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You are here: Home > Writing in Education > Writing at University > Writing in Practice > Previous Issues > Vol. 3 > “I am the sum of my languages” (Hoffman 1989: 273) – Bilingual Writing: Transitional Spaces and Reconciliation
“I am the sum of my languages” (Hoffman 1989: 273) – Bilingual Writing: Transitional Spaces and Reconciliation
Author: Amy Coquaz
Amy Coquaz describes bilingual writing as texts written in one primary language but which contain traces of another. She uses both her own novel and other writing to discuss the “transitional space” of reconciliation between languages.


This paper seeks to offer a theoretical and practical definition of bilingual writing. In the first instance, I review other definitions in order to develop my own. In the second half of the paper, I focus on two particular examples of bilingual writing: Cantique des Plaines by Nancy Huston and Lost in Translation by Eva Hoffman. Alongside this, I offer extracts from my own work as performative illustrations of my argument. Bilingual texts are written in one primary language but contain traces or echoes of another. This second presence is disruptive, revealing a lack of unity, but it also hints at a potential for reconciliation – two languages cohabiting. Drawing on translation theory and psychoanalysis, I show how this potential plays out in Huston’s and Hoffman’s novels. In these two texts, characters seek to translate themselves. This translation occurs through dialogue and a mix of creativity and remembrance. These different modes allow the characters to inhabit a transitional space, between reality and fiction for the former and between “mother tongue” and second language for the latter. I identify this transitional space as one of reconciliation and argue that this transition as reconciliation is one of the main motifs of bilingual writing.


Keywords: bilingual writing, translation theory, psychoanalysis, identity, languages, creativity, transitional spaces, translating the self


Translation and Writing

Being a second language writer, I have a personal interest in languages and the role they play in creative practice. As I began working on my novel, about a girl moving from Montréal to Lyon, I focused my critical research on second language writers, asking a general question: what links writers who choose to write in a language other than their first? Alongside my own creative exploration, I studied two books written in the author’s second language: Lost in Translation (LT), an autobiography by Eva Hoffman, and Cantique des Plaines (CP), a self-translation by Nancy Huston. Unsurprisingly, identity revealed itself as a recurring theme. Translation is also overwhelmingly present. In an earlier version of this article, I explored the notion of traduction de soi or translating the self and showed how the novels’ characters went about this act of translation. I should explain at this point that I picked CP instead of its Anglophone original, Plainsong, because French is Huston’s second language, which fitted my initial frame of study. Further research widened my understanding of second language writing and I developed the notion of bilingual writing – writing in one language which contains traces and echoes of another. This notion builds on some core debates and discussions within translation studies. Sherry Simon and Karen Bennett have their own understanding of the writing I refer to – writing as translation, which Simon (2001: 321) describes as a “shadowing of one language by another” and Bennett (2012: 50) as a “hybrid style of writing.” However, my definition differs from theirs. For these theorists, the translating act unsettles, disturbs, divides, highlights tensions and fragmentations – processes which they describe in a positive light and which I also see as constructive and beneficial. In a recent interview that I conducted with her, Simon (2016) argued that “language differences give rise to a […] consciousness of cultural differences.” This consciousness holds the potential for tolerance and acceptance but a division remains. I highlight a second dynamic within bilingual writing: a pursuit, and sometimes the achievement, of reconciliation and wholeness.

The relationship between source and target language is understandably fascinating for translation theorists. Matters of equivalence, alignment, translatability, etc. are constant subjects of enquiry. Change is a central and basic aspect of translation: the text is turned into another language. As far back as 1923, Walter Benjamin argued that:

no translation would be possible if in its ultimate essence it strove for likeness to the original. For in its afterlife – which could not be called that if it were not a transformation and a renewal of something living – the original undergoes a change (1923: 17).

However, reactions to this change and strategies for approaching it differ. Some theorists argue that the text suffers a loss upon translation and develop methods to compensate for this. Lawrence Venuti (2009: 159, 162) bemoans “the manifold loss of contexts in any translation” and views translation as a process of “interpretation”, which while limiting is, according to him, the only viable strategy. Peter Newmark (1991: 7), on the other hand, argues that the translated text should be as close as possible to the original and that creativity “is the last resource” and should only be employed if “standard translation procedures fail.” The aim of compensation is to offer the reader of the translated text an experience which is as close to the experience of reading the original as possible.

Meanwhile, Michael Cronin and Simon have a much more positive view of change and creativity within translation. Cronin (2003: 127) laments that “[t]he intrinsically creative nature of the translation process” is often overlooked. One of the gains of translation, according to him, is the development of creative individuals – the translators. The benefits, he argues, lie in the process, not only in the product. He describes the translators’ position as privileged – distanced from their own culture, their vision is widened, which allows them to generate new knowledge (Cronin 2003: 126). Simon (1994: 21), for her part, focuses on the result of translation and explores “le caractère ‘productif’ de la traduction” – “the generative power of translation” [my own translation]. For her, it is a second act of creation and the translated text is a brand new product. When discussing concrete language tensions and everyday translations in Montréal, Simon (2016) talks of “a sense of possibility.” According to Cronin and Simon then, translation does not impose a loss but instead offers fresh possibilities.

Translation is disruptive, in so much as a change takes place. However, the disturbance I mentioned earlier runs deeper than this for some theorists. Barbara Johnson (2003: 61) and Cronin (2000: 28) present unity as a myth and argue that translation reveals the inherently fragmentary state of language. Cronin (2000: 124) argues that translation offers “distance from the délire identitaire of immutable origin.” Johnson, for her part, presents translation as a paradox: it both unravels and creates the myth of oneness. She writes: “The trajectory from original to translation mimes the process of departing from an origin and thus enhances the belief that there is an origin” (Johnson 2003: 16). The act of translation, however, puts oneness firmly out of our grasp, according to Johnson. Interestingly, psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva (1991) makes a similar argument when she advances that the foreigner makes visible the other within us, our non-singular identity. She writes: “[t]he foreigner is within us. And when we flee from or struggle against the foreigner, we are fighting our unconscious” (Kristeva 1991: 191). Encounter with the foreign, in language or in the flesh, uncovers cracks, multiplicities.

It seems natural that amongst such discussions, the space between the source and target language – the point of encounter – should become an object of study. Bennett (2012: 43) identifies the notion of “in-between” as a common trope within translation studies. She argues that while the term raises objections, these are based on a misunderstanding of it. The transitional space in question does not refer to “any geographic space, or even to its metaphorical projection in the form of national languages and cultures” (Bennett 2012: 45). Rather, it should be understood on a symbolic level: the transitional space is subjective, it exists outside of dominant discourse and institutions and as such can contain the fresh possibilities envisioned by Simon and Cronin (Bennett 2012: 53). Both theorists celebrate this space: Cronin (2000: 2) develops a “nomadic theory of translation” while Simon (2006: 164) interrogates the use of the bridge as a metaphor for translation, arguing that “[w]hat happens on the bridge must be taken into account.” Translation, then, goes beyond source and target: the space where the two meet plays a crucial role.

In what follows, I shall establish a working definition of “bilingual writing” and offer an analysis of CP and LT. Building on Simon’s and Bennett’s understanding of this type of writing as disruptive, I argue that it also contains a reconciliatory movement. In Huston’s and Hoffman’s novels, the protagonists seek to translate their selves. In Translating Montréal, Simon (2006: 119) explains that translation is generally understood as “a form of turning”; a text is turned from one language into another. There are many types of text and many types of language. In the act of translation I discuss here, the text is the self – the character’s own perception of their identity – and the language is whichever mode of expression they choose to communicate this self. In LT, the translation is what we usually understand by this term: from “mother tongue”[i] to second language. In CP, the translation is less straightforward – from reality into fiction, from one person into another. In their translations, the characters encounter difficulties, the first of which is a sense of fragmentation. Simon (2006: 131) describes “translation as a movement that reveals, rather than conceals, difference.” The protagonists in both of these novels are divided, split. Building on Kristeva’s reflections on the relationship between self and other, I suggest that the “cure” for this fragmentation is dialogue. This idea is further developed through a discussion of creativity and memory within translation and a conceptualization of translating the self as an act of re-invention. Applying Simon’s and Cronin’s theories on the subject, I show that when characters compensate for a perceived loss, their translation fails whereas when they are open to possibilities, it succeeds. The protagonists are creating but they are not inventing; both translations retain echoes of the original and whenever a complete break is attempted, it is as unsuccessful as a literal translation. Dialogue, then, is crucial and this takes place in the transitional space between old and new, between “mother tongue” and second language, between reality and fiction. In this in-between, it is possible to exist as the sum of one’s selves, to achieve wholeness and reconciliation, not through singularity but through the embracing of multiplicity.


Bilingual Writing

The texts studied in this essay and my own novel are not bilingual in the literal sense. Although another language may make brief appearances, there is a clearly dominant language. Here, the term bilingual is used in a more metaphorical sense and bilingual writing refers to writing in one language which contains echoes and traces of another. Sherry Simon (2001: 321) speaks of “translation without an original”; Karen Bennett (2012: 50) of “writing-as-translation”; and Daniel Gagnon (2006: 117) catalogues “forms of writing or contexts of writing that involve more than one language.” Although their terms differ slightly, Simon and Bennett’s definitions are similar, with Simon (2001: 321) defining translations without originals as “the shadowing of one language by another” and Bennett (2012: 50) describing writing-as-translation as “a hybrid style of writing that mixe[s] elements from two languages.” These two definitions can be condensed into the following: the presence, explicit or implicit, of a language other than the main narrative one. While Simon and Bennett’s terms highlight the effect of this type of writing – a sense of translation – I suggest “bilingual writing” as an alternative.

The term “bilingual writing” is not only descriptive in its conveying of the double presence discussed above; it also encompasses the dynamics played out in the writing at hand. Both Simon and Bennett focus on the disruptive quality of this type of writing. Simon (2001: 321) argues that the writers concerned “wish […] to unsettle the reader by provoking an encounter between disparate realities.” Translations without originals are meant to jar the reader and create a shock: “[t]he joins are visible; they are flashpoints of dissonance” (Simon 2001: 320). This image of joins is echoed by Bennett (2012: 47-48) when she speaks of “the spaces that are revealed when an authoritative discourse […] is deliberately disrupted by the interposition of another.” These notions of encounter and connecting spaces are more readily contained in “bilingual writing” than in “translation without an original” and “writing-as-translation”. The term highlights the layered nature of the writing and refers directly to the meeting of two languages.

However, some theorists object to the notion of bilingualism. Simon is one of them. In our interview, she shared her suspicions towards this term, which she argues “tends to suggest symmetry and equality” and therefore does not account for “different kinds of language contacts and differing degrees of competence” (Simon 2016). Cronin (2000: 28), for his part, dismisses the term as a simplistic binary and argues that all languages contain traces of other languages:

The scandal of translation is to show that the origin is fragmented, that monoglossia is always provisional, that other languages precede, ghost or compete with the dominant idiom in any society.

What I understand as “bilingual writing” in this essay supports Simon’s and Cronin’s argument. The texts are written in one primary language but contain traces of another; the relationship between these two languages is not equal and they intersect each other, betraying a lack of singularity. The use of the term “bilingual” as a metaphor for the layering of languages keeps it from becoming simplistic or reductive. I would argue that it serves as an appropriate signifier of the divisions and tensions highlighted by Simon, Cronin and Bennett.

It is also useful because it suggests something beyond tension: cohabitation, a space harmoniously – if not equally – shared by two languages. “Bilingual” can stand for “dual” – separate – or “both” – together. Simon’s and Cronin’s objections perhaps stem from a disbelief in such a potential for harmony in the contact between languages. While both praise the benefits of such contact, they focus on the disruptions it engenders. Cronin (2000: 124) argues that in the movement between languages, “the ‘natural’ reveals itself to be ‘cultural’” while Simon (2001: 322) insists that “[t]he cohabitation of languages within a single frame is always unsettling.” These disruptions are a crucial aspect of bilingual writing but they are not the only dynamics. Alongside them, we find a desire for wholeness and reconciliation – for harmonious cohabitation. This other desire, this second cadence within bilingual writing is what this article seeks to explore. In order to illustrate this theory, I shall provide two case studies: a critical analysis of two bilingual texts – CP by Nancy Huston and LT by Eva Hoffman – followed by a performative analysis – three extracts from my own novel.


The Fragmented Self

Although LT and CP are two very different novels – not only in terms of language but in terms of style, subject matter and voice – they have several aspects in common, perhaps the most important of which is the main characters’ fragmented sense of self. In these two novels, the characters’ acts of translation reveal the “other” within them, as per Kristeva’s (1991) influential theory. Although Johnson suggests that the fragmentation which translation makes visible is irreversible, I argue that there is a possibility of unity in the dialogue between self and other.  

LT tells the story of young Eva’s immigration from Poland, her beloved home, to Canada, a foreign land. She calls it exile and as she struggles with her new language and culture; she feels disconnected from Poland and her “mother tongue”. In the final part of the book, Eva is an adult and still struggling to reconcile her Polish and her English selves. CP sees a different, less straightforward, kind of fragmentation. Paula has just lost her grand-father, Paddon. Armed with memories, his disjointed written reflections and her emotional connection to him, she proceeds to write his story – her version of his story, filling in the gaps with fictional imaginings. Accuracy is not an issue but justice is; justice for Paddon but also for Paula, who, when she was a naïve young girl, promised him to complete his life’s work, and who would like to be free of this promise and of him.

Judith Oster (1998: 61) argues that bicultural writers[ii], “and their protagonists, are always acutely conscious of a non-unitary self.” In CP and LT, this fragmented sense of self manifests itself in the translation work Eva and Paula carry out – Eva from Polish into English and Paula from reality into fiction, as well as from Paddon into herself. Translation is not inherently fragmentary but its movement reveals existing, hidden fragmentations. Johnson (2003: 61) argues that “[t]he wholeness of the original is an illusion that can be maintained only so long as the original is not translated.” It is for this reason that bilingual writing is so disruptive and unsettling. Just like translation, it uncovers tensions and divisions – it does not create them but rather makes them visible.

In the case of the self, what is uncovered is the stranger within us, this alter ego we remain oblivious to until confronted with foreignness. In Strangers to Ourselves, Kristeva explains that the fear and anxiety surrounding foreigners stem from recognition. She writes: “the foreigner lives within us: he is the hidden face of our identity” (Kristeva 1991: 1). Confrontation with the other, then, be it the physical confrontation of being faced with a foreigner or the symbolic confrontation of translation, is self-revelatory; it makes visible what was previously hidden within us. Kristeva (1991: 191) understands the self to be “a strange land of borders and otherness ceaselessly constructed and deconstructed.” Eva and Paula’s acts of translation have exposed these borders and they are now faced with the strangers within them.

Both novels, however, push beyond this revelation and towards the pursuit of a unitary self. Oster (1998: 61) argues that in spite of an acute awareness of the fragmented self in texts by bicultural writers, “a force for wholeness and integration asserts itself.” We observe this force in CP and LT. Paula seeks to make a coherent whole out of Paddon’s disorganized writings, even though “[m]a documentation est bien mince” – “documentation is very sparse” (Huston 1993: 16; my own translation). Towards the end of LT, Eva undertakes therapy, which she refers to as “translation therapy” (Hoffman 1989: 271). The aim of this is to “jump over my Great Divide” and “reconcile the voices within me with each other” (Hoffman 1989: 272). Johnson (2003: 64) argues that translation “breaks” the original and that “every effort to patch the vessel together only breaks it further.” Towards the end of CP, Paula wonders whether she is achieving peace and reconciliation or whether she is causing further disturbances: “au lieu de coudre un linceul, je profanerais des cadavres?” – “could it be that instead of sewing a shroud, I am desecrating corpses?” (Huston 1993: 238; my own translation). However, patching or sewing are not accurate metaphors for Eva and Paula’s pursuits. They are not mending the original; that would imply regression and the negation of what has been uncovered – namely, the other.

What hope is there for unity beyond the original? None, according to Johnson (2003: 25), who argues that “the plurality of languages and the plurality of sexes are alike in that they both make the ‘one’ impossible.” Plurality, however, is not incompatible with unity. If the fragmentation of the self lies in the discovery of the other then unity involves the acceptance of the other, not their destruction or a renewed blindness and ignorance. Cronin (2000: 124) argues that “[o]nly movement towards the Other can allow self-knowledge to emerge.” The pursuit of oneness described by Johnson is regressive, a movement backward, a retreat – which is indeed impossible now that translation has taken place – towards the original. Cronin, on the other hand, suggests a forward movement, towards the other. In an essay exploring the impact of Ariel Dorfman’s personal life on his (bilingual) writing, Fiona Doloughan describes the effect of bilingualism and biculturalism on his identity:

His subjectivity is not coterminous with his experience in and of one or other language but is constituted by dialogue between them. It is in this sense that we can speak of ‘translating’ the self. (Doloughan 2002: 152)

She does not understand this translation as a linear movement from one language to another but as a dialogical process, the first language and the other language interacting. A unitary subjectivity, then, is attained through dialogue.

In both novels, frustrations over fragmented identities manifest themselves as frustrations over language and its failures. We encounter the notion of a singing language and a longing for it in the novels’ characters. Singing seems to be the key to communication and understanding. When she plays the piano, Eva “know[s] everything about being human. Music is a wholly adequate language of the self – my self, everyone’s self” (Hoffman 1989: 72). Meanwhile, in CP, Paula describes her writing experience as listening to “une voix” and “son chant” - “a voice”and “its song” (Huston 1993: 212; my own translation). However, finding this singing language is not an easy, straightforward journey. Eva finds it in music but loses it when she moves to Canada, where she must grapple with a new instrument: English. Reflecting on the experience of using a second language, Kristeva (1991: 15) writes:

You have a feeling that the new language is a resurrection: new skin, new sex. But the illusion bursts when you hear […] that the melody of your voice comes back to you as a peculiar sound, out of nowhere.

She goes on to conclude: “between two languages, your realm is silence” (Kristeva 1991: 15). Upon her arrival in Canada, Eva experiences this silence. English is an instrument she cannot play. It does not bend to her will, does not express her true self. She describes it as “an aural mask that doesn’t become me or express me at all” (Hoffman 1989: 118).

When she is taught music, Eva is told that it is not enough to know the notes. She is encouraged to cultivate her “inner ear”, which she describes as “the ability to hear feelingly” (Hoffman 1989: 68). Her mistake with English is her refusal to listen, her retreat into silence. She erects a barrier between herself and her second – foreign – language and only once she breaks it can she access the “inner sense” of English words (Hoffman 1989: 186). She writes: “I’m back within the music of language” (Hoffman 1989: 186). Paula’s own pursuit of a singing language is similar, although in her case, she finds it in writing. This was also Paddon’s outlet but his attempts never resulted in satisfaction. So that she may succeed where her grand-father failed, Paula must, like Eva, listen. Her writing originates from a voice, which is at first owner-less and abstract. It is then attributed to Paddon and frustrations arise when he stops talking and singing to her. These frustrations lead to the realization that the voice and the song are in fact Paula’s. Once she accepts this, once she appropriates this originally foreign voice, Paula can finish the story. Both for Paula and Eva, then, the success of their translation relies on the movement towards, and the acceptance of, the other.



Creativity plays an important part in Eva and Paula’s translation. Newmark (1991: 7) defines creativity as a “distorting” but Simon and Cronin celebrate this distortion. They embrace it as a process which can generate new possibilities. In what follows, I present the process of translating the self as one of re-invention, highlighting the need for creativity but also for memory.

Paula and Eva both adopt a compensating stance at one point or another. In her retelling, Paula sometimes offers some of the fragments she is translating from, some of Paddon’s own writing, untouched. This is an attempt to give direct access to his voice, to compensate for her fictionalization. However, his voice is much clearer and more vivid in Paula’s writing, at the times when she takes liberties with it instead of attempting to convey it verbatim. The fragments she offers are nonsensical, abstract reflections – they are voiceless, lifeless. A useful notion here is Simon’s (2006: 40) “warm and cool forms of translation”. What Paddon’s fragmented writings, as incorporated within Paula’s translation, lack is warmth. Simon argues that:

[w]armer forms of exchange involve interference, rewriting, and creative transposition – and they engage more volatile and more self-implicated forms of interrelations. They signal a loosening of barriers and a sharing of influences. (2006: 41)

Paula is not interacting with Paddon’s voice. In LT, Eva shows a similar lack of engagement and originality in her use of her second language. In a particular passage, the repetition of “I learn” is poignant for its indication that she is passively absorbing and regurgitating the culture and language (Hoffman 1989: 146). She does and says what is expected but there is no thought behind it, no active involvement. Again, there is no warmth. In his influential essay, Benjamin (1923: 21) writes that “a translation […] must lovingly and in detail incorporate the original’s mode of signification.” This loving relationship is similar to Simon’s warm translation. I identified earlier the need for acceptance and dialogue between self and other, and how can there be a dialogue without love? How can reconciliation take place without warmth? A cool translation, one which seeks to alter the original as little as possible, is one which upholds distance and separation.

Engagement and involvement – creativity – are therefore necessary steps in the protagonists’ pursuit of wholeness and reconciliation. Eva eventually appropriates her new language and wakes up to the possibilities translation contains: “there are more colors in the world than I ever knew” (Hoffman 1989: 220).  She breaks down the barrier and allows her two languages to come into contact, to affect each other: “[e]ach language modifies the other, crossbreeds with it, fertilizes it” (Hoffman 1989: 273). The verb “fertilize” is particularly evocative for its connotation of new life. Meanwhile, Paula makes use of a different sort of text in her writing – songs. In her analysis of the songs in CP, Senior argues that “their meaning in the novel is sometimes considerably different from the original meaning.” She describes this narrative technique as “cultural materials [being] appropriated for new ends”. This is a form of warm and creative translation. The songs are “re-use[d] and adapt[ed]”; they are made to say something new (Senior 2001: 675). In the same way, Paula re-uses and adapts Paddon’s story to say something new, to express not his self but hers.

Translation as understood by Simon and Cronin goes beyond mere communication; new meaning is created. The translated text is an expansion of the original. Therefore, when I speak of “translating the self”, I mean more than mere self-expression. I am referring to a creative process, through which the self is reinvented, rewritten, reconstructed. In an essay on being a bilingual writer, Hoffman touches on this creative input. She writes: “[th]ere are people for whom leaving one’s mother tongue is a liberation; they feel they can invent new personae in new words” (Hoffman 2003: 53). Paula and Eva both experience this liberation; their translation is an act of appropriation, of self-assertion. However, I intentionally speak of re-invention. Creativity is not the only movement within translation; the “re-” prefix is crucial here.  

Despite the creative potential within translation, Simon (1994: 21) also describes it as a process of “ré-énonciation”: “re-utterance” [my translation]. This highlights the importance of the initial enunciation. Translated texts are not produced out of thin air; they have a past. Hence the importance of memory and haunting in the translating process. Simon (2006: 131) argues that “[t]he first language does not disappear in favour of the second but persists, like some pesky ghost,” and Cronin (2003: 68) writes: “[a]ll invention involves remembrance. The new is inconceivable without a notion of the old.” Translation then is as much a call-back as a move forward. Cronin (2003: 126) argues that “[t]ranslation is a return ticket: the voyage out is complemented by the journey home.” Revisiting – the act of going back, of retracing one’s step, physically or metaphorically – is an important notion in both novels. Late in the novel (LT), Eva returns to Poland for a short visit and Paula’s breaking away from her grand-father involves a retelling of his life. If I may borrow Benjamin’s phrasing, this means that no translation would be possible if in its ultimate essence it strove for independence from the original. He, himself, argues that the task of the translator should be to produce an “echo of the original” (Benjamin 1923: 20). Likeness and independence are both unachievable; translators must content themselves with the middle ground.

This middle ground is particularly easy to observe in translated names. On discussing name-changes, Cronin (2000: 31) remarks: “[n]ames carry with them […] the botched evidence of previous versions, a translation residue that has its own mischievous afterlife.” A resonance, then, persists between the old and the new. We witness this in LT, where Ewa becomes Eva. In CP, names are also important, although the translation is not as straightforward. Paula seeks to distance herself from Paddon, yet we cannot ignore the significant resemblance between Paula and Paddon. Neither of those pairs represent much of a stretch; these are concrete examples of echoes. Ewa is still present within Eva and Paddon within Paula. Simon (1994: 76) argues that “la traduction est repetition et nouveauté”: “translation is both repetition and novelty” [my own translation]. It is neither one nor the other but both; it exists as a third condition, at the meeting point between old and new.



Encounters have been one of the major themes of this article: self and other, old and new. As Simon and Cronin suggest, these encounters create tensions. However, we have also witnessed moments of dialogue and cohabitation. The “in-between” is a key notion in translation studies. Cronin and Simon conceptualize it as the birthing place of new possibilities – possibilities which did not exist in the two languages separately, prior to encounter. I argue that this transitional space is also one of reconciliation.

Bennett (2012: 56) defines the in-between as “an ongoing dynamic process”. This echoes Cronin’s (2003: 126) own notion of a “return ticket”. Translation is not reducible to a movement away; it is a back and forth. It is this constant va-et-vient which allows the translator to be double but in one space: to be two things at once, self and other; to do two things at once, creativity and memory. Cronin (2000: 2) explains that “[t]he translating agent like the traveller straddles the borderline between the cultures.” In this straddling, this bridging, the translator inhabits the transitional space between the source “language” and the target “language” and is able to process both, to make use of both.

In light of this, it is not surprising that these two bilingual novels involve a blurring of boundaries. In CP, Paula blurs the line between fiction and reality. Reconstructing her grandfather’s past, she is very open about the freedoms she is taking in her re-imaginings, inventing a lover for him that she seemingly has no tangible proof of. She also blurs the line between her and Paddon – herself a struggling writer, she mirrors him, and this closeness is what finally allows her to break away. In LT, Eva’s eventual successful translation is the product of a similar blurring of boundaries. She stops thinking of Polish and English as absolutely separate and instead blends together her various cultural and linguistic backgrounds. The divided chapters of her life come together at the end of the novel when she visits her home country. The metaphorical distance between Poland and America has shrunk: “Poland is only a long plane ride away” (Hoffman 1989: 241). The gulf becomes crossable and this crossing is revealed as an essential element for the success of Eva’s translation.

Translation theorists are not the only ones interested in transitional spaces. Psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott (1971: 53) speaks of a “potential space between mother and […] baby,” which is where “playing and cultural experience” happen. He goes on to link playing, and by extension creativity, to “the search for the self” and argues that “it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self” (Winnicott 1971: 54). The self, then, is discovered in the potential space. Kristeva, on the other hand, suggests that the other inhabits the transitional space. She argues that “[t]he space of the foreigner is a moving train, a plane in flight, the very transition that precludes stopping” (Kristeva 1991: 7-8). Based on these two understandings and on my analysis of Huston and Hoffman’s novel, it seems reasonable to advance that the in-between is a space in which self and other can cohabit, a space where dialogue is possible.

This is perhaps most evident in LT. Susan Fanetti (2005: 417) argues that once Eva fully inhabits the transitional space between her “mother tongue” and second language, “she succeeds as a translator and matures into a self that is the sum of her life, her languages.” Eva constructs and develops a new bilingual identity. Rather than being set one against the other, her “mother tongue” and her second language enter into a dialogue. This is most evident in several inner dialogues, one voice embodying Eva’s Polish sensibility while the other embodies her new English mind-set. The Polish voice is at first nagging, an enemy, but as the novel develops, the two voices are more conciliatory. Agreements and understanding are reached, the two voices meeting in the middle, no longer firmly on opposite ends. Eva’s new transitional mind-set is made explicit when a Polish friend diagnoses her as half-Polish and half-American (Hoffman 1989: 236). She is not one or the other, but indeed both. This suggests wholeness and amalgamation, rather than the painful splitting and nothingness that Eva suffered from throughout the novel.


Creative Practice

In this section, I aim to demonstrate how I apply the ideas delineated above in my own writing. The following extract, which opens my novel, is a good illustration of the desire to translate the self and the search for a singing language:

I write this in English. I’m not sure why. It’s not like I’ll send it to you.
          Some years ago, I read a review of Nancy Huston’s Plainsong. The author of it wrote that Huston, who had previously always written in French, had felt called upon to return to English, her ‘true’ language. I recoiled at this notion of one’s native tongue as the one and only ‘true’ language, the one we inevitably come back to. In a childish fit, I shut the magazine and threw it on the floor. It slid across the linoleum and disappeared beneath the kitchen cupboard, one of its corners sticking out, taunting me. 
          The language you passed on to me – my mother tongue – is English but from a very young age, I preferred French. I didn’t realize then, that I was dooming us to miscommunication. I simply followed the language which sang to me. French words floated around in my brain, brightly coloured, producing the most musical sounds; while English words rang false, their dull, grey shapes weighing me down.
          Yet here I am. (Coquaz 2016; unpublished)

Jeanne feels a need to distance herself from her mother, both physically and linguistically. French sings to Jeanne because it is not her mother’s language. Her preference for it is a declaration of independence, a self-assertion.

My next extract depicts a creative yet haunted act of translation. My narrator has arrived in Lyon and made her way to the building where she rents a small studio.

I touched my hand to the peeling varnish in an attempt to claim it but the door remained foreign.
          I stepped back and sat down on the bed. My bed. If I was in my room in Montréal, I would be facing the window, the view obstructed by a large, intricate Maple tree, its leaves a bright orange. Here, I was facing a yellow wall. The colour was faded, sickly. It reminded me of Nana’s house in Cornwall but I wasn’t sure why. None of the walls were painted in a similar colour but the whole apartment felt yellow.
          I was seven the first time we visited her. You hadn’t been back since you’d left eight years before, eloping with my father. Nana and you drank tea and stared angrily at each other while I played with Aimée. You were talking but neither of you was saying the words that hung in the air, waiting to be caught. You both kept your hands folded in front of you and discussed the weather.
          When there was a lull in the conversation, Nana turned towards me, her face softening slightly.
          “What is your doll called?”
          “It sounds like ‘Mémé’. Why did you call her that?”
          “It means ‘loved’.”
          “It’s an ugly name.”
          “We can change it to Amy,” you suggested.
          “Now, that’s a lovely name,” Nana said.
          You both smiled.
          “But her name is Aimée,” I argued.
          Neither of you listened. You had reached across the table and were holding Nana’s hand. While you weren’t looking, I took a sharpie that lay by the telephone and lifted my doll’s skirt. On her white, plush belly, I wrote ‘Aimée’. The letters were shaky but readable. No one could take away her name now.
          In my room in Lyon, I stood up and took a pen and a piece of paper out of my bag. I wrote down the French version of my name. Jeanne. I put the paper in my pocket and sat back down. I addressed the yellow wall.
          “Bonjour, je m’appelle Jeanne.” (Coquaz 2016; unpublished)

Jane gives herself a French name, Jeanne, which she clings onto as her true identity. She is active in her translation. Yet, she, like Eva, is anxious about names and identities being taken away. As a young girl, she inscribes her doll’s name on the doll’s body, an act which could be described as “setting it in stone”. Years later, she writes her own name down, in an attempt to fully claim this chosen identity. She perceives her “mother tongue” as an imposition, which is embodied in the above extract by her grandmother, who rejects the doll’s French name. To fight this imposition, Jeanne makes a conscious translating choice.  

My final extract looks in more detail at the motivation behind my narrator’s translation and demonstrates the role that emotion and affect play in translations of the self. This takes place early on in the first chapter of my novel. Jeanne’s mother is dropping her off at the airport.  

          “You think they’ll have a job for you?”
          “I’ll work in a restaurant. They love to hire foreign students. I’m exotic to them.”
          You snorted.
          “Plus, I’m bilingual.”
          Another snort.
          “They don’t care for English. They’re all nationalists.”
          You got out of the car and slammed the door shut behind you. I’d irritated you by mentioning my second language.
          You disliked French and everything attached to it. I’d always wondered why you didn’t move out of Québec after my father left. We lived on the outskirts of Montréal and you avoided leaving the house as much as you could. You never returned the neighbour’s bonjours – they took the hint eventually. If the phone rang, you didn’t answer it; you let it go to voicemail and never checked the messages. Whenever you did go out, you took a MP3 player with you and listened to American pop music, the volume much higher than it should be. And yet, even when you received a job offer from the University of Toronto – a friend had put in a word – you refused to leave. You said you were satisfied with the job you had. You worked as a freelance translator, which puzzled me for a long time, until I realized that you drew satisfaction from turning French words into English.
          You’d enjoyed French at school. You excelled at it and went on to study it at University, specializing in translation and French History. That was how you met my father; he was an exchange student from Montréal and you had a seminar in common. He taught you a different kind of French. You forgot the grammatically correct, practical language that had been drilled into you at school and learned a whole new one, a vibrant and sensual French, brimming with emotion and history – la langue vivante, as they say.
          You followed him to Montréal and you lived together for a year. Then I arrived and my father left.
          Although you said he was an accountant, I liked to think of him as a poet. I pictured him travelling through the northern countryside, sitting by the side of lakes, a notebook in his lap. I was a poet myself. I wrote in French. You never read any of my poems. You offered to translate them once and I refused. (Coquaz 2016; unpublished)

In my novel, Jeanne’s mother is a translator and carries out what Simon (2006: 40) terms “cool translations”. Jeanne describes her as taking pleasure in turning French words into English. This form of translation seems almost violent, words being forcefully dragged to her preferred side. Jeanne can also be seen to carry out cool translations, clinging to French as to a life buoy. However, her English writings show her reaching out across the void, looking for a warmer relationship between her “mother tongue” and her second language.


The sum of one’s selves

In the concluding pages of LT, Hoffman (1989: 273) writes: “I am the sum of my languages.” She goes on to add that she “can move between them without being split by the difference” (Hoffman 1989: 274). She is able to achieve stability while in flux, to form a whole which accommodates her multiple selves. In CP, the success of Paula’s reconciliation – her reclaiming of her own self as well as the acceptance of Paddon as her other self – is marked by a return to Paddon’s origin. She describes the moment of his conception and in her writing of it is contained her reconciliation with him, with her history and with herself. In my own novel, although it is still a work in progress, Jeanne is working towards accepting her “mother tongue”  and her past as a part of her, towards becoming the sum of her multiple selves instead of privileging a particular one – her French self – over the others.

This reconciliation, this sum, is a particular concern of bilingual writing and writers. In my description of this type of writing, I explained that it is often perceived as disruptive and unsettling, the contact between two languages revealing tensions and fragmentations. While this is true, I have uncovered a second, reconciliatory movement. Ariel Dorfman describes his experience as a bilingual individual and writer as both fragmented and whole. He argues that “the distress of being double and somewhat homeless is overshadowed by the glory of being hybrid and open” (Dorfman 2003: 33). This double feeling of distress and glory is poignant and perfectly encompasses the dynamics of bilingual writing. By bringing two languages into contact, bilingual writing inhabits a transitional space and invites readers to do the same, uncovering fragmentations but also showing the potential for reconciliation contained within transition. 



[i] “Mother tongue” is a contested term within linguistic studies, for several reasons, the main ones being that it is politically loaded and inaccurate. See Rampton M. B. H. (1990) ‘Displacing the “native speaker”: expertise, affiliation, and inheritance’. ELT Journal. 44 (2), 97-101. However, in light of the affective nature of the translations discussed in this paper, I find “mother tongue” to be a useful term and shall privilege it over “source language” or “first language”. The choice to use this term is also linked with the rest of my project, which investigates mother/daughter relationships. 

[ii] Oster’s definition of bicultural texts is different from my own definition of bilingual writing. While my concern lies with language, Oster is interested in the writer’s cultural background and the effect of their double belonging on their writing.



I would like to thank Keele University for their support and the Keele Postgraduate Association for facilitating a research trip to Montréal. I thank Dr Ceri Morgan and Emma Henderson, my supervisors, for their feedback on the critical and creative writing respectively. I also thank Daniel Laing for his non-specialist feedback.



Benjamin, W. (1923) ‘The Task of the Translator’ in L. Venuti (ed.) The Translation Studies Reader. London: Routledge, 15-22.

Bennett, K. (2012) ‘At the Selvedges of Discourse: Negotiating the ‘In-Between’ in Translation Studies’ in Word and Text: A Journal of Literary Studies and Linguistics, 2 (2), 43-61.

Coquaz, A. (2016) Jeanne. Unpublished.

Cronin, M. (2000) Across the Lines; Travel, Language, Translation. Cork: Cork University Press.

Cronin, M. (2003) Translation and Globalization. London: Routledge.

Doloughan, F. J. (2002) ‘Translating the Self: Ariel Dorfman's Bilingual Journey’ in Language and Intercultural Communication. 2 (2), 147-152.

Dorfman, A. (2003) ‘The Wandering Bigamists of Language’ in I. de Courtivron (ed.) Lives in Translation: Bilingual Writers on Identity and Creativity. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.

Fanetti, S. (2005) ‘Translating Self into Liminal Space: Eva Hoffman’s Acculturation in/to a Postmodern World’ in Women’s Studies. 34, 405-419.

Gagnon, D. (2006) ‘Bilingual translation/writing as intercultural communication’ in A. Pym, M. Shlesinger and Z. Jettmarova (eds) Sociocultural Aspects of Translating and Interpreting. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing, 117-128.

Hoffman, E. (1989) Lost in Translation. London: Vintage Books.

Hoffman, E. (2003) ‘P.S.’ in I. de Courtivron (ed.) Lives in Translation: Bilingual Writers on Identity and Creativity. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.

Huston, N. (1993) Cantique des Plaines. Paris: J’ai Lu.

Johnson, B. (2003) Mother Tongues: Sexuality, Trials, Motherhood, Translation. Cambridge: Harvard Univeristy Press.

Kristeva, J. (1991) Strangers to Ourselves. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf.

Newmark, P. (1991) About Translation. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Oster, J. (1998) ‘See(k)ing the Self: Mirrors and Mirroring in Bicultural Texts’ in MELUS 23 (4), 59-83.

Senior, N. (2001) ‘Whose song, whose land? Translation and appropriation in Nancy Huston’s Plainsong/Cantique des Plaines’ in Meta: journal des traducteurs/Meta: Translator’s Journal. 46 (4), 675-686.

Simon, S. (1994) Le Trafic des Langues: Traduction et culture dans la literature Québécoise. Québéc: Boréal.

Simon, S. (2001) ‘Hybrid Montréal: The shadows of language’ in The Journal of Twentieth-Century/Contemporary French Studies. 5 (2), 315-330.

Simon, S. (2006) Translating Montréal: Episodes in the Life of a Divided City. Montréal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Simon, S. (12 September 2016) Interview with Author. Concordia University, Montréal.

Venuti, L. (2009) ‘Translation, Intertextuality, Interpretation’ in Romance Studies. 27 (3), 157-173.

Winnicott, D. W. (1971) Playing and Reality. London: Tavistock Publications.


Preparatory Reading

Desai, A. (2003) ‘Various Lives’ in I. de Courtivron (ed.) Lives in Translation: Bilingual Writers on Identity and Creativity. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.

Gallant, M. (2004) Montreal Stories. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart.

Hébert, A. (1982) Les Fous De Bassan. Paris: Seuil.

Johnson, B. (2014) ‘Taking Fidelity Philosophically’ in M. Feuerstein, B. J. González, L. Porten and K. Valens (eds) The Barbara Johnson Reader; The Surprise of Otherness. Durham: Duke University Press.

Simon, S. (1999) ‘Translation as a Mode of Engagement’ in The Translator. 5 (1), 113-117.

Simon, S. (2015) ‘The Translational Life of Cities’ in Massachusetts Review. 56 (3), 404-415.

Saint-Martin, L. (1997) Contre-Voix; Essais De Critique Au Féminin. Québec: Nuit blanche.

Venuti, L. (2014) ‘How to Read a Translation’ [online]. Words Without Borders; Speaking in Tongues: Religious Literature. Available from: [Accessed 21 June 2016].


Amy Coquaz earned a BA in English and American Literatures, went on to study for a Masters in Creative Writing and is now pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing at Keele University. Her research interests are: motherhood, feminism, Québécois fiction, multilingualism, multilingual writing, translation. Her writing interests are: literary fiction, domestic fiction, realism. Alongside my studies, She teaches Creative Writing and English at undergraduate level. She also helps publicize Keele Creative Writing’s reading events and is co-organizer of the Humanities Work in Progress seminars.