According to a Zachariah Wells column in maisonneuve, Canada is suffering from a lack of poetry translated from foreign tongues into English.

As renowned poet and translator A. F. Moritz put it to me, “If you don’t bring over the most central speech of a people, its poetry, you’ve denied its essential humanness access to the pith of the culture into which you are supposedly welcoming it. You’ve denied the most important contribution it can make to the basic ethos of its new home and the native place of its future children. And you’ve blocked the greatest contribution it can make to the ongoing health and intelligence and development of Canada and of English and French.” Moritz notes that “this nation is a-crawl with literarily talented and ambitious people who have native access to literally hundreds of languages.” Why, then, is this bonanza of talent not translating into more activity?…

Understandably, Friesen finds it a frustrating state of affairs: “There is good work in Canada, and there is good work outside of Canada. They need to meet each other, and our readers have to be educated into being less insular. I don’t know how to do that, except to get the funding and tour foreign poets here with their translated books. The books, by themselves, tend to get lost. I mean, it’s amazing we don’t do this. We need to learn about other cultures, other literatures, more directly than through social study courses in school. We need to read their work and meet them, write articles about them, etc. And they need to read ours.” He adds that “exchanges with Nordic countries seem natural” in Canada because of linguistic roots common to both English and Scandinavian languages…

Kitty Lewis of Brick Books recently told Toronto’s Eye Weekly that Brick would not have been able to publish Immigrant Blues had it not come to them already translated by Simic’s ex-wife, adding, “We just don’t have the resources” to pay translators. For his part, Simic says in the same article, “It’s a pity we are not open to the world.” More than that, it’s a shame.

(Via wood s lot.)


  1. “Why, then, is this bonanza of talent not translating into more activity?…”
    Maybe because the idea of translating poetry is absurd? How can you put Eliot’s “Four Quartets” into another language, or remove the wonderful exploitation of the sounds and syntax of Hungarian in Weöres Sándor’s “Atlantis”? If you want to read a poem, best be prepared to learn the language it was originally written in.
    By the way, Nephelokokkygia’s been updated for the first time in over two months since my summer travelling is winding to a close.

  2. I think you can translate poetry, as long as you’re willing to accept that it’s inevitably going to be more like a rewriting than a strictly literal translation. Of course, this requires the translator to be something of a poet herself, and it’s doubtless less feasible with some languages than others, but…

  3. There’s a shortage of translations being produced _and_ a shortage of resources to pay translators?
    I’m baffled! (And I do not baffle lightly!)

  4. Garrigus Ua Nuallain says

    Poetry that depends on sound elements — rhyme, rhythm, assonance, &c. — tends toward untranslatability. It’s easiest to do between related languages, which means that English, with its varied wordstock, is a particularly tough language to translate poetry from or to. My favorite poetry translations include the original text on the facing page. My absolute favorite is the Penguin book of German verse edited by Leonard Forster; it has original text supplemented by translations at the bottom of the pages.

  5. Probably the intrinsic difficulties of the ancient Canadian Language, together the traditional mild-manneredness of the Canadian People and the resolutely prosaic nature of The Canadian Mind have a lot to do with it, eh? Plus, they have a hundred words for snow which are pretty much useless for most translation purposes.

  6. I have the Penguin series in German, Italian, Spanish, and French (4 vol). These are ideal for anyone with some knowledge of the language, but less than native-speaker knowledge. There’s a lot of facing-pages Japanese, and I’ve found that a very small knowledge of Japanese allows you to find things not evident in the translations.

  7. Regarding Christopher Culver’s comment:
    The idea of _writing_ poetry is absurd, as are many many other things we humans do in this vale of tears. It has been said, and I think there’s much truth in this, that every poem is a kind of translation. I would of course love to be able to read all poetry in its original language, but alas the finitude of my condition prohibits the acquisition of every language on earth. Until I get the polyglot microchip implanted in my cerebellum, I’ll continue to make do with the second best option.

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