origin, with pronouns anticipating the nouns they refer to, as in:

    Oui il y en a des raisons, et les gars de la Lord les connaissent, les pêcheurs de la Gaspésie, les travailleurs de la Côte Nord, les mineurs de la Iron Ore, de Québec Cartier Mining, de la Noranda les connaissent eux aussi ces raisons.

    This is not “Standard French” (something often confused with very formal or academic French) but except for the names, it could be said anywhere in France.

  16. Marie-Lucie and others: “Joual” indeed refers to non-standard French spoken by uneducated/working class speakers in Quebec, especially in the Montreal area, which indeed contains a large number of English loanwords, but I do not believe it could reasonably be called “pidginized”.

    You are right that the FLQ manifesto is written in French with some shifting from standard to colloquial French, and not in joual: written texts in the latter can typically be found in the dialogue of some novels written at the time, or in some plays where use of joual was required for realism. There was also, in the sixties and seventies, some experimental writing and translations written in joual: here, for instance, for curious hatters, is a translation into a rather conservative/rural joual (AKA “Quebecois”) of Shakespeare’s MACBETH:

  17. Is Luzer related?

  18. Is Luzer related?

    I’ve looked again, and apparently it’s a regional form of Yiddish Elozer, from Eli’ezer.

  19. Wouldn’t Elozer come from El’azar?


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