Interview with Nicole Brossard: On Translation & Other Such Pertinent Subjects
Marcella Durand



Due to various benevolent circumstances, at Nicole Brossard's reading at the Poetry Project a few years ago, I ended up reading English translations of her work as part of the event. What was particularly special about that evening was that after she had read her work in French, and I had read her work in English, she drew out some of her own English translations and read them, too. Like so much else of Brossard's work, this felt revolutionary. In this one action, she had subverted the traditional, polite, active-passive behavior construction of the "foreign" non-English-speaking poet reading in front of an English-speaking audience. While self-translation is certainly not one of her primary writing projects, it was typical of Brossard's historical courage in breaking traditional molds of being and identity to step forward and read her own translations of her own work—to cast herself into this "other" language, and to see what the other side held for her linguistically (and the translations were wonderful, by the way).

While Brossard's visits to New York City are, regrettably, not as often as we residents of the southern half of the North American continent would like, last spring we were lucky enough to have her here in residence for six months, thanks to one of those generous governmental grants that some countries seem to support. During her stay, I saw Brossard read the entirety of She Would Be the Sentence of My Next Novel. Near the very end of her stay (in fact, the day before she was due to return to Montréal, her home city,) I met Brossard for a drink and conversation at the Soho bar, Mercer 189. Following is our recorded conversation on translation, self-translation, Montreal, language, "jurons," and other linguistic matters. At the end of our talk, Brossard urged me to see the bathrooms at the bar, telling me they would really be worth my visit. Each toilet had a transparent door; when I went inside and locked the door, it abruptly turned opaque, hiding me from view. When I exited, the door once again turned beautifully transparent. Somehow, the bathrooms reflected for me the whole experience of interviewing a poet—that movement from transparent to opaque and back again. I found while interviewing Brossard, that one cannot enter a conversation with a dissertation. One must wait until the door turns transparent.

Marcella Durand: Basically, the article I'm working on is going to be on self-translation, and how that fits into—I'll tell you my rough idea. I haven't started writing the article yet, but tell me what you think. How do you self-translate and how does that work into self-transformation, (also linking to your idea of Montreal)? I remember you were speaking once on writing about Montreal as a way to make it into a literary device, so you're translating this physical space into a literary one.

Nicole Brossard: Giving Montreal a literary status whereby existing in it, enjoying being in that city, relating it to literature in a certain way, not only to my writing, but also to others writing in Quebec. Yes, as I say in She Would be the First Sentence…, I've always been fascinated by how Buenos Aires became a fantastic city through Borges, Dublin through James Joyce, and so many other cities which are given to us through the eyes of writers—sometimes only one, but that's enough to make a city desirable. That's the idea. I would like people in my literature to talk more about Montreal. And I myself have explored Montreal because it's a space of phantasma, of history, of renewal. There is a novel in which I explore Montreal. This novel is called French kiss and was published in English translation in 1986. In that book, I use the metaphor of the french kiss as a reference to a sexual amorous tongue and as a reminder for language which is all over in our mouth. During the whole book, the main character, a woman, crosses Montreal in her car from east to west, on Sherbrooke Street which is the longest street on the island of Montreal. The french kiss happens at the corner of St. Denis and Sherbrooke Street which is a vital intersection of the cultural Montreal. In the writing of that book, Montreal is shining all the time. It is one of the novels where I use the most French Quebecois language. I believe there's a "jeu de mots" (a play on words) to be found every two or three words. When the book was to be translated, I thought of the hard work it would represent to figure out this labyrinth of crazy "jeux de mots." In a way, I could say that the text keeps moving or adding only through the play on words. For a great part of it, I was brought to write things only because of the play with words, rerouting their meaning, shifting constantly from one level to another level of meaning.

MD: How did that advance the text?

NB: You write one word, one sentence and you let it move through visual, homophonic, semantic resemblance, connotation. Most of the words have three, four, five meanings. I was trying to deploy each of them in one sentence. Or sometimes I was trying to deploy an expression, for example, "it rains cats and dogs". From such an expression I could move to cats, dogs or rain while trying to maintain coherence in the novel and shift its current. In fact, trying to explore and explode meaning at the same time. Definitely French kiss is not a French traditional novel. It is full of Quebecois expressions. A sort of humor comes out of it that does not come from the story but from the way I deal with each word.

MD: And how did the translation come out?

NB: I think it came out quite well! It was not easy for the translator to move within that range of writing, but she had translated other books of mine. Later on, Patricia Claxton also translated Baroque d'aube (1995) which became in English Baroque at dawn (1997).

MD: So you've found tensions between writing Quebecois expressions in French and then translating into English. Have you found a fruitful energy in moving between those two?

NB: For French kiss yes. I wrote maybe one or two texts using "joual," but I've never really worked seriously with "joual" because I find it inappropriate for what I am looking for in writing. I mean, it can be interesting to use it, and someone like the play writer Michel Tremblay has used it in a very moving way, but I don't find it interesting in the sense that "joual" translates a sort of linguistic incapacity. It is useful to express frustration, anger, extreme emotion but useless to express subtlety. Though I have to say that in theater it can be very effective because it is completed by the body language.

MD: And in She would be the next sentence…, did you have any of that? What sort of translation tensions did you have going on?

NB: It's interesting because I wrote that text in French for a lecture that I knew would have to be given in English. Knowing that made me write some sentences directly in English. When that situation happens, it creates a lot of tension because I try to accelerate the process by injecting English sentences, or I get caught in the middle of an idea, wanting to say something in French but also wanting already to say it in English. So sometimes I am just paralyzed or caught in the middle of a thought not knowing where to lead it. Yes, there is a certain tension but I don't know if it is really productive. Though I can remember one time where it was productive. I had to send poems to Sun and Moon Press for an anthology and, of course, again, I knew it would be for an English audience, so I started writing in French, then I said, oh no, I should write in English directly. So there were constant passages from French to English and I said, oh no, I have to come back to French, and while I was moving from one language to another, I was observing myself, how I could be more economical in the use of words in French. In a way, I was constantly reinventing the poem and the tension. It is so true, as Goethe said, that you know your own language only through another language because by comparing you are forced to question the use you make of each word. Of course when I translate myself, I can cheat because it is my text, and therefore what would normally be a translation becomes a sort of transcreation, transformance. Cheating then can give you a lot of pleasure.

MD: Have you been continuing to self-translate?

NB: I would not say that I self-translate. I experiment. There are some moments where I enjoy doing that, but I would never translate one of my novels or even a book of poetry, though, who knows, I might one day. I did translate some poems of Musée de l'os et de l'eau (1999) because I wanted to be able to read them in English and I knew it would take a while before they would be translated. So I translated a few poems. Among them one called Le cou de Lee Miller, (who was a photographer, a beautiful woman and the mistress of Man Ray). Rachel Levitsky recently published my translation of that poem in a bilingual issue of Belladonna.

MD: Do you find in those projects where you work in both English and French a certain interest in that sort of transformation happening between languages and maybe the narration and narrative devices?

NB: Yes, very much. If I were to do it more seriously I would learn a great deal, not only about my writing, but about both French and English and the vision of the world hidden in them. As of now I have not done that because I have projects of fiction and essays and I really want to keep my time and to focus on those projects. But it's always in the back of my mind to explore more with translation. I also have to say that I enjoy working with translators. I also learn there. Have you seen Installations, my last book in English translation by Erin Mouré and Robert Majzels?

MD: No.

NB: This year, having been living in New York for the last six months, I have to say I wrote some poems in English. I also read in English and attended poetry readings. In that context, writing in English makes it a very special experience because I wonder if I am really myself when I'm writing these poems or if I am only mimicking someone else, a posture or an attitude. There's one poem which I have titled A blind Chameleon always takes the proper color for camouflage. Ironically I have called it a long poem but it is only one page long. When immersed in an English environment for a long time, I believe that English words can light me almost as much as French words. When it happens, it means that the energy of reading can be transformed in a desire for writing (in English).

MD: When you read at St. Mark's, I read some of your translations and you read some of your own translations, I was so intrigued because it's so rare that people have the interest in crossing from one language to another creatively, or the ability, or the confidence. And then when I heard you at CUNY talking about self-translation...

NB: Maybe self-translating is a natural thing to do for a Quebecois. I mean translating your difference from the French of France. I would say we constantly move from French to Quebecois and vice-versa; and that movement creates new spaces for French language to renew itself. I suppose that kind of renewal happens at the level of regions, countries and of the continent as a whole in regards to French, English, Spanish and Portuguese. Being isolated from Europe…

MD: ...just physically isolated …

NB: ... made us talk differently, move differently, relate differently.

MD: I went to Quebec City last summer and the physical presence of Quebec (province) blew my mind, especially the tundra. Quebec City is a thin line and then an hour out of the city...

NB: Yes, exactly. When you look at the map of Quebec and of Canada you see that it's just a thin line that is inhabited. What is above us is North and the cold that comes with it. But we refuse to become Nordic. We keep looking South where it's warm. In Quebec's literature it is amazing how we have fantasized about the space the space south of our border, especially California and Florida. Crossing the continent as in On the road by the Franco-american Jack Kerouac is also an important theme. For example, there is a novel called Volkswagen Blues by Jacques Poulin. The narrator is going to San Francisco, crossing the U.S.A. in quest of the French North America still hiding under the names of Detroit, Cadillac, Lafayette, Terre Haute, Des Moines. One day a Quebec poet told me that if we are going to have a country we should be looking North because the country is not South, it is all North. The South belongs to someone else.

I remember the first time I went there. (The tundra) was a very strange feeling, even though it's not that far, it seems the end of the world. It's a very strange sensation. You feel that after that city, there's nothing except for the tundra and the forest. It's very impressive …

Tundra. Desert. Horizon. It's brings us to Mauve Desert and translation. I will just tell you a little about it. The first part is about 30 pages which takes place in the Arizona desert with a narrator who is a teenage girl. The second part is about a translator who finds that book and says, I like that book and I would like to translate it. But in order to do so, she wants to be more acquainted with the characters. She gives them a face, she imagines dialogues between the characters, she reconstructs the meaning of dawn, desert, light. Then she is ready to translate. For me, it meant translating myself from French to French. It's the same story, written with different words and sometimes written with mistakes because she makes mistakes, as any translator does, by over-investing some passages, or going too fast on some others, as we all do when we read and something speaks to us, more intensely. This book is all about my fascination for translation which started by working with my translators, noticing in their copy of my book how much my words were underlined in rose, blue, yellow, rose all over the place. Just to imagine that things happen in one language and don't happen the same way in another language or sometimes don't even exist in the other language fascinates me. For example, in Vietnam when the rain falls, it falls in so many ways that they have 15 words to express the word "rain" as Inuit in the North have so many words to express the color and the quality of the snow or of the ice because for them it's a matter of life or death.

In Mauve Desert, the fictional translator (me the author) makes mistakes so that I can allow myself to make slight changes. When I wrote the first part, I was the writer, but really when I did the third part I felt like a translator. I had to be responsible. Even thought I could make mistakes, I still had to be responsible toward the text. I felt like I was working, not creating and even though I was creating, it felt like labor. I was saying to myself, you've got to go on. If you quit, I'll never talk to you anymore. I really had to motivate myself because in the creation you provide all the excitement, but in the fictional translation, I had to take a different posture.

MD: It's one of those experiences that you know there's something productive somewhere but it's not immediate.

NB: Definitely, definitely. You know between Canadians and Quebecers, translation has been very important to women writers, translators and publishers because of the way we needed to question patriarchal language. Language was colonizing us, therefore we needed to study it carefully and to find ways to invest it with our own subjectivity. Barbara Godard, who translated four of my books, played an important role through her translations but also with her theoretical texts on translation and feminism.

MD: To be translated is a very vulnerable thing—to have someone else translate you, especially with the whole question of gender

NB: Sure. This is why also it's been a subject discussed a lot by feminists.

MD: Have you ever had your work translated by a man?

NB: Yes, my first book of poetry in translation, Daydreams Mechanics, was translated in 1980 by Larry Shouldice. In those years I was not as familiar with English as I am now. So at that time I could not really evaluate the quality of the translation but I think it was good. At that time Larry was already among the best translators, plus he was interested in what I was writing, which means he himself was interested not only in poetry but in language, as well.