Interview with Canadian wordsmith (and professor of translation studies) Sherry Simon
The following interview was conducted by Skype between Los Angeles and Montreal
Professor Emerita in the Department of French Studies at Concordia University.
- the interviewee
- the interviewer
JG: Your parents were born in Toronto. You spoke English at home and despite studying French at school, your first significant exposure to French came in your teens. How did that come about?
SS: My mom was very forward-looking…meaning that she recognized that French was important in Montreal! That may sound very obvious now, but I grew up in a city that was still practically a colonial city—with a powerful and very self-sufficient English-language minority. What was experienced by some as intolerable change starting in the 1960s (those who felt threatened or excluded by a French-language city) was experienced by others as a period of social, economic and political excitement. The fact that I took a university-level French course while I was still in high school changed my outlook entirely. I was increasingly attracted to French-language culture.
JG: You found Montreal to be comparable with Calcutta in certain respects. (You later wrote « Villes en traduction: Calcutta, Barcelona, Montreal », Presses de l'Université de Montreal, 2013). Can you expound on that comparison.
SS: Calcutta and Montreal were founded in the same historical period of colonialism—1609 for Calcutta, 1642 for Montreal. Montreal was founded as a French city, then there was the Conquest of 1759 which meant that Ville Marie became Montreal. Both cities were the products of spatial division—a more modern, spacious area which contrasted greatly with the rest of the city. Of course the colonial divides of India were very different from the colonial divides of Quebec—where two European powers were in competition, and where the indigenous presence had been largely obliterated. But the linguistic and spatial arrangements of Calcutta and Montreal share the same colonialist premise and the interaction between parts of the city shared similar dynamics. What I learned was that there was a great deal to be discovered when you looked at Calcutta and Montreal as cities in translation. The history of the Bengali Renaissance as it played out across Calcutta is rich and fascinating—the story of innovations in science and the arts that were a product of the interplay between communities. The same is true of Montreal, mutatis mutandis. A cultural history of the city since the 1940s for instance tells of numerous new pathways created across the city. Literary personalities such as Mavis Gallant, F.R. Scott or A.M. Klein have woven cultural ties between the French and English speakers, both in journalism and in poetry. What is important to note, however, is that translation is not always successful and that failed translation can also be useful to explore.
JG: You went on to study Comparative Literature at Brandeis University in the USA, and did your Masters in Paris, obtaining a Diplôme de l'Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, and a doctorate in literature compareé from the University of Montreal. Your career-path is somewhat unusual: although you were initially a literary translator you soon moved into the academic study of translating. Your positions have included Professeure du Département d'études françaises at Concordia University and membre de l'Académie des lettres du Québec.
The long list of books you've written includes "Translating Montreal: Episodes in the Life of a Divided City", for which you reached the finals of the Ville de Montreal, Grand Prix du Livre. Although some might have regarded that as being an ivory-tower occupation, your writings were widely recognized, as witness the many prizes you have won, such as the Prix Andre-Laurendeau en Sciences humaines.
During your distinguished career, what advances have you seen in the role of the literary translator?
SS: The very fact of the expansion of Translation Studies as an academic field is a great success story of the last 3 decades or so. The growth has been exponential—books, journals, academic programs, summer schools, and the list goes on. The field is especially important in Europe, and literary translation is increasingly recognized as an important creative activity. Translators are getting more recognition, I think, in general—with the wonderful work of translators associations, of high-profile translators, and of academics who take the work of these translators seriously and are making their work the object of serious study. In Canada, literary translation benefits from government support and a certain degree of public recognition. But the same platitudes are often repeated. We still need to work towards further recognition of the creative value of translation—not only in relation to the Canadian scene but internationally.
JG: Your very latest book, just published, "Translation Effects: The Shaping of Modern Canadian Culture" (written together with Kathy Mezei and Luise von Flotow, McGill-Queen's University Press, pp.496) deals, inter alia, with the subject of bilingualism. For the benefit of our readers who have not read it and may not manage to do so, could you give us one or two points on Canadian bilingualism?
SS: We argue in the book that official bilingualism has in many ways masked the multiform realities of translation within Canadian society. And so the book—which is a collection of 30-some essays—shows how translation is a factor is many aspects of literary and cultural life—through First Nations languages, immigrant languages, and the unequal transactions of French and English. While official bilingualism is an important element of our national self-definition, allowing the country to function, it only applies to the legal realities of the country. The cultural realities are messier, more unequal, but also creative of new mixtures.
JG: So why has the Federal Government gone to such lengths to promote and preserve bilingualism?
SS: Official bilingualism in its current form was a result of the political unrest of the 1960s. There is a very significant separatist movement in Quebec, always ready to re-emerge, and in the 1960s it was very strong. Official bilingualism was one response to this crisis, promising a French presence from coast to coast. But Canada also has a multicultural policy, which gives cultural rights to 'ethnic' groups. These rights are sometimes in conflict with one another, or perceived as such. It is true that official bilingualism has remained in place for many decades now, and seems to have performed its task well. But while the government used to do all its translation in-house, it now outsources practically all translation tasks, and no longer ensures training.
JG: Dr Paul Christophersen of the University College in Ibadan, Nigeria, in his book called "Bilingualism", is quoted as saying that it is almost impossible for a "so-called" bilingual speaker to achieve 100% efficiency in both languages.
SS: Of course there is no such thing as perfect bilingualism. Bilingualism is almost always asymmetrical, however there are many Quebecers who function as well in one language as the other. Usually this is an oral skill. Writing is another story. There are very few people who write as well in one language as the other, and for instance, while many can read equally well in both languages, in Quebec the literary institutions are quite separate. But as for day to day functional bilingualism, there are an astonishing number of people who could claim this capacity in Montreal especially. And while French-Canadians in the past were 'forced' to be bilingual, it is now English-language Montrealers who are increasingly bilingual. But as for 100% efficiency, I would say that this is not really a useful marker. What is 100% efficient when language is concerned?
JG: Mr John Woodsworth, a Russian-English translator and someone who submitted a report to the Canadian government many years ago, proposed to CBC: Replace the current system of separate English and French-language TV networks by a single bilingual network, with a daily schedule of mostly (if not all) Canadian-produced programming originating alternately in English and French, with captions (sub-titles) provided in the second language.
SS: An interesting idea, but unlikely to happen. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission regulates these matters. Twenty years ago it closed down a bilingual radio channel that alternated between French and English. With the present government's stance on public broadcasting, we will be lucky to retain public broadcasting, never mind revolutionize it.
JG: In the course of this brief interview, we have only been able to touch on the diverse fields of erudition that you bring to historical and cultural aspects of translating. Nevertheless, we hope to have given our readers an idea of what they may find in any of the numerous books that you have written. Many thanks.
Sherry Simon - The Flow of Languages, the Grace of Cultures (in French)
This interview was conducted in June 2015.
Cet entretien est accessible en français ici. Traduction Jean Leclercq.
You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.