Dissertation Sur Les Belles Soeurs De Michel Tremblay



Parce que le recours à un dialecte non standard est jugé essentiel à la pièce de Michel Tremblay Les belles-soeurs, on s’attendrait à ce que les traducteurs relèvent le défi suivant : comment recréer l’effet du joual de Tremblay dans un contexte social et linguistique différent. Toutefois, l’étude de trois versions de la pièce (anglaise, écossaise et allemande) à la lumière du concept que Lawrence Venuti appelle «domestic remainder» (l’inscription idéologique du public cible dans le travail de traduction) montre que dans ces versions, et plus particulièrement dans la version allemande, d’autres aspects culturels de la pièce de Tremblay aient semblé plus importants à traduire que les éléments strictement linguistiques. Ces traductions mettent l’accent sur l’importance historique et culturelle des Belles-soeurs et sa contribution à l’élaboration d’un canon littéraire, au détriment d’une recherche d’équivalence au joual dans la langue d’arrivée.

When Michel Tremblay’s Les belles-soeurs premiered in August 1968 at Montreal’s Théâtre du Rideau Vert, “the event was hailed by the more radical element among Quebec critics as the dawn of a new era of liberation, both political and aesthetic” (Usmiani 30). Both this sense of liberation and the fear that prompted less radical critics to speak of “crudeness and vulgarity,” “lack of structure,” and even “lack of truth” were reactions to the language in which Les belles-soeus was written — in particular the profanity. Martial Dassylva of La Presse, for instance, had never before heard in one evening “autant de sacres, de jurons, de mots orduriers de toilette” (qtd. in Usmiani 31). However, Tremblay had also forsaken standard French and written the play instead in joual, the sociolect associated with his own Montreal working-class background. In doing so, the playwright was resisting the colonizing traditions of both English and European French (Ladouceur, “Other Tongue” 212).

The same sense of shock was not evident in 1973, however, when Les belles-soeurs was performed in Paris at the Espace Pierre Cardin. In fact, audiences were enthusiastic — although they may have been less entertained by the play’s content than by what they perceived as comical provincial accents.2 The Parisian critics were also mainly supportive; many of them complained, however, as did Guy Dumur of Le Nouvel Observateur, that the language was “aussi difficile à comprendre que le grec ancien,” even with a lexicon in the program (qtd. in McEwen 140). Performing Les belles-soeurs in standard French, of course, would have defeated its point; as Tremblay later said, “Une culture devrait toujours commencer par se parler à elle-même. Les Grecs anciens se parlaient à eux-mêmes” (qtd. in Godin 89).

Critics such as André Major agreed with Tremblay: “Le joual permet au drame d’en être un” (qtd. in Godin and Mailhot 282). The play’s language is not mere “local colour,” but integral to Les belles-soeurs, as Jean-Cléo Godin and Laurent Mailhot point out:

[L]e joual n’est pas ici un habit de carnaval dont l’auteur revât arbitrairement et artificiellement ses héroïnes; il est leur vêtement de tous les jours, il leur colle à la peau, il est devenu leurs corps. […] Sans le joual, Germaine Lauzon n’existerait pas, les Belles-Soeurs n’existeraient pas. (283)

Accordingly, Tremblay has always refused to allow his work to be adapted into standard French. What happens, however, when the play is translated into another language altogether?

Lawrence Venuti, in The Translator’s Invisibility, describes the translator as the perpetrator of a violent, if necessary, act — namely,

the forcible replacement of the linguistic and cultural difference of the foreign text with a text that will be intelligible to the target-language reader. […] Whatever difference the translation conveys is now imprinted by the target-language culture, assimilated to its positions of intelligibility, its canons and taboos, its codes and ideologies. (18)

Edwin Gentzler, who calls Venuti “[p]erhaps the most influential translation studies scholar of the last decade” (36), describes Venuti’s most important contribution to translation studies as the introduction of a method of “comparative study and symptomatic analysis” that “reveals the conflicting discourses and contradictions of the translated text” (38). A key term in Venuti’s analysis is his concept, adapted from Jean-Jacques Lecercle’s The Violence of Language (1990), of the “remainder”: the repressed functions of language that simultaneously permit linguistic creativity and defy (or are ignored by) empirical linguistic study (Lecercle 51-52; Venuti, Invisibility 216). “Releasing the remainder,” in Venuti’s usage, allows the reader of a translation to perceive, if momentarily, the foreignness of the text (Scandals 12); at the same time, however, because certain ideological positions are inherent in the discourse of the target culture, “the domestic linguistic forms that are added to the foreign text […] run athwart the translator’s effort to communicate that text” (95).3 Thus Venuti comes to speak specifically of a “domestic remainder,” which both reflects and maintains the ideology of the target audience’s community by inscribing it in the translated text (“Translation” 477).

Venuti’s ideas offer a means of steering translation analysis away from empirical linguistic methods to a greater emphasis on the cultural and political underpinnings of translation in specific historical and social contexts (Gentzler 42-3). Moreover, Venuti insists that translation necessitates a concept of collective authorship, treating the translator as an equal who must creatively cast the original text in a different form for a different cultural context (Scandals 62-66). Given the already collaborative nature of theatre, Sirkku Aaltonen has argued, Venuti’s approach is “particularly justifiable in theater translation, where adaptation ties the translation even more closely and visibly to the target society” than is the case with literary texts (110-11).

The non-standard language of Tremblay’s Les belles-soeurs poses a problem for the translator because of the risk that the transgressive act of speaking in joual will literally be glossed over by “bringing it back as the familiar” (Venuti, Invisibility 18) — what Venuti calls “fluent translation” or “domestication” (20) — and representing it as no more than a generic casual slang. In the other direction, an attempt to render joual literally risks becoming what Venuti calls “foreignizing” (20), placing the audience in the same position vis-à-vis the translated text as the Parisian audience of the original text at the Espace Pierre Cardin. Ironically, if a translation has this effect, it becomes exactly the sort of text that critics of translation pejoratively label “translationese” (for Venuti, neither “foreignizing” nor “domesticating” is a pejorative term, though he seeks out contexts in which he considers the former a preferable translation strategy).What is the translator to do, then, if it is true that without joual, Les belles-soeurs ceases to exist? What “remains,” in Venuti’s sense, if the joual is missing?

In the following brief analysis, three translations of the play (in English by Van Burek and Glassco, in Scots by Findlay and Bowman, and in German by Plocher) serve as concrete examples of how linguistic and external social factors affect translation strategies. Indeed, a comparison of how the play’s title, Les belles-soeurs, is rendered in these translations functions as an apt introduction to the different strategies. The double meaning of the title suggests that the play’s characters — four sisters, one actual sister-in-law and various neighbours — are linked by a common experience, while it simultaneously comments ironically on their lives and behaviour, which are anything but “beautiful.” This polysemous noun phrase poses a tremendous challenge to the translator, which the translations under consideration here meet in different ways.

First, consider the 1973 translation of John Van Burek and Bill Glassco, reissued in a revised version in 1994 (all references here are to this later version): one might think its title an admission of defeat, since it is called Les Belles-Soeurs (originally without the hyphen, which the 1994 revision restores). It is true that “The Sisters-in-Law” would carry none of the irony of the original. As Louise Ladouceur points out, however, the retention of the original title which characterizes the majority of Van Burek’s thirteen Tremblay translations (six of them in collaboration with Glassco) would become “the trademark of the English versions of Tremblay’s plays. With titles bereft of meaning for an English audience [...] it is suggested right from the outset that the play portrays an untranslatable reality to which [sic] an Anglophone audience can hardly identify” (“Other Tongue”214). This does not, however, point to what Venuti would describe as a foreignizing strategy, as we shall see.

The 1988 Scots translation by William Findlay and Martin Bowman, by contrast, clearly domesticates the title; this is a reasonable decision, perhaps, since Scots fortuitously has a direct equivalent to the French: The Guid-Sisters, which like the original means “sisters-in-law” and in this context has the same ironic connotations. The use of a Scots title corresponds directly to the translators’ stated desire to use Tremblay as an example of what a dramatist writing in Scots “might yet achieve with the medium” (Bowman and Findlay 67).4

Hanspeter Plocher’s 1987 German version of the play, Schwesterherzchen, produced at the University of Augsburg, domesticates the title even more thoroughly: the German literally means “little sister hearts,” or more accurately, “little hearts of sisters,” making no attempt to convey the French title’s literal meaning. As Plocher explains:

… a literal translation (die Schwägerinnen [the sisters- in-law]) would not only have been colourless; above all it would not have done justice to the irony of the original. The first part, Schwester [sister], describes the dominant relationship of the play (four sisters in the main roles); the diminutive Herzchen [little heart] provides, in colloquial German, the ironic tone of the original [Herzchen can mean either “darling, sweetheart” or “naive, simpleton”]. […] Finally, as a term of endearment, the apparently idyllic Schwesterherzchen [darling sisters] contrasts effectively with the rude tone the protagonists take with one another. (Plocher, Schwesterherzchen 24)5

Thus, already in the title, each of the translations follows its own strategy, necessitated by the conditions of the target language and external social contexts. The evidence of these factors can be seen more clearly by briefly examining a section of the play itself, chosen because it explicitly contrasts standard French and joual in the context of both naturalistic dialogue and one of the play’s nonnaturalistic choral passages.

This section is found in the first act (Tremblay, Belles-soeurs 21-29), from the entrance of the envious Marie-Ange Brouilette up to Rose Ouimet’s discovery that her son Michel has been seen with the daughter of the local Italian family. This brief excerpt contains several obstacles for a translator: first, the contrast in tone and dialect between Lisette de Courval’s pretensions and the earthiness of the others; second, the fact that Lisette herself does not speak as well as she thinks she does; and third, a full range of profanity, which can be among the most difficult aspects of language to translate, and which in fact runs throughout the entire play.

To begin with the profanity: Marie-Ange, alone, complains about Germaine Lauzon’s luck: “Moé, j’mange d’la marde, pis j’vas en manger toute ma vie!” (21). This complaint becomes in English “My life is shit and it always will be” (11), since English speakers sometimes tell others to “eat shit,” but seldom volunteer to do so themselves. The Scots is similar: “Ah bide in a shite-house an that’s whaur ah’ll be till the day ah dee” (12). German also has a fitting indigenous phrase: “Ich steck’doch in der Scheiße bis zum Hals! [I’m in the shit up to my neck]” (34); perhaps to avoid spoiling the cadence of the idiom, Plocher omits the reference to dying there.

Marie-Ange’s tirade culminates in “Chus tannée de vivre une maudite vie plate!” (22), where the English “I’m fed up with this stupid, rotten life” (11) does not quite sink to the profanity level of the original; the Scots “Ah’m sick tae daith o this empty, scunnerin life” (12), however, makes use of the Scots adjective scunnerin, “loathsome, disgusting,” to compensate for the lack of equivalent to tanné, “exhausted.” Only the German retains the original idea of maudit: “Ich hab’s satt, dieses verfluchte kaputte Leben! [I’m fed up with this damned ruined life]” (35). This comment introduces the quintet “Une maudite vie plate,” which describes the crushing sameness of the women’s days, and poses a yet greater challenge: the clash of dialects between Lisette de Courval and the others.

The quintet begins with Lisette, in a parody of “proper” French: “Dès que le soleil a commencé à caresser de ses rayons les petites fleurs dans le champs et que les petits oiseaux ont ouvert leurs petits becs pour lancer vers le ciel leurs petits cris...”. This contrasts sharply in both form and content with the other four women’s speech: “J’me lève, pis j’prépare le déjeuner! Des toasts, du café, du bacon, des oeufs. J’ai d’la misère que l’yable à réveiller mon monde. ” Glassco and Van Burek’s text provides no such clear contrast between Lisette’s “When the sun with his rays starts caressing the little flowers in the fields and the little birdies open wide their little beaks to send forth their little cries to heaven” and the others’ “I get up and I fix breakfast. Toast, coffee, bacon, eggs. I nearly go nuts trying to get the others out of bed” (12). The Scots version of Lisette’s speech is very similar to the English, though it uses “wee birds” in place of “little birdies”; but the others’ response is far more clearly in a different register: “Ah drag masel up fur tae make the breakfast. Tea, toast, ham an eggs. Ah’m vernear dementit jist gettin the rest ae thum up oot thur stinkers” (13). Finally, the German takes Tremblay’s parody of classical French to the limit by setting Lisette’s speech in verse:

Wenn am Morgen früh die Sonn’ erwacht und mit ihren Strahlen vom Himmel lacht, dann sperren die Vöglein ihr Schnäbelchen auf und senden ihr Lied in die Lüfte hinauf — [When early in the morning the sun awakens and laughs from the heavens with its rays, then the birdies open up their little beaks and send their song up into the air—]. (35)

It then drives the contrast home by rendering the others’ response in a much more clipped form: “Dann steh’ ich auf und mach’ Frühstück! Toast, Kaffee, Schinken, Eier. Ich weck’ alle auf und schmeiß’ alle raus [Then I get up and make breakfast! Toast, coffee, ham, eggs. I wake ’em all up and toss ’em all out]” (35).

Every evening, of course, is also the same: “Pis le soir, on regarde la télévision! ” (23). The English version is more optimistic: “But at night we watch TV” (13); the Scots and German, however, remain ambivalent, with “Then at night we watch the telly” (13-14) and the curt “Abends: die Glotze! [Evenings: the tube!]”(35-36). The result of this whole routine is then described: “J’m’esquinte, j’me désâme, j’me tue pour ma gang de nonos! ” (24), rendered in English as “I work. I slave. I kill myself for my pack of morons” (13). This is outdone in intensity by the Scots: “Ah slave. Ah skivvy. Ah caw ma guts oot fur a pack o getts”(15). The German falls somewhere between the two for luridness: “Ich mach’ mich kaputt, ich reib’ mich auf, ich bring’ mich schier um für die blöde Bande [I exhaust myself, I wear myself out, I just do myself in for this stupid pack]” (36).

After the quintet, Lisette de Courval speaks about her trip to “Urope,” where stamp giveaways are unknown. Marie-Ange criticizes such contests because “ça fait chier les familles qui vivent alentour, ” her vulgar expression emphasizing the contrast between her unpretentious speech and that of Lisette (25). None of the translations attempt to render Lisette’s affected pronunciation of “Urope,” but while the English and the Scots both translate the French idiom faire chier, “to make someone shit,” in English as “They’re a pain in the ass for the people next door” (14) and in Scots,“pain in the erse” (15), the German leaps to the other end of the alimentary canal: “die anderen Familien kotzt das an [it makes the other families puke]” (36).

Lisette is shocked at such language:“Regardez,moi, j’perle bien, puis je m’en sens pas plus mal! ” (25). In English, there are again difficulties representing her pretensions to a higher class dialect: “Mme. Brouillette, your language! I speak properly, and I’m none the worse for it”(14). Findlay and Bowman’s Lisette, however, says, “There’s no need for that foul language. You never hear me stooping to that to say what I waant” (15), with her affected waant, a rough equivalent of the original Lisette’s mispronuncation of parle, becoming a recurring trait. The German Lisette, like the English, has no obvious diffi- culty speaking properly here: “Mein Gott, haben Sie eine Ausdrucksweise, Madame Brouillette! Schauen Sie mich an, ich drücke mich anständig aus und mir geht es deswegen auch nicht schlechter [My God, you’ve got a way of talking, Mme. Brouillette! Look at me, I express myself respectably and I’m none the worse for it]” — though schauen here marks her as a southern German speaker, since standard German or Hochdeutsch requires sehen for “to look, see,” and reserves schauen for “to observe, gaze intently.” Moreover, Marie-Ange mocks Lisette in her reply by pronouncing sprechen,“to speak,” as s-prechen, an artificial pronunciation (in Hochdeutsch, sp is pronounced “shp”) that sounds especially affected in the south of Germany (36). Thus both the contrast of dialects and Lisette’s failure adequately to assimilate her speech to the standard dialect are emphasized in a relatively subtle manner in the Scots and German translations.

The end of the section examined here returns to the problem of translating profanity. The discussion now turns to the Canary Islands, where Yvette Longpré’s daughter Claudette is honeymooning. Rose jokes: “Les Îles Canaries? Ça doit être plein des serins, par là!” (26). This wordplay (serin can mean either “canary,” “nincompoop” or, in Quebec, “homosexual”) does not translate directly, and the English rendering changes the line to a scatological reference: “The Canary Islands! A honeymoon in bird shit, eh?” (16), while the Scots Rose is able to utter a sexual double entendre: “The Canary Islands! That’d be jist the place for a honeymoon. The coacks sit oan the nest aw day thair” (17; both Scots translators admit that their Rose “has in fact become coarser” than Tremblay’s original [Bowman and Findlay 77-78; Salter 44]). Similarly, the German takes advantage of a well-known pun: “Aha! Dann waren sie wohl bei den Kanarien vögeln, was? [Then they must have been among the canary birds/Then they must have been screwing among the canaries, eh?]” (37), because Vögeln, the dative of “birds,” is a homonym of vögeln, “to screw.”6

Lisette’s claim that the women in the Canary Islands go topless leads the conversation to the local Italian family’s lack of underwear and morals, and finally to the news about Michel Ouimet and the Italians’ daughter, which prompts Rose’s outburst: “Le p’tit maudit, par exemple! Y’avait pas assez d’un cochon, dans’maison . . . Quand j’parle de cochon, là, j’parle de mon mari . . . Y peut pas voir une belle fille, à la télévision, là, y . . . y . . . vient fou raide! Maudit cul!” (27-29). The English version reins her profanity in somewhat: “The little bastard! As if one pig in the family’s not enough. By pig I mean my husband. Can’t even watch a girl on TV without getting a . . . . Without getting worked up. Goddamn sex!” (19). Here, while Tremblay’s text clearly has M. Ouimet getting an erection — Y vient fou raide — the English Rose cannot bring herself to say it. The Scots text is less reticent, though it dispenses with the livestock: “The wee bugger! As if wan sex-mad gett in the family wisnae enough. His faither cannae even see a bint oan the telly athoot gettin a hard-oan! Bloody Sex!” (20). Again, the German falls between the two: “Dieser kleine Dreckspatz! Reicht’s denn nicht, daß wir schon ein Schwein haben in der Familie? Mit Schwein meine ich meinen Alten. Wenn der im Fernsehn ein hübsches Mädchen sieht, dann flippt er aus, der alte Bock! [That filthy little so-and-so. Isn’t it enough we’ve already got one pig in the family? By pig I mean my old man. If he sees a cute girl on television, he freaks out, the old goat!]” (38; note that “maudit cul” has been taken here to refer to M. Ouimet).

From these examples, we get some idea of how translations are defined by linguistic and cultural expectations and capabilities. For instance, as Renate Usmiani points out,“English translations tend to be somewhat conservative in their rendering of sexual expressions” (28). This seems also to be true of the German text, while the Scots text seems, in general, to be the most liberal in this regard. Scatology causes few problems, but the relatively small number of blasphemies used by the belles-soeurs finds no direct equivalent in any translation. As Woodsworth points out,many of these are replaced in both English (here she refers to the 1974 version) and Scots with common vulgarities such as “bitch,” “shit” or “puke” (222). At the same time, however, “Christ” or “goddamned” are heard frequently in the English text while no such oath, or nothing stronger than “Mon Dieu,” appears in the original. This emphasizes the women’s pious hypocrisy — though in conjunction with other aspects of the Van Burek/Glassco translation, it also raises the question of a possible anti-Catholic bias very different from Tremblay’s original critique (Ladouceur, “Canada’s Michel Tremblay” 142-43). By contrast, little other than a relatively staid “Mein Gott”or “Lieber Gott” appears in the German, with many of the religious oaths completely suppressed (e.g., cries of “Câlisse” or “Ben crisse” are simply not translated at all) — this despite the fact that Germany, particularly in the predominantly Catholic south, has its own indigenous blasphemies.7

In terms of their attempts to capture the details of Tremblay’s idiom, these three translations vary greatly. The English translation, for example, has great difficulty representing class distinctions markedly and consistently, or in translating the profanity of the original convincingly. Moreover, the 1973 English version arguably not only lacked the political motivation to find an equivalent to joual, but also, as Louise Ladouceur claims, had a vested interest in subduing the transgressive aspects of the play in order to render it harmless in the service of constructing a politically neutral Canadian canon, in which the problems of Quebec society are examined only at a discreet and dispassionate distance (“Canada’s Tremblay” 148).8 Furthermore, the appearance of the English translations in print without the metatextual apparatus of preface or introduction (in either edition) “obscures the work of the translation […] and implies a faithfulness of the English reproduction that can only result from a total compatibility of the two cultures” (Ladouceur, “Other Tongue” 213). This seemingly contradictory combination of strategies produces a domestic remainder that reduces to an amusing quaintness Tremblay’s “ideological statement made by the recourse to a colonized idiom alienated by its close contact with a dominant language” (213-14).

It is perhaps more surprising that the German translation, Schwesterherzchen, although it renders the non-blasphemous profanity in a manner somewhat closer to the original than does the English, takes little advantage of the difference between dialect and Hochdeutsch. The translated characters regularly use the casual contracted form hamfor haben,“to have,” for example, but never slip into dialect forms such as mer ham for wir haben, “we have,” or woisch (or even the casual weisste) instead of weisst du, “do you know.” In production, of course, a performer could easily use these forms nonetheless; although, as we shall see, this was unlikely in the original staging of the translation.

Plocher deliberately minimizes the use of dialect in his translation, however, because he feels that “Tremblay’s literary use of the spoken dialect is only superficially comparable to phenomena in Europe”; dialect literature in German is often socially critical but seldom political at a linguistic level (Plocher, Schwesterherzchen 22). Furthermore, “the criteria of subculture, minority and economic disadvantage have no basis analogous to joual in any variant of regional German. All the less, since so-called dialect literature has for some time enjoyed high respect in this country, and is mentioned in the same breath with literature in the standard language” (23-24).

Plocher’s contention is certainly partly true. In sharp contrast to the “particularly pervasive”reverence in French culture for a centralized, unifying (and colonizing) standard language (Lodge 6-8), German culture — in part due to the relatively late emergence of Germany and Austria as modern nation-states — valorizes regional dialects and considers Hochdeutsch an artificial construct (it is also called Schriftsprache, literally “writing-language”). Standard pronunciation is equally artificial, having been codified only in 1898 in Theodor Siebs’s Deutsche Bühnenaussprache (“German stage pronunciation”; compare the British term “Received Pronunciation”). Although some regional dialects correspond to this standard more closely than others, in general Bühnenaussprache is the province of classically trained actors and non-native speakers, while most Germans and Austrians speak with varying degrees of regional accents, often depending on their level of education. Many Germans use regionalized Hochdeutsch in public and local dialect with friends and family.

There is, accordingly, a long tradition of German drama partly or wholly in dialect, particularly from the era of Naturalism on: Gerhard Hauptmann’s 1892 play Die Weber (The Weavers), for example, was first written in Silesian dialect as De Waber, before being revised into dialect-tinged Hochdeutsch. Between the World Wars, dialect was taken up by playwrights in the Volksstück or “folkplay” tradition. Unlike such nineteenth-century comic Volksstück dramatists as the Austrians Johann Nestroy and Ferdinand Raimund, however, the Volksstück writers of the Weimar era — above all Marieluise Fleisser, Carl Zuckmayer, and Ödön von Horváth — wrote wholly in dialect to criticize the mentality of the semi-educated petit-bourgeoisie (Betten 216-17). The influence of this generation of dramatists, combined with that of the British “angry young men,” gave rise to a third wave of Volksstücke in the mid-1960s (Betten 43) by authors like the Bavarians Martin Sperr and Franz Xaver Kroetz (whose first play, Wildwechsel [Wild Game Crossing], was written in 1968, the same year as Tremblay’s Bellessoeurs). Kroetz, for example, became a controversial figure because his plays dealt with such themes as incest and abortion, but not because of his use of Bavarian dialect (Plocher, Schwesterherzchen 22). In turn, Kroetz has always considered this dialect important to his work, but not crucial in the way that joual is to Tremblay’s writing. The different sociopolitical relationship of dialect to standard usage in Germany can be inferred from the fact that Kroetz has maintained that his plays can be performed in any regional dialect or even in an artificial dialect (Kunstsprache), or as a last resort, in Hochdeutsch — but not in a poor imitation of an authentic dialect (Betten 243-4).9

At any rate, Plocher continues, joual has in the meantime established itself as a literary language as well and therefore lost its piquancy and authenticity (Schwesterherzchen 22). The effectiveness of Schwesterherzchen is moreover not dependent on any knowledge of the “political, cultural and economic situation of Quebec,” since the protagonists’ suffering is “‘international’ and in many respects […] the age-old, typical lot of women” (24). It was decided that this aspect and the depiction of the “situation of the proletariat on the urban periphery”were the two central themes of the play because a German audience would already be familiar with them from the works of “dramatists such as Bert Brecht, Franz Xaver Kroetz and Peter Turrini” (Plocher, “Äquivalenzprobleme” 122); as a result, “The Quebec-specific information could quite easily be left out as quantité négligeable” (123). “Thus,” Plocher maintains, “the only remaining alternative was the koiné of a crude, graphic colloquial language” (Plocher, “Äquivalenzprobleme” 121); but a koiné, however colloquial, is by nature a supraregional standard. The domesticating translation strategies employed by Plocher are similar to those used by Van Burek and Glassco and are justified by similar means (see Ladouceur, “Canada’s Tremblay” 141-42); thus both defuse the original political implications of Tremblay’s joual and, somewhat curiously, disavow even the effect of non-standard dialect as a naturalistic indicator of social milieu.10

The domestic remainder here would seem to be marked by the cultural assumption that since dialect is not politically provocative in the target culture, it does not bear translation. This perhaps also reflects the fact that Plocher’s translation, rather than being intended for the commercial stage, is published by the academic Niemeyer Verlag in the scholarly series “Canadiana Romanica.” In addition to its possible mollifying effect on some of the more scurrilous dialogue, this context renders Plocher’s translation in danger of what Jennifer Harvie calls, in reference to the Scots translation, “inhabit[ing] with stability no site and represent[ing] with accuracy no culture,” an inability to make even the potential and problematic transference of the original’s political meaning into a new milieu that the Scots version attempts to make (13-4). At the same time, however, the translation’s use of Hochdeutsch can be seen as signalling not the register of Tremblay’s dialogue, but rather the status of Tremblay’s work as a canonized foreign author.

Further complicating matters, the production of Plocher’s Schwesterherzchen at the University of Augsburg in 1987 did not use even the text as published (a fact nowhere indicated in the playscript itself). Rather, not only the choral passages but also the individual characters’monologues were rewritten into songs — in Hochdeutsch — and set to music, so that the play became a musical with accompaniment by a live band. By this means, Plocher maintains, “the textual world of the translation was received by the target audience with the same understanding as the world of the source text was by the original audience,” since the production presented “a stereotypical pattern of behaviour that feels at home within and beyond all borders” (“Äquivalenzprobleme” 122-23). In fact, in order to emphasize the socially critical themes of the oppression of women and the proletariat, the production released an explicitly Brechtian domestic remainder, a form familiar to its audience but not necessarily present in the translated text as published. Schwesterherzchen enjoyed two weeks of sold-out shows and finally closed only because further performances could not be scheduled (130).

Both the class distinctions and much of the profanity of the original, then, are apparently most clearly represented by the text of The Guid-Sisters, which cleverly exploits the tension between Scots and English.11 This is possible because in many respects the position of Scots relative to English is analogous to that of Quebecois vis-à-vis Parisian French: that is, both Scots and Quebecois were long regarded as corrupt dialects to be shunned, while the standard language was seen as suitable for artistic and academic discourse. The very existence of The Guid-Sisters is thus “necessarily not only a literary act but a political one as well” (Bowman, “Joual/Scots” 43), which says as much — or more — about Scots and its history as it does about Tremblay or Quebec. As part of a calculated program to demonstrate the fitness of Scots as a literary and dramatic language, Tremblay’s translated plays “have come to signify in a centrally important way what they did not prior to their translation: they have come to signify Scottish national identity” (Harvie 9).

Incidentally, because the play is largely comprehensible to a speaker of English, the translation does double duty: the effect is domesticating from the viewpoint of a Scots speaker but foreignizing — or, to take up the term that Venuti prefers in his more recent work, “minoritizing” (Scandals 10) — from the viewpoint of most English speakers.12 This was amply demonstrated when the Tron Theatre Company of Glasgow performed The Guid-Sisters at Montreal’s Centaur Theatre in October 1992, and appreciative spectators and critics found themselves in a position similar to the original text’s Parisian audience of 1973. As Doug Babington wrote, echoing Guy Dumur, “Glossary [in the production’s program] notwithstanding, I had missed plenty of lines”(1075-76; see also Salter 40).

Despite the difficulty of the language, Judith Woodsworth claims that the Canadian critical reaction “corroborated the translators’ conviction that the Scots version provides a better ‘fit’ for Tremblay than the previous Canadian translation into so-called ‘standard’ English” (224). It is also worth noting that in a recent British edition of three plays by Tremblay (2001), two English translations (Glassco and Van Burek’s Albertine in Five Times and Sandra/Manon) appear with The Guid-Sisters, suggesting that perhaps in the United Kingdom, the Scots text is seen as more bankable than the English Les Belles-Soeurs.13 None of these assertions, however, should be allowed to obscure the fact that it is on the basis of Glassco and Van Burek’s English translations that Tremblay has become one of the relatively few writers canonized in both French and English Canada (Ladouceur,“Canada’s Tremblay”137).

In fact, it is ironic that, even while the Scots translation supposedly most successfully conveys the linguistic register of Tremblay’s text (Woodsworth 222), it does so by more completely dis-placing the play: by transplanting it into a cultural space comprehensible to its audience, a fictional Scots-speaking city named “Montreal.” As Bowman explains, “by leaving the play unadapted, we hope to enhance the universal significance which Tremblay and others have claimed for it” (“Joual/Scots” 53). As a result, however, this rewriting of Tremblay both better represents the cultural milieu of the play linguistically than the English or German translations choose to — and misrepresents the cultural milieu by more overtly falsifying it in the name of fluency. This trade-off encapsulates the dilemma of translation: the more capable the target language and culture of the translator are of providing analogues to the source culture, the more potentially violent is the act of misrepresentation which fluent translation necessarily entails.

Given that Tremblay’s original text was the groundbreaking text of the wave of joual drama that helped establish a Quebecois dramatic canon in the 1960s and 1970s (Brisset 34;Venuti, Scandals 11) — and that Tremblay himself was instrumental in this movement both as an author of original plays and as a frequent translator and adapter of foreign drama, including plays by Nikolai Gogol and Paul Zindel, into joual (Brisset 49-50; 61) — it is interesting that both the English and Scots translations were also produced as contributions to a nascent dramatic canon, whether in Canada in the early 1970s (Ladouceur, “Canada’s Tremblay” 148) or in Scotland in the late 1980s (Bowman and Findlay 67). The former translation, however, seeks to make this contribution by suppressing the original text’s linguistic transgression, while the latter capitalizes on exactly this tension. The German translation suppresses the transgressive qualities of the text in terms of both language (like the English version) and religion, but by contrast constitutes not a contribution to a canon, but rather evidence that Tremblay’s play is canonized elsewhere (Plocher, Schwesterherzchen 5, 22-23). As a result, we might conclude that the domestic remainders in all three cases are dictated by the necessity of establishing a relationship to literary canonicity in the contexts of different target cultures.

Even more interesting is the fact that the translators of all three versions appeal to the play’s “universality” as sanction for their various strategies. Despite Ladouceur’s claim regarding the Van Burek/Glassco translation that “once translated and stripped of the ideological implications of the use of joual, Tremblay’s plays evoke a traditional image of Quebec, picturesque and nonthreatening, a perception more akin to what could be viewed as ‘universal’ from a Canadian point of view” (“Other Tongue” 214), and Jennifer Harvie’s cautionary discussion, in the context of The Guid-Sisters, of the problematic nature of claims to universality in general (12), it seems that exactly this claim can be employed to justify almost any decision a translator wishes to defend.

Venuti argues that we must cease to analyse translation only as a transparent communication of the original text, and regard it also as “an intervention into a present situation,” whose social and ideological contexts are different from, and must be contrasted to, those of the original (Venuti, Invisibility 312). The case of Tremblay’s Les belles-soeurs, which because of its key position in Quebecois literature and drama has been appropriated to similar ends in other cultural contexts, despite necessitating very different linguistic strategies to do so, demonstrates that a mere linguistic analysis can overlook certain cultural and ideological conditions — Venuti’s domestic remainder. Although Tremblay’s use of joual is linguistically important, in these cases, at least, non-standard language has not been an obstacle to translation. This is because it is the original text’s cultural and historical functions which have been appropriated for the target culture rather than its equally famous linguistic qualities; only when these latter features also correspond to the broader cultural context in which the translation is produced is any significance attached to translating them. While Les belles-soeurs could not have come into being or occupied its position in history sans le joual, the play obviously can and does exist not only in the absence of joual, but also in the absence of any target-language equivalent — or any desire to find such an equivalent.



1. A very early brief version of this article was presented as “‘Good Sisters’ and ‘Little Sister Hearts’: Translating and Transplanting the Joual of Michel Tremblay’s Les Belles-Soeurs” at the annual meeting of the Association for Canadian Theatre Research at Brock University in May 1996. I am grateful to the anonymous readers and to the editor for their revision suggestions.
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2. “La salle était hilare [. . .], non pas à cause du contenu de la pièce mais à cause de l’étrange accent québécois pour des Parisiens pures laines de l’époque. […] à la fin de la représentation le public a applaudi chaleureusement les cousines d’outre atlantique mais sans rappel — comme pour dire:‘OK nous savons désormais que vous existez, merci de nous l’avoir dit ce soir mais on peut rien pour vous...’ à la sortie, un autre endimanchée en fourrure dans la soixantaine et qui disait devoir retourner Rue de la Pompe (dans le XVIe) s’exclama: ‘Mais c’est du berrichon!’”(Ouaknine)
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3. Both Lecercle’s and Venuti’s uses of the concept of the remainder echo the usage of the French director Daniel Mesguich, who in 1977 wrote:

When the actor of a text enters the scene, we have the monstrous division of a text by a body as well as that of a body by a text. This division doesn’t quite fit. There is a remainder, infinite, in movement.All the operations which might have produced it, all the texts and all the bodies, invent themselves from this remainder. To posit this division is to construct a Theater. (113)

Lecercle and Mesguich both derive this concept from earlier French sociological and linguistic thought, particularly the ideas of Ferdinand de Saussure (via Jacques Lacan), Henri Lefebvre, and Michel Pecheux. Mesguich’s work at the time was devoted to demonstrating, in Sirkku Aaltonen’s words, that “the mise en scène was itself a translation” (37- 38).
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4. Bowman and Findlay’s translations of Tremblay have become test cases, well-known enough to play a major role in Sirkku Aaltonen’s Time-Sharing on Stage: Drama Translation in Theatre and Society, where they are held up as exemplary for their use of translation in the construction of national or cultural identity (69-71).
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5. All translations from the German are my own.
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6. Plocher in fact maintains that serin is also a vulgar word for “penis” (“Äquivalenzprobleme” 126). I have been unable to substantiate this claim; perhaps there is some confusion with an antiquated usage of seringue (“syringe”)?
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7. The most productive German blasphemies in Catholic regions include Kruzifix (or its short form, Zefix) and Sakrament, roughly comparable to French tabernacle or câlisse. However, Augsburg, where Schwesterherzchen was written and produced, was long a free city of the Holy Roman Empire before its absorption into arch-Catholic Bavaria in 1806. In fact, Augsburg was Protestant from 1537 to 1547, when Catholicism was forcibly reintroduced and imperial decree allowed both Catholics and Protestants (who were in the majority until the early 1800s) to live there — though not without friction. Augsburgers still consider themselves linguistically and culturally Swabians rather than Bavarians, though the city straddles the border between the two dialect regions, and the local speech shows features of both dialects. The Augsburg milieu is thus atypical for both Bavarian and Catholic culture, though some of Plocher’s changes certainly seem calculated to avoid offending a religiously conservative audience.
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8. As Martin Bowman has pointed out, the flatness of standard English translations of Tremblay has often been compensated for by casting French-speaking actors in English productions: “the accent alone seems to provide the necessary linguistic element and the illusion that the speakers are in a kitchen in the Plateau Mont-Royal speaking French is complete” (Bowman 42). In this sense the translated script is domesticating, while the production is foreignizing. By comparison, even Scottish actors have had to brush up their Scots in rehearsal for The Guid-Sisters (Salter 74); the casting of an actor speaking Scots with a Quebecois accent would be ludicrous in the context of Findlay and Bowman’s aims for their translations (although for the original production, at least, director Michael Boyd placed great emphasis on the actors’ pronouncing the French names in the text “in a Quebecois manner within the Scots context”[Babington 1081]).
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9. Bill Findlay, incidentally, has also translated Hauptmann’s Weavers (Woodsworth 225) into Scots, and shows a keen awareness of the importance of dialect in that play, in Nestroy’s Volksstücke, and in the work of Sperr and Kroetz (“Translating into Dialect”204-05).
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10. Compare Martin Bowman’s statement about the Scots version: “The foundation of our theory is that, since Tremblay uses non-standard language, then non-standard language is the best medium for translating him. Point final. If you translate it into standard language, you’ve lost something”(Babington 1079).
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11. Their own statements about their work indicate that of the two translators, Bowman, the Canadian, is the more class-conscious (for example, Bowman 48), while the Scot, Findlay, is more interested in the dynamic between Scots and English cultures (for example, Findlay, “Scots Language Context”24-31).
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12. The question of whether Scots is a dialect of English or a separate but related Germanic language is complicated by political considerations (see Woodsworth 213-16). The present article treats it as a separate language.
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13. This may also, however, be a result of the trend described by Jennifer Harvie: “The use of Scots in 1990 may have been emancipatory for Scotland in some respects, but has also functioned, contradictorily, to bolster the United Kingdom by producing for and selling to a market hungry for what Scots novelist Lewis Grassie Gibbon has called the ‘interesting English county of Scotshire’”(15).
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Aaltonen, Sirkku. Time-Sharing on Stage: Drama Translation in Theatre and Society. Topics in Translation 17. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, 2000.

Babington, Doug. “On Language: The Shared Voice of Michel Tremblay.” Queen’s Quarterly 99.4 (Winter 1992): 1074-81.

Betten, Anne. Sprachrealismus im deutschen Drama der siebziger Jahre. Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1985.

Bowman, Martin.“Joual/Scots: The Language Issue in Michel Tremblay’s Les Belles-Soeurs.” Image and Identity: Theatre and Cinema in Scotland and Quebec. Ed. Ian Lockerbie. Newcastle upon Tyne: The John Grierson Archive/Dept. of French, U of Stirling, 1988. 42-55.

---, and [William] Bill Findlay.“Québécois into Scots: Translating Michel Tremblay.” Scottish Language 13 (1994): 61-81.

Brisset,Annie. Sociocritique de la traduction: Théâtre et altérité au Québec (1968-1988). Longueuil: Le Préambule, 1990.

Findlay, [William] Bill. “The Scots Language Context to Translating Les Belles-Soeurs.” Image and Identity: Theatre and Cinema in Scotland and Quebec. Ed. Ian Lockerbie. Newcastle upon Tyne: The John Grierson Archive/Dept. of French, U of Stirling, 1988. 24-41.

---. “Translating into Dialect.” Stages of Translation. Ed. David Johnston. Bath:Absolute Classics, 1996. 199-217.

---, and Martin Bowman, trans. The Guid-Sisters. By Michel Tremblay. Toronto: Exile Editions, 1988.

---, trans.“The Guid Sisters,” in Three Plays. By Michel Tremblay. London: Nick Horn, 2001.

Gentzler, Edwin.Contemporary Translation Theories.Rev. 2nd ed.Topics in Translation 21. Clevedon:Multilingual Matters, 2001.

Godin, Jean-Cléo, et al.“Table ronde: L’appropriation culturelle du théâtre québécois.” L’Annuaire théâtral 5-6 (Automne 1988/Printemps 1989): 75-94.

---, and Laurent Mailhot. Théâtre québécois I: Introduction à dix dramaturges contemporains. Louiseville:Hurtubise, 1988.

Harvie, Jennifer. “The Real Nation? Michel Tremblay, Scotland, and Cultural Translatability.” Theatre Research in Canada/Recherches théâtrales au Canada 16.1-2 (1995): 5-25.

Ladouceur, Louise.“Canada’s Michel Tremblay: Des Belles Soeurs à For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again.”TTR 15.1 (2002): 137-63.

---. “From Other Tongue to Mother Tongue in the Drama of Quebec and Canada.” Trans. Richard Lebeau. Changing the Terms: Translating in the Postcolonial Era. Eds. Sherry Simon and Paul St-Pierre. Ottawa: U of Ottawa P, 2000. 207-26.

Lecercle, Jean-Jacques. The Violence of Language. London: Routledge, 1990.

Lodge, R. Anthony. French: From Dialect to Standard. London: Routledge, 1993.

McEwen, Barbara. “Au-delà de l’exotisme: Le Théâtre québécois devant la critique parisienne, 1955-1985.” Theatre History in Canada/Histoire du Théâtre au Canada 7.2 (Fall 1986): 134-148.

Mesguich, Daniel, with Gervais Robin. “The Book to Come is a Theater.” Trans. Carl R. Lovitt. Sub/Stance 18/19 (1977): 113-119.

Ouaknine, Serge. “Souvenir des Belles Soeurs à Paris.” Online posting. QUEATRE electronic mail list. Internet. 4 April 1996.

Plocher, Hanspeter. “Äquivalenzprobleme bei der Übersetzung von Michel Tremblay, ‘Les Belles-Soeurs.’” Zeitschrift für Kanada-Studien 31, 19.1 (1999): 117-31.

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---. Les Belles-Soeurs. By Michel Tremblay. Rev. ed. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1991.

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Critique de Libris québécis (Montréal, Inscrit(e) le 22 novembre 2002, 76 ans) - 12 mars 2012

Cette pièce de Michel Tremblay me rappelle ma mère, qui avait gagné, comme l’héroïne Germaine Lauzon, autant de timbres primes en participant à un concours organisé par une chaîne de télévision. Intéressant de revivre cet heureux événement par personnes interposées !

Le dramaturge a osé réécrire le mythe de Sisyphe au féminin. En 1968, on lui a reproché son audace, le taxant même de mauviette comme Jean Bédard, professeur, romancier et essayiste. « Même pas capables de se faire reluire la plume sans la permission de pôpa, môman, matante, mononcle, les voisins, toute la rue Fabre, hosanna au plus haut des cordes à linge ! Rien que des hosties de lécheux de timbres. » (Première Jeunesse, Éd. Leméac, 1998, p. 288) Pourtant, il s’avérait nécessaire de redorer le blason de la femme. Depuis que Saint Thomas d’Aquin eut affirmé, à ses risques et périls, qu’elle fût dotée d’une âme comme ses pairs masculins, rien n’est venu glorifier « le deuxième sexe ». Il a fallu attendre Simone de Beauvoir et Michel Tremblay, récusé à l’époque pour avoir méprisé les femmes en les caricaturant.

Le message se véhicule beaucoup mieux aujourd’hui. La femme n’est plus casée dans le rayon ménager, mais l’Église, défenderesse des droits de l’homme, lui refuse encore le sacerdoce. « Quelle vie plate ! », lui fait chanter le librettiste. Vie réduite à la messe d’un quotidien qui lui interdit au Québec jusqu’en 1960 de détenir un compte bancaire, d’enseigner si elle est mariée et d’autoriser une intervention chirurgicale pour sauver son enfant même si sa vie en dépend. La pièce a perdu de son acuité chez nous, mais sa représentation se justifie encore pour s’attaquer, comme dans Le Cheval de Troie, au dernier rempart de la résistance de l’homme au partage de son pouvoir, endossé par les religions.

Le succès de cette œuvre a poussé René-Richard Cyr à la transposer en comédie musicale avec la complicité du compositeur Daniel Bélanger. Le spectacle est captivant. La mise en scène présente, par des jeux de lumières ingénieux, des tableaux figés comme celui de la dernière cène qui orne les autels. Germaine Lauzon s’y retrouve entourée de ses apôtresses, prêtes à la renier et à la trahir sous l’effet de la jalousie. C’est un vrai délice de voir s’entredévorer ces « licheuses » de timbres (les humecter avec sa langue) venues prêter langue forte pour les coller dans des livrets. Le metteur en scène a réussi cet exploit en créant une synergie entre les comédiens, dont les interrelations ne sont pas destinées directement au public. Ça crée un mouvement langagier et physique, qui rapproche le théâtre du cinéma.

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