Translating the French/English Dialectic

By Dr Lee Elaine Skallerup

Quebec Map


I knew what I wanted to write for my PhD dissertation during my last semester as an undergraduate. I was taking a course in Québécois poetry and I was introduced to the poetry of Anne Hébert, along with her fascinating correspondence with her translator Frank Scott. Once I found out there had been other, subsequent translations of her poems into English and other correspondences, I knew that I was going to write about it.

I grew up in the English part of Montreal, Quebec, Canada. While I went a French immersion school, I lived most of the time in English. When it came time to choose a university, I took a more unconventional path, choosing to study professional writing in English at a French university about an hour and a half south-east of Montreal, in the heart of French Quebec. My goal was to eventually become (ideally) a journalist and (at worst) a technical writer. As I went through my program, I found myself (a) drawn to Québécois culture and (b) not at all interested in technical writing.

I decided that I was going to do an MA in Comparative Canadian Literature. This decision led me to take the class in Québécois poetry, to get one of the requirements out of the way. As one of my friends and classmates pointed out, this was funny because poetry and translation were my “worst” subject, not to mention that my MA thesis was on French and English Canadian dystopias. But at the same time, it made perfect sense.

For five years, I lived essentially “in translation.” I was continually translating myself for my friends and the world around me so I could understand it. I was also an oddity; I stepped into the “belly of the beast” just after the 1995 Referendum, when Quebec came a few thousand votes away from becoming its own country. Linguistic tensions were high, and there I was, an Anglophone, at a French university. It was some of the best five years of my life, and I became the person I am because of the experience I had there.

When I read the letters between Scott and Hébert, how Scott sought to bridge what is commonly known as “the two solitudes” of Canada, I knew I had found something I wanted to keep looking into. And, who could read Hébert’s poetry and not be moved by the haunting imagery, the economy of language, and the powerful messages about female oppression and empowerment? My project turned into an archival hunt that took me across the country, over the sea, and it grew larger than I could ever have imagined. The things that connected everyone, dead or alive, was a love of an author and her poetry.

This might not be as odd or improbable as some other stories, but it is perhaps rare that I knew when I was 21 what I was going to spend the next ten years working towards. And, I got there, too.

Dr Lee Elaine Skallerup has been teaching at various universities – from large research institutions to smaller ones aimed at non-traditional and minority students – over the last ten years off the tenure track. She gained her PhD “Found in Translation: The Journey of Anne Hébert’s Poetry (in)to English” in 2007 from University of Alberta, Canada. Her blog College Ready Writing focuses on education, higher education, teaching and starting an education business . You can follow her on Twitter @readywriting.



Filed under English

2 responses to “Translating the French/English Dialectic

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