Over at Partisan Magazine there’s been an interesting discussion of English and French Canadian literatures. Carmine Starnino, editor of Signal Editions poetry imprint, kicks things off with an essay on the sorry state of literary translation in Canada: “Why the Book I’m About to Publish Will Be Ignored” (the book he refers to being English translation of Pierre Nepveu’s upcoming collection, La Dureté des Matières et de L’eau.
Given that English speakers share a country with such a vital and little understood literary market, and given how rarely these translations occur—and given that the poetry collections being rendered into English are some of the most outstanding and representative books from that territory—you would think their appearance would be regarded as a cause for celebration (or at least cause for copy). But beyond the staples of Émile Nelligan and, maybe, Saint-Denys Garneau, and outside of living poets like Nicole Brossard, Québécois poetry barely registers. And Quebec isn’t alone. There are Francophone poetry communities throughout the country—in Manitoba or New Brunswick—that exist in almost total isolation from English-Canadian reviewers, critics, and academics. I often joke that the easiest way to confound an English-Canadian poet is to tell them there are major Canadian poets who don’t write in English.
At one time, Canada’s “two solitudes” lived out their rift not too far from where I grew up, on Boulevard Saint-Laurent—the street that neatly parceled Montreal into French-speaking east and English-speaking west. Visits to the rival side were not encouraged; Leonard Cohen’s famous brawl scene in his 1963 novel The Favourite Game served as example of what could happen if anyone dared. But our two literatures no longer resemble those jealously guarded territories. And yet many of my peers across the country seem unaware of how much of Canada’s cultural life has been conducted on the cusp of that so-called divide.
Despite tapering enmities, though, the dynamic between Canada’s Francophone and Anglophone communities remains less one of cohesion than indifference and estrangement. Dialogue between Quebec and the rest of North America, to which English Canada might provide a conduit, is practically nonexistent. This is partly a language issue, as few Canadians outside Quebec—save some enclaves in New Brunswick, Ontario, and Manitoba—are fluent in French. But it also has to do with the particular codes of Québécois society. Quebec’s cultural insularity protects its language and culture from outside influence—and so, for instance, the province has its own TV, film, and pop-music celebrities, completely distinct from those of Hollywood, while the pop culture of Ontario is almost entirely American.
The “inward-looking, even parochial” literature of the province provides “a window on the Quebec psyche,” according to Peter McCambridge, a translator in Quebec City who runs an English-language Web site called Quebec Reads. But French-Canadian literature rarely crosses over to English-language readers—and McCambridge has a theory as to why. “Quebec finds itself too exotic to be easily digested by the Canadian and U.S. market,” he told me via e-mail, “but not exotic enough to compete with the appeal of something new from Indonesia or Iceland. To North American readers, especially, I think it’s at once too different and too familiar.”