Canada in Eight Tongues

  • Katalin Kurtosi
    Canada in Eight Tongues: Translating Canada in Central Europe. Masaryk University Press

This bilingual collection of twenty-five essays (five are in French) by academics and translators in central Europe offers worthy insights into how Canadian literature circulates in a part of the world where nation-building since the nineteenth century has been endlessly interrupted, disrupted, and reprised. Contributions to the first and longest section, “A Panorama of Translations in Countries of the Region,” also underscore the shared necessity of translation for countries whose languages are spoken by relatively small populations. Yet the essays recount a diversity of outcomes against a backdrop of a common regional periodicity: the post Second World War imposition of the “democratic republics” (regarded here predominantly as an act of brutal cultural violence),the collapse of the East bloc post-1989, and the difficult negotiation of ethnic and national claims in tandem with the imperatives of European integration ever since. Perhaps this explains the recurring interest by contributors in works from our mid-size, multi-national, multicultural country that engage the “survival Gothic” or the meta-textual exploration of story-telling and myth-making. Even so, they demonstrate how more localized political factors also enter into the picture to belie the common assumption of uniform censorship during the ancien régime. For example, Canadian writing enjoyed a continuous presence in the former Yugoslavia during the years when the Tito regime strove to differentiate its own variety of socialism from the Soviet Union’s. In Bulgaria, it was not some abstract notion of “freedom” that created an appetite for Canadian books, but the perceived Canadian values of “community, openness and welfare,” in other words values more in tune with the claims of “socialism with a human face.” The volume’s second section examines the translation and reception of canonical writers-Atwood, Cohen, Findley, Kroetsch, Montgomery, Munro, and Ondaatje. Here too, we see how translation was sometimes embraced for state-ideological purposes. In Slovakia, Anne of Green Gables was hugely popular with the Socialist regime for its heroine’s embodiment of feminine virtue, but all references to Christianity were expunged. “Genders and Genre,” the third section, features essays on the translation of women writers and the Canadian short story in Croatia. Both are complicated by the conflict between Serbia and Croatia in the 1990s, including Croatia’s attempt to disengage and autonomize its language from the “Serbo-Croatian” of the Tito era. In a third essay, Katalin Kurtosi looks at the translation and performance of Canadian plays in Hungary with a focus on Michel Tremblay’s frequently produced Les belles soeurs. Kurtosi observes that Germaine’s rapturous covetousness and ill-fated green-stamp party could only make sense in Hungary-or in any other east-bloc country, for that matter-once late capitalist consumerism had actually arrived! She also identifies Lajos Parti Nagy’s indebtedness to Tremblay for a Roma-based story as a local example of the play’s success worldwide when re-set among minoritarian or marginalized communities. The final section offers three “Translator’s insights,” including two particularly touching essays on translating Frye into Czech and Hungarian. The latter evokes the challenges of delivering Anatomy of Criticism to readers trained in a completely different theoretical tradition while the former describes the translator’s personal itinerary toward Frye and the difficulties of establishing archetypal literary terms in Czech. In a useful prefatory essay, David Staines praises the volume as an antidote to a residual colonialist diffidence that Canadians too often display toward their country’s literature. Indeed, the contributors to Canada in Eight Tongues are unapologetic and articulate about what attracts them thematically and stylistically to Canadian writing with an astute awareness of the changing nature of that writing and the diversity of its voices. Most also take the time to acknowledge the crucial role that former Canadian governments played in promoting the publication and performance of Canadian works, as well as in teaching and scholarship on Canada, in central Europe. Their gamble, guided by enlightened self-interest, was that some of the funding would “stick” and produce an informed, serious, and durable community of interest in Canada that would go beyond trade deals. The current government’s cancellation of the “Understanding Canada” programs is less enlightened, but consistent with its attempts to control the message and generalized suspicion of academic scholarship. This thoughtful volume can fairly be seen as a vindication of earlier, now abandoned initiatives.

This review “Canada in Eight Tongues” originally appeared in Tracking CanLit. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 220 (Spring 2014): 165.

Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.

Canadian Literature is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.