Interview with Canadian Poet Peter Van Toorn

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Peter Van Toorn is the author of three books of poetry, Leeway Grass, (1970); In Guildenstern County, 1973; and Mountain Tea, 1985. As editor, he has published various collections over the years: Cross/cut: Contemporary English Quebec Poetry (with Ken Norris), 1982; The Insecurity of Art: Essays on Poetics (with Ken Norris), 1982; Lakeshore Poets, 1982; Sounds New, 1990; and most recently, Canadian Animal Poetry, (1993).

Sketch by Kendra Boychuk

Born July 13th, 1944 in a bunker near The Hague, Netherlands, Van Toorn has lived in and around Montreal since 1953.  A former student of Louis Dudek, F.R Scott, and Hugh Maclennan, he worked for a while as a teacher’s assistant to Hugh MacLennan at McGill University grading papers. During the late 60s and early 70s, he taught at Concordia University.  Now, after 29 years of teaching Creative Writing and Canadian Poetry at John Abbott College in Ste. Anne de Bellevue, he is retired.  He lives in a small semi-detached rented house with three dogs, seven cats and his girlfriend of 11 years, Annie. 

I’ve always admired his translations in Mountain Tea, so when I reached Peter by phone Monday evening, October the 24th, 2000, I asked him to talk a little about translation. 

Phone interview

NW: What is translation?

PVT:  The word itself is interesting: it comes to us from translatus,the past participle of the Latin transferre, ‘to carry across’ without death.  Right there you have the mandate of the poetic translator like me. There’s no point translating something, unless it lives in the language into which it goes. If doesn’t live in the new language, it’s like a transplant—it gets rejected.  It’s not successful.

NW:   Peter, where did translation start?

PVT:  It was Babel, a plain in the land of Shinar, tradition tells us, where they first discovered a need for it. 

A long time ago, the men who lived there said, “Let us build a city and a tower that it may reach unto heaven.  And let us make us a name lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. 

And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language.  Nothing will be restrained from them which they have imagined to do.  Let us go down and confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.”

And the people of Shinar said, “Let us use slime for mortar and brick for stone.”  In other words, they were going to have to extemporize, and adlib, and use materials that were handy—they were being ingenious and creative, right?  And they thought this was clever.  But they had given up trying to reach God through prayer and meditation. 

What they wanted was technological power. They wanted a real, physical power to reach God, as if he’s really up there. That, in itself, is problematic.  They had become literalists of the imagination.

So God smashed the tower and scattered the bricks, and suddenly people couldn’t understand each other.  They’d lost their ability to collaborate and got scattered across the earth. That’s where the need for translation started.

NW:   So translation has been valued ever since, right?

PVT: In fact, no.  The opposite is true.  There’s been a taboo on translation that has beleaguered translators since Babel.  To this day, Jewish scholars are not allowed to translate.  They are not even allowed to touch a text until they’ve washed their hands and performed certain rituals and said certain prayers.  They’re very, very afraid of what they call an irreption, which is a kind of corruption where a little deviation crawls into the text through a smudge or a tired moment of the copyist. 

Translators to this day have been beleaguered by this taboo.  And you see that every time you pick up a book that has been translated.  The translator always has a heavy apology in the front saying, “In my translation, I have sought to preserve the alliteration of the Norse text without imposing too high of a diction…”  and they go into a whole elaborate explanation of how they’ve translated the damn thing, which nobody really wants to hear.  We just want to see a poem that works!  If it doesn’t work in the new language, if it isn’t a poem in its own right, then it’s not a good translation, so there’s no point in doing it. 

I’ll give you a little illustration of the whole problem of translation.

During the 1940s there were musicians living in Czechoslovakia during the Communist era who really prized and loved to play jazz.  They just loved it.  To them, jazz was the symbol of the freedom of America, of everything that was tantalizing.  So they would send away for sheet music to New York City and get standard jazz pieces, which they would then play.  One piece they got in the mail, one day, was called, “Stomping at the Barbecue.”   And this is how they translated it: “Dancing Slowly at an Outdoor Cooking Device.”  

You can see how clumsy that is.  It doesn’t live in the new language. 

It’s a literal translation, but it isn’t interesting, it isn’t funky.  It doesn’t live in Czech. 

The whole thing then is for the Czech translator to find what Elliot calls the objective correlative, something in Czech culture that is familiar to them like the barbecue, their word, their thing for it. And if there’s no barbecue, then to find another object, to make “Stomping at the Barbecue” live in Czech.  Otherwise, they’re not extending the national, linguistic, temperamental, and chronological boundaries of the source text.    

NW:   What do you mean by temperamental boundaries?

PVT:  A translation has to carry a poem across boundaries of geography, language, and time, as well as temperament.  The temperament of the translator may be very different from that of the poet of the source text.  Only at certain moments will the translator be congenial enough to the source poet to accommodate that certain point of view that he, himself, would maybe never write about.  Then translation becomes the one permissible way for the translator to write about something that’s very personal.

NW:   Forgive me for asking this: Isn’t translation just another form of cultural imperialism, you know, going around the globe swiping masterpieces and pocketing the proceeds?

PVT:  It can be.  It’s not supposed to be.  I know what you mean, though. Translation requires reciprocity.  You have to give something back to the original.

A translation should always carry the poem further, into the next time, into the next Zeitgeist, into the next cultural mood.  If Beaudelaire were writing that poem now, if he were writing in English and he wanted to translate the poem himself, this is what he would have done. You have to ask yourself: what if he were translating his poem into English and not me.  That’s what you aim at, so the poem extends its readership. 

A good translation can give the source text an immensely wider circulation than it originally had when it was just confined to the French readers of that century.  Another country or another time may be more receptive to a Beaudelaire poem than even the Parisians were at the time it was first written. 

NW:   How did you get started doing translations?  What was your first translation?

PVT:  First translation?  Good question.  Gee, that’s a toughie.  Okay, yeah—Latin.  In high school, I don’t know about you, but I took Latin.  That was my first real experience as a translator.  In high school, all kids had to translate Caesar and Tacitus and all the groovy guys like Ovid into English.  So you learned another language mechanically.

I think the first thing I translated successfully is my poem in Leeway Grass, the one about the sword maker, “Elegy on War: Invention of the Sword,” from Tibullus.  From there I went on to French, because you learn French at school if you grow up here.  I translated Beaudelaire, Villon, Ronsard, Charles d’Orleans, Rimbaud, Manger, Hugo, Saint-Amant…

NW:   Any Quebeckers?

PVT:  Sure.  Gilles Vigneault and Sylvain Garneau.

NW:   What about your translations from languages you don’t speak?

PVT:  Here we get into another thing. [Coughs]  I see that problem as being a problem of research.  When you do anything in research, you don’t just read one book.  You come at it from a hundred directions.   You look at a hundred different texts by scholars who are very knowledgeable in the original tongue.  Let’s say Chinese in this case.  So you read the famous scholars who have translated it, and you read other people who have tried it.  Because they’re not fully translated in the sense we talked about earlier and since they are still kind of klutzy and eminently forgettable, that stuff gets to be dust in the next century.  

But if you look at all these different texts, they all seem to be pointing at something.  You can find that point by triangulation.  When you know points around something you can find where the center is.  So I would go to different Chinese translators and found their translations not sparkling enough, but I could sort of smell the original.  Goethe said, “Translations are like pictures on matchboxes; they make you hungry for the original.” 

Often, translators demote poetry to prose in their translations.  Robert Frost said something very witty about translation once.  His definition of poetry went like this: “Poetry is what gets lost in the translation.”  [Laughs]  So a poetic translation is as Elliot says, a raid on the inarticulate.  Il faut etre poet, d’abord! Translation means taking that poem one step further, back into poetry where it belongs.  ‘Cuz if it ain’t got that swing, it don’t mean a thing…[Chuckles]…

NW:   Thanks, Pete. 

PVT:  Anytime.

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How I met Peter Van Toorn

Peter Van Toorn and I first became friends in 1987.  Our friendship started with an argument over a word. Halfway through the semester at John Abbott College, Professor Van Toorn gave our Creative Writing class an assignment that started an argument that has never been settled. 

The assignment was “to find ten uses of the word ‘spit’ and put them into ten sentences, each illustrating one of the meanings of the word.”  The rest of the class groaned when he announced the assignment because it meant a trip to the library and laborious use of dictionaries.  I was intrigued. I took it as a challenge and went directly after class to the library determined to find a use of “spit” that he was unlikely to encounter in the papers from the groaning population of the class. 


There in the college library, I found several giant dictionaries and went through them looking for the one with the most entries under the heading “spit.”  I can’t remember the name of the dictionary I found, but it was so large that a librarian came over to help me lift it. 

It had 18 entries—more than enough to complete the assignment.  Of course, there were the common uses that most people know: spit meaning to eject phlegm, spit meaning sputum, spit meaning a rotisserie rod, and the idiomatic usage, “spit and image” mistakenly pronounced “spitting image.” 

Also listed were the ones people usually don’t know: spit meaning to run through, spit meaning a short sword, spit meaning a sandy promontory, and spit meaning the quantity of earth taken up by a spade at a time.  But it was the final entry that really intrigued me: spit-kit meaning a tin box used by military personnel to hold tobacco and rolling papers with a compartment to extinguish lit cigarettes and store the butts. 

Upon reading this, I was reminded of my grandfather back in England who kept his tobacco, papers, and “fag-ends” in a tin he kept in his breast pocket. 

“Professor Van Toorn is going to love this one,” I thought.  “I bet even he hasn’t discovered this usage!”

I completed my assignment putting “spit-kit” first in my list with the sentence, “The soldier extinguished his cigarette in his spit-kit,” and gave it in the following week.  When I got my assignment back a week later, I was horrified that Peter had given me 9/10 with an “X” next to my first sentence and the word “argot” in the margin.  I had no idea what “argot” meant, but I was quite sure of my research and that he had just never encountered “spit-kit” before.  

I was right.  He hadn’t seen that usage before but explained that “spit-kit” was a usage of “spit” not belonging to the general current of English and was therefore unacceptable, as would be slang, jargon, or other highly specialized uses of the word.  Well, that got me miffed.  I felt he had unjustly penalized my work for going further in my research than anyone else in the class including himself, the professor. 

Sensing my indignation, he suggested we settle our quarrel over a beer at the brasserie in the village. Peter is a good talker. I learned more in the four hours we spent drinking together than I had learned all semester in any of my other courses.  I could not, however, get him to agree to change my grade.  He said, “If I haven’t heard of it, it doesn’t exist.  You must have made it up.”

Something changed inside me. 

I couldn’t believe how arrogant that was.  Peter, by his intractability, had awoken in me the strength to dare to disagree with my professors, to trust my own research, to go further in my reading than them, and, above all, to distrust orthodoxy of any kind in the realm of ideas. 

Years later, he related to me how his professor at McGill University, Louis Dudek, had taught him never to trust any scholar as having the final word on a subject.  “Scholarship,” Peter said, “means maintenance.  Trust no one, not even yourself.  Everybody gets things wrong sometimes.  Read and reread and never stop.  Keep going back to your research time and again until it becomes impossible to forget.” 

“Spit-kit,” I said.

“Grade change,” he replied.