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Simon, Sherry (2012): Cities in Translation: Intersections of Language and Memory. London and New York: Routledge, 2012, 204 p.

  • Luis G. Henriquez

…plus d’informations

  • Luis G. Henriquez
    Université de Montréal, Montreal, QC, Canada

Couverture de Traduction et plurilinguisme officiel, Volume 59, numéro 3, décembre 2014, p. 467-703, Meta

Corps de l’article

This book is about translation and “dual cities,” those whose specificity lies“in the presence of two historically rooted language communities who feel a sense of entitlement to the same territory” (p. 3). Each of these cities has been a privileged place for cultural and linguistic exchange because of its prominent geographical location or its strategic relevance as a commercial or administrative centre or border town, in which difference is a native feature of the urban landscape. In her study of Calcutta (1800 to 1880), Trieste (1850 to 1918), Barcelona (1975 to 2000), and Montreal, (1940 to 2000), Sherry Simon defines translation as negotiation, and the role of a translator as that of a mediator who “pinpoints the dissonances between concepts and reproduces the uneven fit between ideas and styles” (p. 6). Through the figure of Hermes, the Greek god of transitions and boundaries, and intermediary between Olympian deities and mortals, she emphasises that the work of translators is not so much to find familiar equivalences for ideas and concepts expressed in foreign languages, but rather “to remind us that these activities of understating and interpretation are tied to the cultural reality of place” (p. xviii).

Translation allows for the circulation of languages and texts, as well as for encounters to take place where difference may otherwise be viewed as ground for conflict and violence. In this sense, it is also, according to Simon, a form of critique, since it works towards the introduction of languages into the public sphere: “This means seeing multilingual, multi-ethnic urban space as a translation space, where the focus is not on multiplicity but on interaction” (p. 7). In these dual cities, the categories of proximity and distance, familiar/local and foreign are often more complex, and their linguistic landscapes are not fixed nor do their dualities apply to all aspects of the lives of their communities in the same way. The work of the translator happens at this threshold between languages, cultures, ideas and forms, all of which participate in changing hierarchies established amongst competing groups over time.

Simon broadens the scope of her analysis to include not only translators, strictly speaking, but also other types of cultural mediators, like the “larger-than-life” intellectual figure of James Long in Calcutta, a clergyman and missionary working to transfer Christian beliefs to the Bengali population while striving to salvage and promote local culture and language; a “translational writer” like Italo Svevo in Trieste, who readin German but wrote in Italian; a self-translator like Carme Riera in Barcelona, who explores the themes of originality and imitation in literary tradition to suggest that creativity can also be articulated – sometimes better articulated – through translation; and a writer-translator like Leonard Cohen in Montreal, someone who expresses himself in only one language but always draws from the language and the culture of the “other.” Each of them negotiates between language groups, whether by emphasising differences and separation, or by looking for commonalities and productive new forms.

In her introductory chapter, Simon puts forward the concepts of “distancing” and “furthering” to describe these negotiations, which may “serve to maintain the distances across communities” or “engage in a dynamic of interchange and innovation” (p. 12-13). These forms are not mutually exclusive, nor are they permanent features of cultural interaction in these urban spaces. They may in fact succeed one another or coexist in a “contact zone,” a concept used by Simon and first theorized by Marie-Louise Pratt as “the space in which peoples geographically and historically separated come into contact with each other and establish ongoing relations, usually involving conditions of coercion, radical inequality, and intractable conflict” (p. 6). “Distancing” means that translation tends to acknowledge difference and to mediate in such a way that the particularities of each language may be maintained. This takes on particular significance in cities where a language has been or is in the process of being eradicated from public space and where the remains of past denominations resurface, as in a palimpsest, by take-over and effacement. In these cases, Simon argues, distancing may turn into memorization with “the translated word standing as a monument to a disappeared source language” (p. 16).

The term “furthering,” which she borrows from John Felstiner, refers to “the productive effects and engagements of translation –the ways in which translation works against indifference, distancing and memorialization” (p. 16). This becomes especially relevant in cases in which a language or a tradition that is considered minor or marginal pierces into another that stands at the symbolic centre. According to Simon, this process is not unique to translations but expands to writings that engage in a process of “transmigration,” as is the case of self-translations in the context of the “renaissance” of previously subalternated languages. Simon suggests that intertextuality, imitation and emulation are important forms of furthering, not only in terms of language, but also of literary forms. An example of this is the introduction of the novel in Indian languages.

Another important concept found in the book is “Third-space,” which echoes Jameson’s spatial analysis of culture as analogous to the development of Capitalism in three stages (where post-modernism and late-capitalism coincide), and Bhabha’s later expansion of the spatial metaphor to further the temporal dimension into a “future-as-open-question,” allowing for a conception of culture beyond the dichotomy of centre and periphery or the base-superstructure formula. Third Space, however, is used here in reference to a third culture or a third language that does not dwell in-between two spaces, but that acts as a contingent force that reveals the false dilemma of linguistic and cultural duality. Such is the case for Sanskrit in Calcutta, Slovene in Trieste, English and many other immigrant languages from Asia and Africa in Barcelona, Yiddish in Montreal during the 1940s and until the 1960s, and more recently Spanish and Arabic. In these cities, says Simon, “duality is always engaged with the broader tensions of cosmopolitanism and diasporic flows” (p. 11).

The Third Space also refers to physical places like the Rabal neighbourhood in Barcelona or the Boulevard Saint-Laurent in Montreal. Simon’s translational cartography is rich with similar metaphors to describe the way languages circulate, struggle and interact in cities. Amongst such tropes are the bridge, “that separates as much as it joins” (p. 13), which she developed in her previous book on translation in Montreal (Simon 2006); “the corner,” that she takes from Catalan architect Manuel de Solà-Morales to represent a crossroads of traditions, cultures and language, places of encounter and conflict; the passatges in Barcelona and the laneways or ruelles in Montreal, unofficial connectors that allow for a different type of circulation and communication within the city. The symbolic value of these spaces is usually not as high as that of main squares and boulevards, which may explain why they are appropriated more easily and “organically” by the population and, in some cases, by arts and literature.

The remaining chapters of the book explore these concepts city by city. In the second chapter, dedicated to 19th century Calcutta, Simon situates her analysis in the context of what has been called the Bengali Renaissance. She shows how images of division and crossing emerged in the literature of this period, and how the physical, linguistic and social divides between the Black and White towns of Calcutta were often permeated and displaced by the city’s writers and translators. The works of prominent figures like Herasim Lebedeff, James Long and Bankimchandra Chatterjee, range historically from early “sketches of failed, untimely or ambiguous translation” (p. 26), to a moment when “the importance of genre as the unit of translation in the renaissance city” (p. 26) can be fully recognized. For Simon, this reveals how translation is ideologically charged and meaning-productive according to its particular historical circumstances, while still resonating in later spatial, cultural and linguistic dispositions of the city.

In her third chapter, Simon inquires into the particular forms taken by translation in the Trieste of the Habsburg Empire. The author lays out the context of her analysis by showing how the city’s geographical characteristics have historically made it a crossroads for cultures, languages and political struggles. Then she examines it in connection to other 19th century Habsburg cities, where German, the language of political and economic authority, interacted with other languages from a point of manifest demographical disadvantage. In her study of Svevo’s role as a writer-translator, Simon draws a parallel between Trieste and Kafka’s Prague during a period when similar struggles took place and “[the] double themes of mediation and language insecurity [marked] the literary landscapes of both cities” (68). She also mentions several figures representing the cosmopolitan vocation of the city, particularly Alberto Spaini, Ervino Pocar, and a number of women writers and translators such as Amalia Popper, Giani Stuparich and Edda Marty. The polyglot city, as Simon calls it, “has often been invoked as a cosmopolitan mélange” (p. 59), where Slovene, Croatian, Tuscan and German came together, sometimes clashing or overlapping each other. Towards the end of the century and into the years leading to the First World War, these tensions resulted in a search for new forms of expression that could not only account for the linguistic diversity of the city, but that would also open new perspectives for communication, one example being the dream of Esperanto.

Chapter 4 is dedicated to Barcelona. After a period of political and cultural uncertainty for the traditionally Catalan-speaking majority of the city, which nonetheless managed to keep its dominant status in both the financial and commercial sectors, the end of Franco’s regime brought about the Renaissance of Catalan language and culture. In this context, Simon compares Carme Riera’s discomfort with the growing space that Spanish was occupying in Barcelona’s public sphere to the linguistic stands made by other Catalan writers such as Juan Marsé, Manuel Vásquez Montalván and Eduardo Mendoza. While for some authors it was important to defend Catalan as the official language, not only of the State but also of the nation, for others, like Marsé, such an effort was no longer necessary, as a certain balance had already been achieved in bilingualism. Thus, as Simon points out: “[m]ost novels of Barcelona take for granted a basic fiction: they assume that the city is either Castilian or Catalan speaking, depending on the language in which the novel is being written” (p. 90). Despite this, she argues, the walls that have stood as divisions between languages have often been broken down to give way to the construction of passatges, private-public spaces that serve as transit ways but also meeting points. Self-translation and integration of otherwise foreign codes into the national language, as is the case of Moroccan-born Najat El Hachmi, appear as forms of furthering that show how “[the] bridges and gulfs of translation are shifting in Barcelona, new cultural distances gradually displacing the more familiar divides of the past” (p. 115). Likewise, other Barcelona authors represent these linguistic tensions by exploring the frailty and the potential of both languages and the divisions between them.

Chapter 5, entitled “Montreal’s third space,” looks at the linguistic games that take place in a city traditionally divided between English and French traditions: “The literary and cultural history of the city is full of cross-town voyages, voyages of forced or voluntary translation across time zones, voyages whose lessons vary according to their origin and finality” (p. 119). Taking the boulevard Saint-Laurent as the city’s conventional marker for division, she uses the map to locate around this axis what she calls “the three modernities” that characterized the urban space between 1940 and 1960: Paul-Émile Boduas’s studio, to the East, in the Plateau-Mont-Royal area; Ida Maza’s apartment in the central immigrant neighbourhood of Mile End; and Frank Scott’s residence in the upscale, English-speaking area of Westmount. Simon points out that translation practices during this period were marked by distancing, which means that “passages across the city, attempts to foster friendships and connections, mainly served to reveal the gap that prevailed between the communities at large” (p. 134). However, she identifies a later move into furthering incarnated in figures such as Leonard Cohen and Heather O’Neill, filmmaker Denis Villeneuve and immigrant writers like Rawi Hage.

In this book, the metaphorical connections between space, language and history are in themselves translations taking place in each city’s daily life. Through construction and usage, naming and itineraries, reading and writing, Simon sees in translation a movement towards modernity, understood “as an awareness of the plurality of codes, a thinking with and through translation, a continual testing of the limits of expression” (p. 6). The road to modernity in Simon’s terminology implies an awareness of the heterogeneity of the urban space, marked by uneven representation in the public sphere, but at the same time a movement towards dialectically produced new forms. She seems to draw this idea from Habermas’s definition of modernity as “an incomplete project,” which “aims at a differentiated relinking of modern culture with an everyday praxis that still depends on vital heritages, but would be impoverished through mere traditionalism” (Habermas 1983:13). Although she refers to “modernism,” “the modern” and “modernity” as interchangeable terms, it would be important to point out that they can be historically and theoretically distinguished to mean a transition from an old to a new order, a particular cultural or artistic period, or even an ideology. Such distinctions would enrich her description of the struggles that take place in each of these “dual cities” in a particular moment in time. They would also reinforce her idea that translation is not so much a function towards a teleological totality, but a means for the circulation of ideas between culturally and linguistically differentiated groups that converge under particular historical and geographical circumstances.

Simon ends her book by connecting her initial reference to the figure of Hermes to that of the Tower of Babel. By looking at Bruegel’s pictorial version of the Biblical theme, the author suggests that “[the] diversity of cities is fragile and provisional, strained by the pull between pluralism and the constraints of what Doris Sommer calls ‘monoculture’” (156). She sees a double reversal in the painting: first, “the representation seems to have a lot more to do with a fascination for human ingenuity and diversity than with a presentiment of tragedy” (p. 151), and second, such a tragedy would not be the shattering of a universal language into many, but the narrowing down of the city’s cosmopolitan multilinguism into a single dominant code. In her own translational journey from one city to another, the author artfully and quite convincingly describes the tensions that constitute what she describes as “a geometry [that] emerges of divided and contested space, where language relations are regulated by the opposing forces of coercion and resistance, of wilful indifference and engaged interconnection” (p. 159). Simon succeeds in making a strong argument about the important role of translation in the shaping of urban space and her analysis of the dynamics of distancing and furthering is theoretically informed and methodologically inspiring for new studies of urban linguistic and cultural landscapes on a historical plane from the vantage point of translation.

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