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Comprehension problems

Montreal has become a multilingual city, but its literary scene is still catching up

On October 29, the DHC/ART Foundation for Contemporary Art put on a unique spoken word event at the Musée des beaux-arts. The evening entitled “Early Warning Systems,” was billed as a bilingual homage to American artist Jenny Holtzer and showcased six Montreal poets. On the bill were three readings in English and three in French, presented in alternating order, with no translations or visual aids. What made the event so special was the manner in which it presented itself – as a political statement and an experiment in bilingualism. Crowded on a Friday night, this showcase of young talent bodes well for the future of the literary scene in Montreal, with its ever-growing linguistic diversity.

Carmine Starino, one of the three anglophone poets and the coordinator of the event, made it clear that the billing was entirely intentional. “I’ts so hard to take your own language for granted in a city where a variety of languages are spoken fully and without anxiety,” he said over the phone. When asked about the lack of translations he replied, “That was part of the experiment – if you get it fine, if you don’t, you don’t. The feeling was that – not that any one of us articulated it – we had a sense of maturity about the city, about our sense of self. We didn’t feel like we had to spoon-feed everything to the audience – it was billed as a bilingual event. Also, the idea was that the poets would be able to work in their own language without…translation.”

It seems that writers other than Starino share a similar sentiment about bilingualism in Montreal. Sean Michaels, novelist and co-founder of the Montreal-based music and microfiction blog Said the Gramophone, told me about his experience as an anglophone in the literary scene. “I’m grateful for this city, and for the richness of Québécois culture. I think if you live in Montreal, you should make an effort to understand at least a little of both French and English. I write in English, but try to read French books as well, and see French theatre.”

In spite of the success of “Early Warning Systems,” others were more pessimistic about the anglophone literary scene becoming more bilingual. “I don’t know how that would happen,” Starino told me. “It’s such a work to put together any event and then, on top of that, to have to budget in a quota of bilingualism is just that much more difficult. I guess they should do it only if they feel it necessary.”

What few bilingual events there are in Montreal tend to present languages side-by-side, with little or no attempt to make the content accessible to monolingual members of the audience. This is not to say that such events do not exist. Starino mentioned attending an integrated festival in Rome that successfully incorporated writers from around the world. “They had this huge screen in the back that ran simultaneous translations as the authors read. … I thought it was fantastic,” he reflected. However, here in Montreal, different languages remain decidedly separate in literary events – even when they appear at the same festival.

Blue Metropolis, Montreal’s multilingual literature festival, features writers and speakers in a wide range of languages in a way that mimics the distribution of communities in the city. “We rarely translate, preferring to bring in the public that speaks and understands the languages of our events. That, so far as I am aware, makes us unique in the world,” wrote Linda Leith, the festival’s artistic director, in an email to The Daily. When asked about the future of multilingual events in the city, she replied, simply, “I think there is room for events of many different kinds. A lot depends on the writers and the language(s) they work in; also of course on audiences.”

While it seems redundant to say that the future of a multilingual literature scene would be dependent on the languages of those who are a part of it, such an observation does put particular emphasis on the potential Montreal has to foster such a community. Michaels wrote to me in his reply that, “Yes, I think [Montreal]’s in a fairly unique position. But I don’t think this is acted upon. Mostly, I guess, due to the anglo/franco scenes’ relative indifference to each other – but also because fluent bilingualism is rarer than you might imagine.”

Starino made a similar comment: “I don’t know if we would be a role model for other multilingual literature scenes – I think we’re a role model for the rest of the country…I think we’re a glimpse into the future for literary scene in other cities. As immigrants pour into other Canadian cities, the writing and the sense of otherness is going to change. Canada is still very much a monolingual country – I know we’re officially bilingual, but it’s true. We’re the only city in Canada where the citizens are forced to live around so many different soundscapes.” Starino’s comment speaks to another problem in Montreal’s literary scene. Even as the anglophone and francophone scenes show sparks of conversation and integration, many other languages remain marginalized. Blue Metropolis remains unique in its effort to integrate writing in languages like German, Spanish, Arabic, Portuguese, and Italian, though all of these are spoken in Montreal.

As an anglophone, sitting in the auditorium made me think only of my own inability to understand the poets who were speaking in another language – not about the lack of translations or visual ques. Indeed, the maturity that Starino mentioned came through in full form. This gives rise to another interesting idea: Is it the tensions between Montreal’s different linguistic groups that make Montreal’s literary community so vibrant? Starino seemed to share the sentiment: “I think as a writer living in Montreal, its just hard not to write without the sound of French in your ear or the sound of any other language, whether we want to or not – the force is in the city to make us more bilingual, to absorb other sounds other acoustics into our work. … We are already part of the experiment.”