Compass of the Catoptric Past: John Glassco, Translator
By Camille R. La Bossière
"All of John Glassco's works have been eccentric achievements, more attached to the values and fashions of the past than to those of post-war Canada."1 So summarizes Frank Davey in From There to Here (1974), as though to confirm, à rebours, the theme of one-way transferral which the title of his guide implies and encapsulates. But such a division of here and there, past and present, seems far from à propos in the case of John Glassco. The precocious youth who steamed to the Old World as supercargo on the CANADIAN TRAVELLER, in flight from "lingering Victorianism,"2 was to join the society Steven Marcus has named "the other Victorians." The author of The English Governess, burlesqued in a "mock-Victorian psychosexual romance,"3 Glassco came to body fully the aphrodisiac fragment left at Beardsley's death in 1898.4 "May I ask if you yourself are already a Canadian avatar of someone else, and if so of whom?," a British novelist in Paris responded mischievously to Glassco's claim for the existence of several Canadian throwbacks to Old-World writers.5 For Glassco, who conversed with Catullus, Samuel Daniel, Berkely, Thomas Love Peacock, and Baudelaire, to name only a few of his venerable companions, the past is not a complete stranger. For Glassco, home is where the mind has been. And his had been to many places. He presently recalls in A Point of Sky (1964):
Like other travellers before him, he goes forward à reculons. He takes home with him wherever he goes.7
In all of his writing, Glassco travels with his gaze in "the rear-vision mirror," as he reflects near the end of the historical poem Montreal (1973)8. It is his cardinal habit of mind. Recounting Montreal from the conception of its island in "a boiling sea / Full of devil-fish" (11.21-22), through the golden age of the "Happy Savage" (1. 53) and the advent of Christianity, to the city of the poet's childhood and, now, of his advanced age, Glassco blurs the line between then and now by partly remaking the past in his own image. He writes of the natives of Hochelaga before the arrival of Cartier, for example:
Pranks and pleasures of the kind, of course, have not disappeared at all. The Chevalier Tannhäuser,9 the sexologist Eulenberg,10 Harriet Marwood,11 and John Glassco have kept them alive. The augury, "Soon shall disappear forever," is ironic in fact: for a moment, Glassco here has transported Hochelaga to late-Victorian England. The pre-Christian Amerindians and the poet of Foster, Quebec, join to celebrate "the agape" of "fornication" (11. 70-73). Thus the facetious lauding of "the many blessings / Of a European culture" (11. 93-94) Cartier, as we know, preparing the way for Jansenism, brought to Eden the gifts of pox and gunpowder appears unwittingly ambiguous. Glassco himself places the Amerindians, by parallel, in fin-de-siècle Europe. As he confesses, his poem is made of "quaint analogies" stimulated by "nostalgia" (1.213). The history of Montreal is, as it must be in part, a pretext for the expression of Glassco's private legend. "All is not lost," he muses in the poem "Second Sunday after Trinity."12 His memorial imagination permits him to salvage something personal from time.
But, as with all salvage operations, there is loss. Montreal is not what it once was:
City, city of my childhood
Memory provides reflections, not warm bodies. The past still lives, though now by similitude only, as names and images in the mind. "Translate thy vision," Glassco addresses himself in The Deficit Made Flesh (1958) it is all the poet can do.13 His work is to harrow up "a new-made ghost," a moving image of the dead life.14 Past and present, image and object, expression and thought are but analogies of each other. Between them, there is a silence, a great distance, since similitude is not identity:
Such is the tension, "the darkness and the distance,"16 which all translators must experience between speech and silence, signifier and signified. It is on this middle ground that Glassco's translation of his own vision and that of other poets come together.17 As a maker of elegiac word-analogies "caught / Between silence and the failure of any words,"18 Glassco was ideally suited to the invaluable, futile, and costly craft of literary translation. The following words, as justly as they can, will suggest that he practised that craft with courage and skill, with a success proportionate to the silence and distance he came to evoke and diminish.
At worst, according to Glassco in the introduction to The Poetry of French Canada in Translation (1970), the translator provides a "bridge of sorts" between people of different languages.19 In this respect, he merely provides a social service, though it is one which Glassco obviously thinks is valuable. He tells us in the same introduction that his purpose here as anthologist / translator is to give "the English reader his first extended view of the beauties, development and direction of the poetry itself."20 With close to 200 works, three-quarters of which had not been published before 1970, The Poetry of French Canada continues to stand as an impressive bridge. In fact, the collection approximates Guy Sylvestre's Anthologie de la poésie canadienne-français (Cinquième Edition, 1966) in size and material: one quarter or so of the poems included by Glassco are to be found in Sylvestre, and all but a few of the more than forty authors there are also represented in Glassco's anthology.
The poetry itself, though, is the material cause of the anthology. At best, Glassco observes in the introduction, the translator is "transported" to a vision by the poem he proposes to communicate in another language. He returns, to speak another poem, a "poetic creation itself."21 In the words of Clément Moisan, The Poetry of French Canada is not only "une très bonne anthologie de la poésie québécoise des XIXe et XXe siecles," it is also a separate work "d'excellentes traductions, souvent faites par des poètes."22 F.R. Scott, George Johnston, A.J.M. Smith, Fred Gogswell, Jay Macpherson, John Robert Colombo, and Ralph Gustafson are among the twenty-two authors to have their translations recorded in the anthology. But more than of any other poet, it is Glassco's work. More than one-third of the translations recall his own transportation set in motion by the poety of French Canada itself.
Glassco's translations in the 1970 anthology reflect precisely the nature and difficulties of the work he describes in the introduction to that volume. He is, in this sense, his own best critic. While agreeing with John Denham, seventeenth-century translator of six books of the Aeneid, "that the subtile Spirit of poesie evaporates entirely . . . unless a new, or an original spirit is infused by the Translator himself," Glassco emphasizes that the process of re-creation must be ruled by the "architecture" of the original.23 The translator's vision, of course, cannot be merely emotive or passive. He must look. And what his eyes seek out is the poem's "intimate structure."24 Such scrutiny may be so searching in some cases that it "may leave [the poem] . . . nothing but its intellectual content or 'meaning', its images and inner pulsation."25 Consequently, "the scales of translation are . . . weighted in favour of a poetry marked by clarity of thought and expression, spare and striking imagery, and a simple internal movement."26 Like the "analytical critic,"27 the translator of poetry finds matter most sympathetic to his eye in a work of distinct and simple lines.
Glassco's rendering of "Grotesque," from René Chopin's Le Coeur en exil (1913), for example, shows how clearly and imaginatively he can read a poem's design. The work of a writer noted for "sa recherche des belles formes, son culte de l'art,"28 "Grotesque" readily lends itself to the translator's "architectural" interpretation. The poem is cited in full:
The first stanza of the translation immediately sets out the "sense" that is clarified only in the final stanza of the original. "Affecting still" (1. 1) responds to "Grimacier" (1. 9), as "wry grimace" (1. 2) makes plain. Glassco sets out with Chopin's entire poem in mind, and proceeds, from the beginning, to articulate as simply and directly as possible what he takes to be its fundamental intention. The translation has a "meaning" all its own as well: it goes beyond Chopin in emphasizing Pierrot's affectation and the harmonious discord of posturing and doing which follows from it. While Chopin has Pierrot react to both unrequited love and frostbite, Glassco appears to imagine not quite so sentimental a lover who bypasses a gesture of love to react sensibly. Whereas "feeling" and emotion incongruously come together in Chopin Pierrot, who, in the second stanza is said not to "feel" the whiteness and coldness of snow and, by extension, of Columbine ("appas"), comes to feel the effects of both in the end Glassco simplifies the associations in the middle stanza, finally to paint a ludicrous contrast of gesture and harsh reality.
Glassco's reading of Francois Hertel's "Soir automnal," from Strophes et catastrophes (1943), shows a similar process. Beginning with the poem's final simile, "comme un navire"/ "like a vessel,"30 he renders "une rose" in the first stanza as "compass-card." This rose is ambiguous in Hertel's Petrarchan sonnet the subject is love. It is only in the end that its significance as a "rose des vents" comes clearly into view for the reader:
In this instance, though, "une rose" ("Je n'ai plus an ami, je n'ai plus une rose"; 1. 2) and its ambiguity might have been preserved in translation, since "a rose" also is a compass-card. As in "Grotesque," Glassco chooses for a greater simplicity. On other occasions his translation of Jean-Guy Pilon's "Et Brûleront les navires" (L'Homme et le Jour, 1957) exemplifies the variation Glassco will graft rather than prune to achieve this same purpose. "The Dry Season" continues Pilon's poem:
The poem's "meaning" as a whole is drawn out by the adding of a witty and transparent equivocation: shame should be in those who do not act from love, not in the shame of nakedness.
His translation of "Janvier," by Louis-Honoré Fréchette, according to Sylvestre "le plus grand poete canadien" of the nineteenth century,31 may further suggest the clarity with which Glassco examines a poem's intimate structure. Here is the sonnet, from Les Fleurs boréales (1879):
The translation, later to be incorporated into Glassco's Montreal (11. 506-519), reads:
The scales of translation are weighted in favour of poetry of this kind. With its simple internal movement, imaging sharply defined parallels of motion and light, "Janvier" advances at a sprightly pace from dance to dance. Glassco follows the "sinuous web" of Fréchette's "quadrille joyeux" with a skill which makes his imitation of the dance seem almost effortless.33
But such harmony by a faithful echoing of idea, movement, and image is not always so attractive or congenial. When the translator sees his author beckoning him downward, however slightly, the fidelity counselled by Wentworth Dillon in his Essay on Translated Verse (1684) becomes trying: "Your author always will the best advise; / Fall when he falls, and when he rises rise."34 Every good translator experiences the "temptation to beautify and 'improve', and thus perhaps carry the process of betrayal a bit further," Glassco reflects on the wry old equation of traddutore, traditore.35 Beautification for art's sake reveals by implication what the translator sees as blemishes. Glassco does not have to add that the better and more "creative" poet the translator the greater the enticement. His re-making, by analogy, of Propertius's Elegiarum II, from the Second Book, recalls that he himself succumbed elegantly and discreetly on occasion. "Aut cum Dulichias Pallas spatiatur ad aras, / Gorgonis anguiferae pectus operta comis" (11. 7-8),36 the literal sense of which might be rendered "Or like Passas when she passes before the altars of Dulichium with her breast covered with the snaky head of the Gorgon," Glassco embellishes in this way: "Or Pallas pacing to the Altar-rite, Her breast with curl'd Medusa locks o'erwoven."37 A few of the pieces in The Poetry of French Canada testify that there were occasions when the temptation to "improve" showed itself much more enticing.
"The Dead" is perhaps the most striking case in the anthology of the translator as critic whose interpretation confesses his author's sin against art. It is, as a poem, an improvement on Octave Crémazie's "Les Morts."38 Glassco follows Cremazie closely through the first seven stanzas, then omits the remaining ten, to add two concluding stanzas of his own. The compression in "The Dead" the title should read "From 'The Dead' " better serves art. While the poet of "Les Morts," a commemoration inspired by All Souls' Day, turns to address a moral lesson directly to his living public as of stanza 8, Glassco continues to address the dead:
Glassco's page artfully recalls the reader's attention to what he is doing, to his own moral condition, while it continues its conversation with the dead of Cremazie's pages. Glassco's own poem shows a greater control of voice; his is an artistic aim that fixes its gaze intently on a tighter and simpler structure.
"The Dead" also raises the issue of another kind of betrayal which translators sometimes commit: the improvement of moral sense. It is "not only the ideas and progression of a poem that are exposed by translation: the temper and complexion of the poet himself are . . . mercilessly revealed," Glassco notes in the introduction to The Poetry of French Canada.39 Since he, too, is a poet, what may also be exposed is the translator's own temper, his own moral values. Again, Glassco is a telling critic in his own case.40 In the instance of "Les Morts," the stanzas Glassco omits speak of life after death, of the remission of temporal punishment due to sin, of the theological virtue of hope. Crémazie's poem, as anthologized in Sylvestre, ends:
The Resurrection of the Dead is to come. Glassco's poem, on the other hand, progresses to a grim and quizzical incomprehension:
The difference suggests that the translator is substituting his own creed for Crémazie's. Dante, pilgrim from Inferno through Purgatorio to Paradiso, is absent from "The Dead," though not from "Les Morts" (stanza 9).
Like "Les Morts," Simone Routier's "Psaume,"42 published in the decade of her membership in the Dominican Institute of Philosophy, 1940-50, is improved by Glassco's translation. Though, again, the improvement by compression, the tightening of structure, is gained, to some extent, at the expense of the French poem's theology. Glassco omits stanzas 5-9 here the poet sees herself in the dress "de luxe et de péché" (st. 5) and is moved to hope by God's love and mercy made tangible in the sacraments to continue from stanza 10, which returns to the soul's loneliness, pain, and malady. "Delivering happiness from the breast of pain" (st. 5) / "Delivrant le bonheur au sein de la souffrance" (st. 10) calls Glassco back to Routier. Such feeling, it would seem, is congenial to the translator; the analogy may sound nostalgic to the reader of Glassco's own pleasurable pains. Stanzas 17-20 also are omitted. There are bright with hope and joy:
And when, in stanzas 27-28, Routier praises the beauty and splendour of God reflected in Nature, Glassco again leaves off. By omission, he seems to give despair and loneliness a strong voice than does his author. As Glassco himself was well aware, the translator exposes the poet's temperament.43 Omission or silence, while it may serve art, also serves to define the differences between two analogous visions.
Striving to translate Glassco's vision, the above reflections may bring to mind that all of his work turns about a central theme: between the author remembering and the author remembered, there is speech and silence. In the prefatory note to Memoirs of Montparnasse (1970), a fifty-nine year old Glassco recalls of the youth he once was and still is in the guise of a "new-made ghost": "in my memory he is less like someone I have been than a character in a novel I have read."44 Similarly, we, too, are caught up in an ironic remembering and unknowing as we read Glassco's words, here and elsewhere. It is by speech that he can name the middle ground shared by analogous texts, of others and of himself; by silence or omission that he expresses the differences which separate them. Consequently, as the above words, taking their direction from Glassco's own poetry and criticism, have suggested, his medium cannot avoid but be "unequal and opaque"45 at bottom, even as it is clear and measured in its architectural interpretation of things.
On infrequent occasion, though, there is injustice in the translation more than is unavoidable, when its opacity relative to the original is pronounced more than the craft makes inevitable. At such times, Glassco's "compass of the catoptric past"46 may be seen to image his own temper more clearly than it does the faith of those who have spoken before him. Then the silence between the author remembered and the author remembering grows. It is a measure of Glassco's success, his fidelity to the intimate structure of poems not his own, that he is only rarely so provincial. Having followed Horace's advice to the young writer, to make the Ancients his own, he can say with the Roman poet, Exegi monumentum aere perennis (Odes, III).47 Readers of his contributions to literary translation in Canada need not be reminded that his work is well worth remembering.
Leon Edel, in his introduction to Glassco's Memoirs of Montparnasse (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1970), p. viii.[back]
From Glassco's June 1975 preface to his Harriet Marwood, Governess (rev. ed., 1976), initially published with that title, anonymously, by Grove Press in 1967. First published as The English Governess (1960), in Paris, under the pseudonym Miles Underwood.[back]
Under the Hill . . . by Aubrey Beardsley, now Completed by John Glassco (New York: Grove Press, 1959).[back]
Memoirs of Montparnasse, p. 32.[back]
John Glassco, "Luce's Notch," in A Point of Sky (Toronto: Oxford University Press,1964).[back]
Cf. André Berthiaume, La Decouverte ambiguë: essai sur les récits de voyage de Jacques Cartier et leur fortune littéraire (Ottawa: Le Cercle du Livre de France, 1976), chapter 4 in particular. The traveller in foreign lands, like the translator, can express what he sees only in its analogical relationship to what he already knows. In that sense, he remembers as he sees. The lexicons appended to Le Bref Récit of Jacques Cartier figure large in Berthiaume's argument. At home everywhere, the traveller is perhaps at home nowhere. Glassco writes in "One Last Word": "No port for those tasselled sails!" (Selected Poems [Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1974]).[back]
John Glassco, Montreal (Montreal: DC Books, 1973).[back]
Under the Hill resurrects the medieval legend of Tannhäuser's participation in the revels of Venus.[back]
Eulenberg is the author of Sadismus und Masochismus (1898), apparently the stimulation for Glassco's writing of The English Governess.[back]
The deliciously cruel disciplinarian who gives her proper name to The English Governess in its 1967 version.[back]
John Glassco, in The Deficit Made Flesh (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1959). Indian File Books: 9.[back]
Glassco, "A Devotion," in The Deficit Made Flesh.[back]
Glassco, "Deserted Buildings under Shefford Mountain," in The Deficit Made Flesh.[back]
Glassco, "Hail and Farewell," in The Deficit Made Flesh.[back]
Glassco, "Villanelle," in The Deficit Made Flesh.[back]
Literally so in Montreal, which includes a translation from Louis-Honore Frechette (11. 506-519) and lines from Baudelaire (11. 102-103). [back]
Glassco, "The Crows," in A Point of Sky.[back]
Ibid., p. xvii.[back]
Ibid., p. xxii.[back]
Clement Moisan, Poésie des frontières: étude comparée des poésies canadienne et québécoise (Cité de La Salle: Editions HMH, 1979), p. 20.[back]
The Poetry of French Canada in Translation, p. xx.[back]
Ibid., p. xx.[back]
Ibid., p. xx.[back]
Ibid., p. xx.[back]
Ibid., p. xxi. Ezra Pound, who is cited by Glassco later on this page, had described translation as the second of the five categories of literary criticism. See Pound's essay "Date Line" (1934).[back]
Reginald Hamel, John Hare, and Paul Wyczynski, "René Chopin," in Dictionnaire pratique des auteurs québécois (Montreal: Editions Fides, 1976), p. 142.[back]
Anthologie de la poésie canadienne française, edited, with an introduction, by Guy Sylvestre (Montreal: Editions Beauchemin, 1966), p. 95. Fifth edition.[back]
Ibid., p. 201.[back]
Ibid., p. 19.[back]
Ibid., p. 25.[back]
Glassco's second translation from Frechette in the anthology, "The Discovery of the Mississippi," shows rare examples of imprecise diction. "Rasant les ilôts verts" (Part II, st. 3) is rendered "Skimming green isles"; "il allait voguant à la dérive" (final stanza, Part III) becomes "he drove along with full-blown sails." The ship actually grazes islands; the explorer drifts.[back]
Cited in the introduction to The Poetry of French Canada, p. xxi.[back]
Ibid., p. xxi.[back]
Propertius, Elégies, ed. D. Paganelli (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1964), p. 38.[back]
Glassco, in A Point of Sky, p. 50. Glassco comes close to the way of Ezra Pound when he translates the final lines of this elegy:
Propertius had written:
"Even though you allow" is perhaps
deceiving. The translation also has Brimo laying "her virgin limbs
next to Mercury's." Such an apposition of limbs may be doing Mercury an
injustice. See J.P. Sullivan, Ezra Pound and Sextus Propertius: A Study in
Creative Translation (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964), for a defence of
Pound's Homage against the mischief of the grammarian William Garner Hale.
Since "the translator proceeds by analogy" (p. 21), he is not bound to the
(impossible, in any case) task of exact duplication. The question remains: how free
is a translation to be before it ceases to be a translation?[back]
The Poetry of French Canada in Translation, p. xxi.[back]
Perhaps here, too, in "Lines Addressed to a Dozen Young Canadian Poets, after Unwisely Devouring Five Little Magazines at a Sitting" (from A Point of Sky):
Sylvestre (ed.), p. 12.[back]
Ibid., pp. 161-167. [back]
Glassco's summary of the cardinal themes of French Canada's literature in the introduction to his anthology (pp. xvii-xviii) parallels Jean Le Moyne's, the author of Convergences cited there. Le Moyne assisted Glassco in his translation of The Journal of Saint-Denys-Garneau (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1962). For and account of Le Moyne's theology as it works in his interpretation of Quebec literature, see Camille R. La Bossière, "Of Unity and Equivocation: Jean Le Moyne's Convergences," in The Dark Age of Enlightenment (Fredericton: York Press, 1980), pp. 16-30. Gilles Marcotte pays this tribute to Glassco's contribution in the preface to the translation of Saint-Denys Garneau's journal: "This, if I am not mistaken, is the first time a French-Canadian work of this kind has been placed before the English-speaking public" (p. 9).[back]
Glassco, "Prefatory Note" to Memoirs of Montparnasse, p. xiii.[back]
The Poetry of French Canada in Translation, p. xix.[back]
Glassco, from the title poem of A Point of Sky.[back]
At its most recent annual general meeting, the Literary Translators' Association / Association des Traducteurs Littéraires in Canada agreed to sponsor the John Glassco Translation Prize.[back]