New Translations for a New Body of Women’s Writing

  • Louise H. Forsyth
    Anthology of Québec Women’s Plays in English Translation: Volume III (1997-2009). Playwrights Canada Press
Reviewed by Kailin Wright

Selected for their “beauty, relevance, and potential for theatrical and social renewal,” ten new plays form the third volume of the Anthology of Québec Women’s Plays in English Translation. Edited by Louise H. Forsyth, the newest anthology features plays written between 1997 and 2009 by some of Quebec’s most innovative women dramatists. Taken together, the three volumes span the years from 1966 to 2009 and not only offer a corpus of Quebec women’s drama but also a sample of the changing issues and aesthetics of feminist writing in Quebec. The contribution of the third edition is threefold: it builds an emerging canon of Québécoise dramatists; it provides English translations that help give these works a wider audience; and it underscores the particular socio-cultural and linguistic contexts of these plays.

Forsyth’s comprehensive introduction takes us through the years of the 1950s and 60s when “only a few bold and gifted women were starting to give serious consideration to a writing” career. She then explores the political upheavals of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s with the Quiet Revolution, Sexual Revolution, and civil rights movements as well as the sidelining of feminist issues in the 1990s. Her introduction concludes by concentrating on present-day issues of consumerism, maternity, and patriarchy. While the historical overview will be valuable to readers coming to the anthology for the first time, it raises the question of how to define feminism in Quebec today. Evelyne de la Chenelière’s assertion that any women’s writing is a “powerful feminist act” only complicates matters: indeed, is all women’s writing feminist? And if all women’s writing is a feminist act, then what exactly are the issues, aesthetics, and values of feminist writing today? Forsyth embraces this open-ended use of feminism and explains that the anthology’s original plays offer “many diverse possibilities to explore what it means to be human, as seen through women’s eyes and experienced in women’s bodies and minds.”

The anthology begins with Nathalie Boisvert’s Catch a Tiger (L’Histoire sordide de Conrad B.), translated by Bobby Theodore, which is a gripping psychological play about an overly controlling mother who keeps her thirty-three-year-old son Conrad under strict lock and key. Marie-Ève Gagnon also explores the interiority of a mother in When Books Come Tumbling Down (La bibliothèque de Constance). Translated by Forsyth, this beautiful yet troubling play concentrates on a physician, Constance, who treats female patients with eating disorders. Troubled by bulimia herself, Constance at once struggles with her need to overconsume and then purge and she struggles with the many authoritative books that wall her office and symbolize the professional patriarchal discourse she must adopt.

Many of the plays engage with political issues, including women artists’ perceived role as mere shadows of their male counterparts in Dominick Parenteau-Lebeuf’s Chinese Portrait of an Imposter (Portrait chinois d’une imposteure). Marilyn Perreault’s Rock, Paper, Jackknife… (Roche, papier, couteau…) explores refugees in a northern community, which the introduction tells us “could be Inuit or First Nations.” In The Sound of Cracking Bones (Le bruit des os qui craquent), Suzanne Lebeau depicts the enslavement of child soldiers, which as one of the epigraphs to her play expresses, “may be impossible to understand, but it is imperative to know.” The imperative to know haunts the characters and audience of each play in the anthology, whether it is an individual, a familial, or a public matter.

Along with Forsyth’s substantive, comprehensive introduction, the anthology also includes short introductions to each play and playwright. While these introductions examine the narrative, themes, and character types in detail, they would benefit from greater attention to potential or historical staging choices. The critical apparatus is at its best when it gives consideration to experimental production elements and translation issues together with literary analysis.

The Anthology of Québec Women’s Plays in English Translation gives due attention to the artistic act of translation itself. The introductions and translators’ notes to the plays explain key changes and strategies in rewriting the French script for an English audience. In many cases, certain details cannot be directly translated, such as the original’s use of the formal “vous” (you), or the popular nineteenth-century song “Le Temps des cerises” in Carole Fréchette’s French version of Earthbound (Violette sur la terre). Because the revolutionary resonance of “Le Temps des cerises” would likely be lost on English audiences, John Murrell substitutes the English ballad “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” for Fréchette’s song. With Evelyne de la Chenelière’s play Public Disorder (Désordre public), a direct account of the original in any language is impossible because there is no single authoritative script. Resisting theatrical norms and a fixed play text, Chenelière revised the script before each performance and created a constantly evolving play. Chenelière’s approach to writing captures one of the anthology’s overarching themes, that of renewal.

Each play dramatizes the renewal of self, family, memory, theatre, or artistry, and, in some cases, the tragic need for social renewal and change. This anthology offers a valuable resource for theatre practitioners as well as theatre and cultural historians by gathering original scripts by Québécoise playwrights and translating them in English for the first time.

This review “New Translations for a New Body of Women’s Writing” originally appeared in Gendering the Archive. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 217 (Summer 2013): 156-58.

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