Code Orange: process & perils of poetry translation

Last month I was talking to that rare bird, the Canadian literary agent, as you do, and she said to me, “why do people think that children’s picture books have to be written in rhyme? It doesn’t translate. There go all the international translation rights!” A frog on a log is one thing, but une grenouille sur un rondin?

Just: no.

Funny how a casual comment can hook the brain into making all kinds of connections. I got to thinking about the translation of poetry. The grown-up kind.

For my 30th birthday, a good friend gave me Rilke’s Ahead of All Parting (Random House, Modern Library Edition, 1995, translated by Stephen Mitchell), the edition in which the original German is published alongside the English on facing pages. I don’t speak German but I liked having the original there. I asked a well-read German-speaking friend to tell me what he thought of the translation and he said it was very good and we had a long conversation about the nature of the translated poem. Is it a shadow of the original? A reflection? A referent? A new poem in its own right? I dimly recall there were poetic amounts of wine involved, so I can’t tell you what we decided. But he did read me Rilke in German and I swooned.

Wieviele von diesen Stellen der Räume waren schon/innen in mir. Manche Winde/sind wie mein Sohn.

How many regions in space have already been/inside me. There are winds that seem like/my wandering son.

(from The Sonnets to Orpheus, Second Part)

Black Moss Press, 2015

“Poetry is the sound one language makes when it escapes into another.” Elaine Equi

Every year at the Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist readings, I end up surreptitiously wiping away a tear after hearing a beautiful line in a poem read by the poet, in a language I know not a word of. I love that moment: it takes me by surprise, is ineffable and makes no rational sense. It is an exquisitely poetic moment.

According to a translator friend of mine, “The average person assumes that the process is an easy task as the translator is working with a finished text that only needs literal translation from one language to another. However, a literal translation does a disservice to the author of the text as each language has its own sentence structure, cadence, colour, idioms and culturally-based references which may be meaningless in another language.” Translators are not magical word changers; they are artists and writers in their own right.

Translation is as old as writing. Ancient Greek and Roman texts were translated and the Bible was translated from Classical Hebrew, first into Greek, and now in full in over 500 languages. How many languages are there? … No. Not even close. There are 6, 909 different planetary ways of saying “it’s not you it’s me.”

Some idioms simply can’t be translated literally.

Thankfully, poetry can be translated. Descant‘s former Editor-in-Chief, Karen Mulhallen, has just published her 16th book of poetry, Code Orange: An Emblazoned Suite (Black Moss Press, 2015) and she and I got to talking about the process of translation. Code Orange is the first book of her poetry in which she has been “intimately involved” with the translation; the poems are published in English and French, translated by Nancy Huston.

Karen has known Nancy Huston since the early 1990s. Nancy was born in Calgary but moved to France at 20 and has lived and worked there as a writer and translator for more than 40 years. She won the Governor General’s award for fiction in French for her book Cantique des Plaines (1993) and has won The Prix Goncourt des Lycéens.

I asked Karen about the process of working with a translator, the how-to of it. She said that she and Nancy met on Skype to discuss the poems and that it took them about 10 months to get through 12 poems. Nancy suggested the poems be published on facing pages, English and French, which meant issues with length as French translations tend to run longer than the English. More Skype calls and emails. “There was a lot of fact checking back-and-forth. It was a process for sure,” Karen told me.

“I began to write the Code Orange poems as a response to the invasions of Afghanistan and the media flurry of photographs. These are poems about states of war – within family, nation and culture.”

There were questions around syntax, word order and the shape of a line: “For example, in a section where there was a repetition, psalmic structure, Nancy would say to me,  ‘you would never do that in French in that way.'”

Similarly, sometimes Nancy, an acclaimed writer but not a poet, would ask Karen a technical question about the verb or subject of a longer poem. Karen was sometimes surprised because, for her, “it’s second nature for a poet to always know what’s running in apposition, even if it’s three or four stanzas apart.”

I had to ask: why did you ask a non-poet to translate your poems?

“I asked Nancy to do it because I admire her as a writer and we’re close friends and I knew she would be able to enter into the mental space of the text. I knew she would want to know why a certain thing was the way it was. That was for me the most important thing. Poetry, unlike expository prose, is a very intimate form, so I wanted to work with somebody I was intimate with. This was not an attempt at a colloquial equivalent. Nancy’s French is impeccable and she has the mental sympathy to enter into my poems.”

I like this idea of mental sympathy. It suggests a kind of intellectual simpatico, imbued with an ethic of care. And how else could a poem be made to live in another language? After all, Ar vienu valodu nekad nepietiek.

If you’ll be in Toronto, you are invited to attended the launch of Karen Mulhallen’s Code Orange: An Emblazoned Suite. In Descant-launch style, appetizers will be served. George Sawa will play his kanun, an instrument that is itself a kind of translation.

Sept 14, 2015

Café Pamenar, 7 pm

307 Augusta Avenue, in Kensington Market

Music by George Sawa, on the kanun.

If you will be in Paris two weeks later, as you do, you will be warmly welcomed into the most famous of literary launch spots, Shakespeare and Company, 37 Rue de la Bûcherie, Paris V. The left bank, n’est-ce pas.

We borrowed this montage from our friends at

We borrowed this montage from our friends at


One Response to Code Orange: process & perils of poetry translation

  1. I always open these blogs as soon as they come in. I miss getting them on a more regular basis. Very interesting, I would be there for the launch if I lived in TO.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *