Reading CanLit in Spain

  • Pilar Somacarrera (Editor)
    Made in Canada, Read in Spain: Essays on the Translation and Circulation of English-Canadian Literature. De Gruyter (purchase at
Reviewed by Cynthia Sugars

In a 1987 interview with Geoff Hancock, Margaret Atwood notes the uncanny feeling of knowing that her work is translated into over twenty languages, only two of which she reads. As Atwood puts it, “I have no idea what those other versions are saying to the people who read them.” Pilar Somacarrera’s confirmation of the importance of Atwood’s cautionary insight is true of the now internationally renowned status of Canadian literature and more broadly, of the traffic of literature across national borders. “[W]riting acquires a new life once it has been translated into another language and exported into a different culture,” writes Somacarrera, “a process which requires favourable economic, sociological, and political conditions.” In other words, the popularity of particular writers and literatures outside of their domestic contexts is intertwined with the kinds of cultural work that these texts end up doing within various national and global contexts. Atwood’s and Somacarrera’s comments suggest that this issue is complicated by the multiple levels of mediation that are an inevitable part of this cultural translation. But as Somacarrera also demonstrates, these forms of mediation are not reducible to the ideological level of cultural priorities and tensions; they are also bound up with more institutional and sociological questions about the kinds of infrastructure—whether in terms of publishing, education, or diplomatic support—whose influence can be as strong as it is easy to overlook.

The timing of Made in Canada, Read in Spain: Essays on the Translation and Circulation of English-Canadian Literature, edited by Somacarrera and containing the work of seven Spanish academics, is important in all of these ways. It offers a challenging and theoretically nuanced assessment of the selection, translation, and reception of Canadian literature; why certain authors have been translated, promoted, and taught in Spain; why certain genres are favoured; how these texts have been constructed in ways that speak to Spanish concerns; and just as importantly, which Canadian writers, texts, and genres have been excluded. The chapters address these questions, not only in terms of the perceived content of these literary texts but by broadening their focus to consider “the role and influence of institutions (political and commercial), publishers and their marketing systems, literary critics, reviewers and academics, as well as the significance of new technologies and different types of media.” The result of these multiple levels of inquiry is an impressively developed understanding of how these questions play out within the context of a highly complex field of cultural production.

Intriguingly, what makes the Spanish context so interesting is not the prominence of Canadian culture there, but the opposite: the fact that until fairly recently, in the minds of most Spaniards Canada was a “’terra incognita,’ not only unknown, but also unknowable,” a situation that makes Canadian literature’s more recent rise in stature a fascinating test case. As many of these chapters shrewdly suggest, this recent rise in popularity has a lot to say about the power of interpretation. As Somacarrera argues, the “fanfare of multiculturalism” which describes the favourable reception of so much of Canadian literature in Spain touched an important chord with local audiences. Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, for example, “found a warm reception in post-Franco Spain.” Belén Martin-Lucas argues that South-Asian Canadian writers have been celebrated as important evidence of this multicultural ideal. These works, she argues, have been used to promote a form of “nation branding,” obscuring antiracist activism taking place in Canadian contexts. These convergences play out in other ways, as, for example, in Isabel Alonso-Breto and Marta Ortego-Sáez’s analysis of the popularity of Québécois literature in Catalonia, a region that shares Quebec’s status as a distinctive nation with a minority language. Eva Darias-Beautell explores the introduction of Canadian literature into the Spanish academy in the early 1990s on the coattails of post-colonialism. In being subsumed under the umbrella of Commonwealth Literature, and circumscribed within subsequent institutional and curricular demands for comprehensiveness, the specificities of Canadian literary contexts risked becoming lost. Additional chapters focus on the promotion and reception of such international icons as Atwood and Munro, and Mercedes Díaz-Dueñas offers an intriguing study of the ways that Douglas Coupland’s work struck a chord with authors and readers who shared his concerns. Who knew that the term “Generation X” was widely applied to the generation of young people who came of age during the severe Spanish recession in the 1990s?

Canadian government initiatives in the 1980s led to the founding of the Spanish Association for Canadian Studies in 1988. Since then, Canadian literature’s international status has been embraced within the national media, academy, and mainstream opinion—a perspective that was reinforced not only by Michael Ondaatje’s and Margaret Atwood’s Booker Prize victories in 1992 and 2000 respectively, but most dramatically, by Alice Munro’s winning of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2013. But all of this is strangely at odds with the disturbing news of the Harper government’s short-sighted decision to withdraw support for Canadian Studies programs around the world; a decision that will have detrimental effects, not just on the international prominence of Canadian literature (and Canada) as an object of study elsewhere, but also on the global exchange of ideas and debates about Canadian literature across borders. At a time when Canadian literature finds itself positioned at a global crossroads—more popular than ever at the very moment when a withdrawal of government support threatens the academic development of this interest—Somacarrera’s collection is an important and challenging intervention. As Darias-Beautell points out: “the development of the field to the present has been largely the result of the work of individual teachers” who have had to operate in the midst of institutional resistance. One goal of this book is to recover the complexity of Canadian cultural discourse. The essays in this volume offer a counterpoint to the ways Canadian controversies risk being contained by what Nieves Pascual terms the “fantasy of modernity” or a “tranquilizing” cosmopolitanism; a move that is often complicit with the institutional promotion of Canada abroad. Pascual concludes her analysis by identifying an inescapable dilemma: “are cultural thresholds always sites of violence?” Made in Canada, Read in Spain offers an instructive, timely, and multifaceted response to this dilemma of transnational reception; a tug-of-war between the familiar and the foreign inherent in the project of translation itself.

This review “Reading CanLit in Spain” originally appeared in Recursive Time. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 222 (Autumn 2014): 189-90.

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