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The Translator Relay: Daniel Canty

By Jessie Chaffee

WWB’s Translator Relay features an interview with a different translator each month. This month’s translator will choose the next interviewee, adding a different, sixth question.

For October’s installment, Oana Avasilichioaei passed the baton to Daniel Canty.

What is your connection to the language(s) you translate from and/or the place(s) where the books you translate are written?

I was born in Lachine, on Montréal’s West (I like to spell it Oueste) Island, in a mixophone neighborhood, where one could hear—filtered by accented French (if Haitian or Vietnamese) or English (if American, Chinese, Filipino, Jamaican, Korean, or Scottish)—myriad echoes of immigration. Although my parents are Québécois, my family name, Canty, was often mispronounced as the Italian “Canti,” or “Kantee” (à l’anglaise), whereas I slurred it as “Cantsi,” Québec-style. I was schooled in French, and I properly learned English in the fourth grade, through the grace of a Polish teacher, Miss Poparicz. I remember her extravagant houndstooth skirts and plumed hats fondly. They were the perfect match for her chivalric Slavic accent. Her gift of tongues taught me, right off, that however colorful your use of a foreign language, as long as you express yourself beautifully, your accent can be said to be perfect. Near the end of the twentieth century, I moved to Vancouver to study, and I soon started to earn a living writing in English. I like to say that I discovered my inner Irishman there. I spent a few years in Anglophoniea, in Vancouver, and then New York, perfecting this doubleness. Translation opens funnels between times and places. When I was little, it took me a while to stop calling a chien a sien, and I still don’t pronounce most of my English h’s. When I returned to Montréal at the beginning of the new millennium, I was confident I could work in both French and English. More importantly, I felt an emotional need to sound what my time in Anglophoniea had sedimented in me, and how this coursed through my language. Shortly after my return, I decided to embark on my first translation from Canadian, Pierre blanche by Stephanie Bolster, who, it turns out, lived on the West Island.


Can you give us an example of an “untranslatable” word or phrase, and tell us how you brought it into English/French?

I want to displace this question a little and share a reading experience with you. Upon reading James Joyce’s Anna Livia Plurabelle, the first excerpt from his night-book-in-progress, Finnegan’s Wake, I became convinced that every word in the book was a water word, every sound a water sound. That is to say, that every recess and fold of Anna Livia bubbled and dripped and flowed with borrowings and neologisms and portmanteaus from an aqueous lexicon. It does, but upon recently rereading it, I felt that, though this principle is active in the book, it is nowhere near as prevalent as I thought. But I am also having doubts about my rereading, and thinking that perhaps I was not as sensitive to this watery dimension as at first swim. My Plurabelle baptism took place on a flight to Calgary, on my way to Banff, floating in perfect summer blueness, between cloud-foam and wheat-sea, and perhaps the pristine dryness of that aerial purview was at play in the hydraulics of my interpretation. I am sensitive in the translations I choose to undertake to this entanglement of book-in-mind and book-in-world, going so far as to translate a book of poetry’s materiality—evolving its language, but also its format, fonts, papers, and colors in order to embody my feeling for it. The watery mirror of a book I felt course through Anna Livia Plurabelle existed. I have not followed this feeling through yet, but merely acknowledged its poetic potency, pinpointed the possible source of a translation, not yet of the world, but part of the mental warp and woof that leads us right back to it, by commodius vicus of recirculation. That is halfway to solving the problem of any translation.


Do you have any translating rituals? 

When translating poetry or prose works of my choosing—that is, works whose substance I want to seep into my own writing—I pen a first draft by hand, often on the paper where the original version is printed. I like the feeling of swarming and density that is created as my scribbles spill all over the page, surrounding the type in an inky halo. I often use a black extra fine point rollerball fountain pen. To highlight problematic passages, or words I cannot yet bring over into the end language, I combine this with a colored lead pencil, a blue Standard Graph (well-known to East European students) being my favorite. Sometimes there is not even enough room and I have to write ever smaller, at odd angles to the original patterns of type. My blue-stained swarms of pattes de mouche, somewhat hard to decipher even for me, are a physical response to the initial attraction of the text. At this point, I try not to think too much about precision, just to get through this very physical draft. I feel like I am shaping, through these urgent gestures, a sort of force field, acknowledging the reciprocal magnetic charges of the printed word and handwriting. I am depositing and reshaping materials in mind and memory. Later on, when I start typing the translation into my word processor, this initial impetus resonates, communicating a fresh spin to the copying, and things already start to fall into place, obeying an intuitive gravity.


Do you have a metaphor you use to explain the translation process and the role of the translator in bringing a piece from one language into another?

Metamorphosis is the metaphor that comes to mind. Metamorphosis as metaphor. These words stand in such proximity to one another. Great material to make my point. Metamorphosis holds closer to the body of things. Metaphor leans on the side of thinks, as Dr. Seuss would have it (Oh, the Thinks You Can Think, 1975). A thing is a think in the making. A think, a thing in mind. Forms shift. One think comes to stand for another . . . It seems to me that one should be wary when tackling questions of translation—or any questions of art—of the distinction between form and content, and concentrate on the thaumaturgy of matter. Translation—the work of slowly thinking through the body of a text in order to give it a new form—is a way for language to shift shape so it can exist in a novel environment and still be recognizable as itself. A translation is a new body of language. It gives a novel shape to that thing we name language, and to the thinks it carries within it. The two tongues I work with, English and French, exhibit certain parities and divergences, sonorous and structural similarities and divergences, which I must acknowledge to guide me through their mutation. The translator, postulating a continuity of form between the original text and the resulting translation, enters into a Unified Field of Language, where he goes looking for the secrets of the ur-text. A proper translation aims to solve, for any given text, the mind-body problem, and reveal the continuity of things that are with the thinks they can be. Translation, to end on a metaphor, hankers for that place where all metamorphoses are deemed possible, where Ovid beckons in robes, and gods and centaurs and cats in hats still roam. 


Tell us about a current, or future, translation project that you’re excited about.

I am haunted by the water book I evoked above, and I would like, at some point, to bring it into being. Joyce and some of his friends, including his then right-hand man Sam B., attempted a collective French translation in 1931. It was augmented by André du Bouchet in 1962, and the Web informs me that a new translation was published just last year by Monsieur Philippe Blanchon in Toulon (La Nerthe Editions), which I have not read. Despite admirable passages, the Anna Livia of Joyce and Co. is not the book I heard trickling through my airborne consciousness that floating summer day over the Prairies. Translation is the ultimate recirculation of reading, and I think that it is important that a writer divert into his own language all his deepest affluents. I hope that my mixophonic, Québéco-Canadian consciousness would effect a potent metamorphosis of Anna Livia. I also know this enterprise would immensely please my inner Irishman.


 (Oana’s question for you) Given your polymath art practice (writing, book design, film, theater, etc.), I want to ask you about your relationship between these other fields and translation. How might they influence how you approach translation? How does your work in theater, for example, impact how you understand and work in translation? And conversely, how might your ideas about translation affect how you write or how you design a book?

Writing is a form of making. Fiction, from the latin fingere, shares its roots with our ten fingers. Poetry, from the Greek poïesis, means “to make.” Poïesis also defines the bringing into being of something (somethink . . .) that did not exist before. These etymologies are vocationally encouraging. My métier seems to me like a passe-partout, allowing for circulation, recirculation, between all sorts of thinks and things. One needs, in making art, to learn to listen to all the matters at hand. In French, the word matière says it well. It connotes substance and subject. The English matter adds the notions of a “problem,” or a “question,” to the mix. Writing is my jumping-off point for investigations into all manners of making. Each art form has its own idiom. A sensitivity to the malleability of literary language—sounds shifting in air and light, words arranged on a page, the invisible scaffolding of scenarios—provides a poetic purview from which to start working. One then needs to engage in the back-and-forth between whatever thing is at hand and the myriad ways it can evolve into a shape. The latin traducere, “to carry across,” faire passer, evokes this crisscrossing between the actual and the potential. The words say it: translation is, literally, the work of the passeur. And we meander back—by commodious vicum—to that imagined moment of conflation, that opalescent shimmer of poïesis, rustling with the possibility of all its metamorphoses.


Daniel Canty is a writer, etc. His work circulates between literature, cinema, the visual arts, theater, and design. His directorial debut was an online adaptation of Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams (1999). He has recently published the art books Mademoiselle Manivelle, a speculation set on the future shores of the Lachine Canal, and L’été opalescent (2016), the second part of an auto-science-fiction cycle begun with Bucky ball (2014). Mappemonde (2016) is an autofictive essay delving on the suburban sensibility in literature. VVV (2015) is a geopoetic atlas about a trilogy of North American journeys in poetic vehicles piloted by artist Patrick Beaulieu. The United States of Wind (2014), a travelog inspired by the same adventures, and his debut novel, Wigrum (2011), have been translated into English by poet Oana Avasilichioaei. He is the translator of books by Auguste Blanqui, Stephanie Bolster, Benoit Jutras, Michael Ondaatje, Erín Moure, and Charles Simic, and he was the official transalor of Fred Wah, a poet laureate of Canada. He has also translated Jenny Holzer for stage, Glenn Gould for digital media, and Leonard Cohen on film. Daniel is currently writing and directing the online serial Costumes nationaux. He studied literature in Montréal, publishing in Vancouver, and film in New York. In 2014, he was awarded the Studio of Québec in London (UK). He currently lives in Montréal, Québec. He has many projects. His website is

Published Oct 18, 2017   Copyright 2017 Jessie Chaffee

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