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Sherry Simon is a Professor in the French Department at Concordia University, Montreal. The author of Cities in Translation: Intersections of Language and Memory (2012) and Translating Montreal: Episodes in the Life of a Divided City (2006), her recent work in Translation Studies focuses on the cultural history of linguistically divided cities. Earlier publications include Gender in Translation: Cultural Identity and the Politics of Transmission (1996) and Le Trafic des langues: traduction et culture dans la littérature québécoise (1994).


While she visited Smith College early this spring, I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Professor Simon. We rode bicycles from Northampton, MA to Amherst, MA, attempted to gain entrance to the Emily Dickinson Museum—despite it being closed in Tuesdays—and ended up eating sandwiches at a local deli while sharing a conversation that ebbed between academic and personal. Professor Simon is an engaging interlocutor. Her observations were pointed, her questions direct, and her demeanour at once curious and calming. While this interview took place over email prior to and immediately following her visit, I hope it nonetheless captures her spontaneous wit, insight, and openness.


Christopher Schafenacker: Translation has long been a prominent feature of your research but I imagine, growing up in Montreal, that it has much longer been a feature of your life. As an entry point into talking about the “spaces in translation” that figure in your academic work, would you kindly begin by telling of your earliest experiences with the act? Do you remember translation playing any active role in your early development?


Sherry Simon: Two languages should have been part of my youth, but weren’t. Yiddish was my father’s mother tongue, but it was not spoken in our house. My parents had moved up to the middle class and Yiddish was not appropriate. I mostly heard the language when I went to visit my father’s large family in Toronto, a crush of indistinguishable aunts and uncles who occasionally broke into Yiddish but didn’t expect me to follow. Though French was all around us, we were oblivious to it during our childhood. At school we learned grammar rules but were uninterested in actually speaking the language. There was a girl in my class who spoke fluent French. She was from France, but we thought this was a quirk, hardly worth imitating. Latin seemed like a more interesting and more valuable language, and I loved decrypting Latin poetry. When I was 15, my mother sent me to summer school at the Université de Montréal. I was the youngest person in the class by far—they were real university-level courses—and I especially remember a handsome young priest who was still wearing a cassock. The experience I remember that was most like translation was related to yet another language, Hebrew. I was given a very cursory Hebrew education, which mainly introduced us to the Hebrew letters and prayers. But one year we had a teacher from Israel who didn’t know how things worked and tried to get us to really understand. He had us read a poem by the Israeli poet Chaim Nachman Bialik, “To the Bird”.  The Hebrew word for bird is “Zipporah”: I was overwhelmed by its beauty and the mystery of entering what I had thought was simply a maze of letters.


Christopher Schafenacker: What a curious introduction to the subject! Given this background, I wonder: At what point did you gain fluency in a language other than English? What motivated you to do so, and how did added linguistic mobility change your experience of the space wherein you were living (Montreal, I assume)?


Sherry Simon: It was only in my teen-age years that I became fascinated with the Francophone part of town, and turned myself seriously to learning French. I got a summer job working with an outfit called Travailleurs étudiants québécois (Quebec student workers). This was a group of 100 university students assigned to community organization projects across the province, and I was the only English-speaker. The assignment I took on—in addition to the political work—was to learn the left wing lingo and appropriate street accent that would identify me as an insider. I never managed that. I had only one anglo friend who had picked up perfect Quebec ‘joual’, and I was immensely envious of her. My own French was at first much too contaminated by English and later by the inflections I picked up in France as a graduate student. I went to Paris after completing my undergraduate years at McGill in Montreal and then Brandeis in Massachussetts. It was a professor at Brandeis who recommended I study with Barthes in Paris, and so I did. Barthes was the opposite of a traditional French professor, and loved foreign accents. It was in this congenial milieu that I at last began to feel comfortable in French. But when I went to the Quebec cultural centre during the turbulent events of the October Crisis (the political crisis brought about by the kidnappings by the separatist Front du libération du Québec and the military occupation which followed) I was again reminded that I was an outsider at home.


Still when I returned to my city I did so as an almost-francophone, and threw myself into activities on the French side of town. I married a francophone, started a long-term involvement with the journal SPIRALE, and landed a job in the French department of an English-speaking university teaching translation. During the very polarized period of the 1980s and 1990s, I was reluctant to speak English in public. But gradually I became comfortable defining myself in terms of the neighbourhood I lived in—an immigrant neighbourhood lying on the border between the English-identified Western part of the city and the Francophone eastern part. This polyglot in-between zone represented the mind-set of a generation of Montrealers who were increasingly comfortable on both sides of the divide, and increasingly pointed to the changes the city itself was experiencing. With the new economic and political confidence of the francophone middle class, and the clear minority status of English, this in-between identity had become possible to inhabit.


Christopher Schafenacker: Fascinating. Thank you! You speak about your lack of a colloquial Québécois street accent positioning you as an outsider at home. You also mention a reticence to speak English in public only relieved once you found comfort defining yourself in terms of the immigrant neighbourhood wherein you lived. Lastly, you describe a new mindset of Montrealers comfortable living on either side of English-French divide. This hybrid resting place seems like at once a perilous and perfect position from which to begin teaching translation in the French department of an English-speaking university—perilous in the sense that your authority over of the target language was, perhaps, compromised; perfect in the sense that you were living in translation. Would you agree? More concisely, my question is: How did the positionality you describe determine your understanding and teaching of translation at the time? Additionally, I would like to ask if you were translating textual material during those years, and if so, how your described positionality affected this practice?


Sherry Simon: This is a bit of a sideways response to your questions: I can remember the sense of excitement I felt cycling across town, as I moved from one intellectual and social world to another, but also the tensions. And so in one meeting I might hear ‘male chauvinist pig’ and ‘phallogocentrisme’ in another.  I had a very strong sense of the different reading lists to be found in English-speaking vs. French-speaking universities, the different topics of discussion, and I began to understand translation as a formidable lens through which these differences could be appreciated and assessed. But this remained an intuition, to be developed much later. Translation Studies was embryonic in the 1980s when I began teaching, and teaching material was limited to the largely mechanical models of comparative stylistics. I did teach a course in the history of translation, and found this area immensely stimulating. My first publication came about somewhat fortuitously, and in relation to a very different part of my life. In 1981, I had spent six months in Ecuador with my family and had written an article for a Canadian magazine about the Summer Institute of Linguistics, a group associated with missionary activities in the jungle—and which had been expelled from Ecuador along with the CIA the very day I arrived in Ecuador.  How surprised I was, then, to find the name of Eugene Nida, a member of the Summer Institution of Linguistics, as a major thinker in the area of translation pedagogy.  What link could there be, I wondered, between this new field of Translation Studies and the nefarious activities of these missionaries? Investigating this link led me to long months of immersion in Bible translation, ferreting about in the basement of the Divinity Studies library at McGill University—a zone so solitary that the library administrator would give you your own key. The article I came up with showed how Nida’s theories were steeped in the Christian, evangelizing tradition—and hardly a model for pedagogy in Translation Studies. This work in Bible translation served me well when I later turned to issues of gender and reread the Biblical tradition through this new lens.


My understanding of translation was also nourished by another aspect of my experience. Before beginning to teach at Concordia, I had spent a number of years as a free-lance journalist, working in particular for Radio Canada International. The section of RCI I worked for was interested in sending short programs about Canadian life to Africa and the Caribbean, and I began to be interested in writers of African or Caribbean origin whom I would interview. This was a revelation to me—the idea of immigrant or ethnic writers didn’t exist during my studies—and this also corresponded to the moment in Quebec history when writers of Italian origin such as Marco Micone were emerging as important voices. Oblique forms of translation were important in the work of these writers, and this became an area of great interest to me.


Christopher Schafenacker: It is striking that your early encounters with translation came not through translating in the traditional, textual sense, but through experiences of cross-cultural interaction. You tell of bicycle rides between the French- and English-speaking areas of Montreal, observation of differences between reading lists at the city’s various universities, hours spent in the Divinity Studies Library at McGill, and awareness of translation mediated by readings of African, Caribbean, and Italian-immigrant writers. In other words, you tell of translational experiences and content but not about translating proper. Is there a specific reason why your interest in the subject appears to tend toward the former? That is, toward “oblique forms of translation” of the sort you observe featured in the work of Micone and others?


Sherry Simon: I did have one formative experience in relation to translation itself. When I was still a student finishing my PhD, I was asked by Professor Don Bouchard at McGill to help him with the translation of a volume of essays by Michel Foucault. I was to do the draft translations, he would then polish and edit the final product. He was exceedingly generous, giving me credit for the work and even allowing me a share of the royalties. I still remember some sentences of those essays by heart, and the badly-typed photocopies from which I worked (the essays had not yet been published in French, in fact they only appeared in book form in the 1994 Dits et écrits). I struggled with the material, and found the experience both frightening and thrilling. Had I been more enterprising, I might have turned to Barthes—but this never occurred to me. Instead I only translated the odd essay if asked. I was very tempted by the work of Suzanne Lamy, an important feminist thinker in Quebec, but ended up writing about her rather than translating her work. Feminism asked the most pressing questions about translation, both in terms of textual issues (the feminization of words in French, the question of specific terms) but also of the larger ideological and philosophical issues at the crossroads between France, Quebec and the U.S. Canadian feminism (that is English-Canadian feminists on the one hand, Quebec feminists on the other) was embroiled in questions of translation, and the rich debates of the 80s and 90s were the sparks that led to my book on gender. As someone who was writing in both French and English, I did a great deal of translating in my critical work.


Christopher Schafenacker: Hearing about these formative experiences with translation provides fantastic insight into the formidable contribution you’ve made to Translation Studies since. As a means of adding to this picture I’d like to ask next: Who do you consider your mentors?


Sherry Simon: I was lucky to meet Antoine Berman when he came to Canada on an official ‘mission’ to learn about translation, probably at the end of the 1980s. He was kind, generous, erudite, passionate, inspiring. I took his L’Epreuve de l’étranger: Culture et traduction dans l’Allemagne romantique (1984) as the very model of an academic book: a thoughtful and rigorous study of German Romantic thought preceded by a stirring preface where he proposed the Romantic tradition as a corrective to appropriate French translation practices. The book still remains one of the strongest statements in translation theory, its premises largely valid. At the time of his early death, he was still investigating all kinds of new approaches to studying translation—critical, historical, technological. All aspects of translation interested him, and he was convinced that the insights of translation and translators would offer much to the European philosophical tradition.


The French novelist and historian Régine Robin was an important influence. Robin’s work is not well-known in English and she deserves a wider audience—though she is very prominent in France. Robin taught me about the heuristic value of the ‘in-between’—the precarious and unstable relationships between language and identity. Her work is nourished by the widest erudition and in particular the historian’s understanding of memory, collective and individual. Robin continues to publish, in particular about cities.


Christopher Schafenacker: Having had the pleasure of listening to you speak earlier this week, I’m prompted to move from asking about your mentors to asking about your current interests and inspirations. Whose work provokes your curiosity at the moment? Who is driving you towards new ideas concerning translation?


As a final question in this interview I would also like to ask who you think needs wider representation in translation? Which writers or literary movements go undertranslated or not translated at all?


Sherry Simon: The increased interest for translation in the humanities these days is very exciting, and I find that much stimulating writing on translation comes from a cross-over perspective—whether it be philosophy or comparative literature or anthropology.  Translation Studies has always been an inter discipline, and the more varied the ideas brought to bear, the better. At the same time, concerns for social justice, the question of migration, the politics of multiculturalism, situations of conflict—these have become of increasing interest in Translation studies and I find these developments incredibly encouraging. There’s no doubt that the field as we know it now has become much more varied than even ten years ago. There are many colleagues that I admire, and whose work I read with great interest. Journals such as Translation Studies have done a great deal to transform the field and to open it to ever wider concerns. Every year I substantially revise the material in my translation theory courses, because every year the range of topics has broadened—with contributions that are rigorous and informative. My current interest are largely historical, as I’m doing research on the translational relations in Habsburg cities around the turn of the century. These were multilingual, cosmopolitan cities, usually dominated by German (as the language of culture) but where other languages were in competition. And so—when I have time!—I can indulge my interest for social and cultural history…in many languages.


In regard to the translation of underrepresented literatures:  there is a great deal of that!  A recent trip to the former Yugoslavia showed me how much literature from those countries is not translated. And even here in Canada where there is, relatively speaking, lots of translation, I think that there are great gaps: in the areas of the humanities, for instance. And how much more translation of literature there could be…


Christopher Schafenacker: Thank you!

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Published May 04, 2015 - Comments Off on DB’s Christopher Schafenacker interviews Translation Theorist Sherry Simon

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