The Impossibility of Translating Poetry

notebook of roses and civilizationWhen work took Erin Moure to Montreal for the first time in 1984, she admits that she could “barely cope” with the language.

Early last year, with poet/novelist/playwright Robert Majzels, she embarked on a French-to-English translation of Cahier de roses et de civilisation, a 2003 book by Nicole Brossard, one of Quebec’s most important poets. It took her and Majzels almost three months to complete the project, published last fall by Toronto’s Coach House Books as Notebook of Roses and Civilization.

The 88-page volume has gone on to be short-listed for the 2007 Governor-General’s Award for translation. And in April, it was one of three texts nominated for the Canadian side of the Griffin Prize.

Moure is hardly a stranger to Brossard’s work. Notebook of Roses and Civilization is the third Brossard translation she and Majzels have completed. Nor is Moure a stranger to writing poetry. She has been nominated for seemingly every Canadian poetry prize, including two nods, in 2002 and 2006, for the Griffin, and five for the Governor-General’s award, in a writing career spanning more than 30 years.

Translation is a fraught exercise, of course. As Moure notes, “Languages aren’t equivalent. The register even of the word ‘I’ and ‘je’ is so different. You think of these things as equivalent on a practical basis, from day to day … but day-to-day language is not as precise as the use of language in poetry.”

And in the case of Brossard’s work, there are “challenges because she has a kind of tone and register, on what we call the macro and micro level, that we have to maintain.” Plus, Brossard does things in French that are “syntactically strange that we have to find a way of doing in English as well.”

While Notebook of Roses and Civilization “is necessarily different from the book in French,” Moure stressed that she and her collaborator tried “to stick very, very closely to providing the same experience to a reader in English as a reader in French – inasmuch as that is possible because readers bring to texts their culture.”

Brossard, 65 this year, has won at least two Governor-General’s awards in French-language poetry. Yet her fierce rejection of conventions of grammar, punctuation, narrative and logic, of what’s been called “the natural speech lyric,” have made her a sort of “poet’s poet.”

For Moure, the fact that today’s so-called common reader often doesn’t “understand a lot of contemporary poetry at the get-go” is a quibble. “We don’t demand this of life itself. Find me someone who understands life. I’m 53, and I don’t understand it. I understand certain things; I have certain reference points. I get through the day and I love it – but something always happens to throw me for a loop.

Excerpted from James Adams, Globe and Mail, June 4, 2008

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