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The Translator Relay: Erín Moure

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 July’s installment, Katrina Dodson passed the baton to Erín Moure

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

I mostly translate from French, the official language of Québec, where I live, into English, and from Galician into English. Poetry is my focus, especially difficult poetry that digs in and through the language in ways particular to the culture from which it grows.

Galician is the root language of modern Portuguese, so I can work from that language as well, though the different lexicon and expression can make it slow work. Because Galicia was grabbed by Spain and divided with Portugal so long ago, modern Galician bears many influences from Castilian (which we call Spanish, erasing Galicians and others from any legitimate place in the Iberian Peninsula and the Spanish state), so I am able to translate from Castilian as well, but more slowly, as its structures are different. Learning French and Galician were both deliberate acts to allow me to participate in cultures in Québec and Galicia where I wanted to spend time. I dream and think in French and Galician as well as in English (my connection to that latter language is simply that I was born in Western Canada and it was the common language in my house and all around us).


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

How about an untranslatable book? I’m thinking of the Brazilian writer Wilson Bueno and his Mar paraguayo, or Paraguayan Sea, which took me twelve years to translate—it will appear in October from Nightboat Books, at long last! It’s a book written in portuñol (or portunhol), a mixed Spanish-Portuguese idiom that lives at the borders of Paraguay/Argentina/Brazil, as well as on the other side of Brazil at its border with Uruguay. I translated its rhythms into a language of my own place, by mixing French and English with the Guaraní, in ways that are more readable to English-language readers outside of Canada. It took me a long time to figure out the balance that could translate the soundscape of the text for a new community of readers. And in fact, for artist Andrew Forster’s latest public art installation of banners of my Bueno text wrapped around a building in downtown Montréal, I revised my own translation to include even more French, given the culture where the artwork is installed.


Do you have any translating rituals? 

Ritual is too strong a word, as there’s nothing religious or ceremonial in what I do! As far as habits go, I tend to plan out quantities of words to translate each day in each project on which I am working (I work on three or four at a time, and at times I’ve worked on up to eight projects at once!), so as to gradually create a first draft of each text, with a lot of doubled word choices, highlights of problem areas that I skip at first, and footnotes involving URLs of references, etc. My first draft is always unreadable as a work of literature! As I press on, I do tend to go back for fun and revise some areas, to see what tonalities I can create to reflect the tones and weights of the original text, the layers and echoes. But it’s in the second draft where I work hard to create or transpose all this, which I call the soundscape (style, etc.) of the original.

By keeping charts that help me track where I am in each project, I can situate myself very quickly in each text and reimmerse myself. I live in multiple texts and at times have difficulty emerging from them!


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?

My metaphor would be that of the “exhorbitant body,” which I’ve spoken about in texts such as “The Exhorbitant Body: Translation as Performance,” which appeared in 2001 in Matrix (Canada) and in 2002 in Performance Research (UK), and was reprinted in 2009 in my book of essays on writing practice, My Beloved Wager. Basically, it is clear to me that translation, and particularly translation of poetry, is a set of performative gestures, a performance, because it involves the body of the translator. Each of us translates differently because we have different bodies, with different cultures and histories, different pains and capacities. The act of translation is thus exorbitant always, because out of the translator’s mouth, the voice of another emerges.


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

I’m very excited to see Paraguayan Sea appear at last, though my excitement is tinged with sadness, as Wilson Bueno, who had such confidence in me as his translator, died, was murdered in his own house, in 2010. To complete the translation was my bond with him, is my bond. His is an amazing, poetic, genre and gender-shifting text, and a wonderful plea for the beauty of life and the imperative of reading as a way to keep one’s head above the stormy waters. It validates indigenous language and thinking as well, and the loneliness of exile from both place and language, from age and gender too.

I’m also excited to be translating a version (for it is a very difficult text) of a great twentieth-century book of Galician poetry, Uxío Novoneyra’s Os Eidos, and I look forward to translating Chus Pato’s next book as well (I’ve already translated all five of her books produced in the twenty-first century).


 (Katrina Dodson’s question for you) Translators are often expected to remain invisible in the text, and I’m inspired by your notion of translators as “exorbitant bodies” and of “transelation” as a creative, often radical practice charged with elation. You created your own heteronym to translate O Guardador de rebanhos by Fernando Pessoa/Alberto Caeiro, calling it Sheep’s Vigil by a Fervent Person and transporting the pastoral space of early twentieth-century Portugal to modern-day Toronto; and you’ve just translated Wilson Bueno’s Portunhol mixed with Guaraní into Guaraní-inflected Frenglish in Paraguayan Sea. Will you say more about exorbitant translation and what spaces it opens up, for you and for how we understand translation?

I think it is more an issue of the exorbitance of translation itself, in every case, rather than exorbitant translation as a special (and possibly defective) subset. Translation is embodied. Our bodies, our translators’ bodies, exist between the text and its reader in the new language, and although we pretend to be invisible, oh we are there. The invisibility is a trope and fib, at best. Get six translators to translate the same poem and you’ll end up with different results; there are always choices to be made even within what we call fidelity. The translator’s body and cultural assumptions and social articulations are why translations age and later publics become dissatisfied and want new translations. Original texts are footnoted as they age; translations are redone. Who reads Alexander Pope’s translation of The Iliad now, except as a work of Pope? His body is now so visible as a marking on and in the text of Homer.

With my transelation (the word is altered to indicate joy) of Pessoa/Caeiro, I wanted to create a text that transferred the humor of the original, the whimsy and the “retranca,” or general sarcasm/irony, which Pessoa carries out so that it sounds like innocence, which makes the reader giggle. I found other more “standard” translations lost the humor entirely. Humor is time-based, I realized, and needs to be explained to readers of a later time. I didn’t want to “explain” the poetry, so I moved the text from early twentieth-century rural Portugal to early twenty-first-century rural Toronto (i.e. north of a certain avenue that demarcates a switch from the early suburbs that followed the lay of the land, its hills, creeks, etc. to suburbs created by removing all of landscape and creating what they want before building houses) where I was living at the time. I discovered that this worked by mistake, of course. And was intrigued by it . . . and had very good feedback, in particular from Portuguese people, who felt a renewed love of the book when they read it in “transelation.” Although it’s altered in some respects, the thinking and humor remain intact for contemporary readers. And the alterations are visible, as the book includes the Portuguese original.

With Paraguayan Sea, the book’s rhythms and sinews and flavors, which are part and parcel of its “meaning,” arise in the mix of languages, and the translation needed a mix of languages to pull those flavors and rhythms through for Wilson’s new reader in English. The translation responds, perhaps, to the question: What will happen if Wilson Bueno’s voice comes out of the mouth of another? It’s more a question of making the original text’s qualities visible than making the translator visible.

I also work with Roman Ivashkiv to translate poetry by Ukrainian poet Yuri Izdryk into English. In this case, Roman is the competent translator of Ukrainian and I am the poet who demands exactitude in rhythms, lexicon, repetition, and sound. Together we make one translator’s body. How exorbitant is that?


Erín Moure’s latest books are translations of François Turcot’s My Dinosaur (BookThug, 2016) Chus Pato’s Flesh of Leviathan (Omnidawn, 2016), Rosalía de Castro’s New Leaves (Small Stations, 2016), and her own Planetary Noise: Selected Poetry of Erín Moure, edited by Shannon Maguire (Wesleyan, 2017). This fall will see her translation of Brazilian writer Wilson Bueno’s Paraguayan Sea from Nightboat Books, and her translation of Antón Lopo’s Distance of the Wolf: A Biography of Uxío Novoneyra from the Fundación Uxío Novoneyra.

Published Aug 28, 2017   Copyright 2017 Jessie Chaffee

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