Insights from Translation Studies Scholar Sherry Simon

If one looks closely enough, a city reveals in every brick, window, and street sign a complex history and continuing tensions through its translational spaces. Sometimes these spaces of translation work to cover up a traumatic past, yet other times the city may preserve a site on purpose or accidentally. In either case, the city can speak back in fascinating ways.

We spoke with Sherry Simon, a professor of translation studies and the author of several books on translation, including Translation Sites: a Field GuideCities in Translation: Intersections of Language and MemoryTranslating Montreal, and Gender in Translation. In our interview, she shared insights about the stories and memories a city can share, through the languages that fill it, have filled it, or one day may fill it again.

Can you tell us about yourself?

I teach in the French Department at Concordia University, an English language university, and I live in Montreal. That is a big part of it. Montreal is not only the place where I live, but the place that I began to write about and that shaped my ideas about language. That is to say, it is a city that had two strong languages, French and English, that were very much in tension with each other. As the years changed, the nature of these tensions changed, but they were very strong when I was growing up, so that really shaped me.

I started translating at a time when you simply referenced texts to help you figure out the best way to translate. You had a few prescriptive books telling you what were the best equivalents between French and English, and why it was tricky to translate between those two languages. Many words were the same. We have what we call false friends, or cognates, because historically the two languages overlapped many times. That is why we have so many words that look the same, but their histories and their current usage are very different. There were not many guides for understanding what translation was about.

Over the time that I began teaching until now, that situation has changed radically. There is a huge library on translation now, in an area called Translation Studies. It is no longer linguistics, or comparative literature, or Belle-lettres, as they say in French. It is a discipline unto itself. What has become clear to me is that translation is an absolutely fascinating window onto the world.

You can learn so many things by looking at those questions translationally. You can look at poetry. Poetry is in the translation; it is not lost in the translation. It is in the process of translation, and that is what makes it so interesting. You can learn a lot about history.

One of the things that has fascinated me most is looking at histories like those of Eastern Europe, where you see cities that have changed language regimes over the decades, especially around the periods of the first world war and the second world war, and when Communism came along. An entire city could essentially be re-wallpapered with a new language. All of a sudden, the citizens who were speaking a language on the sidewalk now speak another language on the sidewalk. That is a process of translation because the city is translated from one language to another. You can come to understand memory — memory of history, memory of traumatic circumstances — as processes enacted through language.

In your book Translation Sites, you explore the question of how translation and memory intersect in the life of the city and places within the city. Can you talk more about that? What is a translation site? How might one discover a translation site?

One of the elements that is so fascinating about some of the translation sites I explore is that their histories become invisible over time. The way in which you meet that history is often at an odd angle, or a glimpse, or something that opens unexpectedly and puts you into contact with the emotion of that past. The term ghost signs has been used in Eastern Europe. A crack in the surface of a building, a façade, peeling paint, a crumbling window will suddenly reveal another language that has been painted over. You must be attentive to small signs that are going to lead you to the history. They are often not necessarily official signs, or if they are official signs, their message might be different now.

A city rich with translation sites would be somewhere like Lviv, what was at one time Lemberg, in what is today Ukraine – you always have to say what is today because the city had four or five different names over time, and four or five different languages. There is a place there called The Space of Synagogues, where there were several synagogues – very significant synagogues – destroyed during WWII.

During the Soviet regime – the soviets were not wonderful at preserving the memory of the Jewish past in eastern Europe – those places were not commemorated, but they also were not always covered over, but rather left as derelict spaces. But then The Space of Synagogues was turned into a monument, which I discuss in detail in my book because it is such an interesting monument from a translational point of view.

But there is an interesting contrast between the time when it was just an abandoned space and now. It still had a strong meaning. Sometimes these spaces are places that people do not dare touch because they know it has such a history, but they do not do anything to it either. They just leave it abandoned. Sometimes abandoned spaces are the spaces that will show a translational history. I could go on for a long time with that question. Maybe another question to ask would be how are you attentive to those spaces? They are covered over, spaces that people have tried not to show, or spaces that have simply fallen into a kind of ignorance.

There once was an opera house in Prague that for around a half century was a German opera house that played the most modern, avant-garde repertoire: Wagner, Müller, Schoenberg. But with the nationalization of Czecho-Slovakia, it became a Czech space, as had happened during those times when nationalism and nationalization was carrying small countries like Czecho-Slovakia forward.

After the second world war, any reference to German was unsavory, so all the references to that past were eliminated, thus forgetting the tremendous cultural heritage of the German language in Eastern Europe. German was the language of culture in eastern Europe for centuries. It was not a bad language. It became a bad language – a language of the Nazis, the murderers, the assassins – but the language had a history over and beyond that.

So only now as the years have passed can we begin to appreciate that. But if you are walking in Prague, you will likely not know that it was a German-speaking opera house. You must have the local knowledge.

In your book Gender in Translation, you discuss several notable women translators since the Renaissance. Are there any women translators that you can highlight for our readers?

The women translators in whom I was particularly interested were from the 1920s. There was a woman called Willa Muir, who with her husband was the first translator of Kafka. There was also Constance Garnett, about whom many people know because she is criticized as a bad translator of the Russian classics.

But she translated of her time, and there is a movement now to defend what she did because she had this job to do and she did it in record time. Not only that, but she was also a sympathizer, an anarchist, and she was very interested in the Russian modernists and the political ideas of late 19th century Russians. She did a lot to promote those ideas, not just translate.

The same was true of Willa Muir. She was a very active thinker. So what I love about these women – three or four of them I talk about it my book – is that they translated because they loved the works they were translating, and because they were doing it as part of their political projects, as thinkers, as women who had independent takes on the ideas of their time.

Especially Constance Garnett. She is one of the few names that people know as a translator, and they know her name because they criticize her, naturally. But this is unfair. Certainly one could improve upon her translations, but it is unfair not to take in the historical circumstances during which she was translating, and how quickly she was obliged to do it, and with how little help. That is what is interesting about a whole shift that is happening currently in translation studies: to look at the whole picture, and not just take the text and compare it to the other text. Who was the person? Why were they doing it? How did they work with their publisher? What changes did the publisher make over the heads of the translators?

You have discussed the use of the term multilingual as insufficient in describing cities, that terms like translational or connectional might paint a more accurate picture. What do you see as the differences in these terms?

The way I see the word multilingual used, like multicultural, is often in a descriptive way to talk about how many. When you talk about New York as multilingual, often that description implies how many languages. Of course this description is appropriate – New York has over 200 languages. But what strikes me about that is what does that actually tell you? What does it tell you about what you hear on city streets? What does it tell you about how people interact with one another? Where are the spaces where people speak these languages? Where are the neighborhoods? How important are these languages? How often are they spoken? How often are they translated into English? How often is English translated into them?

What seems to me to be the fascinating thing about translation is that it is always about connection, it is always about a relationship. You cannot speak about translation without invoking a direction. Does it go from English into Punjabi or Punjabi into English? And what does that mean? Those two different directions say different things about power of a language.

If you are a migrant, you will translate yourself constantly into the major language. That is what you must do in order to survive as an immigrant, to integrate into your new society. You translate yourself into. You are not going to find the major culture translating itself into you. That is a very strong dissonance, the weights of those directions.

And that applies all across thinking about translation: the cultural weight of those directions, whether you are translating up or down, out or in. Those are useful terms for thinking about those different weights, but also intensities of translations, and spaces of translation, where those activities of translations take place, and why, and under whose hospices.

So multilingual is a term that means a lot to us. We understand that there are many languages, and those languages exist in a territory, but translation takes that understanding one step higher to allow you to understand the idea of incorporation, how individuals and languages are incorporated into a larger whole.

Can you talk about the concept of counter-translation?

It came to me as I was writing the introduction of my book. The way I use it is in the context of these cities that have been translated over, or a history that has been translated over, as in languages that have been effectively suppressed and eliminated and murdered. If you talk about Yiddish in Eastern Europe: Yiddish no longer exists in eastern Europe because the people who spoke that language were murdered. So that is a suffocation or elimination of language.

But what happens in those cases is that after a period of time, or in a period of post-trauma, or post-violence, something happens where those languages can acquire a new voice. I will go back to The Space of Synagogues in Lviv, which is a monument devised in such a way that languages begin to speak again, and that the languages spoken in a city with a violent history could be spoken again. So I say translation is a pendulum. It comes and knocks down and eliminates, but conditions can allow a rebirth of the language through political, collective voices, through the desire that the language come to be expressed again.

Another example of such violence is the example of First Languages in Canada. I give an example of the National Gallery in Canada, which is the flagship symbolic art institution of the country. A couple of years ago, it re-did its entire collection of art to include First Nations art as the founding art of the nation – not as some ethnological art that you have to look for in another museum, but an art that was fully integrated into the history of the country.

What the museum did to consolidate this was to use First Nations’ languages as part of the labeling of the art. You usually see labels communicate information about the art as a neutral conveyor of information. But in this case, the labels themselves were written in First Nations’ languages. To me, this was another example of counter-translation: here were languages that were revived through translation. I call this an as-if translation, in that they are not necessarily saying the same thing, but it is a way of bringing the language to life in relation to the art. Of course, this is just a symptom of First Languages being revived in many other areas like theater, cinema, new street signs, etc.

Altogether, there is a whole movement of re-translation into First Nations languages that had been suppressed for centuries. These kinds of reversals, I find satisfying because they are desirable reversals. That is what I mean by counter-translation.

What are you working on right now?

I am actually getting started on a new project today. I am going to do something local. We have a large park here in Montreal, which we refer to as the Mountain. It is a local monument, and it has had a special place in the city since the city’s founding. It has a fascinating language history, so I am going to tell the story of the Mountain through language.


Jonathan Pyner
Jonathan Pyner is a poet, freelance writer, and translator. He has worked as an educator for nearly a decade in the US and Taiwan, and he recently completed a master’s of fine arts in creative writing.

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