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Unapologetically Canadian
Unapologetically Canadian

Episode 4 · 4 years ago

Writer teacher and translator Sherry Simon explores how language expresses identity

ABOUT THIS EPISODE

Montreal writer, teacher and translator Sherry Simon studies how shifts in language express a city's constantly-changing culture. For more information, refer to my post about our discussion at https://traceyarial.com/blog/sherry-simon/.

My name is trace Sierel and I am an apologetically Canadian. Hey, this is this week we speak with Sherry Simon, the author of speaking memory, how translation shapes the city life and notable nonfiction author. She's been working about Gender and translations, translating Montreal. She has several books to her name and she's also a professor at Concordian University. And, as you'll hear from our conversation, shry grew up as an anglophone in westbound. Actually she grew up in Catonish, but she went to school in Westmound and but she comes from the Jewish community, so she was always an obfoted there and she chose to become an integral part of the French culture to create a career full of insights about how language tensions and creativity make Montreal and extraordinary place to live. And if you listen to French, I highly recommend the speech that she gave about three different kinds of communities in Montreal, which all linked to in the show notes. And here's our conversation and we begin our conversation with my question. Do you consider yourself a Canadian? Yes, of course I consider myself Canadian. I can carry Canadian passport in this a very important element of life, life as I travel a lot. So my fast forward is an important thing and I'm very grateful for Canadian citizenship and for the benefits that it that Did bestows. So I would never put it to question my belonging as a Canadian. But I also belong, of course, to Canada in a very ambivalent way, because I belong to Montreal, I belong to Quebec and I belong to Canada, and I probably belong most to Montreal. So I think that many, many montrealers would identify first and foremost as Montrealers, because that makes them that gives them the possibility of many belongings and many conflictual and fragmentary and competitive belongings, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. So to be a Montreal or means that I have some affiliation to the historic Anglo Community, a community that is more and more a community of the past, but communities are the faster once we want to hang on to as well. So I'm a member of the historic Eglo community, even though for a very long time I wanted to give up my membership in that in that community, because I felt more drawn to Francophone identity. So I wanted to be part of that identity and I'm also do so. Those three identities are are important to me in various ways, at various times and with various intensities. And when you say the heritage of the Anglo Montreal or what are you talking about? You're talking it was if you're Jewish. You're not talking about the loyalists. No, no, I'm talking about the the historic institutional heritage, the the buildings, the schools, the institutions that were built and that I participated in as a youngster. I was brought up in that community. I was able to take advantage of it's of its schools, of the senders. Which ones? Oh well, it's always embarrassing because I have to say that I went to Westmount high, which is Leonard Gone. Went to West Mount High, I dare. I never lived in Westmount, but I did go to westmount high and I went to Austin. I went up in the in the in the westmount school system, but I never lived in Westmoust so I was always a little bit marginal to that community and as a person, as a as an anglophone,...

I think that what gave what the the advantages of that identities and anglophone is that we were always marginal to another community, which was the Francophone community. That marginality was expressed in different current ways. When I grew up, it was success as a sense of superiority. We thought we were the dominant culture in the city. Then we found out wasn't too and that shift happened between the s and the s and that was a fascinating shift and I think that shift is so foundational for me and it allows me to understand so many other contexts around the world where those kinds of shifts happened, where communities reshifted in their relationship to their cities, to their countries. If you look at the Situation Catalonia today, for instance, that's what that's about. Shift in power. Who thinks they're up and who's down, and how do the languages realign themselves? And anywhere, if you if you scratch any kind of national context in the world, you'll sense those shifts. So they're much more common than not, right. Yeah, so my first, well, the biggest question was about the boger high controversy because I figured that sort of a the latest newsworthy type thing where this kind of stuff was discussed. Yeah, what do I could say? Hey, I suppose I should have some strong idea about that, but you don't actually have to have any idea about it. I'm asking you to comment. There's no request, I don't think there's any requirement for you to make an opinion because something is out there. Yeah, I think I'Ds for it. It seems like a very typical Montreal kind of thing. On the other hand, it does kind of assume the idea that the two languages are equal, and that's something that I've resist because of course the two languages aren't equal and aren't the same and don't have the same power. But on the same time, same time, it reminds me a little bit about of the I use this anecdote in somewhere where the you know, immigrants coming to Montreal when they hear shopkeepers say yes, a new to them, which is, as you know, you're welcome, but it's really a couch from it's a copy of English. You know, they as a new is not it's not correct French, it's it's it's French copied from English. It's actually, you know, a translation of you're welcome, and immigrants who arrive as French speaking immigrants here that they think that they're being welcomed by shopkeepers when they're really just being thanked. So wonderful, like yes, like welcome to Montreal, you know, and and and so that that's a kind of a positive miscommunication that I like bonjow high has. It has more of a sense of, you know, equal opportunity. I can speak to you in either language and both languages are Welco are welcome, whereas I think that people should speak French in their public transactions in Montreal because it is a French speaking city and we should give priority to French. So I'm a little bit conflicted over that. If you're like HMM, it's interesting because to me it's just a way of telling people I can speak both languages and it's so easy. And it's right because it's not used by every shopkeeper, because you're not every shopkeeper speak both languages anyway, or is comfortable enough to use so many that...

...ends up being used less anyway. Right, but perhaps if everyone became truly by the Engle I would become more prevalent. Well, what I like. What I like this actually the kind of in between, the crossover kind of expressions, like the way people say hello in English. They'll say hello, yeah, you know, just to make it slightly French here, that it's so so I what I prefer to Bon row high. I prefer like these gas a new or allow or these in between kind of expressions that kind of include the two, two and one, you know. Yeah, yeah, it's funny because I'm so against, I'm so for or or I because the day that it passed, my daughter came to me and said, I'm not allowed to say it now at work. Do you know, I just thought it was like such a big harass, big hassle for nothing. It's like it. I say, you know what, talk to your boss. I have no idea. I feel aloud to and I just learned it. Or if she work, Oh, in a grocery store, okay, and and it's a very anglophone neighborhood and she's one of the truly bilingual people. So you know right. It was like basically it made it a whole bunch of stress on people who don't need the stress. Yeah, that's for sure. But but it's interesting. Your point about it making it the two languages somehow equal, I guess, because I don't see them equal if it's not an institution. I always separate what a person does from what an institution does. And so yes, you know, I'm it for the same reason. I actually think it's fine to wear religious symbols as a person, but I don't really like the Cross on the assembly wall. You know. Yes, I would agree with that itself. So, but anyway, it's a I can understand where you're conflicted. And and the looking at your career, it was interesting to me that you've used language and translation as a way to to to basically explore other interests, you know, like your neighborhood, like gender, like the city, with a very precise structure that makes you see things other people don't see. Well, that's a that's a kind way of expressing that, and I'd like to think, yes, that's true. How how like? Did you do that on purpose, or is it just sort of happened by accident? What I know? These things often happen by accident. But it did happen by accident. But in retrospect, there there is a clear line that goes through and and teaching translation has been very useful for me in that way that it becomes so clear how translation is a really a way of reading the world and when you start to appreciate the kinds of lessons that you learned through translation and that, and by this I mean simply looking at the languages and simply looking at text and understanding how complicated any process of translation is, then it really enriches the way you look at everything else. The translation lead you really, really far, because it's about the most basic questions of difference. What is the shame and what is different? So when you translate, you create something that's the same, but it's different at the same time. Hmm, what kind of a very fundamental, kind of philosophical stance. One of the points that you were making in when you were talking about Canada's official bilingualism and the fact that so much is translated from English into French in...

...order to make that, yeah, possible, and you said that that was rather unequal. What would writing by not? Well this, you know, official bilingualism in Canada takes a visual form which is absolutely symmetrical. So you open up a government document in you how the English on one side and French on the other side, and as much as possible. They take up the same space, they have the same fonts, they have the same you know, the paragraph are the same length and it's kind of a fiction. It gives you the idea that English and French are absolutely equal in every way. They take up the same space, maybe they look the same, when in reality we know that French has been French struggles in the context of Canada. So we have a legal fiction, which is a good one as a quality between the two languages, but we have a social and political reality which is quite different, and that that tension is is is not a bad, bad tension, but it's it. You must recognize that tension. You must realize that the you know, when people say Canada is a bilingual country, what does that mean? It means that the government is officially bilingual, but the country isn't. We know that to be in Canada for about a minute to realize that. Right, right. And it was interesting because I thought that maybe you were talking about the the the shame that we didn't have more texts in French translated into English. Well, you have that. You know, Canada is kind of settled into a kind of territorial bilingualism, the kind of you know, in Belgium, for instance, you have territorial bilingualism. It's not a bilingual country. You have the Flemish part and you have the French part, and Canada's kind of settled into that, even though we don't recognize it officially. So French inhabits Quebec in a way that it doesn't inhabit the rest of the country and there's a lot of translation from French into English in Quebec because that's that's it's in Quebec that culture is created in French, right, kinds of the minority is English. Yeah, yeah, so Canada is kind of settled into that kind of practically a kind of a territorial bilingualism, which means that, you know, Quebec is the French is most prominent in Quebec and translation happens from French into English and then the rest of the country translation happens from English into French. It's not such a bad thing. It's I think it's meant that's the French feel secure and has a home in Quebec and and Quebec has a you know, as everyone knows, an extraordinary vibrant and dynamic culture, theater and literature and Cinema and all kinds of cultural creation happens in French, but that doesn't that's not the case in English. kind of it. So that's the reality we have now. It's not it's it works, but there are minority language groups creating in French in the rest of the country too. So, yeah, I want to go regional, then don't you have to go by like very small region? Mean there's sections of Bountio that wanted to separate from the rest of this the province, for sure, very much imperios Saskatchewan. Saskatchewan has a and Manitoba and New Brunswick, the most biuncle place I've ever been to. Everybody speaks in French and languish almost at the same time. Yes, you and they speak this wonderful mixed language that I adore called SHIAC. I have a friend who teaches at my...

...gal who's like an expert at it, and it's it's it's terrific. So yes, you're right, those do exist, but you know, they're you know, there was a time. I don't know how they're doing. You know, sort of okay now. At the time of in the s when Quebec was shifting it's you know, when when French Canadians became Quebe Quois, the French Canadians who are left out, they were called, you know, still warm cadavers. That was yeah, that was a that was expression. That would use Cadav all cultural you know, by Levek and people in LOVEC government at that time they sort of gave up on on them. That that that was the option. You know, French language would become territorialized in Quebec and the rest would sort of go the way of all flesh. But government, you know, federal policy, has supported those communities and they do have you know, there's some terrific writers that have come out of Francophone Ontario and there's quite a vibrant scene in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. So, mean, there the you know, who knows? Who knows? It's interesting because in the s you couldn't actually have a court case in French. If you you know, there was nothing. There was no constitution supporting Franko Ontarians. That's right, and Manitoba too. They had some really important to court cases in Manitoba. You know, they translated the whole, I think the whole constitution into French. In the s after they want a court case saying that the English only, I think, constitution that came into being in the late nineteen hundreds was unconstitutional and they reverse that and became a mecca for translators in Manitoba because it had so much granslation to do. Oh that's it's funny, how your world, because you know so many people who rely on this. You know all of these little yeahs. You know. That's right. And I didn't get into the gender thing, but what made you explore gender and why? With that? Your first book was about Joyce, right, is that true? A joint book with yeah, it I don't think that was my first book, but I did this. It was a bit later. Yeah, in fact it. I got joint billing for that book, but in fact it's kind of a it was more book by Gnip me show and I have a kind of a chapter at the end. But yeah, it was fun to write about Joyce and that's the Joyce is one of my great hero of but the first, the first published book, I think, was, you know, I'm not remember. I did a I did a book on what was called Fixion, the leadltste, which was a collective book and but my first, I guess, really, you know, major book with the Gender Book, and that came out of that. Was that was that was fun because that came out of the Real, you know, movement that was happening in feminist writing and also a whole group of feminist translators. That that really I was just writing about them. You know, they had really created a real scene and I think what was so important about them is that they kind of subverted the kind of national model it would before it was all sort of Quebec versus, English Canada, and all of a sudden it was no longer about that. It was about feminist transit feminist writers and translators meeting each other, and the national frame and the whole nationalist domination of language about translations fell...

...by the wayside because it was really much more about a common project. What was the common project? The common project was kind of rewriting. It was rewriting gender relations and and a lot of the impulse came from from French first, with the influence of seminist writers in France, you know, like the big names, these guy and in insects, sue and and Gugiettristiva, who had a big impact on QUEC writers like because Bossle and tail and I don't know if these names are familiar to you. No, I don't know that literature at all in that area. Okay. So, so the IT started in French and it was a kind of an attack on the structures of language that supported patriarchal view of of of the world. So it was a way of using language to rethink the relations between the genders and you two, the sexes, and it was poetry, it was prose and it was a lot of it was experimental and English Canadian seminists were kind of very intrigued by this. and to translate it it meant not just translating language, but it meant translating this attitude, translating this kind of of rebellious way of using language. So we could relation thinking, yeah, yeah, like, for example, like one of the things I'm thinking, I should ask you now that day is about. You're about the change in the national anthem. That might be even more and they just changed to the two words from in our sons command to all of our reading. Yes, they did. So I didnally like last week. Oh Rich, I'd have that. So I think that's going to be the lead instead of bunch or high. It's even more, well, more newsworthy. That's that. That's obviously long, long, long overdue. Well, they've been trying to do it for I don't even know how long, and the first version I actually had thou dost or something instead of sons. Anyway, but right, okay, you know, they took sons and in all our son our sons was changed to of us. Okay, all right. Well, you could say I think it's long over why do you think these things are important? Uh Huh, because language is a fundamental way of express I think our identities and language regularly changes under the pressures of social and ideological changes. You know, the after the rush of revolution, they introduced tons of changes to the Russian language to make it express more egalitarian relations among people. And these these pressures are are normal and ongoing. So, whether they concern gender, they concern, you know, the way people name themselves. As for first nations groups, this is totally normal and fundamental. So it's it's absolutely essential that people recognize themselves in the language that they...

...use. So actually, in the s then that's when people always said that, you know, man and male and all this meant human, as if that's right. That's right exactly, and that what I will and that was rather accepted. I mean I even was rather it was rather accepted. Like I even heard one woman arguing in fate, like they did this talk show on CBC about this Sun Thing and when woman phoned and said that, you know, man was human and son was person and why were people giving so upset about the word? Right, right, well, that's not true what she says, but she, I mean she was an older woman, so she grew up in a time where, yes, it was true in her right. Well, the French, still, the French are being, you know, paradoxically, the French have been very slow, even though the French time minutes were the first to attack language structures. Paradoxically, the French, not Quebec, but the French, are being very slow to adopt these changes. They still believe that man is human and that sort of thing. Wow, okay, so I guess. Yeah, it's interesting. So maybe Quebec will bring a change to France instead of a definitely, no, no, definitely. Quebec has had a big influence in France because we feminize our titles. We have had French. You know, Papasa was an e and and and my damn Latin premier, a ministre and and the French don't have that yet. They're slowly getting that, yeah, but they're pretty slow in certain areas. Wow, okay, that's again French. Quebecca has been very much in the avant garde in many of those issues. Why do you think that is? Because we're so sensitive to the meanings of language, because of a long history of of contact between French and English, because of an understanding that French, that language shapes shapes us in such important wife. And you think that's because of the dominance of English in North America and Quebec? Response to that? Yes, yes, and so, and other factors too. I mean when I was when I first started to teach, for instance, my students were very self conscious because they were they thought their French wasn't good enough. Oh really, things have changed, but they were very they were very worried because of the the it was a very diglossic situation. diglostic means that they spoke. There was a kind of conflict between what they considered correct French and the spoken language at home. Oh, okay, the gulf between those two seems very great, because you were teaching French students were when you're saying your students were really self conscious about their French, these are actually francophones. Yeah, I feel they're not speaking French properly. That right, but this is like thirty years ago now. Things have not things have changed considerably over that time period, but that was also I mean a lot of your students probably would have had a more wouldn't necessarily have had the same sensitivity to all this. Anyway. I mean thirty years ago, everything was correct, correct. So where did you start teaching and when? De French and English? Yes, I've already. I teaching a French department, so I'd be teaching. I teach in French and English. Yeah, you teaching a French department in Concordia. Yeah, okay, I didn't know that. I was wondering why. Okay, and since when? Oh, well, the S,...

...let's say the S. and what were you doing before that? Actually, I did some freelance journalism. Oh really, they were you reading for? Well, in those days one could do a lot of freelance stuff. I worked for radio KINDADA International. Okay, yeah, that's as a freelancer as a freelancer. Yeah, a lot of fun. I did a bit of a magazine stuff, but mainly the radio. That was really fun. Yeah, radio, okay, I learned a lot, even in English, the International Radio when I first moved to mantrial. That was like a employed a lot of people then. Yeah, yeah, I'm sure it doesn't. Yeah, yeah, so it's much easier to be a freelancer in those days. So I think I suspect. So, all right, was there anything that you particularly want to be recognized for? To me, my book on Montreal is most open to to a general readership. Okay, but what is it that you're proud of in that? What what changed in you from the beginning of that book and and what you created at the end? Oh, that's that's the next question, because it's so much reflected. Came out of my personal experience and I feel that it's a perspective on the social and cultural history of Montreal that is not being explored elsewhere. Okay, the cultural and social history. So I said something about those years from let's say nineteen forty to nineteen eighty, where a fundamental shift occurred in the nature of the city. In what way. Well, it went from being a largely anglerful and city to a Francophone one. It was a city that was translated into French through a, you know, a variety of factors, and they weren't just political, they're also cultural and it and and and and translators were actors in that, in that shift, translators in a very broad sense. And so I've kind of introduced a taste of characters in the book that are examples of the kinds of actions that that happened like during those even when, example, well, I have come every examples. Okay, I think my favorite character is Malcolm read. Welcome. Read, was a journalist in the S. okay, who. Yeah, who, who wrote about Montreal? Who wrote about Francophone Montreal, about what was happening? You wrote this wonderful book called called, called, called this, the shouting sign painters, the showing sign painters. Yeah, it's a translations. Okay, it's a fabulous book. It's a it's a very exciting book about how how the poets and Songwriters of Montreal during the days were, or we're, transforming language, transforming Quebec identity, and how that scene was especially exciting for for anglophones. Oh, how would...

...how did he say that? That's interesting, but you were around then, like you were experiencing this to write sort of, I was actually in Paris for part of that time. Okay, okay, but but no, Malcolm read's book was is a great book because it's beautifully written and it was kind of like a travelog where he travels from English to French Montreal and reports back to doing to the English population about what's going on. People don't work like Montreal Star. Where was it? No, no, was it is a book? Oh, no, it's only the book. Then he didn't actually he didn't use that as part of his journalism. He just wrote about it in a book. I think so. Yeah, people don't realize to what extent Quebec what was happening on the French side of town was, was very exciting to a whole group of Anglos at the time, and so he sort of represents these. Yeah, is he still alive? Yes, he lives in Quebec City. Really So, have you interviewed him? Oh, I know him, but I I didn't interview I just wrote about it. You wrote about yeah, his book, but you don't yet until he's a character. He's a he's a very interesting guy. And so, okay, so that's your favorite book. And the gender one was the first sort of one where you got known, and then you move into mean you're almost, you know, cities and Translation and translating Montreal together a sort of combined into you being an expert on how language forms a city or how it shows. Yeah, and so how, Ye, have you taken that forward? What is your next adventure? My next adventure is going to be a book called polyglot places. Oh Really? Yeah, okay, polyglot places. Yeah, do you like that? That's a I don't like. I don't like it by itself. I liked how you did other things where you use something like that and then you make it specific about what you're actually saying. So I suspect you know, okay, cities in translation has movement to it, whereas polyglot places doesn't have movement yet. There's no shift. I see. Okay, all right. Well, it's going to be called something like a guide to maybe it'll be a guide to polyglot places. Anyway, I will depends on what this thing is. You haven't finished the book yet, so I suspect you'll figure it out at the end of it, because it's sort of grounds up exactly discover as you write it right, I miss an. Your research is going to now absolutely and I'm actually trying to write it now. It's going to be about specific sites in cities across the world that that you can understand through their translation histories. So places in a very broad sense, like hotels or okay, yeah, that whose history is a history of translation. Good Guide. Yeah, Guy Looks it's like a guide bug. Well, because you said, it sort of accidentally happened that you became this historian on identity through language. What made you? How were you able to take your curiosity and make it work so well? Hmm, I think it really I...

...think the fact that might that this work was grounded in my personal experience of living between languages and and exploiting the discomfort of that, the potential discomfort of such a situation, right just made it more of an organic quest, because it was always something I s all these issues are ones that I feel personally concerned by, right as it, as a citizen of a city like Montreal, we're always aware of the very potentially uncomfortable ground that we're standing on. The uncertainties, the uncertainties in our language, the uncertainties of our identifications, who we are, where we are, and these what some people considered to be a handicap. He came for me the advantage. Okay, and inventage in what way? Just because you can see it more clearly or because you yes, yes, now I think I see a lot of situations. I go to Barcelona, I understand that city because it's it has so many of the qualities of what we had here that that very sort of that very kind of existential sense that I had as a kid when I would travel across town, take buses and end up sort of in the wrong side of town and and and feel unwelcome. Okay, that's that's interesting. So you basically turned around the stranger feeling and you turned it into an opportunity to be a true journalist. I'm looking at things and defining whats and yeah, yeah, wow, okay, I think that's awesome. I think I have some times and listen, there were great dis questions. I appreciated fastening the conversation. Thank you very much. Thank you. Okay, bye. I did thank you for listening to an apologetically Canadian. This episode was brought to you by Cobo. Use My affiliate link from the show notes for five dollars off your first order today.

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