Skip to content

May we suggest

Features / August 28, 2018

Late Arrivals

In contemporary culture, we take for granted that everything is accelerating. But what happens when a book of the moment takes years to be published in your mother tongue?
Isabelle Pauwels, <em>Untitled</em>. Ink-jet print, 1.21 m x 81.2 cm. Courtesy the artist / Presentation House Gallery. Isabelle Pauwels, Untitled. Ink-jet print, 1.21 m x 81.2 cm. Courtesy the artist / Presentation House Gallery.
Isabelle Pauwels, <em>Untitled</em>. Ink-jet print, 1.21 m x 81.2 cm. Courtesy the artist / Presentation House Gallery. Isabelle Pauwels, Untitled. Ink-jet print, 1.21 m x 81.2 cm. Courtesy the artist / Presentation House Gallery.

When I translate myself, there is no longer any French text to read. At some point, it vanishes after I shift to English. Once edited, my sentences will give the impression to the reader that I can “pass” as anglophone, which is always in my view a semblance similar to, and as problematic as, other forms of passing. It remains difficult, however, to place myself firmly as a subject in this “first” tongue, the one in which I seemingly think. Sometimes the friction of slipping from one idiom to another gives me the right distance from that point of origin—the mother tongue—which should always remain contingent. The ambivalence that I present here using a personal voice doesn’t only stem from my own experience within the narrow frame of a given Québécois identity in Canada. For a long time, I have been trying to understand complex linguistic sites (those of Canada and other national configurations) through the transfer of culture—for instance, the reception of literary, philosophical or visual artworks in contexts other than those of their initial readership or audience—which generates both a gain and a loss of meaning. Can these gaps between different moments in the reception of a work, which are sometimes intervals of many years, ultimately give us another sense of time, and a renewed political agency?

Last October, Jean-Michel Théroux’s translation of The Argonauts, by Maggie Nelson, was launched in Montreal at the feminist cooperative bookstore L’Euguélionne, in the city’s gay village. In 2015, Nelson published this essayistic narrative, which oscillates between the chronicle of her relationship with the artist Harry Dodge and theoretical fragments on queer parenting. Nelson often ponders over what pronoun Dodge, who is transgender, prefers to go by, but later decides to address her partner, throughout the book, as “you.” In French, this question becomes a problem of intelligibility, as the neutral pronoun “they,” used to circumvent a binary paradigm of gender, does not exist. It is often necessary to substitute with utterances such as iel, ille (il/elle) or ol to attain the same performativity. The void left by the absence of the word, and the assemblages put in place in an attempt to fill it, must be taken into account.

Les argonautes inaugurates a collection of titles spearheaded by Théroux with Éditions Triptyque and dedicated to French Québécois texts and works in translation, whose authors put themselves at risk through writing. In Quebec, the publication thus became a site-specific event in another way by establishing an almost-precedent. Literature from the United States, especially the work of celebrated authors such as Nelson, usually makes the transatlantic “detour,” returning to North America with more or less of a Parisian accent.

A few months after Les argonautes was published in 2018, two English-language books by Indigenous scholars became available to francophone readers: Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back: Stories of Nishnaabeg Re-Creation, Resurgence, and a New Emergence (2011) by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, and Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition (2014) by Glen Sean Coulthard. Simultaneous access to these key texts in a second language allowed me to read them in parallel—one of the benefits of a delayed reception. The proximity of the books on my worktable seemed to echo the ongoing dialogue between Simpson and Coulthard, who are colleagues and friends. Simpson’s book mixes first-person testimony with academic discourse as she recounts how the transmission of language remains an integral part of the wider project of a resurgence of Nishnaabeg philosophy. In several passages, she explains the meaning of Indigenous words, often while paraphrasing teachings given by Elders. In this nuanced way, Simpson takes great care to distinguish the fragments of Nishnaabeg knowledge that can be shared with a non-Indigenous readership from the parts that should remain obfuscated. At the end of the book, an index guides us through the commented-upon concepts—no small task for the translator Anne-Marie Regimbald, who had to weave together many semantic constellations to arrive at the right definitions, two layers removed.

Cover of Triptyche edition of Maggie Nelson's <em>The Argonauts</em>. Cover of Triptyche edition of Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts.
Cover of Varia's edition of Leanne Betasamosake Simpson's <em>Dancing on Our Turtle's Back: Stories of Nishnaabeg Re-Creation, Resurgence, and a New Emergence</em>. Cover of Varia's edition of Leanne Betasamosake Simpson's Dancing on Our Turtle's Back: Stories of Nishnaabeg Re-Creation, Resurgence, and a New Emergence.

In contrast to Simpson putting her voice at the forefront, Coulthard’s style remains closer to academic discourse. He offers a critique of the notion of recognition (by the State, or another hegemonic social formation) as it limited Indigenous sovereignty as performed in treaties, and later in Canadian policies of reconciliation. Mixing Dene thinking with Marxist methodology to explain this legacy of dispossession, he also reassesses the work of Martinican-born psychiatrist and philosopher Frantz Fanon (in his famous 1952 book Peau noire, masques blancs—translated into English as Black Skin, White Masks—Fanon rejected the necessity for a racialized subject to exist in the narrow frame imposed by the colonizer).

When I discussed with a friend the availability of Coulthard’s, Nelson’s and Simpson’s books in French as micro-historical events, she asked me: will it really have an effect? I believe that translation always calls for a future, just by imagining another reader. Already, the fact that these books are most often published with social justice–oriented presses (Éditions Varia, in the Proses de combat collection, for Simpson, and Lux Éditeur for Coulthard), while benefiting from wide distribution in Quebec, advocates for this possibility of new political agency and activism. This is also true for the reverse trajectory of translating critical texts about the state of Quebec from French to English. One recent example, among other notable books, is the 2018 translation in English of Kuei, My Friend: A Conversation on Racism and Reconciliation, a book of letters between Innu poet Natasha Kanapé Fontaine and Québécois-American novelist Deni Ellis Béchard, initially published in French in 2017. Still little-known in English Canada, Kanapé Fontaine has a high profile in the Quebec media as a spokesperson for her Innu community. She is also a translator (with Arianne Des Rochers) of Simpson’s Islands of Decolonial Love, a French translation forthcoming with Éditions Mémoire d’encrier.

I believe that translation always calls for a future, just by imagining another reader. The fact that these books are most often published with social justice–oriented presses advocates for this possibility of new political agency and activism.

Expanding on the idea of delayed reception, I want to suggest that in place of always underlining the belatedness of political or cultural thinking, arriving too late either in French or in English, we should instead embrace a state of cognitive deceleration. My insistence here on slowness of learning comes mainly from a paradox produced during some discussions about social justice in Canada, where taking part in dialogue often relies on the default knowledge and use of an accepted theoretical lexicon in English, as if concepts are transparent and have no history. I would rather propose that an expanded understanding of the etymology of established terms and their translation from speakers with a mother tongue other than English could answer the questions at hand, and not be a barrier to discourse.

Although there is in my view still much work to do in the Quebec art milieu in order to question monolingualism and the stronghold of state-imposed bilingualism, some exhibitions in Montreal institutions are foregrounding a third language as a way of thinking beyond colonialism. For the duration of 2017, SBC Gallery of Contemporary Art gave its premises and resources to the Wood Land School (Duane Linklater, Tanya Lukin Linklater and cheyanne turions, with Walter Scott), in effect eschewing its institutional identity. During the course of the project, titled “Kahatenhstánion tsi na’tetiatere ne Iotohrkó:wa tánon Iotohrha / Drawing Lines from January to December,” four “gestures” unfolded, in which new artworks and events redefined the temporal limits of an exhibition. The accrual of meaning in a long durational frame made it possible to return to the same place, and to perceive once more what we had seen on previous visits, thus morphing the viewing experience into a critical habit.

For the second gesture, artist Joi T. Arcand, who is from the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation, presented a neon work entitled ᐁᑳᐏᔭ ᓀᐯᐃᐧᓯ (ekawiya nepewisi) (2017). The piece is part of an ongoing series in which Arcand embeds Cree syllabics into placeholders for commercial and institutional signs, thus interpolating into the symbolic order (capitalism, patriarchy) a language for the most part readable only by the members of her own community. For the Wood Land School project, the work was displayed inside the gallery; in the context of Quebec, it clashed with what was outside—the protectionism behind a langue d’affichage, which prevails since the adoption of Bill 101, obliging businesses in the province to advertise predominantly in French. In Arcand’s practice, access to the meaning of words for many relies on translation. But this intentional shift toward intelligibility can be circumvented as well, thus giving form to the concept of opacity as defined by philosopher and poet Édouard Glissant, which refers to the intrinsic right of an interpellated subject to ignore the demand to represent one’s identity in the face of the other, and thus to perform transparency within a hegemonic structure. In many instances, Glissant states that it is important to accept that some knowledge, whatever form it takes, escapes our grasp in the systems familiar to us. This fact doesn’t preclude entering into relation with someone who speaks about belonging to a culture, while at the same time refusing to communicate in expected ways. An audience of allies must sometimes remain on the thresholds of deciphering and interpretation.

Cover of the LUX edition of Glen Sean Coulthard's <em>Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition</em>. Cover of the LUX edition of Glen Sean Coulthard's Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition.

Other Montreal institutions are enabling an ethical stance of unconditional listening in cultural mediation and pedagogy as well. Robin Simpson, the coordinator of Public Programs and Education at the Leonard and Bina Ellen Art Gallery at Concordia University, has been inviting graduate students from the school’s art history and visual arts departments to lead guided tours in their first languages, which are often minority languages. Recently, master’s student Emma Haraké commented in Arabic on the exhibition “Qui parle / Who Speaks?,” curated by Katrie Chagnon, whose double title in French and English put back-to-back the meaning of two similar, but distinct, questions of responsiveness.

Included in the exhibition was Author’s Preface (2015) by Raymond Boisjoly, an artist of Haida and Québécois descent who lives in Vancouver. On one large wall of the gallery, Boisjoly mixed fragments of text in English culled from the vocabulary of grant-writing proposals with stills he excerpted from Maya Deren’s documentary film Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (shot between 1947 and 1954, and released posthumously in 1985). Following a technique of obfuscation and translation feedback used in other projects, Boisjoly sourced the film from YouTube, then produced stills by placing an iPad on a scanner, creating a “black box” so that the receiving device tried in vain to reconstruct what the emitting device was transmitting. Divine Horsemen signals the precedent of a crisis in representation and translation, since Deren, over the course of her project, became aware that she could never internalize images of voodoo culture (first as archetypes, and then as a material she could take out of context).

A preface usually allows the author to provide contextual elements or augment in retrospect what was written, without amending it. When a translator writes this introductory text, while presenting a closely read work, they also imagine new readers, setting a horizon of expectation so that the content already assimilated in one culture will have an afterlife elsewhere. Boisjoly’s Author’s Preface follows Deren’s reflections—especially as they are articulated in the text she wrote alongside making the film—by putting these images back into circulation, and suspending them, as it were, around fragments of formatted art discourse. Seeing them anew on the unceded land of Tiohtià:ke (Montreal), I am now located neither here nor there, just like the filmmaker and the artist, but in a different time, thinking about the impossibility of always substituting one word, or one image, for another.

This is an article from our Summer 2018 issue, themed on Translation.

Vincent Bonin

Vincent Bonin is a writer and curator whose book D’un discours qui ne serait pas du semblant/Actors, Networks, Theories is published by Leonard and Bina Ellen Art Gallery and Dazibao.