Vol.17 No. 2, 1996, Spring/ Printemps

Annie Brisset. A Sociocritique of Translation: Theatre and Alterity in Quebec, 1968-1988. trans. Rosalind Gill and Roger Gannon. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1996.


Annie Brisset brings a new perspective to the study of two important decades in Quebec theatre, from 1968 to 1988, during which both it and the society of which it is an integral part were undergoing radical changes. 1968 was the year in which Michel Tremblay's Les Belles-soeurs had its first theatre performance. It was also the year of the founding of the Parti québécois.

Brisset has chosen a corpus of fifteen translations, most of which were published by Les Éditions Leméac. This represents all the plays translated into French and published in Quebec during these two decades. Brisset offers explanations based on both practical and symbolic considerations for this negligible number, and for the even more meagre number of translations of English-Canadian plays. She augments considerably her small corpus of plays translated into Québécois by including in her study the approximately 250 translated plays which were performed in the major theatres in Quebec (Théâtre du Rideau Vert, Théâtre du Nouveau Monde, Théâtre de Quat'Sous, Nouvelle Compagnie Théâtrale, Théâtre d'Aujourd'hui, Compagnie Jean-Duceppe, Théâtre du Trident). These translations either originated in Quebec and were unpublished or else were published in France. Most of the approximately 100 plays produced during this period in Quebec but translated and published in France were American. Brisset suggests that these seem to have been included in theatre programs for their entertainment value or for commercial reasons. She therefore does not analyse them further, except to suggest that the spirit of contemporary American tragedy stirred chords of sympathetic recognition in Quebec theatre audiences. Brisset includes these foreign translations along with translations done in Quebec in her statistics. They show that even the combined total of translations from other languages produced in Quebec did not eclipse local Quebec production, despite allegations sustained to the contrary by Quebec playwrights and literary critics. During the period studied by Brisset, the not insignificant number of 324 original Quebec plays was performed in the major theatres. Foreign plays, whether translations or francophone, represent on average 55% of the total production. The reasons for the commercial success of foreign translations would have been relevant considerations in Brisset's study, since such success might have provided a more nuanced understanding in the study of the ways in which Quebec theatre audiences listened to the voices of the Other.

Translations included in the programs of smaller, experimental or touring companies, or companies which did not exist throughout the entire two decades from 1968 to 1988 were not included in the study.

Brisset raises questions about the choice of foreign works for translation in Quebec and, particularly, about the changes, displacements, and structural fragmentation which original texts underwent in the process of translation. Many of these changes were so radical that Brisset frequently speaks of "appropriation," "imitation," "adaptation," and "parody," rather than unproblematised "translation." She argues convincingly that such radical translation procedures provide important information on discursive practice in both theatre and society, as well as on the institutions, values and ideologies in the context of which this discursive practice emerged and evolved. Brisset's study focuses on Alterity, the collective quest for identity, and the status in Quebec theatre of languages, texts, people, and cultural artefacts which are perceived from a nationalist perspective to be different or foreign. She reminds her readers that the adoption of the Official Languages Act in 1968 in Canada produced an explosion of translation activity, most of which was administrative and commercial documents originating in anglophone Canada. This helps to explain the resistance encountered in Quebec by notions of translation. Events such as the creation, rise to power and electoral defeat of the Parti québécois, the October Crisis, the sovereignty referendum and the defeat of the Meech Lake accord occurred during the two decades studied. Nationalism was the dominant ideology. Brisset finds without exception that theatre translation was used to serve the sovereigntist agenda, favoring an emphasis on Quebec's language, Québécois re-actualisation, and an inward-looking isolationism, and discouraging curiosity about or dialogue with the Other, whether that Other represented Anglo-Canadian hegemony, the French legacy or some other form of heterogeneity inside or outside the borders of Quebec: "The Other has nothing to say to me. The Other is irrevocably different, just as I am. The voice of the Other silences my voice. I must therefore silence the voice of the Other" (58). The study of translated plays suggests that there were determining forces at play serving to remove traces of alterity and difference. As a result, the traditional goal of the translator to be as faithful as possible to the original text was set aside; little attention was drawn to original authors, languages, and historical periods; paratextual elements such as cover design suggested that translators, including the famous Michel Tremblay, were in fact the authors of translated pieces; translation itself became a subject for dramatic texts.

Brisset devotes considerable time to close textual study of certain texts and translations. The work is well done. Theatre scholars will read with fascination and interest her perceptive reading of, for example, Jean-Claude Germain's A Canadian Play/Une plaie canadienne and Les Faux Brillants de Félix-Gabriel Marchand, Réjean Ducharme's Le Cid maghané, and, particularly, Michel Garneau's Macbeth, where Scotland is represented as the equivalent of "Not'pauv'pays" and where the language of the play resonates with the turns of phrase of the beloved militant Quebec poets of the period. Brisset sees as an objective of such translations the elevation of a vernacular language to a national, literary and cultural language.

However, Brisset's book is not primarily about theatre. It is instead about translation. Brisset's stated purpose in this book is, specifically, to study "the conditions of operation for the translative function in a given society at a given time." Since translation is a discursive act which is "fundamentally bound to the time and place of its realization" and "subject to 'the order of discourse' of the target society," she has examined "how and under what conditions the 'discourse' of the foreign text becomes an integral part of the 'discourse' of the target society." Because the phenomenon of discourse is social in nature, involving multiple utterances, Brisset needed a body of work to study, and not just a few sample texts, for her examination of the translative function. She chose a body of dramatic literature for this case study: translation into Québécois theatre between 1968 and 1988: "Our aim is to analyse the relation between translation and social discourse in a field which happens to be that of the theatre in Quebec" (see "Introduction"). Brisset demonstrates through careful analysis that the selection of literary texts to be translated and the discursive choices made by translators are determined in large part by the norms, values and dominant ideologies in the receiving society as established by literary institutions. This is particularly the case in theatre, an essentially social cultural form. Brisset perceives close links among socio-political events in Quebec, the languages of politics and literature, and translation in and for the theatre. Her study led her to a fascinating recognition of the mutations which the genre of 'translation' itself underwent during the period in response to discursive imperatives of Quebec society, its theatre, and its literature. She arrives at the important conclusion that: "When translation becomes an active participant in the development of a literary genre, as it did in the theatre in Quebec, an examination of translation practices can reveal how works emerge and become legitimized within the literary institution" (200).

Brisset has used polysystem theory for her study of translation in contemporary Quebec theatre. According to this theory, translations can be appropriately understood only in the rich and complex context of multiple systems in both source and target societies: knowledge, institutions, ideologies, representations, political situations, visions for the future, collective memories, etc. It is these frequently concealed systems which dictate the relations of subjects to nature, others, themselves, and cultural representation systems. It is also these complex systems which make culture and communication possible through the production of postulates shared by all members of a given collectivity in a given place at a given time. Brisset's use of translation in contemporary Quebec theatre as a case study to demonstrate the validity of this theory is thorough and convincing.

Less convincing and less thorough, however, is her study of Quebec theatre as theatre from 1968 to 1988. The reader who happens to use this book in order to obtain an overview of Quebec theatre for the period can receive only distorted information. The absence of mention of theatre programs in small, experimental, or touring companies has already been noted. There is no mention of important playwrights of the period who were not involved in translation initiatives, not even of playwrights, such as Marco Micone, who wrote francophone theatre although their first language is not French. Nor is there any mention of important new initiatives such as feminist theatre. Critics of theatre and dramatic literature were consulted only to support the thesis of a literary institution strongly backing the social discourse of nationalism and the quest for identity. They were not consulted for a richer appreciation of the theatrical and literary qualities of the works discussed. This leads too often in the book to generalisations about theatrical quality while Brisset is paying attention only to aspects of the translative function and not acknowledging other rich qualities of the work. Brisset's failure to distinguish at any point between the written language of the dramatic text, whether original or in translation, and the multiplicity of verbal and non-verbal languages of performance, leads to an impoverishment of her appreciation of these texts as theatre and encourages her to make generalisations about the "cognitive impact on the consciousness of the spectator" which has probably not been empirically observed or verified.

In her sensitive discussion of Réjean Ducharme's Le Cid maghané, Brisset acknowledges that despite the massive displacements in structure and language carried out on Corneille's original Le Cid in response to pressures of social discourse, the play, which "presents a new state of affairs, a new vision of the world and of man in the world" (86), has many other important aesthetic qualities. Brisset also suggests in her conclusion where she looks at the present and the future that the "main focus of the new Québécois theatre is aesthetic experimentation" (198). She usually fails throughout the book, however, to acknowledge the rich aesthetic experimentation which took place from 1968 to 1988 in Quebec theatre. As a result, she creates the unfortunate impression of a parochial, prejudice-ridden theatre and society, which, while demonstrated through her analysis of the translative function, is not a fair or adequate reflection of the larger and more complex phenomenon of Quebec theatre.