The Poet as Version of Being Alone:
Robin Reniero in Conversation
with Erín Moure

Erin Moure

Malahat volunteer Robin Reniero talks with Erín Moure about her translation of Galician poet Chus Pato and co-translation with Roman Ivashkiv of Ukrainian poet Yuri Izdryk (“On the Turbulence of Poplars: fuscum sub nigrum” and “synopsis,” respectively) that appear in Issue 188: At Home in Translation.

What was the first work in translation that you read, and what impression did it make on you both as a reader and writer?

When I was about 7 or 8, I read The Classics Illustrated Comic version from 1961 of Les Misérables, by Victor Hugo. Adapted by Alfred Sundel. Who knows what translation he used, as the text is grossly simplified. It completely got me addicted to the novel as a testimony and as a plea for social justice.

My first introduction to translation, however, around the same time: the bilingual ape-English dictionary at the end of Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Bourroughs. I wanted to tear the dictionary out of the book and write in Ape. But the dictionary was only in one direction, and there were no connective words, and it was impossible.

What is your advice to readers who may be new to exploring works in translation? How might they approach reading your translations of the poems by Chus Pato and Yuri Izdryk which appear in Issue 188: At Home in Translation of The Malahat Review? What drew you to their work? 

Enjoy them as poems in English, that bring something into English that is different from our own poetic productions in Canada. And be open to exploring more. What are people writing in other parts of the world? How are they sharing poetry? What is the role of poetry in and across language barriers? So much excitement in exploring such questions.

I’ve been translating Chus Pato since I learned Galician, so since 2001; her work is political, multi-genre, and makes the holding of any ordinary notion of subjectivity untenable. Amazing work. Yuri Izdryk was just introduced to me last year by Roman Ivashkiv, and we worked together on the Ukrainian to render English versions. What interests us is how postmodernism doesn’t exist the same way in Eastern European literature as it does in the West, and the choices of radical poets are thus different; they are responding to a different situation. How to render, then, the work, for a Canadian reader?

English author George Borrow (1803-1881) wrote that “translation is at best an echo.” Would you agree or disagree? Why or why not?

I love George Borrow… his 1843 book about distributing the Bible in Spain, called, in typical English fashion of the day, The Bible in Spain, or the Journey, Adventures, and Imprisonment of an Englishman in an Attempt to Circulate the Scriptures in the Peninsula is wonderful.

The act of translation is, perhaps, an echo, the desire to echo a readerly intensity and pleasure felt in one language into another. A translation, once finished, is a work, and no more an echo than is any other book, even what we call an “original.”

Language and culture are highly complex. One must consider regional linguistic differences, word origins/history/style, gestures, customs, and traditions. How does a translator maintain the cultural integrity of the original text? What have been your greatest challenges when translating poetry into English?

You’ve captured what’s at stake very clearly, Robin! Every work is different, and calls forth different skills from the translator, different ways of considering all the aspects you mention.

It is, of course, a fact that a reader in the target culture will never read a text (even in the original) the way a reader in the source culture would read the same text. We are formed by our histories, experiences, and cultures too strongly. At the same time, what beckons from the text? What of the textual pleasure of reading in the original can I convey in the translation to the new reader? What can I bring into English that would help feed English and feed those writing in that language?

What inspired you to translate works from French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Galician?

They are the languages I am competent to translate from. I started with French as it is the language of where I live, Montreal, and I learned Galician to translate Chus Pato and because I wanted to be a new speaker of a language that was small and losing speakers, to help ensure its vitality. Learning a language is a gesture of trust and love. Then, as a speaker of Galician, I discovered I could read Portuguese (they are related languages, Galician being the root of modern Portuguese), and because Galician is spoken in an area of the Iberian Peninsula long colonized by the Spanish State, I learned Spanish by osmosis and absorption.

I just translate works I love, that carry me deeply into language. Thus Chus Pato. Thus Nicole Brossard. Thus François Turcot (my next project). Thus Rosalía de Castro. Thus Louise Dupré. etc.

What aspects of translation influence your own work? 

My own work includes translation, and is multiple, and uses all the multiplicity of languages that I speak and hear. Also, any reader who reads a text is “translating.” For we can never read the “original” that the writer wrote. Even the writer, later, can’t read that as they’ve moved on.

In “What, me, guard sheep? for Phil Hall,” a poem from your collection Sheep's Vigil by a Fervent Person (shortlisted for the 2002 Griffin Poetry Prize), you write that, “Being a poet isn’t an ambition, / it’s a version of being alone.” Could you elaborate?

That was my take on the Pessoa line on the page opposite… for that book is a translation (a different translation as I wanted to convey the humour in the original).

Pessoa’s line:
Ser poeta não é uma ambição minha.
É a minha maneria de estar sozinho.

Being a poet isn’t my ambition.
It’s my way of being alone.

I just depersonalized it, as I was already removing it from Pessoa’s person.

I still quote that line to myself in my head (my translated line). Being a poet is a way of being alone with language. Later you read it out loud, publish it, talk about it. But the driving force is writing it, and in writing, you are alone.


Robin Reniero

Robin Reniero

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See the Issue 188: At Home in Translation table of contents page for more web-exclusive translation content!