Some Adventures into Translation:
The Glories of Fall and Oncoming Winter.

This is the full text of a poetry reading and presentation, sponsored by the Canada Council, and delivered in conjunction with the Translation Festival, Côte à Côte, before the Lieutenant Governor of New Brunswick, His Honour Herménégilde Chiasson, at Old Government House, Fredericton, New Brunswick, on Thursday, 23 October, 2003.

Fall is upon us and the last glories of the leaves are with us still. I will begin therefore with a poem that reminds us that the leaves change colour in other countries as well as in Canada. However, as Joan Maragall, the Catalan poet points out, in Catalonia, this happens in November!

Cant de novembre

El vermell dels arbres,
encès per la posta –dels sols hivernals,
delita i penetra
lo mateix que aquells verds primaverals.
Germans, alcem els cors, que tot és bell,
el verd i el vermell!

Alcem els cors cantant la vida entera,
ambs els brots i amb les fulles que s’en van;
gosem el dia sens mirà endarrera,
sense pensâ amb els dies que vindran.

Gosa el moment;
gosa el moment que et convida,
i correràs alegre a tot combat:
un dia de vida és vida;
gosa el moment que t’ha sigut donat.
No t’entristeixen, doncs, els funerals novembres,
ni planyis mort lo que ha tingut ple ser...
De planye’ és el donzell que ajeu sos membres
ans d’haver-los cansat en el plaer.

Juan Maragall. Antología poética. Edition and Translations: Diego Navarro and Fernando Guitiérrez. Madrid: Aguilar. 1946. P. 212.

Here is the same poem in its Spanish translation (same edition: p. 213).

Canto de noviembre

El rojo de los árboles,
ardiendo en el véspero–del sol invernal,
deleita y penetra
lo mismo que el verdor de primavera.
¡Arriba el corazón, hermanos, todo
bello es: verde y rojo!
La vida plenamente así cantemos
con brotes y con hojas que se van;
sin ver atrás, gocémonos del día,
sin pensar en los días venideros.

Goza el momento;
goza el momento que te invita,
y correrás alegre a toda lucha:
un día de vida es vida;
goza el momento que te ha sido dado.
No te entristezcan, pues, los fúnebres noviembres,
ni llores muerte en lo que tuvo ser...
Llora el doncel que músculos abate
antes que en el placer se hayan cansado.

Not all of us who claim to be bilingual actually speak Spanish and Catalan, the twin languages of Catalonia; so, for those of us who are not actually fluently bilingual in those two tongues, here is another translation of this poem!


November Song

Vermillion leaves burn bright at vespers.
Winter sunshine penetrates and delights
the same as spring’s green.
Brothers and sisters: raise up your hearts!
Both build beauty: the red and the green.

Let us praise the full life:
with buds that come and leaves that go.
Don’t look forward; don’t look back:
enjoy the fulfillment of each day.

Delight in this moment’s invitation.
Let joy accompany you to every new fight.
Each day you live is a day filled with life:
enjoy this moment you’ve been gifted:
don’t wallow in the sorrows of a wet November day,
don’t weep for fingers, dead, that once held life.

Weep for the youth whose limbs give out,
before he rests after pleasure’s pleasant taste.

To be bilingual is not just to speak French and English. I was reminded of this fact last week, in Regina, when I wrote a French phrase on the notice board and was told that Cree was the city’s second language! So here, for you, is a poem partially translated from the Cree:


Sonnet from the Cree

The Cree have retreated from the streets. Their
violinist has taken time out, leaving
his last notes dancing from a street lamp. Only
the fire brave remains, inhaling evil:

thick black oily smoke. He juggles twin balls of fire.
Bones gather together to gather dry dust: hollow
metal buffalo, the wind blew and plucked out his heart.
Five climate controlled pedestrian walkways cross

the prairie, linking building to building. A glass
wheat field shimmers and tinkles to the rhythm of air
conditioning. The black cow, cast iron hide set

free from rust ruminates behind its plate glass
window. The night wind whisks white buffalo bones
pale across the sky. Oskana ka asasteki.

Now, I would like to present a poem which my Malaysian friend Wong Phui Nam translated into English from the Chinese of Du Fu:

In the North (Du Fu)

This is an autumn of clear chill fires.
At the well’s edge trees, iron and black, stand
surprised by the cold. The light chastens...
Alone in my quarters I feel, tonight,
my spirit gutter, my single candle fail
in the stench of its molten heap of wax.
Out of unending night, around the fort,
come the bleak self-communings of bugles.
The moon now in full ascendance makes
of the heavens a radiant waste of light.
The time’s convulsions have cut off word
from home. I am adrift in the northern ice –
bird blown here by battering winds to roost among
bare branches for one night of unmolested wakefulness.

And now, a poem from my unpublished collection, the Empress of Ireland, on which I am still working. This poem is translated into French by Sarah Marylou Brideau, a young poet from Moncton.


Lighting a candle before the main altar
Sanctuaire Ste. Anne,

I am still afraid of fire


I am still afraid of the loud
voice of the match
scratching its sudden flare
the whites of my eyes


booming and blooming
igniting the soul’s dark night
voice of fire

unsubtle shout
in fear’s supple ear
flourishing to nourishment
flames whispering on the flood



in principio erat verbum



et lux in tenebris lucet


et Deus erat verbum




omnia per ipsum
facta sunt

j’ai encore peur du feu


j’ai encore peu de la voix forte
d’une allumette grattant
sa soudaine luminosité
le blanc de mes yeux


grondant et florissant
allumant l’esprit de la nuit
sombre de l’âme
voix de feu

insubtile cri dans l’oreille
souple de la peur
éclosion au nourissement
flammes chuchottant à l’innondation

My final two poems are dedicated to Joanne Elder, who has just been nominated for the Governor General’s Award for Literary Translation. This translation of my poem, So real it’s Surreal, was created just yesterday, by Giovanni Merlini of Fredericton, in St. Thomas University, at the Ted Daigle Theatre, during the poetry sweatshop. So, for Joanne:

So Real It's Surreal

An elephant with a crane fly's spindly legs
stands beside the bedside cabinet.
Is the human body a chest of drawers
to be opened and closed at will by other people,
and things removed?

On the operating table,
a sewing machine and a bread knife wait
inside a black umbrella for their next victim;
she is caught like a hedgehog in the glare of onrushing
headlights and is curled into a ball.

Are my words not more than wasted
movements of throat, lips, tongue, bared teeth?
Limp kites with nothing to fill their paper sails,
they hang like clothing abandoned by the body
on an old barbed wire fence of memories lying
tangled between us.

The metallic star shell in the ceiling gashes
harsh light across no man's land. The needles
in the arm throw an ever-plunging sea of shadows:
bruised sunsets on a purple horizon.

When I look at my watch:
time flies off my wrist and flaps its hands helplessly.
I taste the bitterness of bile, squeezing each moment,
between finger and thumb, rolling it about like a breadcrumb
or a shred of label stripped from an empty bottle.


Réalité surréell

Un éléphant avec des jambes chétives
comme une mouche à longues pattes
se tient debout à l’extrème de la table de chevet

Le corps humain, est-il une commode à tiroirs que d’autres
peuvent ouvrir et fermer à volonté et en retirer des objets?

Sur la table d’opération une machine à coudre et un couteau à pain
attendent dans un papapluie noir leur prochaine victime
qui est prise comme un hérisson figée en boule
par l’éblouissement des phares d’une véhicule que rapidement s’avance

Mes paroles ne sont-elles plus qu’un gaspillage de mouvements de gorge
de lèvres de langue et de dents exposées?
Rien pour gonfler les voiles de papier d’un cerf-volant mou
que pende comme des vêtements abandonnés par le corps
sur une vieille clôture barbelée de souvenirs gisant emmêlés
entre nous

L’étoile de métal sur le plafond traverse une dure lumière
à travers de notre no-man’s land

Les picottements des bras projettent une mer d’ombres
toujours plongeante des couchées de soleils meurtris sur un horizon violet

Quand je regarde ma montre: le temps s’envole de ma poignée
et bat ses mains éperdues
Je goûte l’aigreur de la bile pressant chaque moment entre le pouce et le doigt
l’enroulant comme une mie de pain ou comme un morceau d’étiquette arrachée
d’une vide bouteille

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