Register Tuesday | September 26 | 2023

Crossing Town

Montreal in translation

A mosque in Mile End? That’s the impression you get looking northeast from Mount Royal, the large hill at the centre of town, toward the traditional immigrant district of Montreal. You see in the foreground a broad turquoise mushroom of a dome, flanked by a minaret. Many suppose that the ungainly monument is Greek, mainly because of the souvlaki restaurants in the area. But few actually connect the cap of the mushroom, which is widely visible in Montreal, to any particular stem. For many years I wondered what this building might be. One day I took action. I walked along St. Viateur and tracked the lofty dome down to its roots at street level: a pair of eyeless basement doors and a double spiral staircase. I climbed the stairs and read the green plastic plaque by the door.

It’s not a mosque: it’s the Church of Saint Michael’s and Saint Anthony’s. When I entered the church on a grey day in early March, I was surprised to see large illuminated objects on the altar. A shamrock and a harp were highlighted in gaudy green lightbulbs. Was this an Irish congregation, then? The church was crammed. The priest was reciting the mass in a language I could not identify, neither English nor French. When the time came for the credo, the whole congregation joined in together. It was Polish. Now I noted the family groupings, the attentive children, the Eastern bloc–style leather jackets and hairdos. This explained the high attendance, so unusual in Quebec today. When the Poles filed out, they were replaced by a handful of parishioners for the English mass at noon, mostly Italians I recognized from the local grocery store.

An Irish church in the Byzantine style, frequented by Poles and Italians, towering over a cosmopolitan and culturally diverse neighbourhood: Saint Michael’s is a compelling image of cultural hybridity, an apt reflection of the Mile End urban village, which has long functioned as a crossroads of cultures. If a neighbourhood can be said to have a sensibility, then Mile End’s has to do with polyglot interaction, transience and exchange. Standing between two zones traditionally associated with language groups—the anglophone West end and the francophone east end—Mile End is a space of translation. Hybridity exists here on many planes: in the brick and concrete of architecture, in mixed affiliations and loyalties, in imaginative creations, in the languages that circulate on its streets. While French is increasingly the language of the city, the filter through which the public world is accessed, English and many other languages are commonly heard in Mile End. The culture of the neighbourhood takes shape through this movement across languages. Translation becomes the active principle through which we can understand cultural hybridity.


Anne Carson is an internationally renowned poet and classical scholar who lives and teaches in Montreal. She spends a lot of her time reading bilingual texts, and she’s picked up a professional tic. When a text seems puzzling, she automatically moves her eyes to the left-hand page—searching for the original, for clarification. The reflex kicks in even when she is reading words in their original language. Looking “left” yields no results. It is, says Carson, like looking for “the place before the zero.”

To live in Montreal—a city somewhere between Paris and New York, Quebec City and Toronto, Iqaluit and Miami—is often to live in such a world of right-hand pages, of mixed and confused expression. English is infiltrated by French, French tries in vain to resist incursions from English. Teenagers start their sentences in one language and finish them in another, and graffiti send out truly mixed messages. Translation is called upon to play the role of regulator, to keep languages separate. But when two languages intermingle, as they do in Montreal, translation is put to the test. Two examples encountered in March 2000: a government-sponsored slogan says “Making mistakes is human” (did they assume that anglophones no longer know the word “err”?); and an English-speaking TV station uses French to play up to a francophone audience, claiming that it brings “news to nous.” Translation is a relentless transaction here. The many specialists who are constantly trying to count up who speaks what in Montreal are also now finding that labels like anglophone and francophone are inadequate. A new term has recently come into favour, “language of public use,” which has the advantage of avoiding categories of identity entirely. In the French department where I teach, we have learned not to ask students what their mother tongue is. Immigrants or children of mixed marriages—who attend high school in French, college in English and speak a third language at home—won’t know what to answer. We prefer to ask which is their strongest language. If “mother tongue” is the language one possesses intimately and entirely, it exists for many Montrealers only as an ideal—a goal as remote as “the place before the zero.”

Many of the immigrant languages, however, have only limited engagement with the city. The patterns of translation tell us which languages count, which languages are excluded from full citizenship in public life. In Quebec, the legal obligations of francization, and the tremendous volume of translation it entails, make clear which is the privileged language. All large- and medium-sized companies must have French as their working language, keeping French a viable language of business. English movies must be dubbed into French to enjoy anything more than a limited release. Here the Simpsons speak Québécois.

Alongside all these activities stand the pervasive, neat, matching paragraphs of official bilingualism. The federal government and its cohorts of efficient professionals provide the display of symmetry, the plaques and brochures that ensure the government—not necessarily the people—speaks with a double voice. This tranquil image of simultaneity and equality is necessary to the existence of Canada as a political confederation, coast to coast. To live in Montreal, however, is to experience the irregular shape of translation, its gains and losses, its contradictory cultural objectives and meanings. Language in this city is always unsettled and precarious.

Montreal has many features in common with the Trieste of James Joyce’s day, a city whose authors were important creators of the modernist sensibility. Both cities are marked by a double history, one in which nationalism lives alongside the cosmopolitan spirit, where neighbors live in distant cultural worlds. Both have a polyglot sensibility, where languages compete publicly for recognition. In the Trieste of the early twentieth century, this tension was an extraordinary stimulus for literary creation.

In Montreal, too, the pulsing of languages shapes literary culture. French is the matrix of its social and cultural life, yet Montreal was once, not so long ago, a British colonial outpost. Culture and geography chimed: an English-speaking sector in the west, a larger French-speaking sector in the east and a narrow corridor between them occupied by immigrants, mostly Jews. The spatial arrangement was a faithful model of the divisions that ran through the city’s social life. When the psychiatrist Karl Stern arrived as a refugee in the early 1940s, he described the city as “parcellated,” frozen into different time zones, living in separate histories. Looking down on the city from the lookout on Mount Royal, he saw “frontiers of distrust.” Translating across those borders was a challenge few took up then. Social geography has loosened considerably—the city today is diverse and cosmopolitan—yet traces of historic divisions remain, especially in literature. A map of such crossings shows not only the directions but also the degrees of translation.

At the extremities, translation is cool. Closer to zones of contact, like Mile End, it is more volatile and tends to overstep its bounds—to operate above or below the norm, as appropriation or hybridity. Leonard Cohen’s 1963 novel The Favourite Game recounts the life of Lawrence Breavman, a teenager who lives in English-speaking Westmount. One Saturday night he and his buddy travel across Montreal for an escapade in a downtown dance hall. The boys are out to be rebellious. They find themselves in a throng of francophones. Their night ends, somewhat predictably, with a brawl. Neither side has much of a vocabulary beyond the stereotypes they’ve been taught about each other.

Cohen himself is rarely in town these days but, in his absence, his books continue to cross the city. Last year his collected poems were translated into French—as a gesture of friendship—by the Quebec writer Michel Garneau. Cohen didn’t like the version done in France (where the publishing industry often gets to dictate the terms of exchange, even for work from Quebec). His Stranger Music had become the vague and underwhelming Musique d’ailleurs (Music of Elsewhere). Closer to home, Garneau turned it into Étrange musique étrangère, accentuating the double strangeness of the original. Garneau brings Cohen back to the city he wrote from, to the nexus of language relationships he wrote out of. This translation across the city, avoiding the Paris detour, makes cultural sense. It also makes good literary sense: translator and author were neighbours in the Plateau (the southern tip of Mile End) when both resided here.

Garneau, himself an important playwright and poet, is hardly a newcomer to translation. During the 1980s, he was one of the first Québécois playwrights to take on Shakespeare, translating Macbeth, Coriolanus and The Tempest into his own version of joual, Montreal’s urban slang. Archaic and heavily accented, Garneau’s joual was innovative and influential, not the imitation of everyday language employed by popular playwright Michel Tremblay. Garneau’s versions, surprisingly, were picked up by writer-director-actor Robert Lepage (known more for high-concept theatrical productions that downplay language) and ran successfully in Montreal and Europe.

Garneau was criticized for the heavy nationalist cast of his work, but his was a remarkable moment in the history of language crossings in Montreal. Avoiding proper names, expunging historical references, Garneau’s Shakespeare spoke to local issues and made Macbeth’s drama the battle for Quebec. A remarkable moment indeed: Garneau turned competition between languages into cultural renewal. Writing against the powerful language and literary tradition of English became a means of emergent political and cultural expression.

Some twenty-five years later, his French versions of Cohen show none of the tension of his Shakespearean texts, none of the aggressive desire to “write back” and little of the extraordinary energy that made Garneau’s work one of a series of founding texts for a new dramatic tradition. Perhaps poetry has less dramatic potential than theatre—or perhaps the nationalist moment, with its absolute faith in the cultural and political power of language, has passed.

Here’s another story of translation in Montreal. Gail Scott is a novelist, the author of Heroine and Main Brides, both set in Montreal. In an essay called “My Montréal. Notes of an Anglo-Québécois Writer,” she takes an American friend on a tour of the city, walking him through the various neighbourhoods, showing him their cafés and bars, listening to the languages around them. For Scott, it is essential to write English “with the sound of French” in her ear. “An anglo writer of my generation must, in order to express the Québec of this last quarter-century … participate in … two often clashing, but also mutually nourishing cultures, simultaneously.” For Scott, life “in translation” is more than the daily experience of living in a multilingual city: it is the basis of her creative project, as seen in this excerpt from Heroine.

“Actuellement tu te prends pour une prolétaire. Mais tu te conduis plûtot comme la reine d’Angleterre.”

“Why do you say that?” I almost forgot and asked out loud.

She said: “C’est ça que je trouve hypocrite chez la gauche anglaise. You live like bums, knowing some relative will offer you a good job when your little crise de jeunesse radicale has passed. Then you expect us québécois to do the same. Sauf que grâce à la colonisation, un québécois ou une québécoise de ma génération ne jouit pas des mêmes contacts. Donc une vie mal démarrée est vite ratée. Autrement dit, vous voulez que nous nous martyrisions. Moi, j’appelle ça ENCORE de la colonisation.”

This pissed me off. But if I pointed out to her my contacts weren’t that great, she’d probably say what she’d said before:

“Ma mère me disait toujours: marie-toi avec un anglais.”

I watched (almost pleased) as her shoulders grew round from a second of discouragement. Then her eye looked nearly (but not quite) down at me. And she said: “Je t’aime, tu sais. But I can’t stand the way you’re letting your melancholy ruin you.”

To grasp the pulse of the city, Scott wants her English to be “punctured” by French, so that it becomes a local, minor language, demoted from its world status. Not a broken English, not the equivalent of slang or joual, but a stylized idiom, reflecting the influence of francophone precursors such as experimental feminist authors Nicole Brossard, France Théoret and others. Scott has translated the impulses behind their work into her own, choosing to write “over the cusp” of the two language groups, even if this lonely position carries the risk of being misread on both sides. She claims a double heritage: French language and culture “also belong to me; it is part of my cultural background.”

As R. W. B. Lewis said of Dante, “Florence was not merely his birthplace; it was the very context of his being.” This could describe many Montreal writers— including linguistically exuberant poet-translator Erin Mouré and the aforementioned Nicole Brossard. The points of contact between Brossard and her translators are especially intense: it’s as if her work demands translations as innovative as the originals. Brossard herself uses translation idiosyncratically, particularly in Désert mauve (Mauve Desert, 1988). The novel is the story of a translator, from Quebec, who discovers a book written about the desert of Arizona. It recounts the imaginary encounter of translator and author, giving the former’s thoughts as she translates the book, and then gives us the translation itself. These three parts—the story, the commentary and the new version of the story—are all in French. What we have, then, is a rewriting within the same language, the fiction of a translation.

Brossard’s reluctance to include English in Désert mauve is striking—surely a political as well as an aesthetic decision. One might expect writers would be tempted to cross over to the other language—to convert, so to speak—but most stop short of introducing a real second language into their work. Though linguistic contact is intense in Montreal, literary institutions and traditions remain separate, and few writers actually desert their home language. Nonetheless, the boldest experiments in mixing come today from the English side; the poet Agnes Whitfield, for example, who called her first collection of poetry  “translations without originals”—the very right-hand pages described earlier by Anne Carson.

Clearly, language transactions in Montreal don’t go on exclusively between English and French—they operate in triangular relationships with the more recent languages of immigrants. The Montreal Jewish poet A. M. Klein was a fervent admirer of James Joyce. Like Joyce, Klein turned a fascination with language to literary use (he moved among four languages himself: Hebrew, Yiddish, English and French). In 1948, Klein wrote “Montreal,” a poem in which he invents words out of a combination of English and French that turn the city into a soundscape: the spiral staircases of the city’s triplexes become “escaliered homes,” rows of maple trees become  “grandeur erablic.” Klein’s poem evokes the Babelian confusion of post-war Montreal, just as it gestures toward a possible utopian fusion of languages:

Grand port of navigations, multiple
The lexicons uncargo’d at your quays,
Sonnant though strange to me;
      but chiefest, I,
Auditor, of your music, cherish the
Joined double-melodied vocabulaire
Where English vocable and roll Ecossic,
Mollified by the parle of French
Bilinguefact your air!

How would Klein’s poem be written today? In French, no doubt, but in a French unsettled by English, and by the other languages of the city, perhaps in a performance of spoken-word poetry, a genre which has become popular in Montreal at the intersection of many influences. Or in a mixed language yet to be imagined by a poet like Anne Carson.

One of the most unexpected linguistic reroutings in recent memory involves Yiddish, the language of the Jews who arrived as immigrants in Montreal a hundred years ago. Early in the twentieth century, Montreal was the site of a remarkable literary culture in Yiddish. Translations into English have become common; translations into French, however, until recently were non-existent. The anthropologist, historian and literary scholar Pierre Anctil, a French Canadian who is not Jewish, made the unusual decision some twenty years ago to learn Yiddish. Dominated by English, French Canadians and Jews had little significant cultural contact, though they lived side by side. Both Yiddish and French were at the time minor, identitary languages, and there was little common ground for communication.

Anctil’s translations changed these conditions. Avoiding the pivot of English, his work created between the two languages a live circuit that hardly existed before. He has now translated a substantial body of work from Yiddish—poetry, memoirs, labour history, novels—into French. Moreover, the translations signal a shift of intellectual territory. The history of Jewish Montreal, like the history of other immigrant cultures, was until the 1980s considered to fall under the exclusive purview of anglophone historians. Beginning in the 1980s, francophone social scientists began to pay attention to these histories, began to integrate immigrants into their work. Anctil’s translations, prepared with great scholarly care, join a number of other translations that expand the range of francophone Quebec culture.

As a curious footnote on the subject of Yiddish, a highly symbolic translation from joual into Yiddish took place when Michel Tremblay’s joual classic Les Belles-soeurs was performed in the early 1980s by Montreal’s Yiddish Theatre Company. A one-time affair, not likely to have the kind of continuity and influence that translations from joual into Glaswegian Scottish have had, the encounter nonetheless produced an eerily strange music, the music of the “never has been” and the “never to be.” It is a monument to a past that never was, where Jews and French Canadians spoke a common language.

Could Aristide Beaugrand-Champagne, who designed Saint Michael’s Church in 1915, have anticipated the dynamic culture that would take shape around and within it? Like the church, like the writings of A. M. Klein, the neighbourhood creates new mixtures out of diverse traditions. These are loose blends, suspensions, whose originating elements do not dissolve. They are expressive of the history and the imaginative life of a neighbourhood—and a city—which gives ever new life to the meeting of languages.