War is more than a political conflict–in late capitalism, it’s a way of life. From Kandahar, Afghanistan, to Rivière-du-Loup, Québec, this war is constellated by concrete acts of terrorism, such as 9/11, and also by a state of near-constant alert, or traumatic consciousness. “History doesn’t exist, it collapses,” the speaker says, moving between mediated images of war and the violence–some symbolic, much of it physical–we encounter every day. It’s tempting to return, in mind, to a time in modernity free from war, but other than a brief gasp between WWII and Vietnam, that time is a phantasm. The speaker of The War Years counsels the reader to continue to move forward, from an age where “we have buried God,” and no longer have a need for poetry, epic or otherwise: “don’t forget but don’t think/ go straight ahead/ carried by what was.” “What was,” is history; “what is,” includes, in this worldview, a confusion between worlds, languages, and us/them binaries wherein the enemy is identified with the path of waged destruction, and “us,” by adherence to “the way of champions.” The champions “eat prize-winning cows/ and all the biggest swordfish,” and “defend the highways/ where our blood flows.” As for the “enemy,” the semantic coordinates are blurred in translation, as they would be in any process of transposition or examination of the language and pronouns used to demarcate, identify, and possess: “you don’t know what they’re capable of/ they will insert themselves into your silence/ until you can no longer tell/ how many we are.” Within this maelstrom, there remains our inheritance of beauty, as preserved in the gaze of another: “and in your eyes…/ I see it already, smoking and beautiful/ Kandahar under the bombs.”
– Virginia Konchan
A special feature on Québécoise poet and novelist Rachel Leclerc in Lettres québécoises (No. 146, 2012) states: “Few bodies of work are as coherent, singular and constant. Rachel Leclerc is one of the great voices of Québec literature. Not one that proclaims loud and clear, but one that whispers, like the voices we hear in church or in libraries. And what she sings is sacred.” (my translation)
This excerpt of six poems is drawn from her 1992 book Les vies frontalières (“Borderlives”). In awarding the Prix Émile-Nelligan to this work, the jury’s president said it was chosen for “its purity of language, variation of rhythm, the strength and evocative character of its images, and the economy of its presentation.” These poems recount Leclerc’s return to her native Gaspésie, which she left as a young woman some fifteen years prior. She returns with her lover, in a quest to reconcile with a past marked by loss and turmoil. It is a passionate, deep exploration of the estrangement she feels–broken ties with family, a land, and a heritage–and the struggle to find a new way of being, what she refers to symbolically as “living at borders,” or borderlives.
There are many reasons why I translate Leclerc’s poetry: the luminous beauty of her language, the striking images, the juxtaposition of the prosaic and cosmic, the search for the essential, the ability to be enchanted. I particularly like its musicality. When I read her poems aloud, I hear the sounds of the Gaspésie: waves rolling onto pebble-covered beaches, wind blowing through pine trees on mountain paths. Sometimes the words are a slow interior recitation, other times they are an incantation, even an imperious cry. I work hard to capture and reproduce such effects in my translation. It requires careful word choice and a judicious handling of enjambments and ellipses, two techniques that Leclerc uses with great mastery. Sometimes it requires breaking with Leclerc’s complete eschewing of all punctuation and using (sparsely) an exclamation or question mark (see poems #3 and #5). This is necessary because in French the stress naturally falls at the end of a word, fragment, or clause, whereas English blank verse is built on groupings of stressed and unstressed syllables.
– CS Lemprière
The Brooklyn Rail welcomes you to our web-exclusive section InTranslation, where we feature unpublished translations of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and dramatic writing. Launched in April 2007, InTranslation is a venue for outstanding work in translation and a resource for translators, authors, editors, and publishers seeking to collaborate.
We seek exceptional unpublished English translations from all languages.
Fiction, Nonfiction, and Poetry: Manuscripts of no longer than 20 pages (double-spaced).
Plays: Manuscripts of no longer than 30 pages (in left-justified format).