Posts tagged Erín Moure

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.

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.”

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.