Originally from Hong Kong, Simon Yiu-Tsan Ng obtained his PhD in Études Anglaises from the Université de Montréal in the spring of 2016. He is now revising his dissertation Imperfect Flâneurs: Anti-heroes of Modern Life into a monograph for publication.
As CIRM Resident Scholar, Ng brings to CIRM an interdisciplinary research that intersects translation, literary studies and architecture. In this current project titled Montreal’s Stairs, the Not Yet, and Approaches Towards the Untranslatable, he takes Montreal’s stairs, specifically those spiral balcony stairs that have become the signature style in Montreal’s urban space, as an equivalent architectural muse through which to read and write about contemporary literature and everyday life. He asks, what cultural and poetic implications can we draw from these stairs that constitute an essential part of contemporary everyday life and an iconic feature in Montreal’s urban landscape?
This interdisciplinary research takes inspiration from Walter Benjamin, especially his innovative reinterpretation of urban modernity and his introduction of a new critical vocabulary including terms such as porosity, shock, and transitivity, in reference to another architectural space that became a recurrent motif in his work: the Paris arcades. Indeed, arcades and stairs share certain characteristics, as Benjamin recognized as early as his 1925 essay on Naples (co-authored with Asja Lacis). They are derivatives of passageways and threshold spaces, where “the stamp of the definitive is avoided” (1978: 166). These spaces call for a revaluation or revision of modern experiences. One immediate reference is the staircase in the theatrical set for David Fennario’s Balconville (1980). The title word refers to a unique urban space: the balconies of tenements and their accompanying staircase that lies between the domestic sphere and the streets of Montreal. It also subtly points to the constraints on mobility of the of the poor, for whom balconies and staircases were the only “resort” for taking refuge from summer heat: “‘Going anywhere this summer?’ ‘Moi? Balconville’” (19). But, in Fennario’s play, this set also serves as a site of conflict and reconciliation between characters, notably Paquette (francophone) and Johnnie (anglophone). Both live on the second floor and share similar living conditions, but they belong to incompatible language communities. While the balcony is the stage for their rivalry, (at one point they hang the fleur-de-lys and the maple leaf respectively on their shared balcony), the staircase creates a space for potential connection (between apartments on different floors but also towards the street), solidarity and common action (at the end, when the building is threatened by a nearby fire, they work on saving their belongings through the staircase). Stairs are prominently featured in the works of another Montreal-based playwright, Carole Fréchette, notably in the play La petite pièce en haut de l’escalier (2008), her retelling of Charles Perrault’s folktale Barbe bleue. Instead of an underground chamber as in the original story, it is the small room accessible through a hidden staircase that the protagonist Grace is warned to avoid. The main action of the play evolves around the irresistible urge to go up the stairs towards that small room. An important question arises: why, in an enormous house with greenhouses, gardens, a swimming pool and as many as ten guest rooms, would one also need to build a small room at the end of a narrow hallway, at the top of a hidden staircase? The mysterious necessity of this room and the irrepressible desire to enter it are very intriguing. In relation to its position in the enormous house, it could be interpreted as a metaphor for aspects in society or in language that tend to be implied but remain unacknowledged, hidden from view, unrepresented, forgotten or unsaid, or that which is “not yet plundered” (to quote Nichita Stănescu’s profound insight that “from the point of view of the poetry in humans, humans appear as not yet plundered” trans. Oana Avasilichioaei, 10) and perceived as the untranslatable. The staircase leading towards this room thus opens a path to approach the unspoken other, or the untranslatable.
In a recent article, Laimonas Briedis proposes as a less-explored vertical axis of translation (2016). This model “opens a descent into the violence of the separate, conflicting memories of the city’s past” (Sherry Simon 2016: 10). Importantly, as Briedis expounds, this vertical axis also allows us to “traverse the highs and lows of imagination” as if travelling to different spheres of existence (27). In this project, the structure of the staircase is taken as the architectural form of this vertical axis, the passageway and threshold space that connects us to different latitudes of experiences. In contemporary cities such as Montreal where plurilingualism is prevalent, experiences on uneven latitudes tend to resist comparison and cannot simply be reduced to the parallel display of differences. Instead, they have evolved into the phenomenon of the untranslatable. Importantly, the untranslatable does not refer to the impossibility of translation; rather, it addresses what Barbara Cassin describes as “ce qu’on ne cesse pas de (ne pas) traduire” (2004: xvii, or in Michael Wood’s translation, “what one keeps on (not) translating,” Cassin 2014: xvii). The self-contradiction and tenacious continuation with which “one keeps on (not) translating,” as Cassin depicts it, reminds us of the never-ending motion of walking up and down stairs. At the moment when the untranslatable is perceived, it always involves a desire or an urge to translate, not in the sense of transferring contents or essence from one language to another, or from one latitude of experience to another, but of “furthering” languages and experiences into otherness and of expanding literary and imaginative horizons through translation (Sherry Simon 2011: 16-17), just like Grace, who surrenders not only to her curiosity but also to the urge to approach the small room at the top of the stairs in Fréchette’s play.
Above all, as Lianne Moyes remarks, stairs emerge into “a contemporary site of exchange between inside and outside, public and private” (2012: 10) – they offer experiences ‘in between’ those on the multiple latitudes of cityscapes in which specific registers of language and grammar are expected. The exchange that would take place on stairs is not so much a transaction or a form of consumption that respects capitalist logic, but a unique form of translation that can be described as an approach towards the untranslatable. If consumption is driven by a passion for the code, as Jean Baudrillard suggests, then any approach towards the untranslatable should be understood as driven by the urge of the “not yet” – a gesture or an attitude, as Erin Moure perceives it throughHélène Cixous’s reading of Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector’s “aproximação”, of “becoming proximate, going close to something, moving into proximity” in the face of an autrui or the untranslatable (Cixous 1991: 59-77, Moure 2009 : 207). In short, the “not yet” anticipates each step of becoming proximate towards the untranslatable through uneven latitudes like stairs. The temporal implication in the adverbial not-yet and the spatial idea of becoming proximate constitute the chronotope of stairs in the Bakhtinian sense. Gail Scott conjures this chronotope as the title for her essay collection Spaces like Stairs(1989). She sees stairs as textual spaces created and traversed by a “writing subject in-the-feminine”: “As if a word written across a space – even a space we have ‘appropriated’ thanks to our feminist consciousness – must immediately give way to another. So the spaces unroll around us. Like stairs…” (11-12). For Scott, the spaces in which she endeavours to experiment with narrative possibilities and to expose contradictions between progress in political movements (such as leftist revolution and feminist project) and the body and sentiments of women in everyday life (such as sexual drive and jealousy) could be architecturally be described as stairs. These stairs provide a pathway along which the writing subject inevitably goes back and forth – like Persephone in Greek mythology – for experiences between the private domestic sphere and the public sphere, between her intellectual space and the space of everyday life, between the omniscient third-person narrative perspective and the self-conscious voice of a first-person narrator, and between being both inside and outside representation, between being objectified through the male gaze in dominant discourse and experiencing the heterogeneous voice of subjectivity as woman outside that discourse (Barbara Godard 1988: 12). Scott uses sentences as her building blocks to construct such stairs in her narrative and writing. With each new sentence that opens up a space on another latitude, the writing subject seeks to carry her narrative into the present tense of history and paves the way towards “a future not yet dreamed of” (71), and to translate the untranslatable experience of a woman’s body into the language of the novel. Montreal stairs, the not-yet, and approaches to the untranslatable are thus foregrounded as the three major and interrelated components of this project. The objectives are threefold: first, to re-vision our understanding of contemporary everyday life experience through the architectural spaces of stairs, as featured in several cultural texts from Montreal, including Gail Scott’s Spaces Like Stairs (1989), Robert Majzels’sCity of Forgetting (1997) and Apikoros Sleuth (2003), Zoe Whittall’s Bottle Rocket Heart (2007), Christopher DiRaddo’s The Geography of Pluto (2914), as well as Michel de Broin’s aluminum sculpture works Revolutions (2003) and Dendrites (2017); second, to expound the chronotope of the stairs with reference to the “not yet” (aproximação) in Erin Moure’s poetics, Gail Scott’s “future not yet dreamed of” in her subjunctive narratives, and the refrain “and yet, not yet” in Robert Majzels’s Apikoros Sleuth; andthird,to explore new research directions in the study of translation and the untranslatable that highlight the urge of the not yet, explore the vertical axis of translation, and acknowledge the incomparability and unevenness of languages by way of discussions of literary texts such as Erin Moure and Oana Avasilichioaei’s translations of translations, Nathanaël’s (Nathalie Stephens) reflections on self-translation and the untranslatable, as well as the reinventions of “Nicole Brossard” in English through the multiple voices of translators such as Barbara Godard, Susanne de Lotbinière-Harwood, Angela Carr, Erin Moure and Robert Majzels.
Methodologically, this project avoids the sometimes taken-for-granted method of comparison in literary studies. Instead, it endeavours to explore, through connectivity, the experience of the untranslatable in everyday life, particularly through an investigation of the drives or motivations that bring a translator or a writer closer to an instance of the untranslatable. This methodology is inspired by Marianne Hirsch’s Presidential Address at the Modern Language Association Convention 2014, in which she proposes a shift from “comparison” to “connectivity” in literary studies, with the hope “to eschew the idea that distinct contexts and histories are easily comparable,” while in most cases, especially in the contexts of globalization, there are “differences that cannot be bridged” (2014: 334). This project avoids the temptation of taking a comparative approach, but seeks instead to explore the links among writers who further Montreal and its languages towards the autrui.
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