ABSTRACT

Montreal’s cultural landscape long had the look of a standoff: the more powerful English in the west, the more numerous French in the east, and immigrants in a narrow buffer zone between them. From the 1880s until the 1950s, this middle ground was largely occupied by Yiddish-speaking Jews. Though the power of these boundaries has diminished since the 1950s, the memory of these

divisions has made Montreal a city where translation carries strong social and historical resonance. Crossing from one zone of the city to another still means changing languages, entering new time zones, and engaging with the legacy of competing identities. And so, to follow the pathways of Yiddish through the streets and neighborhoods of the triangulated city is to find a rich point of entry into the history of Jewish Montreal. Leonard Cohen, Montreal’s most celebrated Jewish writer, was irritated by the tensions of

Montreal’s conflictual traditions. The dissonant clamour of the city became a burden to Cohen-who, like his character Breavman was relieved to leave behind Montreal’s “ugly magnificence” (Cohen 1963: 128) and to turn his back on its “absurd” and “vicious” “crossfertilization” (Cohen 1963: 113). This was a city whose differences were aggressive and intrusive, reminders of past wars which would not go away. “ … In Montreal there is no present tense, there is only the past claiming victories” (Cohen 1963: 125). By contrast, the poet and novelist A. M. Klein, a generation earlier, experienced his home

city Montreal in resonance with the other great cities of historical Jewish culture, Prague, Amsterdam, Cordova, Venice, reflecting back onto Montreal their richly polyglot worlds. Klein’s modernism takes shape within the multiple languages of his home city, recalling the experience of canonical Jewish writers who were also shaped by the divisions of their cities, like Kafka in German-Czech Prague (Spector 2000). Not only is the city a site of competing languages, it is a space that recedes infinitely into the past, a layered construction of new and old, relics and innovations, a palimpsest of memory and a polyphonic display of sound. Whether reacting against or in favour, the Jewish community of Montreal has been shaped

by the competing identities and languages of the city.1 Many commentators have explained the strength of Montreal Jewish institutions by the markedly parochial character of the city, and the resulting need for each community to develop its own resources. The tack I will take is somewhat different. I would like to show how Montreal’s strong language consciousness has allowed for a singular valorization of Yiddish as a vehicle of Jewish experience. The story of translation from Yiddish through successive embeddings of language into city space offers an unusual

narrative of connections across communities. Few cities permit mappings across such stark lines of spatial and linguistic division; few North American cities have experienced the kind of language make-over which Montreal underwent during the second half of the twentieth century. I will follow the travels of Yiddish across the city, as it leaves the central zone of immigrant experience and becomes folded into the Anglicized Jewish community but also, in an unsuspected deviation, moves into the francophone community as well. The following pages will explore three directions of translation: translations into Yiddish, from Yiddish into English, and from both English and Yiddish into French.2