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Literary Translation: An Interview with Jo-Anne Elder

An Interview With Jo-Anne Elder by Editorial Assistant William Bonfiglio:


William Bonfiglio: I'd like to lead by asking how you first came to translation. Was there a defining author or project that first inspired your work in this field? 

Jo-Anne Elder: I started translating poetry when I was doing my MA and PhD in Comparative Canadian Literature at the Université de Sherbrooke. The Sherbrooke program integrated translations of poetry into the comparative poetry course, through our study of ellipse magazine (which I later published) and occasional translation efforts into our first language. My background in language and literature actually goes back much further; my father and several older siblings were scholars and teachers of the Classics, French, and German. As a language student, I had done translations into and out of Latin, French, German, Greek, and Spanish in high school and university, but I really didn't enjoy it. As a graduate student, I also had the opportunity to meet, talk to, and hear readings by many important and inspiring Québec and Canadian writers and poets, adding to the Canadian writers I was lucky enough to hear at readings and lectures in high school (when I already knew I wanted to be a writer) and at Trent during my undergraduate studies. It wasn't until after I completed my PhD at Sherbrooke that I heard (in fact, heard of) Herménégilde Chiasson for the first time, at a Harbourfront International Authors reading that I attended with Doug (D.G.) Jones, one of my professors and a fine poetry translator himself. And also, at around the same time, when I was in my early 30s, I was invited to translate my first poems for ellipse. One of them was by Élise Turcotte, who remains one of my favourite Québec poets.  

Many literary translators talk about coming to translation by accident or good fortune. For me, it was an unexpected convergence of wonderful experiences. Shortly after I came to Fredericton in 1988 as a single mother to teach French at UNB, I won a postcard story contest organized by the WFNB and immediately found myself in the midst of an amazing and thriving writers' community. I'm not sure whether Susanne Alexander found out who I was through Goose Lane writers or by reading some of the press coverage about the prize; in any case, she asked if I would be interested in helping Fred Cogswell with an anthology of Acadian poetry in translation. I tried to take a purist approach of exploring the poems without knowing the authors, although that was difficult because the man I married that year was friends with several of them. Since then, several of the poets in Unfinished Dreams have become close friends, leading me to a much different approach. I think my translation practice has improved from knowing what they are trying to do in their writing and by being intimately familiar with the patterns in their subjects, images, and language. In turn, I think my translation work has improved my own writing.    

Before I could love literary translation, I had to see it as part of my writing, a creative process that involved the concerns and processes of my own poems and novels, rather than as an exercise in translating words and meaning. The form, rhythm, sound, the work and the body of work carry so much meaning and importance in literature.         


WB: I wonder if you can elaborate a bit on this idea of “purist” versus “familiar” translation.  How do you see your work operating within these categories? 

JE: When I used the word "purist," I meant an approach to translation that considered only the text itself, without consideration of the author, context, or power dynamics. Some translators prefer to look at the individual text as being all there is, and their interpretation of the poem or story as being all they can know about it. There is also another challenge, that of the "ownership" of the translated work. In my early days of translating poems for ellipse, one poet took exception to several translations of their work and the editors made a decision not to ask the authors for their opinions after that. When I started working on Unfinished Dreams I did not know many Acadian poets. When it was published, I had only lived in New Brunswick for a little over a year. I was given a list of poets (nearly all of the Acadian poets who had published during the time period) and Fred and I translated about 400 poems. Sometimes I didn't even know which poet I was translating, and when I did I knew little about their work. It was a bit like vetting anonymous submissions for a contest. I avoided readings, reviews, meetings that, I believed, would have interfered with the naked exposure of the text to me, with that pretence of objectivity I had (arrogantly) believed I could maintain.  

I now believe there is a lot to be gained from learning as much as I can about an author I'm translating, of reading their previous work, of meeting them as soon as I decide to translate their work, of getting a sense of why they wrote that particular book and what they were trying to do. At the very least, I email them with my specific questions once I've done my (typically quick) first draft. I have a strong sense of loyalty to my authors; our work together is a co-creation. I also want to work from a place of respect for their identity (personal, gender, cultural...) and in solidarity with their causes. This is particularly important because I translate from a minority language into a majority, privileged one. I wrote a bit about what I try to do here: 


WB: In the 75th anniversary issue of The Fiddlehead, you quote Gabriel Robichaud’s recognition that, “As in any literary ecosystem, many are called but few are chosen.”  As a translator, your efforts play a directorial role in parsing the few from the many.  Clearly, your influence within Acadian writing exceeds translation; you could just as well be called a curator, editor, or advocate.  When undertaking new projects, do you find yourself mindful of these roles and their accompanying responsibilities?   

JE: Thank you for a wonderful question and the much-appreciated flattery. 

I take my place in the literary ecosystem seriously; I have a sense of responsibility and humility as well as overwhelming gratitude about the work I do to bring Acadian writers to another audience. I used to see my role as an ambassador and have come to believe that this label gives people in the dominant language group an inflated sense of self-worth. And because I have worked as an editor, publisher, reviewer, and festival director I have to be especially careful not to abuse that power of muting certain voices. For instance, in the first decade of Acadian modernist poetry (1972-1981) no women poets were published; we really need to translate more work by women and queer writers, younger poets, Indigenous and BIPOC folks who write in French (sometimes as a second language). I have not done as much as I should have or would like to do. The FiddleheadAncrages, and the recently published collection of New Brunswick women’s writing, Cadences, has done that with individual poems or small selections, but French-language novels and poetry collections by people in these groups are rarely published, let alone translated into English. Our privilege as white English-speaking North Americans is real, and I keep coming back to the idea of right relations, wondering how to represent contemporary Acadie better without talking over the French the way English interpreters’ mics are turned up for unilingual listeners. After all, Acadians did not choose me as their ambassador or spokesperson and I have not had to suffer through their struggles. I hope they see me as an ally to their cause and a promoter of the literary achievements of Acadian modernity. I hope I know when to step back as well as how to step up. 

Curator? I love that term, because it speaks to my close relationship with and deep appreciation—and understanding, I hope—of the literary artworks and artefacts I work with. It also suggests that I choose what to display at a particular time. That does not necessarily mean that I value other books or writers less; I have a ridiculously long list of books I would like to translate, and an even longer list of books I think other people should translate. I choose the ones that I have a deep affinity with, that I can translate intuitively, the way I write, and that I think are important works to bring to English-speaking readers. My own body of work, both my writing and my translations, is a bit like a solo exhibition in which people would no doubt recognize themes and patterns.  


WB: You note above that your work in translation has improved your own writing, and I’m curious about what specific improvements you’ve observed.  You’re certainly not alone in this belief; many established writers, including Pound, have encouraged developing poets to explore translation,  Do you also suggest this course when speaking with younger writers?   

JE: I think there are two basic approaches a literary translator can take to a work. One is as a translator or scholar, a student of languages and foreign literature who reads the text as an example of a foreign culture and wants to render it into their first language so others can understand and appreciate it. The other is as a writer who wants to bring new practices and forms into their language as well as to find new ways to create in their own body of work. It can be considered professional development. Yes, I would suggest writers explore translation, both by reading several translations of a novel and by working through a poem in a language they know. I also think it is helpful to learn other languages; many of the literary translators I know did their first translations as versions from Latin. And another recommendation is to memorize and recite poetry in different languages to fully appreciate the potential of the poetic voice.  

I really enjoy giving literary translation workshops in which people perform odd experiments with language or work in a limited time. Translators who are trained to produce accurate and appropriate work have to ignore the editor-father voice in order to finish the exercise. That sort of experiment strikes me as being much more about writing than about translation. I am too much of a language student to allow myself to publish translations written "after the style of" a writer. It seems to me that that is paraphrasing rather than translating. However, setting up a set of constraints such as a writer would do with Oulipian exercises or the sestina form, liberates the translator to engage in creative play. 

A couple of years ago, The Fiddlehead published a series of my translations of a short poem excerpt by Jean-Philippe Raîche. I wanted to show not only that the same text can be translated in many different ways, but also that translations could be playful. One of the "variations" was a phonetic translation: the words sounded similar to the French words; the meaning was not only different but quite nonsensical.  

My poetry has gained, I think, from the close, repeated readings and the reflections on the meaning and implication of each sound, as well as each word. When I translate poetry, I have to find words that contain similar formal elements as well as similar meanings. This makes me more attentive to the multiple aspects of words and phrases. I wrote a few poems that were inspired by both the Beats (recited by my brother) and by my translation of Herménégilde Chiasson's Beatitudes, itself inspired by beat poetry. 

WB: Jo-Anne, thank you so much for your generous time and consideration. It was a pleasure to correspond.

JE: Thank you so much for this lovely experience!


Jo-Anne's translations were most recently published in The Fiddlehead in our 75th anniversary issue. Order your copy today!



What a great interview by Jo-Anne Elder on her process of translation. Also, cudos to Willian Bonfiglio who presented such insightful questions. I have known Jo-Anne for many years but discovered many facts about her early years on the path to recognition in this interview. Congratulations to both and to Jo-Anne for her accomplishment in a difficult but rewarding process!

I really enjoyed reading this interview and these thoughts about literary translation! Thank you.

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