Montreal’s third space
The language games of the city are not always intentional or funny. And indeed, to live in Montreal is to experience daily the unruly aspects of translation, its gains and losses, its differing cultural objectives, its unsettling effects. The mood of these manoeuvres reflects the historical resonances that inform language politics in Montreal. The translating-over of public space was a necessary move, fortifying French in its struggle to survive in a small corner of a vast English-language North America. As in Barcelona, the protection of the regional language is essential to its survival and legal measures indispensable. Yet the regulation of language is a difficult business.1 The influence of one language on the other is inevitable, and can be cause for outrage (“Why can’t translators get it right?”) but also for ludic hybridity (as in the slogan “Lait’s go!” used by a milk company to promote itself with the skateboarding crowd). These examples point to the way in which languages interact in Montreal,
not necessarily in the form of conventional translation but often in fraught or deviant forms of contact. Generally the story of Montreal is told from one language side or the other. But my aim is to highlight the interactions among these communities, showing that the circuits themselves are part of the story. In Montreal, as we saw in Calcutta, to travel across town is to enact the double sense of translation: to move across space and across language. As in other cosmopolitan cities, the sidewalks of Montreal are today
alive with the languages of migration and globalization. But many of these languages have only limited engagement with the city. It is the patterns of translation which will tell which languages count. Relentless language contact can cause confusion and insecurity, but, when language is more than a currency of exchange, contact can be a source of stimulation. Proximity breeds tensions, intensifies the meaning of language collisions, enrolls them in the struggle or turns them into play. Far from being a site of harmonious difference, Montreal remains a city of unequal and fraught transactions, yet which make today’s city a laboratory of new forms of expression. The transgressions and unruliness of today’s city, its linguistic porousness, are a product of the divisions of the past. It is because Montreal was a city of divisions that it can today be a city of mixture, that its differences can be appropriated, dislocated, perverted, translated. The literary and cultural history of the city is full of cross-town voyages,
voyages of forced or voluntary translation across time zones, voyages whose lessons vary according to their origin and finality. The Montreal imagination has long been dominated by the narrative of east-west confrontation, which is also a story of tension between languages. As the city becomes increasingly polycentred, as its language topography becomes more diverse, its translational trajectories become more diverse. These changes are reflected by the increasing prominence of the “third space”, the urban zones and forms of expression which cut across and destabilize the old divisions. Taking a meandering path through some sixty years of the cultural history of the city, calling up evocative images and portraits, I will track the transformations of this third space, from the site of a singular culture of Yiddish-language modernity in the 1940s to an ever-enlarging zone of translational writing.