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Canada Research Chair explores cultural revitalization in multilingualism

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Professor Nicole Nolette has a big office to fill – figuratively speaking, that is. When she joined the Department of French Studies in 2017, she was given the former office of Distinguished Professor Emeritus François Paré, the leading expert in Francophone minority studies in Canada. Now, Nolette holds a leading role as a Canada Research Chair (CRC) in Minority Studies, just announced by the Government of Canada.

Professor Nicole NoletteFocusing on minority cultures in Canada, Nolette’s scholarship couldn’t be more timely as the country becomes ever more multilingual, including the revitalization of Indigenous languages. Her CRC research investigates Francophone theatre in translation and the impact of technologies used for translation. This work will open more avenues for understanding our richly complex language landscape.

“I’m interested in how there is this hope in bilingualism in Canada,” says Nolette. “It’s a feeling that we might experience in performances, in some political moments, or even in everyday life.”

Translation as creative play

Growing up in a small Francophone community in northern Alberta, Nolette has first-hand experience as a French speaker in a predominantly English context. Later, as an undergraduate at the University of Alberta, she developed an interest in translation and anthropology. “I wanted to explore the social and cultural issues related to translation.”

With literary translation being a well-plowed field of study, Nolette focused on a less-examined area of translation: theatre. In fact, theatre serves as a perfect convergence for a CRC in minority studies, given French-English and other multilingual performances across Canada represent a microcosm of the pervasive issues of identity and place that we grapple with every day.

Nolette has a positive—indeed, innovative—perspective on the issue. “I came up with the concept of playful translation early on in my graduate studies,” she explains. “It captures the idea that bilingual plays are playful already, and that translation can add an additional layer of playfulness, where it is not a straight replication from one language to the other, but a creative play with the differences between the two languages.”

“Playful translation” differs across Canada

During her doctoral studies she wanted to see if this playful translation happened in other parts of Canada, such as Ontario and Acadia. That work resulted in her first book, Jouer la traduction. Théâtre et hétérolinguisme au Canada francophone, “which is a comparison between multilingual theatre from Acadia, Ontario, and western Canada. I look at how multilingual theatre from these three areas travels geographically in playful translation.”

Nolette’s research revealed that playful translation is most prevalent in western Canada where Francophone communities are small and isolated, and where, unlike Québec or Acadie, there is less constraint against integrating English into predominantly French performances. This suggests that different minority positions can affect creative expression, she explains, and that innovative practices can occur in unexpected places. In fact, minority communities might have something to teach majority populations.

In her postdoctoral research at Harvard University, Nolette further countered the impression that translation is a betrayal of the original. “I looked at hopeful affects in multilingual performances that represent a balance between cultures with different power dynamics.”

The role of technology

So how does technology affect theatre and minority cultures in translation? Nolette explains that technologies like surtitles—lyrics or dialogue projected above a stage or digitally displayed—sometimes become the subject of the play itself. “I’m exploring how technologies play into the stories of multilingual minorities in Canada and at how such technologies might be part of how minorities envision futures for themselves.” 

Nolette’s CRC work will offer a better understanding of how cultural projects, such as Francophone minority theatre within a large cosmopolitan city, enrich Canada’s cultural landscape. “The idea of playful and hopeful translation can be extended, with some nuance, to other minorities, and can help to revitalize cultural and linguistic traditions.”

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