The space between translation.
Nuance has always been a key component of translation. Certain words and expressions don’t always transfer well from one language to another and intended meanings can often get lost in the shuffle. The French phrase “pas terrible” (literally, “not terrible”) may seem straightforward enough, but native-level speakers know it’s actually used—bafflingly—to mean “not that great.” To European Spanish speakers, “coger” may be just an innocent way to say, “to take” or “seize,” but in Latin America, the verb takes on a more vulgar meaning.
Poetry is not a medium that is famous for precision and straightforwardness. It’s the way a poet toys with language and uses it in unorthodox ways that makes the form irresistible to its admirers. But this radical use of words makes it a form particularly difficult to accurately translate. Rhyme, alliteration, and other devices are often sacrificed when a text is published in a foreign tongue.
The complexities of poetry translation are not lost on Parliamentary Poet Laureate Georgette LeBlanc, who is currently working on a French translation (with Éditions Perce-Neige) of Halifax-based poet Sue Goyette’s poetry collection Ocean. Published in 2013 by Gaspereau Press, the collection of free-verse poems mythologizes humanity’s relationship with the sea. In 2015, the book won the Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia Masterwork Arts Award.
Goyette was enthusiastic about the project from the beginning. Trusting LeBlanc to take it in her own direction, she had no concerns about how her personal voice and writing style would carry over into the French version.
“I knew of Georgette and her work, and I trusted her integrity,” says Goyette. “So, I knew that the book was going to be heard, and I knew it was going to be in good hands.”
LeBlanc initially struggled to translate the sharpness and wit of the poems. At first, she chose to write the poems in a standard, textbook style of French, more concerned with trying to capture the original spirit of Goyette’s writing than to have the translation make literal sense. Nevertheless, she felt confined by the rigidity of the unexciting, standard French. It wasn’t until she was well into the translation process that she decided to add some colour, making the decision to translate the collection of poems using her own, personal voice and dialect.
“When I finally tried it in my French, the French that I write in, it felt better,’ says LeBlanc. “I was having more fun. I was laughing and finding more pleasure in the work.”
Goyette was excited to hear LeBlanc had chosen this route, noting “the fact that she switched to her language, which she’s way more comfortable with, made me so happy. Because I think that freed Georgette to actually engage with the work poetically rather than cognitively or intellectually.”
The French LeBlanc chose for translating Ocean is influenced by the Acadian dialect spoken in Baie Sainte-Marie, Nova Scotia, where she grew up. The decision to write in her French was never a conscious effort to promote the dialect. LeBlanc says it’s just the voice she expresses herself best with. “Sue’s writing in her English, James Joyce wrote in his English,” she says. “Everyone writes in their own version of whatever language they were given by their mothers.”
Sue Goyette sees the act of poetry translation as an art all its own. Whenever she reads the work of a poet not originally published in English, she always makes sure to pick up a bilingual version of the text. While growing up in Québec, she read English translations of francophone poetry alongside the original French. This back-and-fourth reading enriched her understanding of the poems and helped her better see what the author was trying to convey.
“I like watching the space between the translation,” says Goyette. “It’s really fascinating to me. I see the original word and the direction the translator has taken and wonder, is it a literal translation or a figurative translation?”
LeBlanc has a similar fondness for translation. As a budding poet, she was influenced by the works of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda but was limited to reading his Spanish-language work in French. Despite this obstacle, the payoff was life-changing.
“I didn’t really understand Spanish the way I understand it now, so it was my only way of reading Neruda,” says LeBlanc. “Had there not been a translation of Neruda, I never would have known Neruda, and I never would have found a friend.”
One of the more practical benefits of poetry translation is that a whole new audience becomes exposed to a previously inaccessible work of art. Goyette says she’s grateful to gain a new, francophone audience and hopes that LeBlanc’s version helps further a conversation about art, the ocean, and our place beside it.
“It’s great. It should happen more, all the time,” says LeBlanc. “It’s great for Sue, it’s great for us. It’s great for everyone.” “It’s a happy place,” she adds, laughing. “Translation is a happy place.”