In the hospitality room at the Hôtel Gouverneurs in Trois-Rivières, you are greeted by two perky volunteers whose first question after introductions is: “Will you three be reading the French translations of your poems yourselves, or will you be requiring the services of a French reader?” Oh, my, you think. What translations? The hotel carpet begins to yaw under your chair. What was I thinking coming to a poetry festival in a city whose population is 97 percent French—without translations?
“Ahhh,” your hand goes up, feigning nonchalance, “I don’t have any translations with me.” The two other English-language poets and the volunteers swivel their heads in your direction as if you had just morphed into a large red crustacean whose claws and antennae waved merrily in their direction. “Can I give a short explanation of my poems in fluent French and then read them in English?” One of the cordial volunteers laces her fingers together and lowers her voice: “You see, people reserve restaurant tables months ahead to hear our guests read in French. It would be unfair, don’t you think, to subject them to English, when most people here rarely speak it?”
How could you have not foreseen this eventuality? For the next twenty-four hours, you huddle with a hotel dictionary, churning out translations and cross-checking these with your translator sweetheart via long distance telephone. You thank fate that years before, you earned a university certificate in French-English translation. Although that hardly qualifies you as an ace in Gallic syntax, it limits the number of world-class howlers you’re likely to churn out. You are going to have to revise up to the wire. And once a reading is finished, there will be no stopping off for sparkling conversation with fellow scribes in downtown Trois-Rivières. It’ll be back to your room to crank out more translations. There are four readings a day in restaurants, bars, parks, and libraries; you’ll have to furnish two poems, four times a day.
Accordingly, you show up for each venue as if this were a lark, your fraudulent grin assuring audiences that you’re dishing up the real thing, the slaved-over equivalents they’ve come to expect. The rest of the time you are a mole, looking up words like “dip” or “wobble” in a battered Robert-Collins. At readings, you unfold two sheets of spiral notebook paper and smile at your hash-marked, arrow-filled texts as if it were normal to achieve verbal legerdemain with the French versions overnight.
You can’t point to the Russian poet, Evgeny Tchigrinne, huddling by the hotel elevator in a rumpled hockey team manager’s parka, and say to his interpreter companion: “It’s not fair. He should have to read his stuff in French too.” You can’t complain that Andrés Morales—one of the leading poetic lights in Chile, a man who also speaks Croatian and English—should be prevailed upon to read his translator’s French versions. His credentials precede him, and plus, with his dark suits, Brylcreemed hair, and killer smile, he is a serious candidate for the festival’s Mr. Cordiality Award.
“At readings, you unfold two sheets of spiral notebook paper and smile at your hash-marked, arrow-filled texts as if it were normal to achieve verbal legerdemain with the French versions overnight.”
The other English-language poets seem like consummate professionals. The Canadian geneticist-poet, Jan Conn, for instance, looks you straight in the face and says: “Months ago, I commissioned someone to translate twenty of my poems. I knew I’d have to have this stuff ready. I practiced it for weeks.” When she says this, you feel as though you’ve been transported back to that fourth-grade field trip to the Hayden Planetarium in New York City, where, standing in the cafeteria’s lunch line, you reached into your pants pocket for change and pulled out pebbles. Earlier in the day, while waiting for your mother to drive you to school, fearing you would miss the bus from school to the planetarium, you found yourself scooping up pebbles and chucking them by the handful, and some of these found their way into your pockets. But so what if you’ve spent a lifetime picking nickels out of the pebbles in your pockets?
Does it stop you from making interesting acquaintances? No. And your readings manage to clear those imaginary telephone wires at the opposite end of an airfield that is a reader’s five minutes at the microphone. Your cloth-and-wire craft ascends. It swoops up to a reasonable height in the short runway’s space over the tilted beer glasses and stilled bar chatter and its undercarriage avoids calamity. But without good conversational French, without a chameleon-like ability to don an entertainer’s alter ego at brasserie readings, without a knack for chuckling your way through introductions which contain a reference to the dog-eared papers you clutch, you shudder to think how this forty-eight-hour period might have transpired, and how close you came to earning the title: Worst Anglo Festival Invitee Ever.
Peter Richardson is the author of four collections of poetry: A Tinkers’ Picnic (1999), finalist for the Gerald Lampert Award; An ABC of Belly Work (2003), short-listed for the Acorn-Plantos Award; Sympathy for the Couriers (2007), winner of the QWF’s 2008 A. M. Klein Award; and Bit Parts for Fools (2013), which was short-listed for the Archibald Lampman Award. A retired airline worker, he lives in Gatineau, Quebec.
Photo: Via Flickr; no changes made (top); Martine Chapdelaine (headshot)
Peter Richardson, Jan Conn, and a small group of other authors will be reading on April 11, 2016 at the launch party of Vallum Magazine‘s Issue 13:3. The Brass Door Pub (2171 Crescent Street, Montreal), 7:30 p.m.