Thursday, October 30, 2008

Nathalie Stephens (Nathanael) in Alberta

I come and fetch you at the arrivals’ gate and a week later I bring you back to the departure level. In between the space is filled with thoughts and talks and dialogue and mostly indigestible food and many rich moments, all of it public yet always private. A problem of performance: can we ever get away from the simulacra? (Anne Malena)
As I prepared my own return to Edmonton, I started reading Nathalie Stephens’ At Alberta (BookThug, 2008), a simultaneous series of departure and returns. As I packed my little bag heading west, it became difficult not to be aware of my previous year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, during the same period when the last of Stephens’ pieces were delivered, to be collected in this small graceful publication through Toronto’s BookThug. At Alberta is a series of talks and correspondences presented in and through Alberta during two visits to the University of Alberta, with one in 2006 and a second, two years later, with the latter visit resulting in an essay by University of Alberta professor Anne Malena, and a correspondence at the end of the collection between Stephens and poet and academic Christine Stewart, who was new faculty at the University of Alberta during the 2007-8 academic year.

In 1995, I spent an hour interviewing Quebecois author Nicole Brossard on the newly-published English translation of her novel Baroque d’aube (1995), published by McClelland & Stewart as Baroque at Dawn (1995). Being unilingual English, I wondered, how did she feel about me reading a text with her name attached that she had not actually written? Did she feel any ownership to works of hers translated into languages she could not in fact read? This seemed a strange thing for me to comprehend, as a unilingual English speaker and reader.

The tape has long been lost among my ex-wife’s possessions. I remember Brossard answering briefly in French, phrases out loud to herself, before able to self-translate for my benefit. I had wanted the French to appear in the transcription, since I considered it an essential part of the spoken text, and my ex-wife is fluently bilingual, but managed to lose track of such in her apartment. I do not remember too much about the interview anymore.

Quoting Derek Walcott in her piece in the small collection, Alberta critic Anne Malena writes:
The sigh of History rises over ruins, not over landscapes, and in the Antilles there are few ruins to sigh over, apart from the ruins of sugar estates and abandoned forts.
An important part of understanding Nathalie Stephens is understanding the space her work holds between languages, between genders. But how can one even begin to comprehend knowing but one of these two languages? Do I come to her works already incomplete? There is an abstract here that English usually cannot abide. The language is forced to shift, to make itself.

And why does the back cover work to eschew geography, At Alberta, yet the front cover is nothing but, published by “BookThug Toronto,” doing very little than heavily placing the collection? As the back cover writes:
The talks assembled in At Alberta have as their ironic coincidence: place. Spatially concurrent (they were all, with one exception, delivered at the University of Alberta), they rigorously thwart systematization through reiterative displacement, subterfuge and irritation. Addressing the treatment of genre and gender (which occupy the same semantic space in French), of (un)translatability, desire and territorialisation, Stephens makes uncomfortable the fluctuations necessary to make the languages in our mouths and the places from which we speak, more elusive, and paradoxically more approachable.
Obviously, language is an ongoing process between what is fixed and what is fluid, with English being (it is said) the most mongrel of tongues, made up of bits picked up from whatever other language it happens to near, whether used correctly or incorrectly (think mush for marche in sled-dog Alaska, or “the lou” for the once-warning, “l’eau!”). Some words, ideas and concepts simply can’t be moved easily from one language to another. Take the problems of gender from French to English, or certain words with multiple meanings in French, having to reduce or even shift meanings by changing into English, something playwright Patrick Leroux has struggled with for years, the difficulty in getting his plays properly translated, for the amount of wordplay he engages in the original tongue. Is this a good or a bad thing that the tongues of our mothers might get close, but never meet? How does one word in that muddle between languages, impossible to be in a place without the same muddles of ideas, concepts, gender?
Lines will lose their definition in spite of being draw, translation will not be in spite of being. I asked why does translation have to end since it can be the undoing of stasis, the expression of unendings. I like the answer, the risk of confining oneself, de se contenter, to the artifice of an exercise. No, if language defines you, you can also define it as you wrote in the first person and I translate in the second. (Anna Malena)
I think about so many authors that self-translate. Is this process of translating, of talking, also one of storytelling? The stories you hear in your youth that you take your own turn to tell; slightly changed, even if every word is the same. Telling tales out of school. How your grandfather got his own way through the war, or how your family came, generations ago, to be part of this country.

But still, jokingly, he says, how do you bring philosophy to Alberta? To fix would reduce, make less, and make so much less fluid. Why is it French prefers the fluidity, while English, predominantly, prefers the fixed position? How does one work between a rock and the river itself?
In the passage of oneself from one language into another, in the expression of desire for further and more, the space that opens, that offers itself as here, the failure, the faille, is posed between murder and suicide; there is no natural death to speak of. I translate myself. We translate ourselves. That is, we carry ourselves, the part of us that remains at the moment of crossing, into the space of the other. (Nathalie Stephens)
Stephens deliberately misuses words and concepts to be able to fully get to the (fluid) heart of the matter; that more this is fixed, and the idea that it is or it could be, an illusion. Once that illusion is passed, only then, can real comprehension begin.

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