Filmmaker and translator, Donald Winkler won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Translation in 2011. His translation of Daniel Poliquin’s La Kermesse (A Secret Between Us) was a finalist for the 2007 Giller Prize. The Major Verbs—his translation of Pierre Nepveu's Les Verbes Majeurs—appeared with Signal Editions in Spring 2012. He lives in Montreal.
Carmine Starnino: What drew you to Pierre Nepveu's book?Donald Winkler: I've been drawn to Pierre's poetry for a long time. I translated an earlier book, Romans-fleuves (Exile Editions, 1998), but I first translated a few of his poems way back in 1984 for the translation revue Ellipse. I felt an instant affinity. His poetry had—well, you would use the word "souffle" in French: a drive, a thrust, a muscularity and a concreteness that appealed to me greatly. And a capacity, out of its sheer momentum, to soar into surreal riffs without losing contact with reality. I can still remember trying to be true to that, wrestling with lines like "old archangel you know it all / you played the owl those canted nights / head trepanned with antennas and methanol / airs stirred up by sullen desire" (my version of it, of course). Translating him was a gladiatorial exercise. Still is. Pierre in person is gentle and almost self-deprecating, but something else kicks in when, as a poet, he puts pen to paper. I also like the way in which he feels his way into the characters in his poems. In The Major Verbs, one entire sequence, "The Woman Asleep on the Subway," imagines the life of an immigrant night worker in a high rise office building, her alienation, and her memories, or fantasies, of the land she left behind. Nothing formulaic or didactic, but a powerful, often dream-like evocation. The sequence in memory of his dead parents is a collage in verse that is both an affectionate tribute to them and an honest portrayal of lives that knew their share of disappointment, that were at times troubled. Between these two is a series of meditations on a small pile of pebbles on a table, a representation in miniature of the outside world's opacity in a time of anguish for the speaker. But the book ends with a long contemplative poem set in the Arizona desert, a coda imbued with grace. All in all, an impressive achievement.CS: If you had to nominate a Canadian poet as the anglo doppelganger for Nepveu in terms of shared subject and style, who would it be and why?DW: I'm afraid that any specific example I may come up with might be misleading. But let me say this. As a literary critic, Nepveu has taken as his field of study all of America, and has written eloquently about the continental landscape, and the contradictory urges to celebrate wide open spaces (Whitman) and to seek a protective nest when confronted by them (Dickinson), the latter impulse being less widely recognized, in his opinion, than it ought to be. His book Intérieurs d'un nouveau monde, which exists only in French, is a brilliant survey of Quebec, Canadian, American, and Haitian writers, as seen from this perspective. The book reflects his own travels (including a period when he lived in Vancouver), and deals knowledgeably with Canadian and American poets such as Dennis Lee, Atwood, Klein, Hart Crane, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens. He is perhaps the most pan-American of Quebec poets. And I believe the influence shows in the diction and the vision and the psychology of his poetry, although this is more of an intuition on my part than anything else.CS: You've translated a number of Québécois authors, often working closely with them. Have you ever resisted their suggestion in order to keep a word choice or phrase that you thought was closer to the spirit of the poem or story? Do you have an example?DW: I haven't had to resist too energetically. The poets' understanding of English is often quite good, but at times they may not appreciate all the nuances of the English word, which is in fact closer to the intent of the original than they suspect. I consider myself a "situational" translator where poetry is concerned, in that my word choices are predicated on the degree to which the original word was selected on the basis of its meaning, its music or its rhythmic compatibility, so that on one occasion, when translating Roland Giguère, I used a word with a totally different meaning, because his own word choice was almost exclusively based on the word's sound. The original poem read: "tant de vie pour un mort / tant de mots pour un mur." So you had mort, mur. But it literally translates: "for one death so much life / so many words for one wall." I wrote: "for one death so much life / so many words for one breath." So I had Death, breath. I ran this past him, and he was okay with it.