Wednesday, December 07, 2005

a question of translation:

This email arrived in my inbox today. I wonder if it's related to the brooha Zach Wells started, suggesting an award for Goran Simic?

Dear Friends

Robert Majzels and Erin Moure have put together a letter (included in the attachment) in the hopes of lobbying to the Canada Art Council to expand their criteria to recognize and promote the translation and publication of foreign works in Canada. If you would like to lend your name in support of this cause please write to either Erin Moure ( or Robert Majzels(

thank you,
Oana Avasilichioaei

Hi everyone,

We just wanted to send you a copy of the letter (with a few tweaks and polishes), and signatures we mailed on December 1 to the Canada Council. People are still sending their names in support, and in about 2 weeks or so, we will send these names as well. Please do feel free to circulate the letter to others, and encourage anyone else who wishes to support these efforts to send us their name and location. Anyone can, of course, write directly to the Council, expressing their ideas on the issue.

It has been heartening to witness the passion and enthusiasm of so many writers, editors, and translators. We want to stress that our effort is but one of many, and that the question we all raise here has been raised for years. If anything comes of this latest effort, it will be first and foremost thanks to earlier efforts, particularly those of translators. Let's hope the timing now is right.

If nothing else, the response to our proposal and the list of names appended certainly demonstrate how strongly readers and writers feel about nourishing this work here at home, as part of our literature and place.

We will keep you in the loop, and we welcome hearing of any parallel efforts or comments that will help open the debate and keep it alive.

Thank you,

Robert Majzels,

Erin Moure,

Here' a draft of their letter. If you want to be included, send your name (and location) to either Erin or Robert.

Joanne Larocque-Poirier
Manager, Celebration 2007
Canada Council for the Arts

Melanie Routledge
Head, Writing and Publishing
Canada Council for the Arts

Dear Joanne Larocque-Poirier and Melanie Routledge,

Following my conversation with Joanne during jury deliberations for the Governor General’s Awards in English Translation 2005, I took up her suggestion to elaborate a proposal for extending Council support to Canadians translators working from languages other than Canadian English and French to translate non-Canadian authors into French, English or First Nations languages.

I first consulted poet and translator Erín Moure just last week, and as others caught wind of our initiative, we quickly discovered that many writers, editors and translators are as passionate about this issue as we are, and wanted to append their names. People seem to want to ally themselves to opening up this debate and doing something. The proposal breeds a lot of excitement.
As several people suggested I send the proposal to Melanie Routledge, I am including her as well at the outset.

We believe this initiative is crucial to Canadian readers and culture. It would not only contribute to diminishing Canada’s cultural reliance on American, British, and French filters here at home when we look outward to the world, but it would increase Canada’s contribution to cultural understanding and dynamism on the world stage. I look forward to hearing your response and any ideas you may have to bring the idea to fruition.
I’d like to thank Joanne, above all, for her encouragement.


Robert Majzels
285 Spicer/West Bolton, Québec/J0E 2T0
(450) 243-1336/


In the years since the creation of the Canada Council, and thanks in no small part to its intervention, Canadian writing in both English and French has emerged from its infancy to become a recognized player on the international scene. Meanwhile, funding and support for translations of Canadian works between our two official languages has made possible a dialogue between English and French Canada and enabled writers in both communities to learn from and influence each other.

In our reception of world literature, however, Canada is virtually silent. Without the administrative support for translation of works by nationals from other cultures into Canadian languages and a Canadian context, we are attempting to sustain a national literature in isolation.

This is not to say that Canadians have no access to literatures of the world. However, because we rely on English translations from the United Kingdom and the United States, and on French translations made in France, we view the world through foreign glasses. We are letting these other cultures open the world to us. Those individual Canadian translators who take up the work of translating foreign works must do so without institutional support; Canadian publishers are barred from using block grant funds to publish those works; and our prizes and grants exclude them. We, in effect, force Canadian translators to “emigrate” their skills and work elsewhere if they want to publish.
By not taking measures now to support those Canadian artists in the domain of literary translation who are working to open Canadian culture to new and vital influences, to international works filtered through a Canadian – not an American, British or French – sensibility, we not only point them toward the border, toward leaving their country, but we attempt to maintain and grow our literature in isolation and, above all, we lose an opportunity to enhance Canada’s cultural dynamism by beckoning the world in, and welcoming it into our literature and our place and time.

Why are Canadians taking up the work of translating literature from foreign languages? Well, first of all, because we can. Thanks to decades of attention to the craft of translation, to university programs in translation, and to the large number of multi-lingual Canadians, and to immigrants bringing their literatures with them, we have in this country the talent and skills to locate international work and create high-quality translations that will find a home in our own literature, helping ensure its vibrancy, while also potentially having a market here and abroad.

Britain, France and the U.S. in fact produce very few translations from other languages; in 2004, for example, just 3.2% of all books published in English were translations. As far as translation into English is concerned, this is undoubtedly, at least in part, one of the effects of the globalization of U.S. culture, and of cultural myopia in the U.S. We cannot rely on our neighbour to the south to reverse this trend, and to provide us with access to the stories, rhythms, and sensibilities of other cultures and languages. Canada, with its tradition of building ties between different cultures and respecting minority languages, has a role and responsibility on the international stage to foster exchanges that allow different cultures to understand and impact each other.
By relying on translation that originates abroad, filtered through values and choices that are not necessarily ours, we impoverish our own literature and the world to which our young people have access. Canadian literature and society need this nourishment from other cultures. Without it our literatures are in danger of provincialism, and we cannot play a full role on the world cultural stage. Whether or not this is already happening in Canadian writing is perhaps a matter of debate, but it is still true that vibrancy will inevitably be lost without stimulation from outside.

The Canada Council has always known and argued that our Canadian idiom and culture differs from that of the U.S. or Britain. When our access to world literature is mainly via U.S. or U.K. incursions, we receive values, lexicons and angles that may not reflect ours. Translation is not a neutral activity; translations are also reading practices and, as such, are culturally and historically embodied, marked by the translator’s lexicon and values. Even as translation enriches, challenges and finally alters possibilities in the target language, Canadian translators read and translate from Canadian perspectives and into Canadian idioms (note the use of the plural here, for there is no question that local perspectives and idioms are heterogeneous). To preserve and develop the various idioms and cultures of Canada, we need to provide a Canadian context for reception of these literary texts from outside our borders. We need heterogeneous translation practices rather than the homogeneous language spawned by economic globalization.

This work of translation is already being done in Canada, unsupported, often unnoticed. Canadian writers are translating literature from Argentina, China, Croatia, Denmark, Estonia, Galicia, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Spain, to name a few. However, this work is done under conditions of struggle, without access to institutional supports other writers and translators can take for granted, and is going largely unrecognized, and often unpublished in Canada, as a result. Translators are compelled to seek publishers elsewhere, meaning in the United States, thus finding themselves caught up in the vortex of the infamous brain drain.

Of course, Canadian letters do have a distinctive history already, with a rich variety of themes and forms, but these did not and cannot evolve in isolation from influences outside our borders. In the past, not surprisingly, such outside influences have been overwhelmingly British and American in the case of literature in English, and French in the case of Quebec. But other influences have also played a role. Who can imagine contemporary Canadian drama without the influence of Ibsen or Chekhov, Canadian prose without Kafka or Garcia Marquez, Canadian poetry without Neruda or Lorca? In the present historical moment, our contact with international experiences and approaches can and must be allowed to multiply. Our cultural tapestry can be made more vibrant by letting the world enter. In multiplying and strengthening our ties with the world and its literatures, we will all benefit, as writers, as translators, as readers, as a society united by values of justice and diversity. As well, other cultures will embrace ours more readily and recognize our distinctiveness. We would assume a more dynamic and fruitful place on the world stage, as our translations filter out into the world.

What measures can the Canada Council implement to remedy this situation, to foster translation from beyond our borders and invite new air into our literatures?

1. To begin with, Canadian literary publishers should be allowed to use a set proportion of their block grants (funding without which it is impossible to publish a literary book in Canada, especially books that open up practices apart from the mainstream) to publish the work of Canadians translating from languages other than English and French, and from works of literatures outside Canada by writers who are not Canadians. This major change can be accomplished without any cost to the Council, and with great benefit to the literature.

2. At least on a trial basis, the Council’s translation grants should be extended to cover translations from literatures other than Canadian French, English or First Nation languages, into Canadian languages, regardless of the citizenship of the original author, as long as the translator is a Canadian whose work is recognized by qualified peers. Finding readers to judge translation quality in any language will not be difficult in this country, thanks to the large number of multilingual writers and translators either born or immigrated here. It’s probably worth warning from the outset against the temptation of limiting or listing the source languages the Council would recognize. Such discrimination is dangerous and tantamount to making judgments on the relative value of different national literatures. If a recognized Canadian publisher is prepared to publish the translation in Canada, it’s not the Council’s role to question the source language, literature, or culture.

3. At some point, the Governor General’s Awards, Canada’s highest literary accolade, which seeks to applaud every type of literary production, ought to include a category for the translation of a foreign-authored work by a Canadian translator. We must find some way to recognize these translations, to applaud their existence, to applaud the craft and dedication and artistry of the translators.

Of course, the Canada Council is limited by the money governments make available to it. New programs must involve new funding, and not take from existing programs. But we do not believe the measures we are proposing would be all that expensive, especially in the initial period of implementation; the numbers of translations are just not that high, which is precisely the problem. Certainly, for Canadian translators, writers, and for Canadian readers, the potential return on such an investment makes it foolish to pass up. The loophole that refuses to honour the contribution of one sector of Canadian cultural producers – translators from international languages – will be closed, and our translators will feel welcome, not stifled, at home.
We believe the Council has a critical role to play in expanding the field of Canadians’ reading experience, and the time to act on this pressing need is now.

The following individuals have expressed their support for this proposal:

Phyllis Aronoff, Montréal QC
Oana Avasilichioaei, Montréal QC
George Bowering, Vancouver BC
Per Brask, Winnipeg MB
John Buschek/Buschek Books, Ottawa ON
Barbara Carey, Toronto ON
Lisa Carter, Toronto ON
Margaret Christakos, Toronto ON
Paulo da Costa, Victoria, BC
Mary di Michele, Montréal QC
Patrick Friesen, Vancouver, BC
Linda Gaboriau, Montréal QC
Phil Hall, Toronto ON
Beatriz Hausner, Toronto ON
JonArno Lawson, Toronto ON
Lazar Lederhendler, Montréal QC
Robert Majzels, West Bolton QC
Daphne Marlatt, Vancouver BC
Roy Miki, Vancouver BC
Jay MillAr, Toronto ON
A. F. Moritz, Toronto ON
Erín Moure, Montréal QC
Kenneth Mouré, Santa Barbara CA
Michael Ondaatje, Toronto ON
Susan Ouriou, Calgary AB
Sina Queyras, Brooklyn NY
Michael Redhill, Toronto ON
Lisa Robertson, Poitiers, France
Howard Scott, Montréal QC
Adam Seelig, Toronto, ON
Martha Sharpe, Toronto ON
Gerry Shikatani, Peterborough ON
Goran Simic, Toronto ON
Sherry Simon, Montréal QC
Carmine Starnino, Montréal QC
Nathalie Stephens, Chicago IL/Toronto ON
Luise von Flotow, Ottawa ON
Fred Wah, Vancouver BC
Zachariah Wells, Halifax NS
Paul Wilson, Heathcote ON
Rachel Zolf, Toronto ON
rob mclennan, Ottawa ON


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