Register Saturday | December 7 | 2019

Lost in Translation

On Canada's Neglect of Foreign Language Poetry Translated into English

In a previous column, I lamented Canada’s piss-poor record of publishing foreign poetry written in English. This week I’d like to highlight another moth hole in our literary tapestry: the publication of poetry translated from foreign tongues into English. In many ways, this is arguably more important than local distribution for foreign writers of English verse, whose books, while often absent from store and library shelves, can be sought out and acquired and are linguistically accessible to the vast majority of literate Canadians.

Canada’s ethnic map contains more bumps and hollows than a two-dimensional chart of mutually ambivalent solitudes can convey. Obviously, the production of literary works in English, French and aboriginal idioms, and of translations from each of these languages into the others, is and will continue to be of central importance. But in order for cultural policy to keep pace with cultural actuality, more room needs to be made for distinctive voices from other lands. As renowned poet and translator A. F. Moritz put it to me, “If you don’t bring over the most central speech of a people, its poetry, you’ve denied its essential humanness access to the pith of the culture into which you are supposedly welcoming it. You’ve denied the most important contribution it can make to the basic ethos of its new home and the native place of its future children. And you’ve blocked the greatest contribution it can make to the ongoing health and intelligence and development of Canada and of English and French.” Moritz notes that “this nation is a-crawl with literarily talented and ambitious people who have native access to literally hundreds of languages.” Why, then, is this bonanza of talent not translating into more activity?

As is the case with foreign English-language poetry, a paucity of funding is the fundamental cause for our dearth of translation of foreign works. Not only are titles containing less than 50 percent “Canadian-authored creative content” ineligible for Canada Council block grants, but what little translation funding there is available is restricted to titles that have not “already been translated, in Canada or elsewhere.”

But it’s a helluva lot easier to quantify the translation of textbooks, instruction manuals and other books of workmanlike prose—where the only thing to be translated is the sense of the thing and not its rhythms, metaphors and spirit—than it is to quantify the translation of poetry and other literature. Where does one draw the line? What, for instance, qualifies Erin Mouré’s “trans-e lation” of Fernando Pessoa’s O Guardador de Rebanhos for Canada Council funding? Is it more originally Canadian a book than a less imaginative, more prosaically “faithful” (but conceivably less poetically “accurate”) rendition of the same text? Are references to Winnett Avenue and Toronto topography all that’s needed? Is Mouré’s substitution of stray cats for Pessoa’s sheep what tips the balance? Or is the one wholly original poem appended to the adaptations?

Mouré’s Sheep’s Vigil by a Fervent Person was critically acclaimed and garnered a Griffin Prize nomination (though the intrinsic value of such recognition is highly debatable, as I’ve argued elsewhere, its short-term instrumental value is not). More importantly, it represents a glimmer of what could be possible were the CC less hidebound in its granting practices. Ultimately, whether it’s more Pessoa’s property or Mouré’s is academic. All successful translation of poetry has embedded within it what Mouré makes explicit: that the process necessarily involves a great deal of subjective interpretation and original creation alongside faithful rendition. To call one a translation, another an adaptation, another an approximation or a version is to split hairs.

Because of this subjective element, the ineligibility for funding of already translated works is nothing short of absurd. There are reasons for the proliferation of English versions of Dante, Baudelaire and Rilke. Whatever the quality, no single translation is ever the correct one. The argument “it’s been done before, so why should we pay to have it done again” is revelatory of fundamental philistinism, of an attitude more attuned to the production of superficial cultural novelty than to any deep exploration and reconception of seminal literary works.

On this point, however, we can appeal to the jobbers who dole out the dough, as translations like John Ciardi’s Divine Comedy or Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf have proven better sellers than most of our original native verse. We do have a Canadian version of these blockbuster translations in Anne Carson’s marvellous fragmentary rendition of Sappho’s verse, but Carson, the recipient of MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships, is an internationally famous figure. She publishes with a huge multinational press and so doesn’t need the Canada Council’s stamp to make translation of a long-dead Lesbian viable. Most poets and translators aren’t so lucky, however; for us, an injection of funds in the right vein would be extremely stimulating. As Moritz says, “A very little money goes a long way in such a field. The cost of one wing of an F-16 would fund a glorious renaissance of literary translation.”

Besides the aforementioned works from Mouré and Carson, other translations have made it into publication in recent years. Some books get around CC roadblocks by including translations in the body of a volume of original verse. Recent examples include Evan Jones’ Nothing Fell Today but Rain (the seven translations, with Anastasia Koros, of Andréas Embiricos’ Greek verse are by far the highlight of this otherwise tedious book), the reissue of Peter Van Toorn’s superb Mountain Tea (thirty-eight of Van Toorn’s eighty-six poems are versions—some faithful, others more eccentric—of other poets’ work) and Steven Heighton’s The Address Book, which contains fifteen top-notch “approximations” of foreign poems.

Although less probable, the odd full-length single-author collection has popped up. Brick Books has led the way with their publication of contemporary Danish poet Ulrikka S. Gernes’ selected poems, A Sudden Sky (2001, trans. Patrick Friesen and Per Brask), and Bosnian expat Goran Simic’s Immigrant Blues (2003, trans. Amela Simic), which also contains the author’s first seven poems written in English. Both of these books are stirring and disturbing works of poetry, but their publication depended on a blend of good fortune, tenacity and financial sacrifice. Friesen and Brask signed their translation fees (paid by the Danish government) over to Brick in order to get Gernes’ book into print. They did the same with Crane for two earlier translations, but have been unable to find a publisher for a fourth book, an anthology of Danish poetry.

Understandably, Friesen finds it a frustrating state of affairs: “There is good work in Canada, and there is good work outside of Canada. They need to meet each other, and our readers have to be educated into being less insular. I don’t know how to do that, except to get the funding and tour foreign poets here with their translated books. The books, by themselves, tend to get lost. I mean, it’s amazing we don’t do this. We need to learn about other cultures, other literatures, more directly than through social study courses in school. We need to read their work and meet them, write articles about them, etc. And they need to read ours.” He adds that “exchanges with Nordic countries seem natural” in Canada because of linguistic roots common to both English and Scandinavian languages.

Brask laments that “the activity of literary translation is not considered a legitimate art form” in Canada; he believes it should be, “because literary translators living here and small publishers could pursue foreign work that would have relevance to literary issues in Canada. The concept of the north, for instance, is often treated in Canadian literature. And so it is in the Scandinavian countries, but differently. These differences in how peoples live in Nordic countries with a powerful neighbour to the south can yield some interesting considerations and literary experiences for people with access to the literatures involved.”

Kitty Lewis of Brick Books recently told Toronto’s Eye Weekly that Brick would not have been able to publish Immigrant Blues had it not come to them already translated by Simic’s ex-wife, adding, “We just don’t have the resources” to pay translators. For his part, Simic says in the same article, “It’s a pity we are not open to the world.” More than that, it’s a shame.

Halifax-based Zachariah Wells is the author of Unsettled, a book of Arctic poems forthcoming from Insomniac Press. Contrary to popular opinion, he does not think he’s always right. The Zed Factor appears every second Monday.