Carmine Starnino on the sorry state of translation in Canada
I EDIT THE Signal Editions poetry imprint for Montreal’s Véhicule Press, and a few weeks ago I signed up a new title, an English translation of Pierre Nepveu’s upcoming collection, La Dureté des Matières et de L’eau.
Translations have been part of the Signal mandate from our very start in 1985. The list includes mainstays such as Robert Melançon, Pierre Morency, Michel Garneau, and Yves Boisvert. As a Montreal press, we feel that it’s our duty to circulate to the rest of Canada the best French-language verse in the province. And Nepveu is one of the most significant Québécois poets now writing. A member of both the Order of Canada and of L'Academie des lettres du Quebec, the 69-year-old was given the Prix Athanase-David in 2005 (a lifetime achievement award) and has won three Governor General’s Awards for his work in French (two for poetry). His music is marked by an ecstatic freshness that breathes so cleanly through its cadences each word seems to have had the dust beaten out of it. In now-classic collections like Lignes Aériennes and Les Verbes Majeurs, he offers language that sounds like speech but crests with scriptural power. This is borne out in extended narratives—Nepveu likes to knit short poems into long sequences—that are fast-moving and fluently incantatory with symphonic surges of phrasing. He is a master of the perfect opening, of lines that seem electric and inevitable (“rien ne tient lieu de retour, / tout est étrange comme si c'était hier”). Craft aside, an almost primal awe for mortality holds together his most memorable passages (“Les verbes majeurs nous obsèdent,” he writes, “naître, grandir, aimer, / penser, croire, mourir”). At his best, he belongs in the company of masters like Gaston Miron. And he’s as good as anyone English Canada has produced.
So why does the prospect of publishing a new collection by him plunge me into despair? Because I already know what to expect when the book is finally released: what UK poet and translator Michael Hofmann has called “a deluge—a deluge of nothing.”
Reviewers will ignore it, bookstores won’t stock it, and, since no one will know about it or be able to find it, hardly anyone will read it. All this, despite the translation being provided by Donald Winkler, one of our most gifted and highly decorated practitioners (The Major Verbs, his version of Nepveu’s Les Verbes Majeurs, won a Governor General’s Award). Pasha Malla’s recent online essay for The New Yorker on the “estrangement” of Québécois literature—written, in part, to help ignite a “Bolaño-like breakthrough” for Raymond Bock’s novel Atavismes: Histoire—didn’t go into nearly enough detail about the labour editors like me undergo in trying to win French-language poetry the attention it deserves. In the 15 years I’ve edited Signal, the Québécois poets we’ve translated have never been invited to a literary festival in, say, Vancouver or profiled by the Globe and Mail or interviewed by the CBC’ s Eleanor Wachtel. In fact, they’ve scarcely been covered by any aspect of the Anglophone media outside of the province. (Most are perfectly fluent in English and almost all keep close tabs on our literary scene; Nepveu and Melançon have written extensively on Canadian poets.)
Given that English speakers share a country with such a vital and little understood literary market, and given how rarely these translations occur—and given that the poetry collections being rendered into English are some of the most outstanding and representative books from that territory—you would think their appearance would be regarded as a cause for celebration (or at least cause for copy). But beyond the staples of Émile Nelligan and, maybe, Saint-Denys Garneau, and outside of living poets like Nicole Brossard, Québécois poetry barely registers. And Quebec isn’t alone. There are Francophone poetry communities throughout the country—in Manitoba or New Brunswick—that exist in almost total isolation from English-Canadian reviewers, critics, and academics. I often joke that the easiest way to confound an English-Canadian poet is to tell them there are major Canadian poets who don’t write in English.
At one time, Canada’s “two solitudes” lived out their rift not too far from where I grew up, on Boulevard Saint-Laurent—the street that neatly parceled Montreal into French-speaking east and English-speaking west. Visits to the rival side were not encouraged; Leonard Cohen’s famous brawl scene in his 1963 novel The Favourite Game served as example of what could happen if anyone dared. But our two literatures no longer resemble those jealously guarded territories. And yet many of my peers across the country seem unaware of how much of Canada’s cultural life has been conducted on the cusp of that so-called divide.
One group gets it—Quebec’s English poets. Almost everything Canada knows about Québécois poetry is thanks to them. The McGill Movement is where it started. Led by F.R. Scott,, and active during the forties and fifties, this group was the first to demonstrate an interest in contemporary French-language verse. It was a period, according to Scott, when many “lively interchanges” were struck up among the French and English poets he invited to his home. (“I remember Louis Portugais,” Scott writes, “then editor of Hexagone publications, after reading T.S. Eliot’s translation of Saint-John Perse’s Anabase, looking up and saying to me, ‘It’s very bad’”). The McGill Movement’s importance, however, resides chiefly in its belief that translation wasn’t merely bridge-gapping tokenism but creative opportunity. Scott and his coterie sought authoritative and adventurous English equivalents—high-quality renditions that were poems in their own right.
This culminated in John Glassco’s 1970 landmark, and still unduplicated, anthology The Poetry of French Canada in Translation. Glassco’s anthology was joined, in 1975, by the very first English titles of French-Canadian poetry, including Alan Brown’s The Poems of Anne Hébert. These books set in motion Canada’s intra-national market (essentially, Canadians translating Canadians for a Canadian audience). Over the next decade, profound societal changes made it a busy era for serious translation. With the final stages of Quebec’s “Quiet Revolution” in the 60s and the flare-up of separatist tensions in the late 70s, English-speaking culturati became intensely curious about what the other “solitude” was thinking. Responding to the demand, and coinciding with the Canada Council’s program for literary translation in 1972, a number of talented local translators stepped forward. Marc Plourde took on Gaston Miron, Donald Winkler paired with Roland Giguère, D.G. Jones tackled Paul-Marie Lapointe. Small presses like Vehicule, Guernica, Exile Editions, Oberon, and Anansi diligently added to these achievements throughout the eighties and nineties, stocking bookshops with a wider range of Québécois poets, among them Nicole Brossard, Jacques Ferron, Jacques Brault, Hélène Dorion, and Paul Belanger.
As early as 1967, Montreal poet Louis Dudek believed this activity “touched a depth of possible communication between French and English Canada that is quite new in our experience.” For almost forty years Dudek’s hope was kept alive by one of the most ambitious experiments in Canadian letters. Co-founded in 1969 by D.G. Jones and Sheila Fischman, Ellipse brought together, in every number, one anglophone poet and one francophone poet in facing translations (one recent issue paired Stephanie Bolster with Suzanne Jacob). Each issue seemed to fully inhabit two languages, and the éclat of that effect was heady. The magazine had cracked some kind of firewall where poetry was thrown back onto open-source principles, a bedrock sense of shared, hackable expressivity. “Languages are many,” Russian poet Andrei Voznesnsky once said, “but poetry is one.”
Ellipse shuttered in 2012. But the direct channel it sought to open between Canada’s two literatures faltered long before then. Part of the problem might be that readers aren’t always on hearing terms with such verse. The Québécois tune up their poetry differently. They’ve evolved a prosody, a poetic style, that operates at a more explicit devotional register, an inward movement of surmises and suppositions. The Anglophone ear is more pragmatic, more sense-attuned, unlike the French, for whom poems are often symbolist-philosophical productions or events in psychological noir. Thinking big also makes French poets capable of radical shifts of perspective using subtle variations in tone and vocabulary. For unsympathetic readers, those variations might prove too elusive to catch in translation.
But there are recent efforts that have been exemplary acts of creative twinning. One of the happiest cross-linguistic marriages I presided over was Judith Cowan’s version of Pierre Nepveu’s Lignes Aériennes, a tour de force postmortem on the construction of the ill-fated Mirabel airport and the expropriation of surrounding farms and villages. Published in 2005 as Mirabel, the translation voiced the book's journal entries, descriptive notes and historical reflections so believably it probably deserved to be considered one of the best books of English poetry that year. It sold about a few hundred copies and was never reviewed in any of the major dailies. This despite the fact both French and English incarnations won a GG—the only time this has happened.
Mirabel’s fate is one most small presses would rather avoid. And indeed it’s been decades since Anansi, Coach House, or M&S published a Francophone poet not named Brossard. It’s unfortunate, for example, that Québécois poets of the stature of Jacques Brault remain out of print. But publishing Brault would mean a Toronto press would have to decide against publishing someone else—someone with better chances in the English market of prizes and publicity. Many publishers opt out.
More insidiously, some probably no longer see the point. In a country where few English-Canadians read or speak French, translation is often treated as a legislated convenience, a conduit for information otherwise trapped in an alien state. The idea that translation can lead to an independent literary creation, something to be read on its own merits, isn’t taken all that seriously. But for interested editors, publishing translations would be intolerable if we didn’t believe, deep down, in the bargain our translators were striking—that losses incurred will be offset by gains. Poems live unalterably in their original language, yet the struggle of bringing them over into English can still produce exceptional literature. One only has to think of Embers and Earth, D. G. Jones and Marc Plourde’s version of Miron’s L'Homme Rapaillé. In French, Miron has a touch of Homeric grandeur, each poem a recouped fragment of an orally-transmitted epic. In his English skin, Miron was recreated into something recognizable but utterly unique. Now, either that kind of linguistic legerdemain excites you, or it doesn’t. Increasingly, the answer depends on what side of the 401 you live on.
The few foreign-language poets Canadians do have time for are usually buzz-items—the Tomas Transtromers, the Wislawa Szymborskas. In other words, despite her celebrated billing at home, the only way we’ll give Hélène Dorion a first look is if Paul Muldoon imports her into his thingammy English with its quirky embeddings. It also needs to be admitted that translated verse has, historically, never been welcome here. Think of the massive impact Rilke, Montale, and Neruda have had on American poetry. Or how East European poetry—championed by Alvarez, Heaney and Hofmann—profoundly reordered British poetry. No equivalent exists in Canadian poetry. The “real thing” for us has always meant domestic, English-speaking, single-author. To be fair, not all publishers believe this. BookThug’s translation program now includes more Québécois titles, and Biblioasis has taken a welcome interest in Robert Melancon. As well, French poets occasionally pop up in catalogues by Guernica and Ekstasis. But if these presses halted their activities, would anyone notice?
Smug self-sufficiency also plays a part in this neglect. With so much going on across Canada, why bother with French poetry? Translation becomes, for that unlucky poet condemned to using accents aigus, a reward, but it’s not a scenario in which we feel in turn rewarded. The popularity of the late Nelly Arcan may be evidence of an uptick in interest in French-language fiction (one in which my own press is investing ), yet being bilingual in spirit but not letter means Canadian poetry remains a monolingual body of work. And such monolingualistic self-regard limits exposure to variations of texture, pungency, and scale impossible in English. My fear is that as the number of Québécois poets in need of translation grows—see terrific comers like Antoine Boisclair and Thomas Mainguy—we are creeping toward a protectionist stance. Our exclusive interest in English, and our obliviousness to its poverties, is making our poems undislodgeablely insular, afraid of otherness, purebreed, tinny. Perhaps that’s partly driving the spread of assemblage poetics, of sequences spatchcocked from whatever we can steal. We are bored by our own noises.
In my late twenties, when I began to write poetry seriously, I had already discovered Saint-Denys-Garneau, Hébert, Miron, and Melançon. Their work was unlike anything I had read before: unsparing, intense, stirring. It was poetry that seemed both accessible and elusive; plain, but dense and inhabited—poetry that used simple words to crack open its subject and reveal glimpses of the things that mattered: the fear, shame, irritation, exasperation and joy of being alive. It was poetry, finally, whose irreducible strangeness I could not get out of my head. I fell in love with the immediacy of its sounds and cadences. I was struck by its intimate and often daring relationship with Québéc's landscape, culture, and language. What was called ”la poésie du pays” seemed a potent myth-making tool, whereby poets grounded themselves by recreating the elements in their own image. (For Miron, the land was vulnerable, deprived; for Melançon, it was rich with paradox, an enigma that both terrified and exhilarated.) What impressed me most was how their poems never seemed static, tidy, or vapid. Saint-Denys Garneau’s line has always stayed with me: “Je ne suis pas bien du tout assis sur cette chaise.” He loathed being stuck in one place. He craved movement, speed, the sense of traveling past, or across, his surroundings. This clash, between geographic rootedness and psychological uprootedness, was expressed in impatient poems; the language always had somewhere else it wanted to go. His hope was to find “l'équilibre impondérable entre les deux” because “C'est là sans appui que je me repose.” Greedily drawing my energy from Garneau, I got on with being true to what I was demanding of myself and of my work.
Anglo-Quebec poets are the only group that still seek out the invigorating surplus of these exchanges. Not surprisingly, they also appear to have harvested its considerable linguistic benefits—they write English, as Gail Scott has said of herself, “with the sound of French” in their ear. As a result, their best work not only carries a percentage of the genius of Québécois poetry, but something new: a Babelian sense of living between competing origins and tongues. For Eric Ormsby, this can lead to a phenomenon called a “shadow language.” Using the example of Basil Bunting’s familiarity with Latin or Geoffrey Hill’s knowledge of German, Ormsby argues that foreign idioms and phrases lurking below native speech can compel poets to “nuance and complicate the sound-patterns of their verse.”
This shadow language enriches many of the English poems written in Montreal, poems marked by doubletalk and euphemism, polyphonic wordplay and impurities of diction. A. M. Klein was the first Anglo-Quebec poet to idiomatically emulsify his phrasings, to allow French to infiltrate and float inside his lines (“Mollified by the parle of French / Bilinguefact your air!”). But moments just as mesmerizing occur in poems by John Glassco, D.G. Jones, and Peter Van Toorn, as well as younger figures like Bruce Taylor, Asa Boxer, Oana Avasilichioaei, and Linda Besner.
A shadow language’s impact isn’t just linguisitic. Among Montreal poets, it can create the feeling of being set apart or cut adrift, of existing as an outsider. “I am nobody: / that is how I will enter you” is the way Michael Harris once addressed a room of imaginary readers. Or take Robyn Sarah: “I am the blip on the screen, / the cold spot, the dark area you see / with indefinite borders.” More exhilaratingly, it can contribute to a “several selves” state: life defined not only by the reality it inhabits, but also the potential—and sometimes fantastical—existences it did not fulfill. David Solway’s most notorious book, Saracen Island, features faux translations from a fictional Greek poet (he has since tried his hand at “Englishing” poems from Turkish and Domenican). And Asa Boxer’s long poem “Primer to the New World” reinvents Canada’s discovery as a Medieval travel narrative, packed with fabulous beasts and holy objects.
Anglo-Quebec poets are also the only group to successfully reconcile the century-old bicultural quarrel. The “two solitudes” have become what Solway calls the “two solicitudes.” What was once a sense of division is now a feeling of concern for the other’s well-being. Solway—who once declared Québécois poetry “the most powerful, the most interesting and the most vital poetic tradition in all of Canada”—has himself been an excellent conduit for that concern. He used to contribute a monthly translation of a French poem to the now-defunct Books in Canada (since gathered into a lovely anthology called Demilunes: Little Windows on Quebec), enjoys a fervent relationship with many francophone poets, and is the first English writer to win the Grand Prix du livre de Montréal.
It should be said such transactions aren’t exclusively between English and French. In her study Translating Montreal, Sherry Simon calls the city one of the world’s few “contact zones,” a place where languages mingle and intersect. This means poets can avail themselves of shadowy accents from a large palette of foreign vernaculars. Antonio D'Alfonso’s early collections sometimes mixed English, French, and Italian. Erin Mouré has creatively repurposed (or "transelated") Portuguese and Spanish poems into outrightly exotic dialects. Nonetheless, the shift of solitudes into solicitudes is the tale of an exploited double heritage, of poets embracing the acoustic advantage of living inside the French language and taking pleasure from its music. The self-centeredness of English dissolves in such a climate, forcing poets to acknowledge that larger soundscape.
Of course, that also means acknowledging the existence of singular talents like Nepveu. And that, in turn, means acknowledging a version of Canadian poetry found only in translation, in the sympathetic resonances between foreign words. Those of us committed to engaging with—and making available—literary worlds not our own can feel like that English radio station, discussed in Translating Montreal, that advertised delivering the “news to nous.” But “news to nous” isn’t always news that stays news. Fact is, it’s news to which Canada is now deaf.
CARMINE STARNINO is Partisan's Senior Contributing Editor, Poetry Editor for Véhicule Press, and Non-Fiction Editor for Porcupine's Quill. He is the author of many books of poetry and criticism, and his work has appeared in Poetry, among other magazines.