Archive for the translation Category

Jacob Groot translation workshop

Jacob Groot

To complement my earlier post about translating Jacob Groot’s poetry, I’d like to give you a short introduction to his work. Reading reviews of his work through the years – he’s written 12 volumes of poetry to date, besides collections of essays on poetry and music and a couple of novels – I found reviewers have had a similar reading experience to mine: his poems do not open up to you on first reading: mixed-up syntax, protagonists identified by seemingly generic personal pronouns and imagery that appears to stand on its own, all make for a confusing first read-through. Groot does not make any concessions to the reader. While all this may frustrate your understanding of the poem’s content, the poems do force you to keep reading through their intricate rhythms, internal rhyme, word association and assonance combined, even onomatopoeia, sound-words. In his first volumes Jacob Groot wanted to capture ‘an emotion’, not ‘one’s own emotion’, but as concrete a representation of ‘an’ emotion as possible.

“Abstract reflection only gets in the way if you want to achieve this”, as he said in an interview back in 1978 – a credo he appears to have maintained to this day, as the first poem in his latest volume Divina Noir reads: “There is no need for a mirror-image.”

There is a recurring motif in his work: ‘an end’ meaning a goal or purpose and ‘the means’. Is poetry a means to an end, or is a poem just meant to result in itself? There are a few poems within the festival selection that mention this: ‘Local Universe’ and ‘Her Legs’.

to me the task
(an end) of sticking it to the wall like a ring
around the fleshy finger of the means.

(from: ‘Local Universe’)

The poem may be more about the journey – through language – than its conclusions. Groot doesn’t provide any solutions in his poetry, on the contrary, he reveals, displays. In the end, it all comes down to what you read into what he portrays. His poetry has been called metaphysical or religious by critics. Certainly, the celestial spheres sometimes drift into his poems and he knows how to play with biblical phrases. Mostly, though, I feel his work is experiential. His poetry wishes to incorporate as much of reality and precisely formulated experience as it can and all of life’s contradictions, be it in colloquial speech, expletives, quotations, pop lyrics, etc. As he said in an interview: “discovering and incorporating contradictions and paradoxes is something you discover naturally during the writing process” (paraphrased). Once you understand these contradictions are a natural part of his work, you may relax into them.

Aside from the more philosophical nature of his work, many critics have noted his poems’ lyrical quality. ‘Release me, the time has come’ is a good example of the driving rhythms in his work, accompanied by profoundly disturbing imagery from Artaud, whom the protagonist is reading quietly upstairs while his parents are downstairs watching television:

and takes the lid off the hell
you then get to see and he passes
it on: my hole as arse, my sour hollow
arse, in which the red lice cycle

splatters to pieces

The italicised latter part is taken from ‘La culture indienne’ (Indian Culture) by Antonin Artaud, the surrealist playwright and poet who wished to lay bare man’s baser nature, his impulsive desires. Which is another theme in Groot’s poetry. He can be as direct as Artaud in phrasing the sexual preferences of his protagonists, and he can be equally passionate about the act of screwing (as opposed to making love) or more onanistic sexual fulfilment. Many of the selected poems bear witness to this. In fact, all but two of the festival selection poems contain some form of fleshly gratification or the desire to achieve this.

The above was part of my introduction to the festival translation workshop, where one (Dutch) poet, in this case Jacob Groot, is translated into as many languages as there are poets voluntarily taking part in the workshop. This year’s participants: Erin Moure, Eduardo Espina, Truong Tran, Daljit Nagra and Draga Rinkema. The workshop is primarily aimed at the festival poets and translators, but is also open to the public. Would you like to know how the festival poets translated Jacob Groot into American, Canadian and British English, Spanish, Slovene and German? The presentation is today, Sunday 19 June at 16.00 in the afternoon, in Café Floor’s garden (next to the theatre).


Jacob Groot: ‘WIMPLED ONE’ from Poetry International on Vimeo.

The body of the poet

Les Murray © Michele Hutchison

During the translation symposium on Wednesday, when explaining her kooky notion of “translation as homeopathy”, Erín Moure said that language was in her cells, and poetry was in her body. Naturally, it got me thinking about the poet’s body. After all, what is the festival about if not to reveal to the audience the embodiment of the poetry? On the opening night the footlights came on and the poets came forward in a line from the darkness at the back of the stage. They moved forwards, bowed and climbed down from the stage to take up their places on the first row. It was a lovely moment. Here were the poet’s bodies, revealed.

Maarten Elzinga, Murray's translator © Michele Hutchison

They looked like poets. It was a comforting sight: young, old, tall, short, fat and thin, shabbily dressed, one in a straw hat. Dominant was the imposing bulk of Les Murray. Dressed in baggy black casuals, he moves slowly. I spot him wherever I go here, sidling crab-like down the theatre stairs. He wears a faded cap which he takes off to read and carries his transcripts in a white plastic bag. The embodiment of poetry, just how an elderly statesman of the genre should look. More fitting still is his voice, Australian but deep, dignified, gurgling, slurring, Churchillian. The Les Murray experience.

Les with his plastic bag © Michele Hutchison

Syrian poet Nazih Abou Afach was set to appear in last night’s programme but he’d had to cancel at the last minute. His translator, Asad Jaber, took his place on the stage. There was no photo of Afach in the programme but his translator looked Arabic, looked about the right age, could have been a poet. He was clearly bilingual, he read the originals with flourish and conviction. He was as good as a replica as you might find and since a translator can be considered a poet’s (sinister?) shadow self, perhaps the experience was authentic. But no, a niggling voice inside me wondered if it would have been more authentic if the translator had read his translations instead – his own channelling, his own physical reproduction of the poems.

Untranslatable worlds – not words

Exquisite food, pleasant talk and wine flowed on Tuesday afternoon under the gingko tree and fat-bellied blackbirds in the garden of former Poetry International board member Jan Hendrik van Dorp and his wife Elisabeth. An excellent opportunity for the festival poets and the staff of Poetry International to get to know each other and to exchange views on topics such as poetry translation.

The act of writing is firstly the wording of the poets’ inner voice into a language nurtured by a specific understanding of the world. And translating this inevitably demands some effort when relocating a concept into a language in which it does not exist. Take for instance the use of the polite form of the second person, “vous”, in French. How do we find an equivalent in English if its most straightforward translation – “thou” – has fallen into disuse? To what extent does this lack of a direct translation imply the absence of the concepts linked to it? Do poets differ from other people in the way they see the world?

© Sarah Ream

Amina Saïd (who is from Tunisia and writes in French) commented, “I did not choose the language I’m writing in; my mother tongue chose me instead.” Doina Ioanid (Romania) argued that “the difficulty of translating one’s own poem lies in not creating a new poetical composition from it”. “Indeed”, answered Ion Mureşan (Romania) to my objection that a greater distance from my mother tongue gives me more freedom to express, for instance, love, to someone in Dutch or even in Arabic in a way that I would never dare to confess to myself in Catalan or Spanish. “However”, he added, “you only can bring forth the nuances of what you are saying when using your first language.” Perhaps he was right. Nevertheless, whether distance from one’s words might further or hamper the translation of poetry, it seems from Bakhyt Kenzjejev’s request for simultaneous translation of his poems in Russian when reading earlier in the day at the Rotterdam town hall that what ultimately matters is to be understood by your audience.

(I might add that foregoing conversations were held in French and hence, my translation of these into English may be as incomplete and idiosyncratic as my own memories of them.)


Translation symposium: “They wouldn’t mind minor mistranslations”

© Michele Hutchison

Wednesday, 15 June

This year the festival is increasing the amount of attention paid to poetry translation in the programme. A translation symposium for around forty professional translators was held for the first time on the opening day of the festival. In his opening speech, Bas Kwakman called translation “the backbone of the festival”, while colleague Jan Baeke described it as “the best way of reading a poem”. This year more than five hundred people (mainly Rotterdammers) were invited to try their hand at translating poems by the festival poets beforehand. As a way of inviting involvement in poetry, there certainly is a lot to be said for it.

Nevertheless, there is still a huge gap between the professional translator who must combine linguistic ability, expertise, sensibility and skill, and the amateur whose grasp of the language translated and prosody in general may be limited. How to bridge the gap and bring the two together in an experience from which both parties might benefit? The question was left open with many ideas for improving the programme next year.

Translator Mariolein Sabarte Belacortu outlined the many difficulties she had faced with the complex, often abstract poems of Uruguayan poet, Eduardo Espina. His poems did not include rare or archaic words; no dictionary could help her with the problems his cryptic style posed. She could often only guess at the meaning. Hearing that the particular poem used as an example was based on his experience of his mother’s death, Mariolein wished she’d had this information beforehand. But still, professional translators do often have to rely on their intuition and on reading the poem many many times.

Mariolein Sabarte Belacortu © Michele Hutchison

Eduardo Espina noted that it was difficult to write his poems too, and that they had made his translators look good: “If you can translate this, you can do anything,” he said. His English translator had won prizes. When the audience urged Maroilein to ask him about the very tidy form of his poem, a column of even-length lines, which she had yet been unable to reproduce (her translation was an ongoing work on progress, and she was pleased there was no publisher in sight), he explained that he counted the number of letters in each line. This extreme precision was something his translator currently felt unable to reproduce. Perhaps by getting to know him at the festival, her knowledge of his technique and aims will facilitate the revision stage. Not everything can be picked up on by close reading and intuition.

Canadian poet Erín Moure gave a talk which reminded of me of my previous experiences of poets translating poets. While professional translators tend to be tidy-minded people with good analytical skills, poets find the act of re-creating the poem more exciting than understanding it. They often translate using sound association and feeling, as though there might be a universal poetics, in the way some believe in a universal grammar. Moure explained her own translation technique: “the body responds to the text”, “at the moment of writing, there is no possible theory”, “all translation is creative” – an equally valid approach at the festival.

Finally, Norwegian translator Roald van Elswijk outlined the set of tools he’d used to translate Øyvind Rimbereid’s 2004 masterpiece Solaris Korrigert (Solaris Corrected) – an impressive futuristic epic poem which combines various dialects with old Norse, borrows from English, Danish, Scottish and Dutch and includes hybrids and neologisms. You could see the translators pricking up their ears all over the room. By putting together an equivalent tool packet made up of standard Dutch, old Dutch, dialects, Frisian, Afrikaans, Flemish and Dutch-English, van Elswijk was able to create an inspired translation. The freedom he had to mix sources was clearly beneficial: he’d had more trouble translating some of the poets more traditional work which left less room for manoeuvre. Rimbereid praised the translation, adding “a translator’s role is to remake, not to transport, you need to be a poet at the other end as well.”

The pleasure of being translated

Donald Gardner © Roeland Fossen

I recently invited Elisa Gallego Rooseboom and Kristian Kanstadt to make translations, Spanish and Dutch respectively, of ‘Dust Sheet’, a poem I wrote ten years ago in the wake of the attack on the Twin Towers and which appeared in my collection The Glittering Sea (Hearing Eye, London 2006). I chose this poem because it epitomises the festival theme of chaos; as for the order, that is as hard to find as ever. Maybe we will just have to make it ourselves.

Having been so much on the translator’s side of the table over the years, it was great to experience what it is to be translated. The poet is enthroned by his or her translators. He or she is like an author of a play whose words have to be taken at their face value by the actors. A translator is like an actor or a musician following a score. Having one’s work translated is thus a major luxury in a poet’s life given that on the whole, contrary to the usual supposition, poets don’t have easy lives. There is the uncertainty of the struggle to win the poem. The bread-and-butter aspect of poetry is too well-known to deserve mention: “So you write poetry; but what do you do for a living?” Then there is the backbiting of colleagues, the competition for the few honours there are in this field. There are the cutting reviews the upcoming poet has to face – or, worse still, the complete absence of reviews. The book, in its limited edition of 500, many of which will be remaindered, is after a while returned to the silence it originated in. Poets are not exactly spoiled darlings. So when our work is translated, it’s as if we are granted accolades that to all appearances we barely deserve.

© Kristian Kanstadt and © Elisa Gallego Rooseboom

There is the pleasure of having one’s words understood. Of them being looked at from all sides. Of levels of meaning in one’s work being discerned that one hadn’t suspected. Above all there is the rediscovery of one’s own poem, through the eyes of someone else whose commitment to your words is absolute. My colleagues’ tracking of the underlying themes of ‘Dust Sheet’ have, in my view, given it a new lease of life. Here are the results, thanks to my excellent translators.



Like a pit of sacrifice,
this sudden amphitheatre
where light pours down like rain.

Like rabbits in a headlight blaze,
we’re hypnotised by what we see
but do not yet believe.
Like little puppets in death’s ham fist.

Like all those dreams where I forget my lines,
revealing what I always knew at heart –
and this is what breaks the heart –
how redundant we have always been
on any weighty scene
where governments and assassins tread the boards.

Like a group by Auguste Rodin,
a grey herd of citizens
is driven towards the camera,
yet petrified
in monumental freeze
by its Medusa lens.

Like a Christo artwork gone dreadfully wrong,
dust drapes the city,
stopping our pores
like a huge conspiracy.

© 2006, Donald Gardner


Como un pozo sacrificial
este anfiteatro repentino
donde cae la luz como la  lluvia.

Como conejos ante el resplandor de un faro,
estamos hipnotizados por lo que vemos
pero no acabamos de creernos.
Como marionetas en el torpe puño de la muerte.

Como todos los sueños donde olvido las palabras,
que revelan lo que siempre tuve a corazón –
y es esto lo que rompe el corazón –
cuán superfluos hemos sido siempre
ante cualquier escena grave
donde gobiernos y asesinos ocupen las tablas.

Como un grupo de Auguste Rodin,
un rebaño gris de ciudadanos
es impulsado hacia la cámara,
aún petrificado
en estupor de estatuas
por una lente de Medusa.

Como una obra de Christo mal envuelta
el polvo viste la ciudad,
obstruyéndonos los poros
como una gran conspiración.

© 2011, Elisa Gallego Rooseboom


Zoals een schacht voor offers,
dit amfitheater opeens
waar licht als regen indaalt.

Zoals konijnen in een laaiende koplamp,
zijn wij door wat we zien gehypnotiseerd
maar tot geloven nog niet in staat.
Als trekpoppen in de warrige vuist van de dood.

Zoals al die dromen waarin ik mijn tekst vergeet
onthullend wat ik diep in mijn hart altijd wist –
en dit is wat het hart breekt –
hoe overbodig wij altijd waren
in wat voor gewichtig schouwspel ook
waar regeringen en beulen het podium bespelen.

Zoals een groep van Auguste Rodin,
een grijze kudde burgers
naar de camera wordt voortgedreven,
echter versteend
tot monumentale verstilling
door zijn Medusa-lens.

Zoals een werk van Christo uit de voegen,
drapeert stof de stad,
verstopt onze porieën
als een enorm complot.

© 2011, Kristian Kanstadt

Donald Gardner is a poet and a translator of work from Dutch, Spanish and other languages. His translations have appeared on PIW and this year he translated festival poet biographies into English. I Dreamed in the Cities at Night, his book of translations of Remco Campert’s poetry, was published by Arc in 2007. He has also translated Octavio Paz’s The Sun Stone and Cuban novelist Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s Three Trapped Tigers. His books of poetry include The Glittering Sea (2006), How to Get the Most out of Your Jet Lag (2001) and Sleight of Tongue (2010).

Kristian Kanstadt is the pen name of J. C. Maat. He has translated into Dutch from German (the Mauthausen Memorial project) and English (a manuscript of selected poems by Donald Gardner).

Elisa Gallego Rooseboom is a translator/interpreter of Spanish/Dutch origin but has lived in Paris, Madrid and Amsterdam. She is an intern for Poetry International Web 2011.

Interview with Robin Myers

© Robin Myers

How do you normally begin a translation? Did you use the same approach in the translation of Eduardo Espina’s poetry?

I usually start rough: I don’t do a starkly literal translation per se, but I start with a certain literal-mindedness, trying to get as much of the ‘stuff’ of the poem on paper as possible without worrying too much about cohesion or grace. From there, I return both to the original and to my draft, looking at how the particular phrases and images happen in Spanish – what they do, how they move, what they’re made of – and then trying to find a way to get them to happen in English, too. In abstract terms, I begin a translation by letting the poem teach me how to read it. Nothing about my approach as such was different in translating Espina’s poetry. But even the ‘literal-mindedness’ of the beginning was much harder, much more painstaking, than it often is, so there were more holes in my rough drafts as a result, more fits and starts along the way.

As the translator of these poems, do you agree with Espina’s views of his work being untranslatable? How successful do you feel you were  in translating his poetry?

You know, when I translate, I worry a lot about the other questions (some more rhetorical than others) that I think are embedded in your first question, and in Espina’s description of his work as potentially untranslatable: Can a poem really be defined as untranslatable? If so, does that mean we shouldn’t attempt a translation? What are our responsibilities and limitations – surmountable or inevitable – when we translate? Which are attributable to the poet and which to the translator? Is anything translatable?

In any case, Espina’s poems daunted me more than anything else I’ve translated, and I completely agree with him that some of its most important components – its syntax, its atonal music, its overlapping and fragmentary images and tenses – can so easily be lost. I know I lost them sometimes. And when I did, I often knew I was losing them, but I couldn’t quite figure out what to find instead. Those are the times when I was unsuccessful as a translator: when I could tell I wasn’t fully doing justice to the original self-contained complexity because I couldn’t fully configure a new one. There were other times when this reconfiguration did, I hope, take place.

That said, and without letting myself off the hook for what I didn’t pull off, I think it’s important to remind ourselves that a poem isn’t a collection of elements to be recreated, and that this isn’t what translation is for. Successfully or unsuccessfully, you have to move away from the original syntax, vocabulary, etc., in order to move closer to a new one – and the new one will have, like the first, its own logic, its own restrictions, its own possibilities. Ultimately, the poem must stand on its own two feet. And then walk around, run, skip, swim, whatever. A translator friend of mine says it’s like a musician covering a song: you must honor what you’re playing (you’re not making stuff up), but you are not beholden to every single thing that made the original what it was, and, in fact, you must imbue it with other things. I don’t think I always got the hang of this with Espina’s poems, but it’s an ideal he made me work towards; and so to him, and to the poems themselves, I feel both apologetic and thankful!

How were you able to cope with the non-conventional syntax in Espina’s poems?

Espina’s poems – his entire poems, but also their syntax – often seem almost ‘coded’: bristling with images and phrases that can be hard to parse on the most literal level. Even the grammar can be unorthodox: Espina sometimes elides verbs and sentence structures, condensing an entire serious of actions or emotions into a sort of suggestion of what has happened. To translate them, I had to try to learn his shorthand – to examine the literal pieces hidden from view, understand them, and hide them away again, albeit by different means and in different guises, in English. In some cases, even if it was impossible to maintain, say, the particular music of a particular phrase, or a particular rhythmic pattern, I tried to understand the effect of this music or this rhythm in the original, and then tried to find a way in English to reembody the effect, to keep the wheel turning in English as it turns in the original Spanish without trying to reproduce every cog.

Also, the more I read Espina’s poems and grappled with his syntax, the more I felt that not only the level but the nature of their complexity was a very tricky business. Even at their densest and most abstract, his work feels extremely meticulous and his choices deliberate. So, it was both sobering and liberating to realize that part of ‘coping’ meant not only permitting ambiguities (because there are so many, and of so many kinds) but making them sound sure of themselves. A line that’s intentionally opaque in the original needs to stay opaque in translation – but that doesn’t mean it can be sloppy. It should be confident; it should encourage the reader to follow.

Could you give us an example of a line or an image that was particularly difficult to translate?

Here’s a passage from the poem ‘Que pase el que sigue’ (Next in Line, Please):

desde el principio supo a la perfección
cómo respirar despacio, acercarse a las ideas huidas al jardín
que por diciembre en la mente era otro mes aquel, respirando
de menos a esto, o al revés porque está bien que el viento vea
de vez en cuando, cierzo al que solo el olvido ha podido dividir.

And my attempt:

since the start she’d mastered perfectly
how to breathe slowly, approach the ideas that had fled to the garden,
which, around December, was another month in the mind, breathing
from less to this, or else the opposite, because it’s good the wind can see
once in a while, the wind that only oblivion has managed to divide.

Has Espina’s work given you new insights into contemporary Hispanic poetry?

I don’t think any single poet can really do this. I know reading Espina’s work has given me new insights about what makes it Espina’s work: that means, even unconsciously, a clearer sense of how he inhabits language, the kinds of ideas that matter to him, even the other writers and thinkers who have shaped his own writing and thinking. In this way, reading Espina (or any other writer) can expose us to ideas or patterns or concerns that are threaded through, in this case, contemporary Latin American poetry, but I wouldn’t ask or expect him to expressly speak on their behalf.

Robin Myers (USA, 1987) is a freelance translator and editor. Born in New York, she has spent the past several years between the USA, Mexico and Palestine. She was a 2009 Fellow of the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA), and she is working on a collection of her own poems.

On translating Jacob Groot

© Willem Groenewegen

Some of Jacob Groot’s poems defy straightforward syntactic analysis; in others, personal pronouns seem to hang in mid-air and lines combine verb tenses that are deliberately ungrammatical. His reasoning may be discursive (‘To See’, ‘Wimpled One’) and his subject matter ranges from the cosmic (‘Local Universe’) to personal catharsis through a jukebox tune (‘Please Don’t Leave Absentee’). His poems are often suffused with the erotic (‘Her Legs’), the multicultural (‘Wimpled One’) and the colloquial (‘Local Universe’ and ‘Release Me, the Time Has Come’).

Each festival poet had been asked by the programmers to hand in a poem with Chaos and Order as its theme, and Jacob Groot chose ‘Verlos me, het is zover’ (Release Me, the Time Has Come) from his latest volume, Divina Noir. I had 10 days to translate this 20-quatrain-long poem and it gave me a good idea of what I would be up against in the rest of his festival poems. The poem has a strong sense of rhythm (the metre is anapestic, generally speaking) and lots of wordplay and assonance. Stanzas 2 through 8 are mostly one sentence with various sub-clauses, and woven into the fabric of the poem is a Dutch translation of Antonin Artaud’s La culture indienne. I could have spent days just analyzing the overall structure and references, but time demanded diving straight in, although I did spend an afternoon in a university library searching for English translations of Artaud’s poem. I managed to find two editions, but unlike the Dutch imprint Ooievaar (literally, Stork) mentioned in the poem, neither of the American publishers of Artaud’s work had bird names. Should I invent something based on the existing publisher’s name, or simply provide a note? I could write an entire blog entry on that question alone.

Jacob Groot proved to be quite willing to help me unravel the poetry. The translations stay close to the original poems, but they have been through a process of deconstruction and reassembly. With so many subclauses within six or seven stanzas, a translator has to take the lines apart, figure out how they relate to each other and then put them back together again in translation. The reassembly is essential to the success of the translation, because the poem in English should be as difficult (or as simple) to read as the original. That is the only way to ensure that a translation retains as much of the original’s ambiguity as possible.

Of course, as the saying goes, things do get lost in translation. “Maal je vertaald?” in stanza 12 of ‘Release Me, the Time is Over’ becomes “Do you rave in translation?” It retains a little assonance, but you lose the grinding sense of worry that comes with translating (this kind of) poetry.

Which brings me to the final question: did I enjoy translating Jacob Groot’s work? Over the past decade, I’ve translated many a poet for this festival, and I’ve come to appreciate those who take the effort to be playful with syntax and semantics. Poets like Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer, H. H. ter Balkt, Tsead Bruinja and now Jacob Groot, take all of reality in their stride, with colloquialisms, fragmented imagery and lack of punctuation. Or as Kees ’t Hart says in his festival introduction to Jacob Groot,  “he is merciless in compelling us to share reality as it occurs to him”. That is the kind of poetry I enjoy, even though it is often difficult to translate.

Willem Groenewegen (1971) has been a professional poetry translator for ten years. His book publications include work by K. Michel, Arjen Duinker and Rutger Kopland. The latter earned him a shortlist nomination for the Popescu Prize for European Poetry in Translation (The Poetry Society, 2007). Poets he has translated for Poetry International include Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer, Erik Menkveld, Mark Boog and Tomas Lieske.

Interview with Erín Moure

You’re from Calgary, but you’ve adopted Montréal as your home – what is it about the city that appeals to you as a poet?

© Erín Moure

What interests me is the mixture of languages here, that French is the public language but other languages traverse it. My childhood and education were spent in the English language only, with a bit of the western Ukrainian village language (a kind of Ukrainian and Polish co-existence) in the background. I thrive in the teeming rush of multiple languages that is Montréal.

As well as English, you speak and translate from Galician, Spanish, French and Portuguese. How did you come to learn these languages?

French is a Canadian language and we all learn a bit of it in school. I learned it more completely when I moved to Montreal 27 years ago. In 1998 I started to learn Galician because it is a small language, and small languages to survive must admit new speakers. I wanted to join that language and exist in it too. Galician, galego, is close to Portuguese by its roots and close to Spanish by the history of colonization of the periphery by the centre in Spain. So I can read in Portuguese, and taught myself to read in Spanish too, more slowly.

Your festival biographer, Melissa Jacques, writes that all these languages inform your work in English. Do you see your writing being affected in different ways by each different languages? Do you feel your knowledge of other languages influences your writing in terms of syntax, vocabulary, subject matter or form – or all of these (and more)?

All of these, and more, yes! It’s that I think in English, French and Galician, in all three of these languages, I dream in them, I write and read in them every day (and most days in Spanish, and Portuguese . . . I at least read them, or hear them spoken around me in Montréal). Because of the differing structures of the languages and the differing relationships between words and in the multiple meanings within any single word in any language, I think differently, different thoughts are made possible in each different language. And because I translate, I can translate them back into English. Even though translation as equivalence is impossible, translation as valence (i.e. relative capacity to unite or react or interact) is possible. And I like writing and being in Montreal, where my friends are multilingual and we talk in all our languages. Without always having to translate ourselves.

Of the poems from your festival selection, you write: “[they are] purporting to be translations by Elisa Sampedrín – who doesn’t exist – and who translates from a language she does not even know: simply because she sees the poems and wants to read them, and can’t, in their original language.” I’m interested in the distancing effect created – you write, then, as another writer, who is writing poems based on other poems written in another language. Is this a metaphor for the writing of your original poetry in general? Do you see all poetry as a form of translation?

It could be such a metaphor, except that it is euphoric not metaphoric . . . the transport is rooted in the sight and taste of a language, of textuality, whether or not one knows the language, and is provoked by the search of the eye over the curve of letters to “make sense”, to increase and deepen the eye’s relation with the text itself. Our eyes caress the surface of text, and we urgently need to know. This is Elisa Sampedrín’s dilemma.

As for me, Je suis un autre. Rimbaud said that. Thus: I am always another writer . . .

Can one be a translator without speaking a second language?

There is a sense in which every reading of a text by an individual is ALWAYS a translation, because it is read through an individual body, a body impossible to replicate in terms of its cells and experiences and the ways that experience have affected its neurons and neural maps and capacities. We always already speak a second language: we call it our mother tongue. Our first language is silence, the silence before speaking, and we retain this language in our body, in our ability to feel fear, or arousal upon presentation of something or someone in our visual or tactile field. And in our ability to engage with flowers and trees and smells and the taste of coffee on the tongue, or papaya, or our lover’s shoulder.

So, yes. it is impossible to be a translator without a second language, but we all already have at least two languages. We need to learn to access our language of birth all over, for our mother tongue can shut it down . . . knowing a third and fourth language helps us know how to access that first one. Which is, in another sense, never a first one. There is always language that precedes us.

When writing these pieces, did you first envisage (or perhaps actually depart from) the original poems that Elisa was translating?

With the eyes of Elisa (who is a Galician me with a different history, who disturbs my bodily relation with text), I caressed the text and read it as if it were a strangeness in Galician . . . my mother was dying at that time, and I could not write, and I could scarcely see, and this caress of the surface of Stănescu’s texts was all I was capable of. Quickly, other texts emerged, from non understanding and non knowing, from not writing and not translating . . . and these are Elisa’s translations. She translates because she can read in the general sense, even though she cannot read Romanian. She needs urgently to put the strange language into her mouth, so as to alter the course of time (as our body knows time in the mouth, in the cells of the mouth, and in the non-seeing cells of the retina) . . .

It’s sort of like the filmmaker Werner Herzog walking from Munich to Paris in the fall of 1974 to keep his dying friend, the film historian Lotte Eisner, alive . . . he must go see her before she dies (in Of Walking In Ice) and he knows if he prolongs the trip by walking, she will stay alive longer. Writing, and translation, reverse or slow time.

What are the parallels in the way you approach the writing of an original poem and the translation of an existing poem?

Simply that in both cases (and I might add that there are many many ways of translating, from ways that seem very normative to ways that seem to extend that normativity in shocking ways), I respond to language with all my cells. I answer language’s insistence with language. I try to listen to what the language and poem bid me to do, in, through and alongside texts that have flared up before me or in me. Writing is a response to language, it’s not just an act performed upon it by a subject separate from it.

Read more about Erín Moure on PIW.