I started thinking about Rita Copeland's book in remembering my experience in 2009 with Chus Pato and a few younger translators and poets in Galicia, translating poems out of English and into Galician, on Facebook! First, some Wallace Stevens—poet Oriana Méndez had felt on reading WS in English that the Spanish translations she had earlier read were inadequate—and as there were none in Galician, we made a couple. Then I turned to “Wooden Houses” by Lisa Robertson, which originally appeared in April 2005 in Jacket 27, and later was included in Lisa Robertson’s Magenta Soul Whip. Just wanting to share Robertson's work in Galician. Chus Pato helped me immensely in my task.
“Wooden Houses” was written in Vancouver, Canada (forests, rain, a country of wooden houses), and became “Casas de madeira” (forests, rain, a country of stone houses), thus transferring not just the poem but the very materiality and vernacular of “wooden house.”
Lately I’ve been dipping into Rita Copeland’s ABC: Rhetoric, Hermeneutics and Translation in the Middle Ages, in which she examines how scholars of the Middle Ages considered the works and culture of Greek and Latin Antiquity, and dissects in formidable fashion how rhetoric (argument, convincing, thus invention) and grammar (fidelity, thus structure, tradition) informed and shaped translation, fashioning a kind of struggle between the same and difference, between the authority of the original text (presumed or constructed) and the positionality of the interpreter or translator as a historically bound actor. And, further, how exegesis (hermeneutics, positioning and explaining) in Medieval times moved translation into the vernacular and opened it to other languages, releasing it from the hold of Latin.
What intrigues is that so many of the struggles and energies of that time echo in the struggles and energies of our own era. Necessary, fruitful struggles!
“…Roman theory,” writes Copeland, “conceives translation [from Greek, of course] as a rhetorical activity: the object of the translation is difference with the source, and the act of translating is comparable to the act of inventing one’s own argument out of available topics.
A couple of weeks ago, I was translating a poem-text coaxed out of Montréal poet Steve Savage, for the San Francisco based journal Eleven Eleven(if they like it, or for someone else if they don’t!). I knew on receiving “Miettes de Pam” that Steve had deftly slipped me a bit of, or an arrangement of, part of his own translation from English into French of NY poet Mina Pam Dick’s (who is also Traver Pam Dick and others) Delinquent. In effect, I was going to translate Steve’s translation of Pam into English as Steve’s French poem. So I looked at it as Steve’s poem. He, after all, wrote all the words before my eyes! I didn’t take Delinquent off the shelf beside me but accepted Steve’s delinquency as emblematic of Pam’s shape-shifting. So I translated, creating a work in my words in English, a faithful—but commented—translation of Steve’s words in French which started as a translation of Pam’s.
Steve said when he read my translation, “Bits of Pam”: I see you, Erín, with Pam lurking behind you! Mina Pam Dick was of course contacted too, and delinquently allows my perverse versions of Steve’s translation to lurk in front of her, as she lurks behind.
All in all, it was a delight with three laughters, one of those signal gestures that passes between the USA and Quebec, between English and French and back again at times. Poetry changes languages among friends and people who admire each other’s work.
That title is my favourite of the three translations I made of the title of Pascal Quignard’s poem Inter Aerias Fagos — Among Aerial Beeches, or In the Canopy of Beeches — republished in 2011 in the beautiful volume INTER, and slipped to me recently by poet Chantal Neveu. “You should write about this,” she said.
It was a request I couldn’t refuse last July… renowned Canadian documentary filmmaker Magnus Isacsson wrote me to ask if I would create an English version of the rap songs sung in French by young Mikerson “Swagga Kid” Stiverne in what was to be Isacsson’s final film, about young men creating lives for themselves where they could thrive, after rough childhoods and dropping out of school in the poor neighbourhood of Montréal-Nord—where young men of colour have endured a lot of misunderstanding (and even bullets) from the police: My Real Life.
I worked with a written transcript from the French soundtrack made by the production team, and spent a whole week dancing and singing beside my desk, watching the film over and over, letting the pride and tenacity of these young guys and their music and expression enter my spirit too, and feeling Magnus’s pride and tenacity as well.
Sometimes I feel I am sewing words into the fabric of lives when I translate. Noises out of silence that remains silence, for I remain silent even as I am speaking, for I speak the words of another, othered to another.
My favourite challenge was translating the repeated Swagga Kid phrase “pour mieux t’introduire” which is stitched into his song “My Real Life” (a plea to see his life from his view and not to judge him as the police do by his looks and location), and which closes the film in beautiful repetition… in French it reads as introduce/present yourself to new people, but also as “enter into life” to “put yourself in the picture”.