Culture & Conversation

Speaking in Tongues

Multilingualism begets a mental dexterity and a comfort with ambiguity that is difficult to acquire through other means. In learning a new language, we discover how words shape our thoughts and how flexible our conception of the world can be when transferred to a new grammar. Consider where different languages place direct and indirect objects within a sentence; the strangeness of reflexive verbs; how time is ordered by various verb tenses — perhaps not the sexiest considerations, but polyglots and translators understand that language is sly, flexible, and ambidextrous. Poets understand this, too, and perhaps no one has explored the relationship between poetry and multilingualism to greater effect than Montreal poet Erín Moure.

Her new book, O Resplandor, follows a series of collections that have questioned notions of authorship and definitions of translation, and smudged the boundaries between languages. One of the pleasures of reading Moure is that, although her work is often challenging, she almost always creates a foothold for the reader, finding creative and often humorous ways to open what can be opaque and deeply strange poems. The current volume employs a loose narrative frame (even calling it “narrative” is taking a bit of a liberty) to gird the poems’ leaps and dives. The result is lyrical and engaging, and captures the intimacy, romance, and loneliness of the collaborative acts of writing, translating, and reading.

The first section of the book consists of English translations of the Romanian poet Nichita Stănescu by Elisa Sampedrín, who by her own admission cannot read Romanian and, more complicated still, may not actually exist. (Readers may recognize Moure’s literary heteronym from previous works.) The second section consists of translations by Moure, who doesn’t read Romanian either, of a group of poems in Romanian by Paul Celan. In creating their translations, both Sampedrín and Moure refer to earlier English translations of Stănescu and Celan by Oana Avasilichioaei. Writes Sampedrín, “When I first picked up O.A.’s book of Stănescu’s poetry, I realized that not only did it give me access to the poems in my second language, English, it gave me access to the original, Romanian. At this point I ceased to understand any language. I had to translate it, in order to read again.” The relationships between the three women are left unclear, but they write to and about each other in prose sections that are interspersed among the poems. Letters, diary entries, and notebook jottings link their work. What results reads like a mystery that takes place across two continents and in flagrant violation of linear time, fitting for poetry that doesn’t give itself up too easily to the reader. Freed from the danger of being too literal by the fact that neither translator speaks the source language, these translations clatter with a syntactical complexity and musicality that seem at once post-modern and timeless. The prose sections invite the reader to wonder, Who wrote this? Does this writer even exist? What language am I reading? What are these words trying to do? — questions we should perhaps ask of poems more often.

The book’s slim, final section contains “documents for further inquiry…from possibly unreliable sources.” Here Moure provides the most obvious foothold for her reader, coming close to defining her poetics, which is deeply tied to the experience of speaking, reading, and wrestling with more than one language. “Casi nadie sabe leer,” reads the epigram at the opening of O Resplandor, “Almost no one knows how to read.” But the more languages you have under your belt, Moure argues, the better prepared you will be for the task.

Abby Paige is a Montreal-based writer and performer. She speaks three languages, none fluently.

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