A Note on Translation: A Night of Echoes

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Some backstory: This piece is slightly edited from the original, which was written for an English class back in university, in the fall of 2014. The assignment had been to attend a live reading and write two pages about the experience. This here is set in Vancouver (BC, Canada), so if you live there, you might recognize the bookstore and even the poets.


I guess the more well-known used bookstore in the downtown area is MacLeod’s, but just across the street from it on Pender is a lovely place called The Paper Hound—and what a compelling name that is. It makes me think of the slender strokes and shadow of a magnificent greyhound plunging itself across a darkening meadow, a grey, howling twister on its heels, and falling into one of a million pages scattered by the high winds, a portal to another world. That same haven and sudden respite from turbulence is exactly the feeling one gets when walking into the quaint store, eyes adjusting from dark, murky streets to fragile, pretty lighting.

It could not have been a big room, was hardly bigger than a studio apartment, but it was absolutely stacked high with books from the ages. These were older editions, leather or canvas bound, with dog-eared pages and the musky scent only well-read books can confess to have. They peeked out from under tables and around corners, giggling softly as I ambled past.

It was in this quiet, intimate setting, huddled in the alleys between towers and turrets of eavesdropping books, that I listened, along with perhaps fifteen others, to four poets read their own works aloud. The event was called “Poetics in Translation”, and featured the readings of four poets: Ted Byrne, Kim Duff, Michael Barnholden and Dorothy Lusk. Each poet had something new to bring to the table about the discussion of translation, and so it unraveled, the multiple ways translation was seen and heard in that small room that night: translation as seen in the writing process (the translation of an idea or thought into words on a page); translation of one language to another; translation of the written word to the spoken one (as all the poets demonstrated excellently in their individual and distinct reading styles); and translation of something we see in the real world into its representation on paper…

“I am not reading a tree. I am reading a representation of a tree,” said Barnholden.

Yes, translation is immensely subjective. Eleven people could be describing the same tree, but they’d all undoubtedly do it with such variance that they could be describing trees on completely different continents, even planets. Similarly, Byrne translated one of Rilke’s German works and as beautiful and eloquent as the piece was, it would have been infused with too much of his own personal interpretations to represent what Rilke originally meant, every literal meaning and hidden nuance. And it would not be his fault—Barnholden mentioned that he and Byrne had been working on a translation together and disagreed on everything. Translations cannot be photocopies; stuff is not only lost in the translation of one language to another, but also gained, whether desired or not.

Byrne read his translations of Rilke’s German works in haunting, halting tones; Duff read a prose/poetry hybrid piece in a soothing, enunciated voice; Barnholden spoke hurriedly and loudly; and Lusk took her time, strolling through her poem, stopping to pick flowers along the way. Barnholden read his socially conscious poems with a hurriedness that transferred something that he wanted us to get, something that might have been lost if Duff had read it in her slower, cadenced manner or if any of us had taken that same piece and read it in a thousand other inflected tones.

If I had taken those poems and read them to myself out loud, they might have sounded like lost songs in the bubbles of the ocean—very different from the echoes in the cave that night.

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