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

  • Luis G. Henriquez

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

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, …

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