My practice of translating poetry is more than just a decoding of what someone wrote in a tongue not my own. It’s the unlocking of thoughts, the unveiling of sights, and the unmuting of sounds that I would otherwise never imagine. These discoveries facilitate word-play and poetic insight as I interact with my Anglophone world.
This week yielded a classic example. We took my daughter north for spring break to Québec QC so we could revisit it without the crush of summer crowds. While there, I read Robert Macfarlane’s essay at The Guardian about his book LANDMARKS. Of all the words he highlighted in his essay, the one that stuck with me was ungive from Northamptonshire /East Anglia and its peculiar definition “to thaw.”
On the same trip, I began researching Québécois snow-poems to translate. One of the books I picked up was Claude Beausoleil’s MÉMOIRE DE NEIGE. As everyone else slept-in after our long drive home, I started reading the book’s first poem “Tempête.” And there it was on the second page: l’effet de givre submergé. I’d never seen the word givre before. Wary from past experience with false cognates, I did a quick search in my French dictionary app. Et voilà: frost — the effect of flooded frost.
Frost/givre. Ungive/thaw. Robert Macfarlane’s thoughts on the derivation of ungive for thaw are poetic, but I wonder if the Norman conquest and its effects on the English language also play a part.
I don’t really want a definitive answer because the fun is in wondering; I only have this kind of fun because I translate. And now, because of translation, I’ll wonder all the more every time the givre on my window ungives at sunrise.
The sky turned black and we were stuck behind
a three-mile line of cars. I’d tried to find
a back way home from Megan’s Boston doc
but didn’t figure in the five o’clock
non-weekender just wanting to get home
to Essex County, Mass (I’d hoped to roam
its Whittier spaces). Rain began to pelt
the car as Haverhill came in view. We felt
quite nervous when we couldn’t see if there
were two or four lanes ‘cross the bridge over
the Merrimack. Our wipers set on max
could not keep up. We followed tracks
of a one-ton truck until it led us through
a flooded patch of Main Street. Thus we knew
we had to park and let the deluge pass.
We turned uphill and looked for treeless grass
to park beside. Rain-Bound. No debate:
John Greenleaf Whittier’s farm would have to wait.
After Michigan’s miles marked with graves
and Ohio’s highways hindered by cones,
I landed some lodging in a lakeside town.
I planned to unpack and plop on the bed.
But I went to the window to watch the traffic
and noticed — through noise and nuisant wires —
sweet-light from the sun setting over the lake.
Driven, I dashed down to the lobby
where a man marked a map to the beach
on Presque Isle (the piece of peace where my son
waded and watched the waves last year).
I revved along roads, racing the sun.
I lost. But the last liquid red
shone on the shingle. The shore glowed.
The wave-rhythm washed away the roar
of a day spent driving and dodging pot-holes.
The sand massaged the soles of my feet.
I paced. I took pictures. My pulse slowed.
No matter that I missed the moment of setting.
The fade was fantastic: a finish worth
extending my trek. Two days to go —
impossible made possible by peaceful Lake Erie.