Cities in Translation: Intersections of Language and Memory

Sherry Simon (2012)

London and New York: Routledge. 204 pp. ISBN 978-0-415-47152-7. £ 26.99 PB

Reviewed by: Paschalis Nikolaou

From ancient Troy, to the triangle of ‘Trieste – Zurich – Paris’ which James Joyce records on Ulysses’ last page, the significance of the city, as inhabited or imagined, setting and character, was never in doubt in literature; yet the progress from small populations and predominantly rural communities to the modern(ist) metropolis of the 20th century provoked new emphases and themes. Here, genes as well as languages, the intercultural and the technological, continue into, and evolve from, one another. Concordia University’s Sherry Simon explores some of these murmuring structures in Cities in Translation: in the histories of certain urban spaces where switching between languages is the norm, and intricately connected to collective memory and personal experience, itself so often coinciding with a unique artistic record; an aesthetic bound to bi- or trilingualism.

Borges’s poem ‘The Web’ fronts the book and indeed reminds us that literary expression is never that far from these sites. But it is not just in the often evasive and layered ways of fiction that we hear all this but also in memoir, autobiographical testimony. These contexts intensely provoke a telling, and the monograph Cities in Translation itself exists as a manifestation, via critical language, of a need that rarely leaves us.

From the outset, Simon is in praise of the ‘audible surface of languages, each city’s signature blend of dialects and accents [as] an equally crucial element of urban reality’ (1). In a globalized, vastly interconnected world, these ‘audible surfaces’ are now everywhere, even though the 20th century, especially, already includes many classic examples; Kafka’s Prague or Cavafy’s Alexandria receive mentions but the author singles out four of what she comes to call ‘dual cities’ for more systematic investigation: Calcutta, Trieste, Barcelona and Montreal. These are places sharpening ‘awareness of mediation’; where intense language relations reached critical mass in various points in history.

A Preface finds Simon in divided Nicosia, Cyprus, walking around the aptly named ‘Hermes Street’: a line of division as well as contact zone along the Green Line that separates the Greek and Turkish sectors of the city, which at the same time reminds her of Montreal. The Introduction states an intention to turn up ‘the volume of the language scenes being played out in cities today’ (20); to ascertain the social or inter-ethnic value of double languages within negotiated or partitioned cultural space, as always linked up with aesthetic traditions, and shaping sensibilities. Simon quickly recognizes that in such settings translation’s role is always more significant, if not itself part of a broad cultural endeavor. It certainly articulates, or manages, tension. And inevitably, the activities of mediators inhabiting these urban areas so often ‘exceed the definition of conventional language transfer’ (6); at the same time, Simon states that she will be ‘particularly attentive to the idea of translational writing: the zones where creative writing and translation mesh.’ (8). Throughout, this is a book that listens patiently and intently to voices ranging from local artists to city planners, balancing admirably sociological, geopolitical and translational insight: the resulting four essays exist as a remarkable synthesis of material.

In Simon’s opening chapter we consider how ‘[t]he long period of intense interaction called the Bengali Renaissance indeed strains all definitions of what translation can be, and makes translation a privileged point of entry into the cultural life of colonial Calcutta’ (26). The dramatic boundaries between the ‘White and Black sides of town’ and practitioners’ constant movements into English or into Bengali as mediated –or interrupted– through Sanskrit, alongside concerns with the Muslim population’s participation in cultural life are seen as part of larger dynamics: between national aspiration and personal artistic ambitions, altogether hard to disentangle from subtler actions of containment, controlled inclusion or literary acculturation. During this period, we come across controversial texts and translations; a range of forms, genres and authors, bowdlerized, adapted, naturalized, proselytized. Tensions arise between vernacular and official idiom and accepted models of literary heritage; an entirely freeing engagement with prose fiction occurs; the role of imitation is crucial in progressing towards new originals. Indeed, the introduction of forms like the epic, the sonnet or the novel, into Bengali, as well as Tagore’s self-translations into English come to be recognized as a form of ‘furthering’.

Moving from colonial experience to the ‘domain of empire’, of Trieste during the Hapsburg rule, largely coincides in the second chapter with productions from a solitary figure, Italo Svevo: the originality of his voice is the product of a polyglot city where people ‘tended to read in German and write in Italian’. It is no wonder that Triestines also showed enthusiasm for Esperanto; it made sense ‘in a city ringing with languages, and where the messianic dreams of socialism were also an active ferment.’ (60). And these internalizations start shaping the fictions of modernism: Simon reminds us how towards the end of La coscienza di Zeno, Svevo’s character ‘confesses to his psychoanalyst, who has requested the account that makes up the novel itself, that everything he, the narrator, has written is “a lie” because it was written in a “foreign” language - Tuscan’ (78); thus undercutting his own testimony and preventing the doctor’s authoritative interpretation.

The other two chapters, and cities explored in them, are closer to our modern experience. Τhe first, Barcelona, presents an opportunity for a thorough, contextualized examination of the phenomenon of self-translation, with ‘the figure of the double’ also taking on special significance since Spanish and Catalan are Romance languages, both born in the Iberian peninsula –so that ‘sometimes a single letter can distinguish words in one language from the other, making for a closeness which can be confusing’ (90f). Simon notes at the same time that ‘while the surface resemblances between the two languages might suggest easy communicability, in fact the separate oral traditions and the weight of centuries of parallel literary histories add layers of impenetrability’ (91). When she returns home to Montreal for the book’s closing chapter, she observes the ‘translating-over of public space [as] a necessary move, fortifying French in its struggle to survive in a small corner of a vast English-language North America’ (119). This poignant study of Montreal’s realities helpfully induces comparisons with what has come before, or even is anticipated, in previous chapters: as opposed to what is happening in literary narratives composed in Barcelona, ‘Montreal is recounted in one language or the other, and only exceptionally would French experience be recounted in English or vice versa. Rare are the writers who would translate their city out of its home territory, or consider translating their own work into the other language’ (93). And thus indeed, continues Simon, ‘[t]he differences between the translational practices of Montreal and Barcelona highlight the theme of this book – that the meeting of languages across the city is mediated by the historical and social imaginary, by its distinctive spatial and cultural dispositions’ (ibid.).

As the book progresses, certain concerns arise and alternate: the perils and opportunities of colonial reach and transgression, the inhabitation of a drastically different consciousness in social proximities, the much-needed expression of crossbred selves. Cities in Translation is defined not so much by an agenda, theoretical or methodological; but by discovery. There is an expectation of radical ideas and personalities, of added creativity in those city-spaces –and for good reason, as attested by many images of fortunate diversity or linguistic conflict (this is also a book refreshingly chockfull of poignant pictorial evidence).

So many incidents, featuring lesser-known creative or political voices are thus brought under the analytical eye of the seasoned theorist of translation: any one of these multilingual cities is a world, and Simon’s astute descriptions increase our understanding, our sense of how we write and are written by it. Despite a wealth of critical terms, too often we are brought to empathize with meanders of consciousness and dilemmas of citizenry in a book that rewards not just the translation studies scholar (to whom it is primarily addressed) but researchers in a host of other areas of study. Simon’s skill in relating these layered scenes in the course of such an ambitious cross-disciplinary venture should be commended.

There are also those who live in the streets and neighborhoods described; the inhabitants and ‘knowing readers’ still shaping a continued, necessarily collective history. Cities in Translation should add much to their self-awareness. An invitation is also subtly extended: a trip to Barcelona or Calcutta will certainly not be the same if one peruses the relevant chapter, alongside their regular travel guidebook.

©inTRAlinea & Paschalis Nikolaou (2016).
[Review] "Cities in Translation: Intersections of Language and Memory", inTRAlinea Vol. 18
This review can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Stable URL: http://www.intralinea.org/reviews/item/2215

Go to top of page