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May 15, 2011 / Lee Skallerup Bessette

Two Languages, Two People

This past week, I was at a conference, “Traduire à Quatre Mains,” where we were discussing various instances of collaborative translation efforts. My presentation dealt with a (really, really) small portion of my dissertation, asking if the work done as an editor could considered a collaboration. But it was wonderful for the opportunity to hear from people who are passionate and engaged in the same areas of research as I am.

One quote from a translator/presenter really stuck out to me: Having a second language is like being a second person. I felt that so acutely at the conference. As I wrote previously, my journey with Dany started in Sherbrooke, even if I didn’t know it yet. I worried that my French, rusty at best, would be good enough for the conference. In fact, people observed how good it still was. I was surprised at how easily the language, the cadence, the accent, came back to me. As I approached Sherbrooke by car, I could feel myself changing back into something, someone I had been, and obviously still was.

I was worried that it would be a strange experience to be back 10 years later, 15 years after I had started. How would my former professors react to me, the undergrad with loads of potential and little motivation. It felt a little like I was still that student leading up to the conference: late with my conference proposal, late with my abstract, emailing questions that were clearly answered on the conference web page. But my former professors remembered me as being a joy to have in class (when I showed up, I hastened to add) because I participated, asked questions, and seemed engaged in the work. They were also visibly proud of my success (PhD, teaching, family). I was a success story.

And just like that, the past was in the past. But that part of me that is “French” or “from Sherbrooke” remained. Sometimes we return to places in our past, and we don’t feel like we belong. I still felt like I belonged there. I cried on the bus on the way home because I was leaving a part of myself behind. The French was receding into the background again and those other parts of myself were coming back. I was mourning the loss of that part of myself, the part that will always be at home in Sherbrooke.

Dany often talked about how his body was in Miami, his brain in Montreal, and his heart in Port-au-Prince. My body has been all over the place, but I think my heart will always be in Sherbrooke, even when the loves of my life (husband, kids) are in Kentucky with me. For the first time in a very long time, I felt like myself. Maybe that’s something else that has attracted me about Dany’s oeuvre: the idea of home as being ever shifting, ever-changing. He seeks to make anywhere he lays his head his home. I only wish I could accomplish that feat.

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  1. LMS / May 15 2011 12:10 pm

    Glad to see you posted this. When you tweeted about your experience at the conference, I wanted to respond, but it would’ve taken several tweets, hehe. So now I can type my longer-than-140-characters response. :)

    I agree with you on this post. My experience as a fully bilingual person–English/Spanish–is similar, albeit a bit schizophrenic. (I never feel more comfortable than when I’m code-switching between English and Spanish, for example.) I grew up speaking English and Spanish at home, but at school the language of instruction was Spanish. When I went to college in Puerto Rico I became an English major, and so the language I conduct research in–and the language in which I perform my academic persona–is English. When I switch to Spanish, I feel like a different person. I notice it with my sister too, who grew up code-switching but who feels more comfortable in Spanish. We sound a little louder, a little more expressive in Spanish, but we change although slightly when we switch to English. It’s weird, but it’s true. Nice to know I’m not the only one who notices these things.

    I remember going to a conference in Puerto Rico once. My panel had papers in English and in Spanish. My paper was in English (a study of West Side Story and representations of urban space), but the challenge came when I had to answer questions in Spanish. I could feel my brain switching gears. Even though I was home, and even though Spanish is one of my languages, I felt a tad odd translating my research and my ideas into Spanish, on the spot.

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