Posts tagged French

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.)

 

Interview with Doina Ioanid

© Doina Ioanid

Your PIW biographer, Jan H. Mysjkin, writes that in your poems “autobiographical data are interspersed with surreal images”. How do you see the role of memory in your poems? Are there distinctions for you, poetically and personally, between imagined or embellished memories and ‘true’ memories?

Memory plays a major part in my poetry, but then again it plays a major part in all literature. Even ‘pure’ fiction draws on memory in order to structure an imaginary world. Memory stores data which the writer retrieves unawares whenever he/she needs to create a character or to describe a situation or to provide a background for them. In my case, memory feeds my poems, but in a way that transcends personal experience. In my poetry, memory data are processed and integrated into a poetic order that aims at understanding the particular from a wider perspective. Moreover, these data are passed through the filter of words and images, thus being reshaped into a concrete sensitive material that hopefully becomes relevant for the others as they read my poems.

Personally, I don’t believe in ‘true’ memories. All memories are emotionally or affectively marked, which doesn’t make them necessarily untrue. But what we remember is an emotional association of facts and images that sometimes distorts what is commonly called ‘objective reality’. There is no such thing. Reality is a matter of subjective perception, and as such it cannot be objectively defined. Paradoxically, poetic subjectivity reshuffles memorized experience, imbuing it with a sense of higher objectivity, the objectivity of poetic order. Surreal images are a natural product of poetic order, seizing points of convergence between random occurrences and interpreting them transcendentally.

Has your knowledge of French language and literature (and of other languages) influenced your own writing? If so, are you able to say in what ways?

Each language one learns opens a wider field of knowledge, not only to literature, but to the whole culture of the linguistic space in question. Consequently, influences are unavoidable, even though they sometimes go undetected. These influences, however, should be assimilated well enough not to transpire in one’s writing. I know I’ve been influenced by my knowledge of French and English, but I can’t put my finger on it and that is a good thing. The influences should stay subtle.  Let me give you an example: I was utterly unimpressed by Baudelaire in the Romanian translation, but when I read him in the original, something clicked. I started writing somehow differently.

How do you combine your life as a poet with your work as editor at The Cultural Observer? Are they distinct or intertwined?

My writing and my work as an editor are worlds apart. The only way they are related is that they both compete for my time.

Have you attended other poetry festivals as a guest reader? What have you most and least enjoyed about these experiences? Is there anything in particular you’re looking forward to about the Rotterdam festival?

Over the years, I’ve attended several poetry festivals, both in Romania and abroad. What I enjoy most about the ones in Romania, apart from interacting with new readerships, is getting together with fellow poets I appreciate and don’t see very often. Reading abroad is a totally different experience of course, since my poems have to be transmuted into another language. It’s like putting on a new dress. At the Istanbul Poetry Festival, for instance, I liked the occasional unconventional setting – at one point, I read on a boat sailing the Bosporus. But most of all, I like the reactions of a responsive audience. And that’s what I’m looking forward to in Rotterdam.

Read more about Doina Ioanid on PIW.

Read some of the poems from Doina Ioanid’s latest collection translated into English and published by Singapore literary magazine Asymptote.

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.