‘The Linguistic Bridge’ – An interview with Olivia McCannon

Olivia McCannon’s debut poetry collection Exactly My Own Length (Carcanet/Oxford Poets, 2011) was celebrated by the likes of the Seamus Heaney Centre and the Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prizes, and her translations have traversed languages from French to Burmese. We’re fortunate enough to speak to her about the processes and problems of translation, and hear her writerly plans for the future.

– Editors, The Kindling 


Your translations range from Balzac’s 1835 novel Le Père Goriot to contemporary Burmese poet Nge Nge – could you tells us a bit about how you choose which poets/writers to translate?

I follow my interests, and my convictions. I don’t mind what period the source text comes from. I love medieval and contemporary French equally. Distances are relative in translation, and period may not be the greatest challenge. If you feel an affinity with a writer, half the battle is won. Translation is the best way to spend time with a writer you love, the closest literary equivalent to staying under the sheets on a Sunday morning.

Le Père Goriot is essential reading for our times, a novel whose characters float or sink by their ingenious, or devious, uses of credit. I leaped at the opportunity to translate it (courtesy of Laura Barber, then at Penguin Classics, now at Granta). I was living in Paris at the time and felt very close to the French, as if the novel, and the nineteenth century, were somehow on my doorstep.

The MPT Burmese women poets project was set up by Sasha Dugdale (poet, and editor of MPT) with the Burmese poet Pandora, who co-translated with the UK poets, providing literals and answering our questions. Bringing these voices across, mattered. I was glad to be part of the linguistic bridge by means of which Nge Nge, and the other excellent poets, whose work faces so many barriers, would be heard in English.


Did you begin to translate before you wrote your own poetry, or vice versa?

I started to write what I thought might be poetry at around 15. The closest I came to translation at that age, was working out how to write down my thoughts in French, in letters to my Breton exchange partner. Both were attempts to express and shape an inner life.

Probably the most formative experiences came at university, where I met other people engaged in translation, and writing. For me, belonging to a community is an important part of being a translator/writer.

As to which came first, I find it hard to separate the two. My poetry started to become readable when my translations did, they helped each other along. However, I found the freedom I needed for the writing – the displacement that allows the transformation of personal material – through translating.

Your debut collection Exactly My Own Length (Carcanet) is described as “life on the edge of possibility”, is this sense of possibility something which drew you to translation?

Through the practice of translation, you develop a sense of the plasticity of your mother tongue, how far you can stretch and test and remould without it falling apart. You discover what other languages can do, that yours can’t, and attempt to give your language that added potential.

To write this collection, I had to shed some of the baggage I was carrying around in my mother tongue so I could try and strip back to the living core. I wanted words to mean what they said, so you knew where you stood with them. I wanted them to be whole and healthy, and alive.

What advice would you give for a young poet interested in translation – is there a ‘right’ way to begin or learn the basics?

A young poet interested in translation is a wonderful thing. Translation is interested in young poets! Language provision in schools and universities is currently being suppressed by stealth and neglect. We badly need linguists, translators, to keep clear lines of communication open across the world. So why not start here: if you only speak one language, learn another, well, however you can. Study its cultures, its countries, its peoples, its histories. Take a hard look at the times we live in, and then decide where you can do most good. You won’t regret it. Diving deep into a language, learning the creative discipline of translation – these are endlessly fascinating and rewarding activities.

A spectacular range of interesting literary practices fall under the umbrella term of ‘translation’, so the next step might involve discovering where your interests lie on that spectrum. Try a few, be open, go to events, ask questions, read a lot (good places to start: Modern Poetry in Translation magazine and the anthology Centres of Cataclysm, Bloodaxe, 2016).

Some writers develop a relationship with a living poet writing in another language, working closely with them, and a translator, tuning in to voice and gesture. Stephen Watts is a brilliant practitioner in this field and you can read what he says about co-translation here.

Translation has endless potential to generate solidarity, and to reinforce the horizontal loyalties among human beings, that run counter to the thin vertical lines projected onto the map by nation states. In political terms, translation is a free zone where the unsaid is spoken. Don Mee Choi, poet and translator of the Korean poet Kim Hyesoon, has written about this (here, for example), and of her experience of writing and translating as ‘a decolonizing act’.

Translation should bring new work into English that reshapes our perception of what literature can be, who gets to write it, and be read. It should question the canon, not prop it up. A remake of a classic is different from a new translation of a classic. A remake piggybacks a reputation already made. A new translation interrogates that reputation.

Good luck!

Despite initiatives like Stephen Spender, translation remains an undoubtedly neglected art form in both practise and academia – why do you think that is?

I agree with you that translation deserves a higher profile, and that the world would be a better place if it was more widely practised, but it’s hard to see it as entirely neglected from within the translation community, where all I see are people busily translating away and publishing new writers and keeping things alive and thriving. But yes, these hard-working professionals could do with more recognition and more financial support to keep their ships afloat.

Translation has always played a pivotal role in shaping UK poetic ‘tradition’. Where did Shakespeare’s sonnet come from? What (who) made it possible for Keats to read Homer? Where would Chaucer have been without the Roman de la Rose, or Coleridge without Schiller, or Ted Hughes, without Pilinszky and Amichai, and Ovid?

We have seen more confident, creative periods in UK cultural history, times of greater openness to foreign ideas and languages. Meanwhile, other countries manage to publish and successfully sell much higher percentages of translated literature. There’s no reason why that couldn’t be done here.

Globally, it can only be a good thing for translators to become more visible, and for what it is they actually do, to be better understood. Sophie Collins writes about this in the introduction to Currently and Emotion: Translations (Test Centre, 2016). If the translator is invisible, the authority of a text remains unquestioned, as if it were somehow written anonymously in stone.

A final (cheeky) question, what’s next in your poetic and translation work? Can we expect a follow up to Exactly My Own Length?

I am a slow burner and one of those who worry that if they talk about work before it’s published, it might jinx it… I’ve been writing poems continuously since the last collection came out, but mourning, and then motherhood, have their own natural processes and timings, and it has taken a while for me to come to the new space I hoped the writing would find for itself. I want the second collection to feel different, I’ll hold out for that.

I also have various other things in the pipeline, a novel I periodically take out and wrestle with, and translations, of the French Renaissance poet and proto-feminist, Louise Labé, among others. As I write this, I’m working on a poem by Ariane Dreyfus for the second MPT ‘Translation Duel’ with Susan Wicks, at Ledbury Festival, on 9 July.



 Olivia McCannon’s poetry collection Exactly My Own Length (Carcanet/Oxford Poets, 2011) was shortlisted for the Seamus Heaney Centre Prize and won the 2012 Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize. She lived for nine years in France (eight in Belleville, Paris) and her translations include Balzac’s Old Man Goriot (Penguin Classics, 2011), medieval to contemporary French poetry, and drama. She co-judged the Popescu European Poetry Translation Prize in 2015 and is one of the judges of this year’s Stephen Spender Prize.