Off/Kilter: Interview with Translator Rhonda Mullins

November 11, 2019

Rhonda Mullins is no stranger to dark and fantastical literature, having translated several novels within that vein for Coach House Books, including The Laws of the Skies, Little Beast and more. We chat with Rhonda about challenges with translating liminal spaces, Victorian literature and tensions between the lyrics of language versus accuracy.

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All Lit Up: What do you enjoy most about your work as a translator?

Rhonda Mullins: On a purely pragmatic level, I work well on my own. Meetings are my idea of hell.

But in terms of the actual work, what I love is the moment when I feel like I’m sitting cross-legged inside a book and seeing it move around me. It doesn’t always happen, but when it does it’s usually around the fourth draft. And I love talking to authors about how they work. It’s always so personal.


ALU: Some of the books you have translated for Coach House Books, including The Embalmer, Little Beast and The Laws of the Skies – have an element of the strange, surreal and/or the macabre. Thinking about translation in relation to these themes, can you speak to some of the challenges of translating liminal spaces in writing, where what is being described is not entirely based in reality?

RM: It can be pretty disorienting. When I translate, I need to have a film running in my mind of what’s happening in the story. So when the story veers off out of reality, it can be hard to follow it. But eventually the picture tends to take shape, either through repeated edits or by putting things aside for a while. And of course, I am working with living authors, so I can ask them to walk me through it.


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ALU: The importance of accuracy vs. the lyrics of translation: Are the two mutually exclusive and when it comes to books with elements of the dark, strange or surreal, like those mentioned above? Do you lean more in one of these directions than another in order to convey the meaning of the text?

RM: There is usually a way to manage both. In a pinch, I will tend toward lyrics, knowing if I stray too far from accuracy, I will be pulled back by my editor. I translate prose, so you have the leeway to make it longer if need be. That’s why I’m in awe of poetry translators. They have so many hard decisions to make.


ALU: In a recent interview with CBC you mention your love for Victorian literature. Is there any piece of Victorian Gothic lit that stands out as a favourite? OR more generally art, literature, music etc. that inspires you?

RM: I read quite a bit of Victorian literature when I was younger, in part because there were so many nice thick books you could spend time with. I think as a young reader, I just liked things that sounded a little strange to my ear. So aside from Victorian literature, as a child I would read more contemporary British children’s authors. I had no idea what “sixth form” or “O levels” or “Alsatians” were. I didn’t bother to find out at the time. A little foreignness is good.

I love a good mystery, so Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White stands out for me. And despite having translated the pretty scary The Laws of the Skies, I never got much into the horror end of the spectrum. I did write a paper on Frankenstein in college, and in a particularly glorious typo spent part of it discussing Mary Shelley’s navel.



Winnie-the-Pooh meets The Blair Witch Project in this very grown-up tale of a camping trip gone horribly awry.


ALU: What are your thoughts on bringing forgotten or presently untranslated texts into present day, making them accessible to new audiences?

RM: So far, I have translated contemporary authors, generally soon after their books are released. Working in Canada, there is so much to do just bringing French-language books to English audiences and vice versa, that I’ve had my head down doing just that.   


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Rhonda Mullins

Rhonda Mullins is a Montreal-based translator who has translated many books from French into English, including Grégoire Courtois’ The Laws of the Skies, Dominique Fortier’s The Island of Books and Paper Houses, Elise Turcotte’s Guyana, Louis Carmain’s Guano and Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette’s Suzanne. She is a seven-time finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Translation, winning the award in 2015 for her translation of Jocelyne Saucier’s Twenty-One Cardinals. Novels she has translated were contenders for CBC Canada Reads in 2015 and 2019 and one was a finalist for the 2018 Best Translated Book Award. Mullins was the inaugural literary translator in residence at Concordia University in 2018.



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A special thank you to Coach House Books and Rhonda Mullins for joining us on the ALU blog.

Revel in more strange and surreal lit by exploring our new Off/Kilter column >>


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