Translating the Self

E. D. Blodgett, in his introduction to Louise Ladouceur’s book Dramatic Licence: Translating Theatre from One Official Language to the Other in Canada, notes that “there is a predilection for ethnocentric translation” in the reproduction of literatures of the other. The study of translation, thus, is as much about the hegemonic values of the target culture as it is about how this word or that was rendered in a different language. Both Ladouceur’s book and Eva C. Karpinski’s work, Borrowed Tongues: Life Writing, Migration, and Translation, deserve a broad audience for this reason: they are both serious meditations about the impact that translations have on texts, as well as the forces that influence those translations.

Ladouceur’s book, translated from the French by Richard Lebeau, won both the Prix Gabrielle Roy in Canadian and Quebec Literary Criticism and the Ann Saddlemyer Book Award for Theatre Research in Canada when it first appeared in French. It fills an important gap in terms of the history of translating theatre in Canada. As the author herself points out, most of the work done in translation studies in Canada has dealt primarily with poetry and prose. In fact, the history of theatre translation in Canada has been relatively short, only really taking root during the 1980s. Through a polysystem approach, she looks to understand the hows and the whys of theatre translation in Canada. Complicating things is the performative and linguistic elements that are essential to theatre. For example, how does one translate the joual of Michel Tremblay’s plays, and if the particular vernacular is ignored for the benefit of the audience, what does that say about the receiving language and culture and their “interest” in the other?

Statistical analysis is woven together with a narrative history of theatre translation in Ladouceur’s book, and she provides a number of close readings of translations and adaptations of plays from one language into the other. Also invaluable is the exhaustive bibliography of Canadian plays in translation, complete with production history. Ladouceur also subtly highlights the importance of programs that encouraged and facilitated cultural exchange and translation. The establishment of an exchange program for translated theatre texts by the Centre d’essai des auteurs dramatiques in 1985 and the relative abundance of anglophone, but nonetheless bilingual, playwrights living in Montreal fostered a new era in theatre translation. But this book should appeal to anyone with an interest in Canadian literary and cultural history. Theatre is as much a “happening” as it is a work of literature.

Karpinski, on the other hand, looks at the challenges facing transnational and diasporic life-writing by women. Much like theatre at times, life-writing is often a secondary concern of literary studies, especially life-writing in translation by women. As put by Karpinski, the target culture has “a tendency to swallow up and assimilate the immigrant other for its own enrichment, or to lock up the unassimilable other in a position of romanticized or demonized difference.” What then does an author do in the face of such powerful forces working against their complex messages of resistance and empowerment? Further adding to the complexity is the fact that the authors themselves are writing in the language of the colonizer, literally a “borrowed tongue.” The subjects are both translating themselves for, and are translated by, their new culture.

Karpinski uses feminist, post-structuralist, and postcolonial approaches to interrogate the “translation” that does or does not take place in the works of eight immigrant women authors. She connects the idea of postcolonial, feminist life-writing to a kind of performance on the part of the authors, thereby attempting to translate their experiences as a resistance to colonial dominance. Most interesting is the chapter on Caribbean diasporic authors Jamaica Kincaid and M. NourbeSe Philip and their relationship to a language that sought to repress and oppress them both in their home and adoptive countries. These practices of resistance are traced as far back
(in Canada at least) to Laura Goodman Salverson, the author of Canada’s first “ethnic” novel. Karpinski beautifully weaves the disparate life stories and strategies of these authors into a larger narrative of resistance.

In the conclusion of her book, Karpinski points out why it is important that we, in academia, pay attention to these narratives: “If academic institutions can be viewed as a microcosm of such transnational contact zones, I am convinced that we can benefit from the findings of research on life writing in order to learn to read each other’s stories, listen to multiple voices, and find the possibility of plurivocal exchanges. . . .” I can think of no better words to illustrate why both books are important for a more general audience, in addition to those who specialize in the often marginalized sub-genres of translation, theatre, and life-writing.

This review “Translating the Self” originally appeared in Gendering the Archive. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 217 (Summer 2013): 164-66.

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