Geneviève Robichaud: Self-Translation in Two Movements

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I am not a theoretician of the bilingual text. Not yet anyway. I have merely, like other writers who find themselves in the bind of a “dual linguistic identity,” sought, on one hand, to channel the otherness of the self in self-translation,” and, on the other hand, to highlight, indeed play with, the privilege of living in translation (September, in fact, marked the beginning of my PhD studies at l’Université de Montréal where I will be researching authors whose body of work is written in more than one language).

From a purely aesthetic point of view, especially in the way they subvert origins and notions of author(ity), self-translations complicate notions of authorship, originality, equivalence and commensurability. What rises to the surface, or what has been carefully chosen in one version while being omitted or altered in the other, points to a particular play of mirrors – one that, I want to posit, launches the idea of the original down the rabbit hole; it is no longer a question of being faithful to the text but of expanding it, or as Sherry Simon writes in Cities in Translation, it is the moment when “the confrontation of languages results in entanglements which are both conflictual and productive” (18).

What self-translation makes increasingly visible, moreover, is the translation itself as well as the translator, which enlarges the productivity of meaning, especially as the bilingual reader moves between two texts and discovers that there is a sort of co-enunciation at work (in several ways the process is also analogous to the playful exchange between the above dialogues and this essay). Beyond enlarging the productive signifier of the text, the previous dialogues evince a continuation of the writing process where the bilingual text uses two language systems to complete its meaning. Viewed another way, l’Auteure (in English) and l’Auteure (en français) unfold the fugitive character that is (self)translation practices, but more specifically they illuminate from within the (im)possibility of commensurability.

What I wish to argue, then, is that the friction between both versions of the text makes the self available to the reader in a way that other kinds of translations do not. This self is not necessarily me, the dialogue’s author, though it can be, but a self that emerges in the formal décalage between author and reader, between interlingual and intralingual exchanges. More to the point, one might say that self-translation, in its construction of the double, offers a particular kind of play of mirrors, one that allows the text the possibility of being its first reader, its first critic, especially if we concede that this fracture between author and reader, English and French, also implies a constant cohabitation with the other (the image of the mirror here is more than apt in terms of conjuring the face à faceness of the above dialogues). But perhaps that is already made obvious in the diner scene where the Chiac characters and their English doppelgangers “remain in constant earshot” of each other, and where the fractures in narrative continuity from one version to the next allow, I think, for a playful disarming of the Chiac dilemma (which is usually constituted as a struggle to attain legitimization, of having a voice, and one that conveys at multiple levels the playful and yet cumbersome character of Chiac itself – a Moncton-based French which fuses Old French and contemporary English). The knowledge of the other also temporarily grants these two characters a sort of temporal reprieve where they can “basĩcally faire ãnything cousse qu’on veut.  // L’AUTRE: Comme révolutionner le texte?// L’AUTEURE: Réviser tu veux dire? // L’AUTRE: Non, ej voulais dire ça que j’ai dit : révolutionner”.

Like sly con-persons, the act of liberation from the stronghold of the dominant group, English, wavers, especially as the question veers more towards that of mode or genre rather than to that of language – the dialogue being ultimately not between l’Auteure and l’Autre, but between the two versions of themselves. “In the shadowing of one language by another,” Sherry Simon writes, “in the ghostly presence of one behind the other, there is a widening of the frame of reference. No one vocabulary will suffice, no one channel can access the multiple planes of expression. Just as visual and plastic arts today abandon the single frame, the written word expands its reach” (Translating Montreal 321). If the act of self-translation is a creative one, then perhaps it is more apt to speak of two versions, each one furthering the other. This was true of the writing process itself where the Chiac version sent me to the English version to perform certain changes; this bouncing back and forth, a form of collaboration not present in other kinds of translations, shows that the language of original and target text are less than apt terms. A more appropriate lens, then, might focus on the act of (re)writing that occurs, especially as it implies an “intra textual” return from one language to the other.

The complementary relationship that the term rewriting suggests, rather than original and target text, allows one to encounter the work from the inside out instead of performing a reading across (though that might also be a strategy); the former is less surface ridden, it acknowledges the porousness of the self as translator while also inhabiting what Sherry Simon calls the “third space of dual-languages.” Or perhaps it is the already inherent back and forthness of the Chiac dialect that “sends you coming and going between disturbing effects” and which defuses the tension and “gêne” it advances: “C’est vrai qu’on parle mal,” notes l’Autre, “bũt whõ cãres?” (Sommer 29). In any case, this capaciousness offered by the code-switching dialect, illuminates from within, I hope, Chiac’s position as “a powerful player instead of a subordinate contender” (Sommer 37); “cé pas comme si qu’on disait juste ãnything. Y a des règles you know,” notes L’AUTEURE. And though those rules are most often intuitive and learned by their native Moncton (and surrounding) speakers by a process which I am tempted to call “cultural osmosis” (instead of the more loaded and frequently used term “assimilation”), and while that osmosis often renders one unable to explain why expressions like, “j’ai crosser la street” is not actually Chiac, or at the very least is badly spoken Chiac, the rules, like any other tongue, still apply…but I digress.

What I hope to have shown is that self translation practices dramatize not only the cohabitation of languages, but they also explore the implications of the “self” in translation, which in turn encompasses a much wider field of possibilities than the act of moving from the original (or source text) to the new or translated text. But the creation of a bilingual text is also the creation of a single polyphonic work that incorporates the translation project directly into the body of the text by allowing the narrative to be (bridged by) produced in English, French and the Acadian dialect I have been referring to as “Chiac”. The effect of this cohabitation of languages is not simply an arbitrary pastiche, one being created for a purely ludic undertaking, but rather it portrays the narrator as a linguistic assemblage creating a series of textual embodiments (both literary and theoretical) by linking them with a self-reflexive impulse (in French called autofiction).

The work, then, gains not only a multilingual aspect but a linguistic hyper-awareness where the writer as storyteller and the writer as scholar meet at several textual intersections. By citing from my own work of fiction and extending it with criticism, I hoped to have theorized from within the narrative excursuses inherent in thinking and writing in more than one language and how that polyphonic thinking can generate new narrative possibilities (both theoretical and fictional).

Works Cited

 Simon, Sherry. Cities in Translation: Intersections of Language and Memory. Ed. Michael Cronin. London & New York: Routledge, 2012. Print.

 —. Translating Montreal: Episodes in the Life of a Divided City. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2006. Print.

 Sommer, Doris. Bilingual Aesthetics: A New Sentimental Journey. Durham: Duke UP, 2004. Print.


Geneviève Robichaud is an editor for Lemon Hound.

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