Nicole Brossard on Translation and the Landscape of Possible Thoughts (Interview)

Nicole Brossard is a poet, novelist and essayist who has published more than thirty books since 1965, including These Our Mothers, Lovhers, Mauve Desert and Baroque at Dawn. She co-founded La Barre du Jour and La Nouvelle Barre du Jour, two important literary journals in Quebec. She has won two Governor General’s Awards for poetry, as well as le Prix Athanase-David and the Canada Council’s Molson Prize. Her work has been translated into several languages. She lives in Montreal.

This interview was conducted in English, on Sept. 25, 2007, in person at the Hampton Inn, Calgary, and published in dANDelion’s special issue on “Radical Translation,” which I co-edited with Mike Roberson. I’ve cut the last paragraph so that it reads/ends better.

Here’s the original citation:

Ball, Jonathan. “‘The Landscape of Possible Thoughts’: An Interview with Nicole Brossard.” dANDelion 33.2 (2007): 59-63. Print.

“The Landscape of Possible Thoughts”: An Interview with Nicole Brossard

You’ve worked with a number of different translators, and often with the same people more than once. To what extent do you select your translators, and to what extent do they select you?

Well, maybe in the beginning they were selecting me. Very earlier Barbara Godard knew about my work and it was a great chance for me. It seems that it has always been possible for me to recognize translators who would be in tune with my work. This is why I have been working with most of them for at least three books.

Each translator has a specific approach needed to the book they are translating. Susanne de Lotbinière-Harwood translates both from French to English and from English to French, and somehow she has a French touch, there is French rhythm in the way she translates me. So it’s much easier for me to read from her translations.

I can also think of Patricia Claxton translating my most delirious novel, French Kiss. Barbara Godard has brilliantly translated, among other books, These Our Mothers, Lovhers and Picture Theory, difficult books. Robert [Majzels] and Erín [Moure] have translated three of my poetry books and I keep crossing my fingers that they will always be there to translate my poetry.

So it depends on the text and also on the availability of the translator. It’s interesting to notice that writers are, in a way, dependent on the private lives of translators, what happens in their lives. I remember, for one novel, it took five years to get the translation, because something important was happening in the life of the translator who was unable at that time to concentrate on a translation. So, in a way, the life of a book in another language may depend on the life, the real life, of the translator. I am a very privileged writer to have been able to work with the translators I have just mentioned.

You mentioned that you like the translations by Suzanne because they feel more natural when you are reading them aloud in English. Is it strange to read your own writing, in another language, the words not having been placed on the page by you?

It is difficult and sometimes it feels strange. In fact, it is another way to breathe, to organize and distribute meaning in the visual space (when you read silently) and in the voice (when you read aloud). Nevertheless I can say that because I have read so often excerpts of Mauve Desert it sometimes seems to me like the original text. Reading in English has nothing to do with speaking English because when I speak I make the choice of the words and create my own rhythm but when I have to pronounce words in English in a special sequence, then it can be difficult unless I rehearse.

What is it about Robert and Erín’s translations and their approach to your poetry that’s led you to work with them on different books?

Well, for example, when I received Notebook of Roses and Civilization, it was as if I was rereading my own text, and I said to myself, “I guess this is a good book, it’s exactly the kind of writing that I like” — probably because I recognized in it an image, an echo of what is at stake in my writing. I also like to work with Erín and Robert because we talk about the possibilities of the words, the way we relate to English, to French, even to other languages, to words in general and to the possibilities offered in a sentence or within a sound.

We also talk about the future life of the book. So it’s a mixture of pleasure and of stimulation, which in return I will take back to my own writing, and probably they take back to their own writing. In a sense, it’s very specific, and maybe it’s specific to the relation poets have to language. In their own work, Erín and Robert are already so involved in that process of displacement, recognition, transformation which is beyond just simple passage [*] from one language to the other, or from meaning to another. Their works are somehow related to transcreation and transformance.

Recently, I was talking with Anne-Marie Wheeler, who translated some of my texts in Fluid Arguments. I talked to her about Si Sismal, a transcreation that I read from yesterday [†] made by Fred Wah a long time ago, and she asked me, “Do you see any difference between a translation, a transcreation and a transformance, or is it simply words?”

And I thought that there was a difference. With a translation, I believe somehow that there is the very specific responsibility to make sure that the passage into the other language is realized. In a transcreation, I would say that the subjective ludic creativity of the translator is involved and accepted as part of the trans-action. Risks, blurs and smiles are accepted. And with the transformance, I would imagine that the less responsibility toward the tangible meaning of the text is compensated by complicity with the text and recognition of its open structure.

What responsibility, then, still exists in the transcreation, in that kind of middle-ground, in that liminal area?

I’d say that responsibility is also related to this passage, but it’s not simply following the passage. It’s really finding a new posture and a new form of transmission. Because no matter how much we like to play with language, we cannot get rid of the meaning. And we don’t want to get rid of the meaning — politicians have already messed up with meaning, we don’t want to do the same.

How involved are you in that process of translation? When you and Erín and Robert work on a book, how involved are you in that process? Will you ever insist on a particular approach to a poem or make particular edits?

Not a particular approach. Normally they would work together, trying directions and possibilities, then we would meet over a first version and I would try to answer their questions. They would think about it, make changes then send me a manuscript. Then, it would be my turn to ask questions, they would find answers and solutions and if necessary we would “negotiate” a solution. For example, in the last poem of the book, “Soft Link 3,” Erín wanted to make a blink, like that, how do you say …

A wink?

Yes, a wink.

She likes winks. She signed my book with a wink.

Yes! And so she wanted to have a wink to Galician. [‡] And then a Romanian wink with the word “stradă”—in my text it is “strauß,” in German. She explained to me that it was a tradition for translators to make winks. So how could I refuse …

So you allowed those winks.

Yes! I find them interesting, somehow. Well, I miss a little bit “strauß,” because German can be meaningful in my life — but they are examples of little things which are done in the spirit of joy and conviviality.

Have you done much translation of your own work?

No. I have translated one text which is “Polynesia of the Eyes.” I have written directly in English a lecture which was about fifteen to twenty pages long, and I also wrote a few texts in English — I’d say three or four, mostly in prose. In poetry, well, even in the French version of Notebook of Roses and Civilization, there are some English lines. I was living in New York at that time and sometimes sentences or expressions which I thought were poetics would come out already shaped in English.

There are a few French words and phrases. I wonder if they translated your English into French.

Yes, but not systematically. In other books as well, sometimes there are a few lines that I wrote directly in English. And there is also that strange thing, which is when I am being asked for text that I know will be published in an English magazine, I tend to hesitate between French and English. Do I write in French and then have it translated, or do I write directly in English? I go nuts when I have to make that kind of decision.

And so one day I started writing in French, but immediately I started translating those four or five lines into English, and of course when they were in English I could see if I had made mistakes in French. And then I was chopping words in the French text, using that English translation to revise the French. Finally it was not a translation but I guess a transformance as in performance. I say performance because it was like designing a tension between and within French and English. Since

I was the author, I could do whatever I wanted — it’s the same thing when you read a poem of your own aloud, it is your privilege to edit it live.

Why is it that you haven’t done more translation? Why not translate your own books yourself, if you are capable of doing so?

In L’horizon du fragment, a book in which I talk about my writing and my relation to translation, I relate the fact that every time someone asks me that question I always reply: “Well, I want to spend my time writing other books, not rewriting them.”

I don’t know if this is a good answer because the work I would be doing in translating a book of mine would definitely be creative, and I would learn a lot. You always learn much and quickly when you try to translate yourself. You detect how you behave in your mother tongue. So maybe saying that I do not have time to translate my own books is not a good excuse. Probably I still use it to postpone a fascinating and troubling experience.

On the other hand, I believe that if you translate yourself you remain with yourself and with your habits in language as well, no matter the language. Somehow I think that it is preferable to use my time to conceive a new novel or a new book of poetry. As you can see I am still very ambivalent about that question.

Translation reoccurs again and again as a subject in your writing, not just something that is done to your writing, and I’m wondering: when did this become a major concern for you?

I think it probably started in the 1980s. I remember looking with a vivid curiosity to a copy of my book after it had been read by my translators — passages underlined with different colours, notes in the margins, question marks and so on. Also, I’ve always been interested in passages — how a thing is transformed into another thing — this has always interested me.

How fiction is transformed into reality, and how reality is transformed into fiction. So translation is one of the major mathematics of what we lose and gain in the passage from the linguistic reality of one tongue to another.

Translation also fascinates me because there is the mystery of what I can say in French and what cannot be said in English, or whatever I can’t say in my language, what I will never be thinking because I don’t have the language, because it’s not in the landscape of possible thoughts — this is what, I guess, triggered my interest for translation.

Who would I be if I was to speak Italian, Japanese, and so on? Who would I have been? Who will I become if I learn Chinese or Arabic? It still fascinates me.


[*] When I talked to Brossard, she seemed to use this word passage in a number of ways at the same time: to indicate the passage from one language to the next; to refer to the path taken by text in the process of being translated; and to refer to the phenomenon of language “finding its way” into another tongue. I have italicized the word throughout, to indicate its non-traditional meaning. [back]

[†] When Brossard says “yesterday” she is referring to an event at the Nickle Arts Museum in Calgary, Alberta, on 24 Sept. 2007. The event featured readings by Brossard in conjunction with Moure and Majzels, and was hosted by dANDelion, Coach House Books, and the University of Calgary, with generous financial support from the Canadian Council for the Arts, the Alberta Foundation for the Arts, Calgary Arts Development, and Canadian Heritage. [back]

[‡] The translated poem reads: “It’s words that swallow fire and life, who knows now if they’re Latin French Italian Sanskrit Mandarin Galician Arab or English” (Notebook 81). [back]

A Haiku and an Interview: Jonathan Ball in Toronto Review of Books

John Wisniewski was kind enough to interview me recently, which reminded me of a haiku of mine that is also online in the same publication. (Best interview title ever? Well, I’ve had some good ones….) He had to edit for space, so I am posting the complete interview below in case you are interested.


Could you tell us about your earliest poems and other writings — were they experimental in nature?

My earliest writings were poems that resulted from failed transcriptions of song lyrics. I used to write out songs I had taped from friends who had gone into the city recently, since where I grew up there was no radio station that played modern music and no music stores. Anyway, when I became able to purchase CDs through the mail and look up lyrics online, I noticed a host of deviations between what I thought they were singing and what they were really singing — probably because I listened to mostly grunge and heavy metal and it’s harder to make out the vocals in those genres due to the singers having a tendency to mumble or scream. In every instance, I preferred my misheard deviations to the original lyrics. After discovering this, I began to write my own lyrics and poems.

Now, reflecting upon these early “writings,” it’s stunning how close this accidental composition was to experimental processes of copying, reframing, corrupting, or remixing texts — even though the stuff I was writing had very little experimentation to it, ultimately. However, after discovering Radiohead and Nirvana, I quickly began working with fragmentary and surrealistic images. Then I discovered Salman Rushdie and Stephen King around the same time, and became interested in architectural book forms and aggressive, assaultive imagery.

Ex Machina explores man’s relationship with machines — could you tell us about this?

The title effectively summarizes my core idea: that once one removes ‘God’ (Deus) from the cosmic picture, one ends up in a universe without a guarantor of humanity’s place near the top of some hierarchy of being. At that point, it’s easy to see yourself as an evolutionary step towards the rise of technology. Related to this is the idea that technology actually alters humanity in some essential way, now that we have no guarantor of any sort of permanence/essence, so that the category of the human begins to break down, even during what we might otherwise view as ‘normal’ uses of technology.

Since these are well-worn science-fiction themes, I grafted them onto what is probably my real interest: the way that artworks like Ex Machina might be considered a species of technology, and also something that we exist simply to create and service. I’m interested in the cultural anxiety produced by postmodern ideas — so, the modernist vaulting of art into something that might take the place of religion, which develops into a postmodernist devaluing of both art and religion for their metanarrative force, is something I’m transmuting as a nightmarish situation of conceptual violence.

The Politics of Knives explores words and violence. Is there violence in words?

In his book Violence, Slavoj Žižek wonders “What if, however, humans exceed animals in their capacity for violence precisely because they speak?” and notes that “there is something violent in the very symbolization of a thing, which equals its mortification … When we name gold ‘gold,’ we violently extract a metal from its natural texture, investing into it our dreams of wealth, power, spiritual purity, and so on, which have nothing whatsoever to do with the immediate reality of gold.”

Žižek’s connection of language to violence, and of symbolization as a form of death, is hardly original — however, what I find interesting is how language and narrative both get viewed as having a violent potential in postmodern thought, and yet the abandonment of language and narrative is seen as creating what is possibly a more nightmarish situation than their maintenance. So you end up with all of these attempts in experimental art to undermine narrative and the communicative qualities of language (which are seen as having negative political implications), alongside an acknowledgement of the impossibility of this, and sometimes even the undesirability of this. That space of anxiety is the space I want to occupy — and possibly escape, but without retreating towards some sort of conservative position.

Whom are some authors and artists that influence you — do you like the work of Artaud? 

I used a quotation from Artaud’s letters as the epigraph for my book Clockfire — “… the pool of energies which constitute Myths, which man no longer embodies, is embodied by the theatre’ —although I find Artaud’s actual theatre less interesting than his ideas about the theatre. What Artaud missed, and what I try to suggest with Clockfire, is that a true theatre of cruelty would present the audience with horrors on the Lovecraftian scale, pushing forth a cosmic or conceptual horror rather than confining itself to the artistic and social situation.

My influences range widely, and depend on the project, since I read and research in relation to specific projects — so, for example, with Clockfire the major influences were Artaud, Lovecraft, Italo Calvino, and Yoko Ono.

Probably the largest luminaries in my artistic life have been (in no order) Guy Maddin, George Toles, Solomon Nagler, Dennis Cooley, Robert Kroetsch, Christian Bök, Natalee Caple, Derek Beaulieu, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Maurice Mierau, Robert Majzels, and Suzette Mayr. David Bergen made some very powerful comments to me early in my writing career although he doesn’t remember it (I’ve re-met him since).

In a more general and less personal sense (i.e., people I don’t know), my largest influences (again, in no order) would include a host of musicians, and the aforementioned Lovecraft, King, and Rushdie, alongside David Lynch, Franz Kafka, Lisa Robertson, Shirley Jackson, Tony Burgess, and the Freud/Lacan/Žižek trinity. I just wrote a book on John Paizs, which should be coming out probably in January 2014, so he looms large as well.

I consider myself a horror author, and I think of myself as a novelist. So my longer list of influences would no doubt surprise someone who doesn’t think of me that way, since people generally consider me an experimental poet.

Could you tell us about writing Clockfire — are these glimpses or sketches of possible stageplays?

It would be more accurate to call them glimpses or sketches if impossible stageplays — one requires the destruction of the sun, another requires you to burn down the theatre with the audience inside, and so forth. I have always been ambivalent about the theatre. I love the theatre in theory, but I always feel disappointed when I see actual plays.

Writing Clockfire required me to think about what kind of theatre we might produce if we weren’t shackled by morality, mortality, and physics. Also, I’m interested in books that make demands on the reader and require reader engagement, and with Clockfire readers are ultimately responsible for “staging” the plays in the theatres of their imagination. This pulls the book closer to Fluxus art and its scripts for “happenings” than conventional poetry, which is why I decided to write in a prose-poem form, although I remained attentive to the language and its rhythms.

This desire for reader engagement is also why I released the book under a Creative Commons license, which allows and encourages “remixes.” My other two books have been released under the same license. Gary Barwin did a great series where he reversed a number of the plays, so that instead of unfolding into horror (as mine often do) they progress toward states of grace.

Your writing requires the reader to actually create, in that he can use your images to build on his own. Do you find this to be true, that your writing challenges the reader?

I would like to think that I challenge the reader, in a way that is engaging rather than frustrating. I pay a lot of attention to how I think the writing is possible to receive, and try to both anticipate and subvert or upset reader expectations. For me, what’s exciting in literature is the way that it disturbs your ideas of what a book is or should be.