Trans-atlantic/lations

  • Luise Von Flotow
    Translating Women. University of Ottawa Press
  • Miléna Santoro (Editor) and Paula Ruth Gilbert (Editor)
    Transatlantic Passages: Literary and Cultural Relations between Quebec and Francophone Europe. McGill-Queen's University Press
Reviewed by Nicole Nolette

The prefix “trans-,” according to the OED, means “across, through, over, to or on the other side of, beyond, outside of, from one place, person, thing, or state to another.” Marked by the similarity in their titles, Translating Women and Transatlantic Passages are two scholarly collections of essays that speak to such crossings in gender, language, literature, and culture.

The goal of Transatlantic Passages, a clever grouping of essays, literary excerpts, interviews, and images, is to “make this project a unique and compelling Francophone extension of the burgeoning field of Anglophone transatlantic regional studies.” In this, the editors are highly organized and highly successful. The book is comprised of five sections: “Women’s History and Passages across the Atlantic,” “European Cultural Influences in Quebec Writers,” “The Theatrical Space of Exchange,” “Franco-European Immigrant Voices in Quebec,” and “Contemporary Art Forms and Popular Culture.” Each section, which begins with an excerpt from Gail Scott’s My Paris and includes either images or words (some of them in English for the first time) from the artists discussed, efficiently opens up a specific field of discussions on transatlantic exchanges between Quebec (and sometimes other parts of French Canada) and francophone Europe (France, Switzerland, and Belgium).

The section focusing on women includes a contribution by Patricia Smart on the autobiographical writings of four women from religious orders on their transatlantic migration to New France in the seventeenth century. Monique Proulx uses writing as a Québécois flâneuse through the muddled literary time and space of Paris. Chantal Maillé examines the links between French and Quebec feminisms to conclude that, except in literary studies, Quebec feminism has long taken its lead from French feminist theory, though as a form of double oppression (one of gender and nation); as a result, it has been slow to recognize differences in power relations between women. Excerpts from Nicole Brossard’s Je m’en vais à Trieste serve to illustrate Quebec’s literary feminist movement.

In the section on Quebec writers in Europe, Patrick Coleman innovatively compares Mordecai Richler’s and Hubert Aquin’s stays in post-war Paris to point to institutional differences in francophone and anglophone literary systems. Karen McPherson continues to read Aquin (Prochain épisode and Point de fuite), but as a Swiss palimpsest in Nicole Brossard’s La Capture du sombre. Switzerland, another country with “minority status and sovereignty issues,” becomes a distant version of Quebec. For Lorna Irvine, Gail Scott’s narrator in My Paris is a Benjaminian flâneuse in Paris and Montreal, whereas for Karen L. Gould, in the novels of France Théoret, the characters’ transatlantic readings of Hugo, Sartre, and Gheorghiu play in their coming of age as female subjects. Following the female gaze to “rethink fundamental concepts of national identity,” Patrice J. Proulx considers the transatlantic reconceptualization of Montesquieu’s Lettres persanes in Lise Gauvin’s Lettres d’une autre and Chahdortt Djavann’s Comment peut-on être français? Louise Dupré writes of her experience being taught by a French nun as a child in Quebec’s Eastern Townships.

In the section on theatre, Louise H. Forsyth explores the links between Marie Cardinal’s biography of transatlantic crossings and her translations of myths and theatre. Jane Moss, addressing the manifesto “Pour une littérature-monde en français,” contends that the reception of Quebec plays in francophone Europe still depends on a certain “distinctiveness and alterity, to efface those differences would be to undermine the appeal of these postcolonial performances.”

Listening to Franco-European immigrant voices in Quebec, Mary Jean Green focuses on the history of Régine Robin’s autobiographical fiction from the figure of the flâneuse to the cybernomad. Susan Ireland’s article suggests that Naïm Kattan and Alice Parizeau “form part of the growing community of authors who have made the transatlantic journey themselves and have used it as the focus of their literary works.” Werner Nold’s account of such a journey from Switzerland to Quebec for a career in cinema ties in nicely with Rachel Killick’s contribution on three figures of the demoiselles sauvages in the films of Léa Pool (one from a short story by Corinna Bille, one in the film adaptation of Bille’s work by Pool, and one from Gabrielle Roy).

Bonnie Baxter opens the last section with reflections on her long-time transatlantic print collaboration with Jean Paul Riopelle, including several photos of Riopelle working. François Morelli pursues this line of thinking about his own in situ artistic creations during overseas trips to France, where he bartered a meal for a wall drawing. Alisa Belanger reflects on the evolution of the artist’s book in Quebec, a genre that is equally influenced by the French and American traditions. Her focus on Claude Beausoleil, Hélène Dorion, and Denise Desautels reveals a shared insistence on “complicité between contributors.” Brian Thompson and Guy Spielmann’s contributions on the circulation of cultural goods share common preoccupations about differentiation from and assimilation to the French norm. While Thompson writes about the history of song, from La Bolduc, Félix Leclerc, and Robert Charlebois (whose “Ce soir je chante à l’Olympia” is included as well) to Pierre Lapointe and Céline Dion, Spielmann laments the lack of acceptance of a Québécois difference in television programs and comics. He does note, however, the widespread popularity of Têtes à claques in francophone Europe as a “harbinger of a new era” of cultural exchange.

Transatlantic Passages itself forms a kind of crossing/translation from the francophone subject matter to an anglophone audience. Translating Women, on the other hand, engages with a particular intersection, or crossing between feminism and translation. In her preface, Luise von Flotow suggests that this intersection, which produced a considerable amount of scholarly material in the 1990s, needs to be revisited in light of the “current ideas about the contingent, performative aspects of gender identity and the discursive construction of gender in social and subjective contexts.” The link between performance theories of gender and translation, however, sometimes appears too implicit in the articles collected; the organization of the book, as well, seems less thought out (no sections here) than loosely connected by a sometimes contradictory conception of “women” translators, authors, or characters.

Alison E. Martin offers a fascinating portrayal of early nineteenth-century British women translating botany to “demonstrate publicly the range of their reading and knowledge, as well as to draw attention, self-reflexively, to the process of translation and to their place in it.” Nineteenth-century Russian poet and translator Karolina Pavlova, according to Tom Dolack, used translation as “a means of social commentary, but also as a vehicle for transcendence.” Anna Barker notes that another poet and translator from the same period, Helen Maria Williams, “engages in a complex negotiation of identity politics both through the translation and through the eventual reciprocation of acquired and perceived alterity in her own writing.” If these historical encounters in translation showcase it as a space for women’s agency, Madeleine Stratford’s intervention on Susan Bassnett’s “life exchange” with Alejandra Pizarnik warns us about the possible dangers of “manipulative” tactics in translation practice, especially if these tactics are not publicized with the published product.

Such concerns around editing practices, history, and translation recur in Luise von Flotow’s article on West German journalist Ulrike Meinhof and in Anna Bogic’s work on the English version of Simone de Beauvoir’s Le Deuxième Sexe. In a reverse translation movement, Anne-Lise Feral finds that the American-style feminism of Sex and the City failed to be properly imported into France because of the ideological work of dubbing into French. For her part, Valerie Henitiuk questions the effects on Western readers of a perpetually gendered framing of Sei Shōnagon’s translations.

Some articles make the case for choosing gender as a creative and translative position. Pilar Godayol traces a feminine cultural genealogy between five Catalan translators “and the symbolic mothers they have translated”: women authors from other cultures who inscribe the feminine into their works. Similarly comparing the translations of Emily Dickinson’s poetry into French, James W. Underhill finds that even if her best translator were a woman, this quality is not attributable to a feminine rewriting, but rather to a sense of orality. Carolyn Shread situates the intersection between feminism and translation as formative in the continuous constitution of the feminist translator herself.

Other contributors choose to explore translation more metaphorically, as a carrying across. Sandra Bermann thus speaks of Adrienne Rich’s poetics, where translation as “re-vision” figures as a space for a poet’s transformative energy. Kate Sturge argues for conceptions of migration and ethnography as translation in Ruth Behar’s Translated Woman. After reflecting on the crossings of French and American theories of gender, Bella Brodski raises a new intersection of study—the one between genre sexuel and genre littéraire.

While it points to various stimulating fields of study, Translating Women is of interest more for its individual contributions than as a collection; perhaps the reader is also expected to engage in a similar crossing towards—and across—the subject matter.



This review “Trans-atlantic/lations” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 216 (Spring 2013): 168-71.

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