January 10, 2021

Sherry Simon

I just found out that Concordia appointed Sherry Simon their highest research honour, Distinguished University Research Professor, at the end of November.

This seems like a great time to replay my 2018 Unapologetically Canadian interview with her.

Meeting Sherry Simon

McGill’s Centre for Interdisciplinary Research on Montreal began 2018 with a bilingual lunchtime discussion about power struggles in multilingual cities.

Journalists, translators and writers packed the room. Among them were students and professors from the universities of Concordia, McGill, UQAM and Sherbrooke. Late-comers pulled up chairs in the hallway.

We all came to hear keynote speaker Sherry Simon, a woman long known for challenging community identity.

Simon simultaneously lives within multiple communities based on gender identity, religious upbringing and personal conviction. She works in French at Concordia, an English University. She grew up in an Anglophone family, yet argues strenuously in favour of a French-first Montreal.

Speaking Memory

The presentation stemmed from a controversial book Simon edited called “Speaking Memory: How Translation Shapes City Life.”

Simon began her talk by describing how much the book carries her sentiments even though others wrote most of it.

Even though this book is a collective, it is a result of my obsession with Montreal and with Montreal-like cities which I’ve studied over the last ten or more years,” said Simon. “It all started in the early 1990s in my neighbourhood, which is Mile-End, when I became aware that the day-to-day life in my neighbourhood, the way languages were handled, the way people thought, the way identities were construed were diametrically opposed to what I was hearing on the radio and what I was reading in the newspapers. That was a shock.”

Pivot from Literature to Social Studies

The resulting shock combined with reflections about her neighbourhood to inspire Simon to pivot her research away from Quebecois literature. She began studying language and translation as a conduit for exploring the social and cultural history of Montreal instead.

Eventually, her work took her going Montreal’s borders to examine similar multilingual cities around the world, such as Barcelona.

As she studies different places, her analysis reflects a deep understanding of how it feels to have basic assumptions about identity questioned. She says her background growing up in a minority culture enables her to see patterns others miss.

Watching English Lose Status in Montreal

I remember that very existential sense that I had as a kid, when I took the bus across town and felt unwelcome,” she said. “When I grew up, Anglophones thought we were the dominant culture in the city. Then we found out it wasn’t true.”

That shift [in dominance from English to French] happened between the 60s and the 80s. I think that shift is so foundational for me that it allows me to understand so many other contexts around the world where those kinds of shifts happen, where communities re-examine their relationships to their cities, to their countries. If you look at the situation in Catalonia today, for example, that’s what that’s about. The shift in power about who thinks they’re up and who thinks they’re down. How do the languages realign themselves?”

Publishing History

Simon’s history questioning how languages realign links the many facets of her career.  As a result, she has books in multiple disciplines.

Her study of Quebec literature led her to publish two books about the subject in 1989 and 1994.

Then she studied feminist writings and presented her research in a book called “Gender in Translation” two years later.

Then she turned her eye towards the history of cities. Two additional books followed. She published Translating Montreal: Episodes in the Life of a Divided City in 2006. In 2011, she came out with Cities in Translation, in which she examines language patterns in cities around the world.

Translating Montreal

Simon says that Translating Montreal is her favourite work so far.

I think that the fact that this work was grounded in my personal experience of living between languages,” she said. Exploiting the potential discomfort of such a situation made it more of an organic quest. All these issues are things that I feel personally. As a citizen of a city like Montreal, we are always aware of the uncertainties of our situation. What some people see as a disadvantage I turned into an advantage.”

Living Between Communities

A lifetime of living between communities and her desire to shed identities has given Simon a cross-cultural existence.

To be a Montrealer means I have some affiliation to the historic Anglo community, even though for a very long time I wanted to give up my membership in that community. I felt more drawn to a Francophone identity. I wanted to be part of that identity. I’m also Jewish. So those three identities are important to me in various ways at various times and with various intensities.”

I found myself fascinated as she described the positive impacts of Montreal’s fundamental shit from English to French between 1940 and 1980.

People don’t realize that what was happening on the French side of town was exciting to a whole group of Anglos at the time,” said Simon. “My favourite character of that time was Malcolm Reid, a journalist in the 70’s who wrote about Francophone Montreal. He wrote this wonderful book about the Shouting Sign Painters. It’s a fabulous book about how the poets and songwriters were transferring the identity of the city and how exciting that was for English Montrealers to watch.”

Three Identities

Integrating her multiple identities has led Simon to approach research with a perspective that opens up unusual insights. She has closely examined Yiddish, French and English literary movements in Montreal during the early 1940s, for instance. That study made her realize that assumptions about Montreal as a land of two-solitudes is not correct.

Her work landed her the André-Laurendeau prize for the promotion of Québecois literature and culture in 2010.

I highly recommend watching Simon’s bilingual acceptance speech called “The Flow of Languages, the Grace of Cultures.”

Simon plans to continue investigating language’s influence on identity. Her next book will focus on polyglot places around the globe.

About the author 

Tracey Arial

Tracey Arial helps Canadians grow with notable nonfiction and urban agriculture.

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