The Glassco Translation Residency, popularly known as "Tadoussac", is an engine of cultural exchange like no other. I've had the great good fortune to be in it (and write about it) three times. This year I want to zero in on a single remarkable discussion.
It was maybe two-thirds of the way through our ten-day retreat at the Glassco family's beautiful summer home in Tadoussac, Quebec. All the playwright-translator teams were gathered round the cosy fireplace for our 5-à-7... the nightly pre-dinner confab where we discussed our specific projects, as well as the larger questions of cross-cultural work, over a bottle or two of good French wine (which is cheaper and more available in Quebec than anywhere else in Canada). With my beloved collaborator, the gifted Rébecca Déraspe, I was about to launch into a little presentation of our translation-in-progress of her vivacious and audacious feminist comedy, Gametes. I took a deep breath.
At that very moment, one of our fellow residents spoke up (in the language we had all been using pretty much non-stop for the entire residency thus far... French). "You know, it's really admirable that all of the anglophones in this group are speaking French all the time, but when it comes to talking about our artistic work, surely we should be able to express ourselves in the language in which we're most comfortable." (I'm translating, and almost certainly paraphrasing: the near-flawless voice-recorder once housed in my brain has been, I fear, the second casualty of early menopause.)
My reaction to this very reasonable and no doubt kindly-meant comment? A sort of deer-in-the-headlights freeze, mixed with an oddly familiar red rush of emotion. Suddenly, after some years of being considered reasonably proficient in my adopted language, I once again felt like the unacceptable Other. When you, as a non-native speaker, are invited to switch into "your own" language – or when the person with whom you're speaking makes the decision for you, without asking, by simply switching into your native tongue – you experience it as something worse than merely not "passing" (a politically dubious goal I gave up on years ago). While I'm sure this is seldom the speaker's intention, it almost invariably feels like a verdict that you're not good enough. Too unpleasant to listen to, too incompetent to wait for. Obviously struggling to communicate. A failure. In other words, I was feeling exactly the thing that prevents most English-Canadians from ever, ever speaking the French they picked up in school. It's called shame.
Just for context: my French is the product of a unilingual small-town scholarship kid's immersion in a French-speaking Toronto high school with a very international teaching staff, curriculum, and student body. Add to this a lifetime of slowly, painfully acquiring something my education never gave me: a working knowledge of Canadian French. I'm not particularly proud of my French, but I'm extremely grateful for it. There's a difference.
Back to our evening circle. I was about to stammer out some reasons why I wanted to discuss my work in French – while trying not to sound hurt or defensive – when something wonderful happened. Everyone else spoke up instead. In French.
One colleague said simply: "You know what? I'm an anglo. I live in Toronto now. I have a strong English-Canadian accent, and I used to be very self-conscious about that... but I'm also a Montrealer, and a Quebecker, born and raised. And I'm bilingual. And this is my language, too. And I'm going to speak it."
One of the francophones, meanwhile, talked about how she had been involved in multiple artistic residencies and environments that were supposedly bilingual, but wherein everyone defaulted to English within a few short days. "This is the first so-called bilingual residency I've been in where the working language is French, where the anglophones and allophones consistently make the effort to express themselves in French... and personally, I find it very moving," she said. "Ça me touche."
"Well yes," said the original speaker – who is a wonderful artist and a supportive colleague and friend. "I was just trying to make things easier for everybody. And I'm just... surprised, that you [English-speakers and allophones] are all sticking with it. In all my years of working in the theatre, I've never seen anything like it."
We all agreed. And carried on. In French.
This was, for many reasons, an extraordinary conversation to be having in Quebec, where language and culture have long been inseparable from politics and power (and from a bitter and still-recent history when rich bosses all spoke English... while their impoverished workers spoke French). It was a conversation I could not have imagined taking place twelve years ago, when I first came to Tadoussac and was taught so much about Quebec language, culture, and politics by the great Linda Gaboriau. It was a conversation that made me proud of us all – anglophone, francophone, and allophone – for being open to each other, really speaking, really listening, really willing to forgive each other's missteps and misfires on the way to a deeper understanding. It is, IMHO, why we truly need Tadoussac.