Many Hands, One Manuscript

The Acknowledgement section of my book, A Journey in Translation: Anne Hébert’s Poetry in English, (WHICH IS OUT) is four pages long. That’s what happens when you’ve been working on something for more than fifteen years. And even that, to me, seems excessive. No one write that many pages of acknowledgements. No one thanks everyone. Not in the humanities. Thank your supervisor, thank who funded you, thank your family. Done.

At the same time, four pages is INCREDIBLY restrained for me. I could have written 200 more pages about the writing of the 244 pages the book ended up being. Four pages seems, to me, like too few to capture just how much everyone I did mention meant to the writing of the manuscript, and all of the people who didn’t make it in there because their influence and support were the kind that is hard to articulate in an appropriate way (“Thanks for helping to keep me alive and relatively sane!”).

There are a couple of reasons that I keep dwelling on these four pages that proceed the “meat” of the manuscript, the actual scholarship. There are people, so many people, who have cared for me and about me and my work. We do not celebrate nearly often enough those people who took the time to care. It is a community of scholars and friends and peers and acquaintances that make a piece of scholarship like this possible. Were there days (and days and days and days) of me alone, in archives, at my computer, in my office spaces, in libraries? Yes. But they were all because of the support of others that I was able to do the work that I did.

Especially because I have long been in positions where this kind of scholarship is not required or even expected. I was a contingent faculty member before moving into alt-ac positions in faculty development and instructional technology. I changed countries, making the relevance of things like translation and Canadian and Québécois literature even more spurious for my academic employment. I love and believe in my research, but it was the love and belief of others, in me more so than my work, that pushed me to not give up on what I was doing.

And so I want to tell some stories about the genesis of this manuscript, because really, it’s about one author’s story of her poetry being translated and transformed. This is an imperfect and abbreviated story of how this all transformed me.

It doesn’t start without the decision, of course, to go to Sherbrooke instead of, say, McGill or Concordia or, well, any of the large number of English-language institutions within a two-hour drive of where I grew up. But instead I decided to flex my supposedly bilingual muscles in Sherbrooke at a French university, studying English.

For the three years leading up to the class that introduced me to Anne Hébert’s poetry and their translations, I made some of the best friends, who helped me become someone who was really bilingual, rather than just having jumped through the various hoops in high school to confirm that I knew French enough to pass a test. Fun fact: I almost failed my French grammar class at Sherbrooke. But I started dreaming in French after all those years.

We all code-switched, regularly, and without even thinking about it. We were constantly translating ourselves and each other, depending on the situation, the conversation, the topic at hand. I remember my early days at Sherbrooke, out at the campus bar, unable to follow the conversations in French that were going on around me. I remember all the times I misused words and expressions. Those moments left me feeling foolish and lost and alone. But I made some of the best friends of my life during those years.

Julie and Sean in particular, you didn’t get a mention, but thank you for giving me another chance and becoming my friends.

I do mention Richard Giguère’s Québécois poetry class in my acknowledgements, because it was his class that specifically started this journey. But while I was going through my old files, I found that I had kept the paper I had originally written for his class, complete with his annotations.

Original AH Translation Essay
As you can see (if you go to the end), I got an A-, largely because I had completely disregarded the sonority of the original French poem. But re-reading the 30 (!) page paper, I was struck at once at how naively confident I was in my writing, but also that the paper was pretty good. It was, as my writing always has been, filled with typos and sloppy mistakes, on top of being well-researched, but poorly cited in terms of following any given style. As my copyeditor (who got a big thank-you in the acknowledgements as well) will attest, I haven’t really improved in the intervening years.

The paper, though, is a flight of fancy, written in a flurry of energy and enthusiasm. I remembered that feeling, that excitement, the drive I had to write that paper, to do the research, which stuck with me for all these years. Where did that voice go, I wondered. Was it still in my manuscript, buried deep beneath the academic prose and insecurity that graduate school breeds?

I’m grateful that Dr. Giguère fanned that flame, and made me feel like this was something I could pursue, and that it was something I was if not good at, then not horrible at either.

See here where I thank the alt-ac women in my life. That still stands.

I’ve written before about how things fell apart for all of us in our PhD program. And I did what I do when faced with a stressful situation in unfamiliar surroundings: I threw myself into the water. More specifically, I joined a Masters swim team. And those teammates got me through my last year of graduate school.

They kept me sane. My days (and nights and weekends) once spent stressing about teaching or my research or the department politics were now filled with swimming and camaraderie and laughter and physical exhaustion and friendship as we all tried to balance our studies with our swimming. But unlike the competitive college team, we were much more laid back, which suited all of us just fine.

I was only on the team for a year, but those teammates were at my wedding and remain some of my best friends. We came together at just the right moment in each others’s lives, around a shared love of swimming. We were different majors, different ages, different ability levels in the water, but none of that mattered, not that year.

I started to feel more like myself than I had since I moved to Edmonton that year. It gave me the confidence to keep going and not give up on finishing my PhD. They reminded me how much I valued a diverse community around me, that I needed a life outside of my work (but also work outside of my life).

So to the 2004-2005 Penguins Masters Swim Team, thanks.

When I gave up my tenure-track position to keep my family together and moved to rural Eastern Kentucky, I made an irreparable decision about the path of my career and my research. My scholarship had to take a backseat to the reality of a heavy teaching course load and little-to-no institutional support. Thus is the reality of contingency. I wasn’t prepared, however, for how personally isolating my new geographic location would be, and how professionally isolating my various “downgrades” in status would be.

But I had started the ball rolling on my second research project, still had all this research and writing on my dissertation, because of the year in a tenure-track position; I had spent my first (and only) year on the tenure-track having a baby and setting myself up for tenure down the road. When I left said tenure-track position, I kept the ball rolling on all of these projects because, well, I guess I didn’t really know what else to do. Contracts had been signed, manuscripts had been sent out, and I somehow held out the naive hope that this was some temporary blip and I would one day be a tenure-track faculty member again.

Stop rolling your eyes at me.

But of course, working in isolation takes a toll. No one valued my work with many going so far as to actively (but in a caring way) discourage me from doing it. The futility of it all weighed heavily. I wasn’t taken seriously where I worked, and because of where I worked, most others didn’t take me seriously.

So I wrote. And I spent money that I didn’t have to go to conference, not in the hopes anymore of getting a job but in the hopes of finding a community, a place where my work was valued. And I found it online, and I found it in EMiC.

I’ve written elsewhere before about how much being included in the project meant to me. And I’ve said thank you in the book. But I need to say it again.

A bit more on my social network.

My presence of Twitter lead to a couple of important connections that lead to my manuscript getting finished. One of them was my work that I did for Academic Coaching and Writing; if it weren’t for my digital presence, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to work with a coach and get a final push on reshaping the dissertation into the manuscript it became.

It also lead to the EMiC opportunity because someone who knew me from Twitter found me at a conference and made a recommendation that I reconnect with a former colleague.

It lead to me being able to move into a faculty development role, which lead to a professional renaissance, and money to actually pay the bills.

I got archives at the last possible minute to incorporate into my manuscript from someone I knew from Twitter whom I had never met but was willing to help.

But what my network also allowed me to do was to rediscover, over and over, the excitement I had around my research topic. Finding a community of researchers who were also interested and excited by my topic, finding new archives at the last minute and then being able to read new letters and new records into my manuscript…I was that 22-year-old again, writing her last undergraduate paper, and finding out at the end of it, there was more, and knowing in that moment, I was going to keep writing this. I was excited, delighted even, again and again, through the latter stages of this process because of people I met and knew online.

That last little anecdote is a small, tangible example of how important and supportive my larger social network has been. Even if it didn’t lead to a job or finding a coach or getting my hands on a piece research, my community online has provided so much positive reinforcement over the years, celebrating with me, as well as comforting me when things were difficult. And I, them.

We were in this together, through writing and teaching and career transitions and publications and rejects and births and deaths and and and.

There is a lot of ugliness and hatred and assholery online, specifically on social media. But it’s not only that. And I’ve been lucky that my experience has been largely positive, and even empowering. It’s a privilege. But it’s one that I am grateful for, and work to nurture and expand.

The book exists because I have, at various points, had people around me who supported me both directly and indirectly. I did not write this book alone.

And I don’t celebrate it alone, either.

And as much fun as it is to celebrate virtually with all of my friends and family, it was really special to have a book launch/birthday party thrown by my still-new coworkers. I think they all know, but it touched me so deeply that they would come out and celebrate this with and for me, because…

Most of the time, the way things have gone for me and my career, any party thrown in my honor is a goodbye party, because I’m leaving, again.

It’s a complicated feeling that begins to develop when the only parties you get are the ones that are thrown because you’ve leaving town.

But to have a party because you’re there and you’re staying and they’re happy about that and proud of the book you’ve produced, that meant a lot to me.

And it meant a lot to me too that my new co-workers put up with my taking days off with little notice to hole up in my basement to work on my manuscript in a flurry so I could meet a deadline that had suddenly appeared. And my nerding out over new archives. And tearing my hair out over copyediting.

None of which are directly related to my current job.

It means a lot to me that I have people that I can share this with in these moments.

I’ll leave the last words to my 7-year-old son, who goes around telling everyone that they need to buy my book:

“You’re a real author now, Mom. Everyone is going to know you. That’s awesome.”

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