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Athabasca University

Plurilingualism and Self-Translation in the Works of Dôre Michelut1

by Deborah Saidero, University of Udine

The reliance on plurilingual experimentation is a common trait of many works by Italian-Canadian writers, whether it includes code switching between one of the official languages of Canada and Italian or between English and/or French and an Italian dialect. Critics have often ascribed this mixing of codes to the deep-rooted urge these writers have to voice their duality and split immigrant experience through diverse linguistic mediums, so as to operate and be accepted within the new Canadian reality on one hand, and to re-create the affective sphere of their family heritage and lost homeland on the other. For many writers, the tossing of untranslated Italian words like pebbles into the flow of their English or French texts is an act of resistance, which “relativizes”, as Francesco Loriggio states, “both the language and the writer’s enunciative position” (1998, 26, translation mine). In so doing, it exposes both the clash between the dominant acquired languages and the minority mother tongue(s) and seeks to break down biased power-over hierarchies by pointing to the gaps that situate the writer and reader as both insiders and outsiders. For others, the strategies against forgetfulness and hegemonic cultural and linguistic assimilation include exploiting their bilingualism to translate their own works or to write in either of their languages.

Within this multi-faceted and creative context, a very peculiar instance of plurilingualism is provided by the works of Dôre Michelut, a contemporary Italian-Canadian poet of Friulan origins who not only employs English, Italian and Friulan alternatively to create a heteroglossic mixing of languages, but also engages in experiments with self-translation. In both Loyalty to the Hunt and Ouroboros: The Book that Ate Me Michelut moves freely from one language to another to create a dialectical dialogue among her three languages and bridge her various linguistic and cultural identities within a constantly shifting transcultural paradigm. As in the case of many other writers with immigrant origins, her effort to trace a genealogy of self involves uncovering what Smaro Kamboureli has defined as “a genealogy of language”, language being “that which constructs the articulations of ourselves” (1996, 12). For Michelut, this desire to understand how language inhabits her body and to negotiate her plural identities and experiences necessarily implies passing her poetry “through the sieve” of self-translation, having it go, as she explains, “from English to Furlan and back, from Furlan to Italian or Italian to English and back” so that “each language still speaks me differently, because it must, but each speaks me more fully” (Michelut 1994, 170).

The recurrence to self-translation in Michelut’s poetical works is, thus, to be viewed as part of her broader identity politics. Unlike Italian writers writing in dialect who resort to self-translation so as to assert the potentialities and legitimacy of dialect, Michelut’s use of translation aims at translating her ‘self’ into being, at constructing her identity as constantly shifting and fluctuating between her various selves, both past and present. In light of the recent translation theories which view translation as an act of transcreation and transformance and of the metaphor of self-translation as a renegotiation of the self put forward by Pavlenko and Lantolf, this paper wishes to argue that, besides being a strategy of resistance and re-appropriation, for Michelut self-translation becomes a space of mediation where intercultural exchange may occur, thereby allowing the poet to fuse her multiple identities, selves and cultures.

For bi- and multilingual individuals who live in two or more different cultural and linguistic milieus during their lives, identity is, even more than for others, a fractured, self-contradictory, fluctuating and dynamic concept, which entails a continuous renegotiation of self across boundaries. In their sociolinguistic account of the processes involved in language learning identity formation Pavlenko and Lantolf (2000) argue that self-translation enables immigrant bilinguals to reinterpret their own subjectivities and make meaning of the new cultural practices, so as to overcome their initial displacement, recover their voice in the new language, and achieve a unification of identities within the self. The description Michelut gives in “Coming to Terms with the Mother Tongue” of her troubled relationship with her languages fittingly matches the phases of displacement/continuous loss and recovery/(re)construction outlined by Pavlenko (1998). After experiencing a loss of her linguistic identity, resulting in a loss of connection to her inner world and meanings, Michelut is initially torn and betrayed by her linguistic subjectivities and lives “the impossibility of translation as silence”, becoming “aware of the exclusion of myself from one world and the other to such an extent that I started feeling irrelevant to both” (Michelut 1994, 165). Yet, as she starts “to write, in any language, and despite all grammars”, she increasingly comes to realize that

the so-called betrayal of translation was really irrelevant; all form, including sound as language, betrayed for that matter. The point was to fully determine myself in a given circumstance: I could never change the given, but I could shape it as I engaged it. My fear of betrayal was, in fact, my fear of freedom to choose between forms. (165)

Shaping meaning on her own terms by writing in various linguistic mediums thus triggers for Michelut, as in the case of other Italian-Canadian writers, a process of healing and recovery, which allows her to “stop feeling haunted and cheated”, by letting her “languages...‘see’ each other within me” (166). The realization that hers “was a process of self-translation” wherein “I was generating a dialectical experience that was relative to both languages and yet, at the same time, I was beyond them both” (166), allows Michelut to move out of that linguistic and semantic vacuum that Lantolf (1999) ascribes to the individuals’ temporary incapacity to engage in inner speech in both their native and newly-acquired languages, following their loss of subjectivities and frames of reference for understanding the world. By allowing her to appropriate other voices in accord with the Bakhtinian concept of ventriloquation, the ongoing phase of self-translation fosters the emergence of Michelut’s own voice in all her languages and enables her to construct meaning and experience in them. As she goes on to explain in her essay,

By translating myself into myself, by spinning a fine line in-between states of reality, I transcended the paralysis of being either inside or outside form. It was like transmuting lead to gold and back, solely for the pleasure of knitting their interrelation. (166)

The feeling of pleasure Michelut is pervaded by is clearly reminiscent of Bakhtin and the appropriation of this concept on the part of feminist theorists and critics, who have been putting forward innovative theories on translation. In Quebec, for instance, the group including, among others, Barbara Godard, Nicole Brossard and Sherry Simon, has emphasized the importance of subverting the binary antithesis between the original and the translation and of considering the interactive space between the two poles, in order to assert the translator’s right to mould and manipulate the original in an act of transcreation which will allow the translator-writer to possess and re-possess the text over and over, to re-read and re-write it infinitely, adding ever-new meanings to it and enriching it linguistically2.

Michelut’s endeavours to translate some of her poems reflects this somewhat subversive urge to write in the interface between languages and create new spaces where language can renew itself and different subjectivities can be positively inscribed. The three poems that make up the section ‘Double Bind’, in the collection Loyalty to The Hunt, for instance, emblematically signal her first efforts at transcreation. Here, as Anna Pia De Luca has aptly noted, Michelut “comes face to face with the harrowing effects of her split personality” and depicts “the painful process of creative birth, physically, psychologically and linguistically”, a process in which “female flesh becomes the topos where the linguistic foetus and suffering are situated” (1999, 104). By exploiting metaphoric clusters connected to female corporeality, the poet, in fact, signals the emergence of her own voice as it establishes itself in the interstices of her languages. In “Tra l’incudine e il martello/Double Bind” and “La terza voce diventa madre/The Third Voice Gives Birth” she relies upon the metaphors of love-making and giving birth to signal how her remote Friulan language and culture surface in the spaces between her Italian and English texts. When “l’inglese impazzisce; borbotta/ English goes mad. It mutters” Friulan erupts on the page and remains untranslatable: “O Susanna tal biel cjastiel di Udin with tanti pesciolini e i fiori di lillà don’t cry for the deer and dead buffalo” (Michelut 1986, 34-5). It then finds its legitimacy in the third poem of the series, “Ne storie/A Story”, which sanctions the movement from Friulan to English. As she walks “in this language of walls wet with a bitterness that seeps into my mouth, that shocks my teeth like icy well water” (“cjàmini in chiste lenghe dai mûrs bagnats cun trist, cal filtre ta le me bòcje, ca mi bàt sui dinc' come aghe glaze di laip”, 1986, 36-7), Michelut gives herself to Friulan’s “unspoken presence, to its ironies, to its ‘ear’” and although it “feels like drowning”, it feels more and more “like me” (Michelut 1994, 169). Rendering the Friulan text in English involves not only going beyond the common linguistic impassi deriving from the structural, morpho-syntactical and grammatical differences between the two languages, but also, and foremost for Michelut, allowing the two languages to equally claim her, to become “subjects with individual personalities which acted on me” (1994, 167). It involves, as she admits, providing “a bridge in which English can happen in the light of Furlan and, when possible, vice versa” (170).

The reference to her grandmother’s womb in the first poem (“L’arancione di Firenze mi penetra. Faccio all’amore e la notte si spiega dall’utero di mia nonna, mi lega, aggroviglia nomi e tempo, è la mia voce, urla il dolore di donne dilaniate che si vestono l’anima di carne”, 32) also symbolically foregrounds a movement back to the semiotic dimension of language, where a plethora of sensory perceptions are recovered. The resulting act of self-translation is, thus, not much an accurately mimetic transposition of ‘Adamic’ signifiers and structures from one language to another, but rather an attempt to transpose experience lived in one language and culture into another, an attempt to bridge the gaps between her linguistic identities, so as to go beyond the hierarchical framing of experience where, as she says,

English could not assimilate my experience of Italian. It made external, stereotypical conjectures, but it could not incorporate the other sensibility as part of its own manifest reality. What was lived in Italian stayed in Italian, belonged to it completely. And vice versa. (165)

As emerges from the second poem, “The Third Voice Gives Birth”, translating the Italian text into English must make room for interpenetration between and among cultures and allow each language to experience “the other in a ‘felt’ relation” (Michelut 1994, 166). Linguistic ‘categories’ alone are not sufficient here “to give voice to the exact bitterness of the persimmon tree”, which “will sweeten” only through the recovery of a polyphonic dimension that incorporates intercultural and inter-linguistic elements, as well as those maternal aspects of language which belong to a pre-oedipal stage and include non-verbal, rhythmic, and sensory dimensions. If, as Michelut states, “languages, like mothers, are identities we grow within” (Michelut 1990, 76), then self-translation enables a movement out of the limiting confines and partial truths of the written word, which is saturated with the ideological values of a culture, and allows her to circle back to a space beyond symbolic signifiers and write in the rhythms of her body, in a language which listens to and gives voice to her multiple selves, allowing her to hear what Madeleine Gagnon calls “the unheard of the foreign tongue” (Gagnon 1994, 91).

Aware that self-translation requires a reciprocal flow, Michelut attempts to bring her three languages together, to let them engage in a sort of playful intercourse and merge into one another. In Ouroboros: The Book That Ate Me, numerous poems appear in both English and Italian or English and Friulan, so as to witness how various voices speak in Michelut, both separately and simultaneously, each voice playing hide-and-seek with its shadow in an attempt to blur the boundaries among them. As the title of this fragmented collection of poetry, dialogue and dreams suggests, the act of translation is here one of “cannibalistic devouring” as theorized by Augusto and Haroldo de Campos. According to the Brazilian theorists, the act of translating is, in fact, one of cannibalizing, of absorbing and transforming the original, of feeding on the text to derive a meta-language in which hierarchies and boundaries are erased and discourses interpenetrate and multiply. Since the mimetic concept of translation is rejected, the distinction between original language, original source, original text and translation becomes absolutely irrelevant, just as it is equally superfluous to know which text was written first. Rather than translations in the traditional sense, or substitutes for each other, Michelut’s poems are, instead, twin-texts, each complementary to one another, each a sort of “Mephistofaustian transluciferation” (H. de Campos 1981; 1982) of the other, which dialectically completes, enlightens, extends, reassures, reasserts and transforms the knowledge originally present. Translation for Michelut resembles what Haroldo de Campos calls a “parricidal dis-memory”(H. de Campos, 1981, 209; qtd. Vieira 1994, 69), a “satanic enterprise” (1981, 180; qtd. Vieira 1994, 70). As she writes “THE DEVIL MADE ME DO IT”:

The devil was blackmailing me... Every word I had written so far was absurd and lacked meaning. I wanted it that way... But now, I was being blackmailed: my own words were being sent back to me and I would experience their meaning. I was forced to feel what my own words implied. (Michelut 1990, 86)

The liberties the writer-as-self-translator can take in this process, that freedom and pleasure to ‘cheat’ as Brossard calls it (see Durand, 2), make room for playfulness within the work, enriching it in terms of meaning, rhythmic musicality, metaphorical thickness and syntactical complexity, so as to generate, as Michelut explains, a separate, independent entity:

The more I wrote, the more I found myself grammatically separating the languages. One poem would become two: one in either language. I would work on them until they seemed to snap apart and become two independent entities; each becoming progressively more untranslatable as it progressed in its own direction. What surprised, and then delighted was that each poem came to a stop somewhere inside itself when it knew itself as coherent, whole and complete... Nothing was left out; all words were ghostless, full of me and present to themselves. (1994, 166)

An interesting example of this play Michelut engages in is provided by the poem “Altro Che”, where the English version, entitled “1977” is more than ever a free adaptation of the Italian text:

Le righe chiare,
disegnate, la politca
fatta credendo. Chi ero?
Nessuno direi ora.
Eppure, il rischio
della pelle c’era. Ma come
subito dopo Moro
tutti in analisi?
Siete arrivati
alla mia partenza.
Ed io, dove andavo
con tutte le porte
spalancate e i venti
della rabbia in corpo?

Lines clearly drawn.
Revolution through sheer
belief. Who was I?
No one, I’d say now.
Yet the risk was real
for it burst all doors
and set the winds of anger
loose in my body.
To abandon history for
pyschoanalysis, so easily?
How could you arrive
on the shores
of what I left behind?
Impossible to bear

(1990, 19)

By producing difference in sameness, the process of self-translation ultimately allows Michelut to overcome the sense of betrayal and loss deriving from the semantic and metaphorical poverty of certain words and concepts in the other language/s and gain a space of interactive polylogue where a fusion of identities may be achieved, where various subjectivities overlap, where all words are “full of me” since they can “speak and listen to each other” (Michelut 1994, 170). Quite emblematically, the meshing and merging of all three her languages and identities is achieved at the end of Ouroboros, with the trilingual version of “The Crowd Ceases” Here the space of translation emerges as a site of tension where the process of trans-textualization through the three languages and cultures originates “parallel cantos” (H. de Campos 1981, 75) where the various textual voices engage in polyphonic dialogue.

In light of the theoretical frameworks adopted for analysis, we can conclude by stating that in Michelut’s quest for identity and legitimacy, the engagement with self-translation is as imperative as the creative act of writing. It is, in many ways, both an ongoing continuation and erasure of the original, a space for dialogue and playfulness where she (and her readers) can make sense of her plurilingual and pluricultural selves. The hybrid space created in this plurilingual dialectic polylogue makes room for both a renegotiation of identities and a constantly shifting transcultural and translingual paradigm of self-definition, where the poet can go beyond the boundaries and affliction occasioned by being caught between different cultures and languages and experience difference as a capacity to relate and inscribe existing selves within a form that appeases, comprises and expands otherness. It is a space of mediation where, Michelut believes, she can expand the capacity to experience life.


1This essay has appeared in Italian as “Plurilinguismo e autotraduzione nelle opere di Dôre Michelut” in Itineranze e Transcodificazioni: Scrittori migranti dal Friuli venezia Giulia al Canada, Alessandra Ferraro & Anna Pia De Luca (eds.), Udine:Forum, 2008, pp. 87-95. English translation copyright Deborah Saidero, 2012.

2Since the mid-80s, translation theorists in Quebec and Canada have worked to deconstruct the patriarchal ideology implicit in the idea of translation as “les belles infidèles”, by putting forward the alternative feminist perspective of translation as an interface, in which the translator, as both writer and reader, performs a manipulative act of linguistic invention. See, for instance, Godard 1990. Cfr. also Bassnett’s chapter on Translation Studies (1993).


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Updated February 12 2015 by Student & Academic Services

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