When I was about seven or eight years old, I had a realization that changed my life: I realized that if I learned nothing else in school, I had better learn French.
I live in Ottawa, and to anyone else living in Ottawa it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a kid would twig to the idea that knowing French is pretty important here; not only is it essential for most government jobs, but a fair selection of private sector jobs require it too. Not being bilingual is almost a disability in this city.
It was an uphill battle. I was, after all, born in Vancouver to an English (not anglophone, but English) father and a Winnipeg mother. There was no precedent for learning French in my family tree. Latin, Italian, Ukranian, even Yiddish—but no French up either side as far back as anyone could remember. Luckily, I was decent enough at it that I made it through school, taking at least half of my high school courses in French, and I ended up somehow winning an award for it at one point.
Despite my awful accent (which runs the spectrum, according to unsolicited criticism, from “cute” to “Méxicain”), I managed to hold down a (private sector) job requiring me to speak both English and French roughly equally for the better part of a decade.
Another side-effect of learning French, and perhaps the most important, was gaining an appreciation for francophone and Québec culture. It started with watching MusiquePlus, for sure, but I enjoyed reading the francophone literature we were exposed to in school, and renting the occasional Québec film. For a time I even maintained that most of the culture in Canada was in or from Québec… and I’m still not sure it isn’t.
Brian Alkerton asked a question on Twitter a few weeks ago that stuck right in my prefrontal lobe. He asked (I’m paraphrasing as I didn’t have the foresight to save the tweet) if it were possible to fully appreciate Québec culture in the absence of the French language. The question stuck with me because, although my gut answer was “NO!”, I couldn’t say that definitively. It’s a valid point; a lot of cultural product only sells outside of Québec once it’s been translated into English. Is something always lost? How essential is the language to the culture?
It’s a complex question.
Last week, during the undercurrents festival, Kevin Orr directed Andy Massingham and Julie Le Gal in a fascinating experimental piece called Bifurcate Me, about which I’ve already written and spoken to possible excess. One of the features of the piece is that Massingham’s character speaks and understands only English, while Le Gal’s character speaks only French (but seems to understand English—also not unfamiliar in Ottawa). This led to some cute humour within the piece, but also had the effect of dividing the audience into those who understood what was being said in French and those who didn’t, which was evident from who was laughing at certain points. Whether or not that was the intention, it certainly underlined the gap that does exist.
It also brought to mind a more abstract question: Is it always necessary to understand the language to appreciate a cultural work? Well? Don’t we watch opera in Italian, or even German? I had the chance recently to test this question: Wayne Current and I went to see the Once Upon a Kingdom production—children’s theatre of the highest calibre—which was entirely in Russian. Now, I do know some Russian. I know how to say “Yes”, “No”, “What?”, “Please”, “Thank you”, and “I don’t speak Russian”. Beyond that, if I recognize a Greek or Latin root I may be able to get the gist of what’s being said… but otherwise I’m hopeless. I guess I’ll never know what linguistic nuances we missed during the performance, but the plot and the characters were perfectly comprehensible. I think I even picked up a new word or two.
Is there something to that, I wonder?
Isn’t that how we learn language in the first place, even our own maternal tongue? Not by reading it off the page, but by seeing it used? At their most basic, words are symbols devoid of intrinsic meaning; they acquire that meaning by association, and we infer meaning from context long before we run to the dictionary to look up definitions. Theatre and its offspring, film and television, probably provide the richest context (the visual elements, and the interactions between people) possible to observe without the pressure of interaction.
My personal opinion is that, although a good translation or adaptation is by no means a bad thing, any cultural product is best appreciated in its original language, whether one understands it or not.
I don’t expect everyone to share that opinion.
I do expect people to broaden their horizons. We shouldn’t be thinking so much in terms of “English theatre” or “French theatre”—that’s like watching with one eye closed.
There is much to be learned by an anglophone who takes the time to experience francophone theatre; including, but not limited to, the French language itself.