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The Translator Relay: Simon Brown

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 December’s installment, Steve Savage passed the baton to Simon Brown.

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 to and from English and French, although I dabble quite a bit in other languages as well. I’m in the somewhat odd position of having English as my first language, but French as my primary language of use. I grew up in a rural, mostly English-speaking part of New Brunswick (the only officially bilingual province in Canada, as they say), but did a fair amount of my schooling in French. I’ve lived in Québec for almost twenty years, and my everyday life and most of my writing is in French. Much of what I translate falls into the vague category of “art writing,” but poetry is what I enjoy most and gravitate toward. Translation is my primary life activity, along with writing, and I sometimes slip into it almost without realizing it, like an old and worn bathrobe. In my dreams, I often find myself translating important messages (wishful thinking), more often than not between languages I don’t understand. I also occasionally translate from other languages that I’ve studied or am studying, primary American Spanish, Haitian Creole, and Scots, for the time being. My study of Creole and Scots stems from an interest in languages that have been less “frozen” by codes of writing, but do maintain a relationship with them, which I suppose could be one way of looking at poetry itself.


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

That’s a difficult question, as I do believe (for better or for worse) that all language is fundamentally untranslatable (in the absolute sense), which is why I love translation—you’re always aiming for some ungraspable perfect wording that, of course, doesn’t exist. This impossibility circumnavigates language and opens up a special little window onto something new, an in-between place. Fittingly, a word that is quite popular in art writing in Québec is détournement, which, depending on the context, literally means a diversion, misappropriation, or hijacking, but in a figurative sense suggests a creative twisting or reappropriation, often to artistic and/or political ends: détournement des codes, détournement des conventions. Sometimes détournement is rendered as “twisting,” other times as “hijacking,” but I always felt these words didn’t really convey the positive and creative connotations of the idea. My solution is often “fertile misuse,” which retains the idea of using something unconventionally, for a purpose it wasn’t designed for, but in a way that is creative and can give way to new possibilities.


Do you have any translating rituals? 

Well, the rituals I have are somewhat antiritualistic. I systematically drink a lot of water. Does that count? The more arduous the translation, the more water I drink. Otherwise, I can’t expect to end up properly sweaty and amazed, as Steve Savage puts it! Also, whenever my inefficient body/brain gets tired of whatever I’m working on, every half hour or so, I switch to five minutes of paratranslation. Paratranslation lies somewhere on the spectrum between conventional translation and free association. In paratranslation, you essentially translate a text as quickly as possible, and instead of trying to find the right word and the most fitting reconfiguration of syntax, you use the first word and word order that pops into your head or hands. Paratranslation amplifies the false friends and syntactical awkwardness that typifies much “bad translation.” It can be quite liberating, really, as it exemplifies everything we’re not normally supposed to do as translators. Five minutes of paratranslation usually clears the head quite nicely, and produces a disjunctive, poetic fragment in the process. And for me, these disjunctive fragments are what makes life worth living!


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?

Well, I alternate between thinking about translation as contemplative labor, a bodily function, and a lieu de passage. So I guess you could say I’m kind of mixed up when it comes to metaphors, albeit voluntarily so. An image that sometimes comes to mind (whether I want it to or not) is that of the fistula, a tunnel or passage the body creates in order to join two cavities, usually because there is a problem somewhere, for example a blockage in the digestive system. In this sense, the translation is like a painful opening between spaces (cultural, semantic, affective, spiritual) that alleviates a blockage of meaning or feeling. I suppose the fistula-translation is a détournement as well, a slimy and adaptable one that circumnavigates the (sometimes traumatic) disconnect between language and what it’s supposed to represent. A fistula can have a life of its own, almost acting as an entity à part entière, which makes me think there is a connection here with Oana Avasilichioaei’s lovely assertion that language (and perhaps, by extension, translation) is “creaturely.”


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

I’m currently translating a book-length poem by Québec poet Maude Pilon, Quelque chose continue d’être planté là, published in 2017 by Le lézard amoureux. The first installment of this translation will appear this winter in TRIPWIRE. It’s a tricky and interesting text to tackle, as the poem itself is already a sort of translation, partially from Innu-aimun (an Algonquian language spoken in Northern Québec and Labrador), and partially from a coded language of stick formations used for basic communication in the bush during winter months in the Labrador Peninsula. The title is a translation of the Innu word etapikapau, which means “it or s/he continues to stand there; it or s/he continues to be stood up, erected there (unexpectedly).” The “it or s/he” here is an animate being, in this case a mishtikᵘ, which is a tree in the animate gender, and a stick in the inanimate gender. The fact that all “beings” (objects/animals/people) have an animate/inanimate gender in Innu (and all other Algonquian languages, as far as I know) is very present in my mind while translating, especially because English is particularly limiting in this sense, as it differentiates strongly (and binarily) between humans and the less-important “its” around them, whereas in Algonquian languages, many “things” are animate, and some (like the aforementioned mishtikᵘ) can drift between animacy and inanimacy, depending on circumstances and geography.

The following is an excerpt from my translation of Quelque chose continue d’être planté là:

The question is predictable: what is the furthest point from which it would still be possible to see where we started? The route has a body; two routes, two bodies; three routes, three bodies. A body can follow another body (with its legs). A body can flee from another body (in a hurry). A body can be enhanced by the surrounding vegetation. But word length doesn’t increase (like legs do).


(Steve’s question for you:) Simon, you write in French and in English, translate from and to both. The labor of translation—in my opinion, more than literary analysis, for example—helps us to better understand the inner workings of language and style. (I am thinking of the word foray here, which makes me think of the French forer, which means creuser . . . a digging. I do not know if it is appropriate, idiosyncratic). Have you come to recognize some differences between French and English, some idiosyncrasies, that you now leverage in your work as a writer and translator?

Over the course of an average day of digging and foraging through language heaps, I do indeed come across many differences between French and English that end up becoming levers or even springboards able to propel the text into new (and sometimes unexplored) places. Syntactical difference would have to be one of these springboards. I sometimes let myself fall into French syntactical reflexes when writing in English, and English reflexes when writing in French. Slippage, confusion, cross-contamination, in short, the many malentendus that arise between languages are a constant vector of ideas and gestures in my writing/translating practices. Now, I’m not sure if this really helps me understand anything, though . . . I would have to say that, at the best of times, I manage to feel the inner workings of language (or some of them), rather than understand them per se.

I tend to regard all language as a continuum (or a continuous pile), rather than being divided into distinct categories. Like Pessoa, I suppose you could say I’m more interested in le langage than la langue or les langues. In this sense, there are often as many idiosyncratic and vernacular variations within one language as there are between the distinct languages themselves. Translating a text in a so-called low, informal, or “slangy” register is often (always?) trickier and more interesting than translating high literary texts. A recent great experience in this area for me was translating a performance script by Montréal artist Sarah Chouinard-Poirier from Québécois as spoken by a prison inmate into the rural vernacular New Brunswick English I heard as a child. Differences in register and unconscious class bias in language are things I think about a lot. How can they be translated without judgment? How can language be desacralized? Democratized? I think poetry and translation are places where this can happen, and where registers can live side by side, mingle and maybe even tryst. I dream of a world where languages, dialects, and registers will be horizontalized, able to freely associate outside of the structures of power that presently keep them apart. The operative word here is, of course, “dream.” But I do believe poetic translation can embody that dream and make it real in the world, or in a world. 


Simon Brown (1979, Musquodoboit, Nova Scotia) is a self-taught poet and translator based in the traditional territory of the Abenaki nation, in rural Québec. His French and English texts have been presented in various forms and contexts: conceptual pieces, collaborative performances, poetry collections, and magazines, including The Coming Envelope, Vallum, Watts, Mœbius, and Crux Desperationis. As a translator, he has adapted texts by Erin Robinsong, Steve Savage, Danielle LaFrance, and Jacob Wren, among others. The collection Lettre à une protubérance (Moult, Québec City) and the chapbook Outre-flaques (Vanloo, Marseille) are forthcoming in 2018. 

Published Dec 11, 2017   Copyright 2017 Jessie Chaffee

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