Internet Shakespeare Editions

Shakespeare in Québec -- page 4

"Of an Age" or "For All Time": Translating Shakespeare in Québec

Language, of course, has always been at the heart of issues of cultural identity in Québec. Shakespeare in francophone Québec may be, as Dennis Kennedy has pointed out, Shakespeare without his language. But this makes all the more significant the new linguistic identity Shakespeare acquires in translation. The choice of language into which one translates Shakespeare is not ideologically neutral. On the one hand, the translation of Shakespeare into another language is a means of accessing the power and the authority attributed to the universal Shakespeare. On the other hand, it is a means of asserting the power and authority of the target language, its own capacity to possess, to express, and indeed to reshape the language of Shakespeare.

The appropriation of the translation function in francophone Québec was an act of national pride. 1968, the year of Hamlet, prince du Québec, also saw the first made-in-Québec translation of a play by Shakespeare. Previously used translations had of course come from France, and in an interview Jean-Louis Roux, an actor and a founding director of the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde in 1951, explained his motives:

The first reason why I decided to translate Twelfth Night myself is merely that I wasn't happy with the existing translations. Not one of them made me perfectly happy. Secondly, if you consider the business angle of our craft, I cannot understand why we should pay French people to make our own translations in French, particularly since all (or practically all) of them know less about English than we do.

At the same time Roux was ambivalent about the implications of his act of translating Shakespeare. On the one hand, the French he claimed to be striving for was ostensibly placeless: "So, I decided to translate Twelfth Night - not, let us say, in a particular "French" - I did not translate Twelfth Night in "French-Canadian", or "North-American" French - I translated it in French." On the other, he recognized that a different time period called for a different Shakespeare: "But I tried to make it understandable to an audience living in 1968-69" (qtd in Bolster, "Shakespeare in" 108).

Roux's Twelfth Night, and his numerous subsequent translations of Shakespeare thereafter which include Hamlet (1970), [7] Julius Caesar (1972), Othello (1986), Romeo and Juliet (1989), and King Lear (1993), assumed that Shakespeare doesn't change, though the language it takes to make him understandable may have to. Like novelist/ playwright Antonine Maillet, whose translations include Richard III (1989), The Tempest (1997), and Hamlet (1999), he placed himself in the service of the Shakespearean text whose truth he assumed to be stable and timeless.

But in the 1960s and '70s Québec, where language was central to the issue of national identity, it was difficult for some to assume that any version of the French language could be ideologically neutral. In Québec, where the French language ran the risk of drowning in a sea of English, the creation of a national literature was particularly important because literature was a vehicle of linguistic identity: "Literature is the sign that we exist," in the words of playwright Marcel Dubé (qtd. in Brisset 253). And theatre was seen as a privileged site of this process. Theatre, the literary genre characterized by its orality, could affirm by displaying them the language's characteristic forms, which included not only a distinctive lexicon but also characteristic constructions, rhythms, pronunciations, etc. The very language which in its urban Montreal working-class form had been derisively called "joual" (the pronunciation given to the word "cheval") became an important badge of national self-assertion. It was on the stage that many literary artists chose to display with love and flaunt with defiance the abjection and abasement of an oppressed québécois people and turn its language from a source of shame to a source of pride.

In contrast to Roux's translation of Shakespeare into a placeless French, Michel Garneau in 1978 translated Macbeth into Québécois, an act whose significance was not lost upon spectators and critics. Garneau's translation asserted first and foremost that Québécois was a language, not a dialect or an archaic, corrupt and debased version, as was believed by some, of French as spoken in France. Secondly, it demonstrated that as a language Québécois was up to the task of rendering Shakespeare's play. At the same time, because the québécois language was rooted in the lived experiences of its people, Garneau not only translated Shakespeare's Macbeth, but also transformed it. Annie Brisset (193-257) has persuasively shown the ways in which Scotland under the tyrant Macbeth became conflated with a Québec that also needed to liberate itself from an oppressor. And Garneau himself recognized the impossibility, at least in the Québec context, of a "neutral" translation, by coining the term "tradaptation." Garneau's Macbeth in pre-referendum Québec was, in the words of director Roger Blay "both a theatrical and political event" (qtd. in Dassylva).

Garneau's Macbeth has since become the translation of choice in Québec, having been used in all but one of the play's five productions between 1978 and 1998, though its political force has changed with the context (cf. Lieblein, "Theatre Archives") and ostensibly "faithful" translations by Jean-Louis Roux and Antonine Maillet, as we have seen, continue to be commissioned and performed. Most recently it is playwright Normand Chaurette, for whom Shakespearean translation has taken many forms, who has come to embody the flexibility of the act of translation in Québec. Chaurette has been translating Shakespeare since 1987, when his attempt to translate Richard III turned into his own Les Reines [Queens] (1991), in which the women of Shakespeare's play, displaced from the center of power, are allowed to occupy center stage. His translations, as in the case of his two very different versions of As You Like It in 1991 and 1994, are often, because the product of a close collaboration with a director, intimately tied to their mises-en-scène (Riendeau). Chaurette has also translated The Tempest (1998), Romeo and Juliet (1999), and The Merry Wives of Windsor (2002).

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Notes

[7] Dates of translations refer to date of first production. [Back]