Language Smugglers: Postlingual Literatures and Translation within the Canadian Context

By | September 11, 2023

In 2014, prominent Québécois columnist Christian Rioux published a fearmongering opinion piece on the use of “Franglais” (or Frenglish) in one of Quebec’s most prominent newspapers, Le Devoir, and sparked a province-wide controversy. In his piece, Rioux deplores the degraded quality of the French language he supposedly observes in Quebec and, most importantly, points a finger at Dead Obies, a Montreal-based rap group whose lyrics are composed of what Rioux frames as a “suicidal” mix of French and English or, as he also puts it elsewhere, a “sublanguage spoken by handicapped [sic] beings in the process of being assimilated.” According to him, users of Franglais, or Frenglish, and especially its representatives in the cultural and artistic sphere, are obliviously (or worse, willfully) contributing to the assimilation of the Québécois nation by contaminating French, its true and only correct mode of expression, with English and other illegitimate forms.

Many commentators and public intellectuals weighed in on the matter: on one side, Rioux’s brand of cultural nationalism centered on the purity and prominence of French as distinct from and threatened by the demonized English language of the Canadian majority. On the other, scholars, activists, and artists interrogated what they saw as the exclusionary mechanisms of the monolingual model of Québécois nationalism and as a moral panic whose primary function is to reposition the French majority as a victim within the very province it governs. The debate around linguistic normativity, the purity of French, and most importantly its centrality in the articulation of the Québécois nation and the movement for separation and sovereignty of the second half of the twentieth century was not new in itself. Indeed, these questions often emerge in public discourse in Quebec, the now infamous 2014 debate on Franglais being but one significant example.

If linguistic purism is at the heart of present-day articulations of Québécois nationalism, it is also at the very heart of what translators do in their everyday tasks. Indeed, the practice of translation shares one thing with Québécois nationalism: the idea that languages are fixed, bounded, distinct systems that are and that must stay mutually exclusive. From the “chasse aux anglicismes” and the general condemnation of “linguistic interference” to repeated observations about the “genius of the language” or the “naturalness” of this or that expression in this or that language to the very prescriptive ways in which we evaluate, revise, and correct translations—simply put, according to the number of “mistakes” they contain—professional translation training and practices are for the most part articulated around the goal of attaining and maintaining linguistic purity, to the point where translators are often seen as the holders of the legitimate norm.

This book emerges out of the realization that translation creates, reproduces, and solidifies the linguistic borders that are mobilized in order to enforce and justify exclusions from a national community and from the rights, resources, and privileges that come with it. How can we reconcile translation, a practice typically centred on linguistic normativity, with growing concerns for social justice and the political conviction that linguistic borders produce and reproduce social inequalities on the basis of linguistic belonging and/or performance?

Echoing the empirical plurality of voices and linguistic practices found on the territory claimed by the Canadian state, as well as the challenges made to a “unified,” “legitimate” view of the Canadian (or Québécois) nation, more and more literary texts published within the confines of the Canadian state transgress the “one text, one language” model of writing. Indeed, in recent years many books of fiction and poetry published in Canada, especially by queer, racialized, and Indigenous writers, have challenged the structural notions of linguistic autonomy and singularity that underlie not only the formation of the nation-state but also the bulk of Western translation theory and the field of comparative literature.

In fact, what if no text is ever written in a single language? Rather than asking how we can translate the “vernacular” aspects or the presence of “languages” or “registers” other than the standard ones in these texts, as others have done, this book turns to literary works that problematize the very foundations of translation, an activity theorized as taking place between languages and, as such, as dependent on reified linguistic difference.

This book points to a new, alternative language consciousness that looks beyond the predetermined linguistic borders we tend to take for granted. It is inspired by a series of texts written by contemporary authors — Gregory Scofield, France Daigle, Joshua Whitehead, Kevin Lambert, Nathanaël, Oana Avasilichioaei, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson and Georgette LeBlanc — who are invested in undoing the normative and violent borders of colonial and patriarchal categories (such as race and gender) that are often used against them. Importantly, the writers featured in this study are, as the title of the book suggests, language smugglers: they deliberately “smuggle” foreign, unwanted, disruptive linguistic elements into an official, sedimented, and dominant language, much as people all around the world smuggle “illegal” people or commodities across national borders throughout the world. As such, smugglers constantly reveal the porosity, artificiality, and precarity of borders, at the same time as they experience their very real, material violence. Guided by a number of language smugglers who enact a complete disregard of linguistic borders, this book explores possible ways in which translation can, and should, enact a similar refusal of linguistic categories. Echoing recent calls to counter liberal conceptions of translation as exclusively positive—as peaceful and desirable mediation between cultures, as building bridges, and so on—this book sees dominant modes of translation as intimately tied to the needs of a capitalist and colonial world order. In this light, crossing (linguistic) borders is not enough, as it keeps borders intact. Rather, we must undo the borders that bound language, order social hierarchies along linguistic lines, and limit our linguistic imaginaries, practices, and solidarities.

Arianne Des Rochers, author of Language Smugglers, is originally from Montreal and is Assistant Professor of Translation at the Université de Moncton, in unceded Mi’kma’ki. They hold a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Toronto. They have also published thirteen books in (co)translation, including Kate Briggs’ This Little Art, Billy-Ray Belcourt’s A History of My Brief Body, and Joshua Whitehead’s Jonny Appleseed, which was shortlisted for a Governor General’s Literary Award in 2020.

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