Translating Montreal: Episodes in the Life of a Divided City

Translating Montreal: Episodes in the Life of a Divided City

By Elise Moser

A review of Translating Montreal: Episodes In The Life Of A Divided City by Sherry Simon

Published on October 1, 2006

Translating Montreal: Episodes In The Life Of A Divided City
Sherry Simon

McGill-Queen's University Press
$27.50
paper
272pp
0-7735-3108-4

“The preservation of heritage, like translation, is the process through which objects and memories are selected, salvaged, preserved, and recontextualized…” This “process” is also Sherry Simon’s project in her new book, one that generously overflows the boundaries of its title. In an engaging style, Simon moves through the city’s streets, bridges, parks and churches, touching on myriad points in time, place, theory, and history.

A sophisticated study, wide-ranging and beautifully integrated, the book begins with the simple notion of translation and then brilliantly complicates it. Drawing apt analogies between contemporary Montreal, James Joyce’s Trieste and even Walter Benjamin’s arcades, Simon maps the overlays of city spaces and the flows of languages and cultures. Ultimately she creates a deftly interwoven, optimistic narrative of change – both social and linguistic – in 20th- and 21st-century Montreal.

Simon’s account of the development of social relations between linguistic communities in Montreal is rich, informed by broad expertise in literary history and theory. Her dynamic extended notion of translation allows her to trace many of the influences that have shaped the work of individual creators, including poets, playwrights, architects, filmmakers, and prose writers.

Her consideration of the work of A.M. Klein – poet, novelist, longtime resident of Mile End – is tender and meticulous. In the moment of acculturation of pre-war Jewish immigration in Canada, Klein worked to produce texts that would “translate” Jewish culture into Canadian literature. No accident, then, that several of Klein’s protagonists were either translators themselves or, as in his novel The Second Scroll, lost not in translation but because of it.

Simon triangulates relations among Anglophones, Jews, and francophones, marking the significant moment when direct channels opened between Yiddish and French, including the famous Yiddish version of Michel Tremblay’s Les Belles Soeurs and the works of anthropologist Pierre Anctil, who has produced studies of Quebec Jewish culture and translations of Yiddish texts. As a result of these translations, Simon argues, Montreal’s Jewish history has been able to enter and claim a place in the larger history of the city. She reveals this not only as a moment of Jewish integration but also of new confidence in Québécois culture, with French, once jealously guarded against the incursions of colonial English, now strong enough to open itself to the multiple influences around it.

Along with history, theory gets a turn. Simon is interested in “perverse translations”; writers pushing the envelope of language to mix and mismatch words from multiple sources in order to express new ideas and realities. She discusses French/English recombinations including those of Gail Scott, Nicole Brossard, Jacques Brault, and Agnes Whitfield, an Anglophone who writes only in French, producing “translation without the original.” Simon cites Marco Micone’s plays, transformed through multiple French and Italian versions; Erin Moure’s poems “transelated” from Portuguese (“Moure would readily admit that she has gone too far,” Simon says impishly); and David Solway’s faux translations from an invented Greek. The anxiety of being surrounded by multiple, ungovernable influences (“creative interference”) is compensated by the “geopoetic adventures” they inspire.

Translating Montreal is as much about Montreal – its numerous communities, many-languaged immigrants, shifting neighbourhoods, bridges simultaneously marking places of separation and points of contact – as it is about translating. Simon makes a convincing case that Montreal is itself a massive, marvellous translation machine, a many-tongued creature uniquely inspired and inspiring, constantly recreating itself and everyone in it through translation from the literal to the perverse, the physical to the metaphysical. No longer a city divided into two solitudes, Montreal is now a “Babelian plurality” enriching us all. mRb

Elise Moser is a writer and editor who coordinates the Atwater Writers Exhibition and co-organizes the Holiday Pop-up Book Fair. She has published three books and is working on the next one.

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