canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Steve McCaffery

Part of TDR’s Behemoth Gargantuan Canadian Poetry in Review

Steve McCaffery, a theorist, editor, fiction writer, performance artist, and poet, is the author of over twenty books of literature and criticism. Born in Sheffield, England, in 1947, McCaffery came to Canada in 1968 to study at York University in Toronto. He began working with bpNichol, and the two became founding members of the Toronto Research Group and the Four Horseman sound poetry collective. McCaffery went on to explore language and theory in influential works such as Knowledge Never Knew (1983), Panopticon (1984), Theory of Sediment (1992), and Prior to Meaning: The Protosemantic and Poetics (2001). He now lives in Buffalo where he is the David Gray Professor of Poetry and Letters at the State University of New York.

During the Toronto Research Group days, McCaffery and Nichol practiced a technique called "homolinguistic translation," or "translation within the same language." In 1976, McCaffery published Every Way Oakly, a homolinguistic translation of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, in an edition of 100 photocopied chapbooks. This past year, BookThug reissued Every Way Oakly and released the first ever Canadian edition of Tender Buttons, complete with an introduction by McCaffery himself. 

Norah Franklin caught up with McCaffery at his Toronto book launch.

[January 2009]


NF: Describe your understanding of homolinguistic translation. Why is this a worthwhile practice? What does it show us about language?

SM: Homolinguistic translation is the application of the rules of orthodox translation to a text to be translated in the identical source language; it developed for me as an interest in the mid-seventies and was fueled by conversations with bpNichol and correspondence with Dick Higgins. I first applied it on some poems by MallarmŽ, then Stein and my “displacements” of Sappho that appeared as the book Intimate Distortions through Press PorcŽpic in 1979. I also applied it to the first page of Finnegans Wake (now included in Seven Pages Missing). It should not be confused with homophonic translation by which one tries to preserve the sounds of the source words in the language of the target text (e.g. “germ appeal” for “Je m’appelle” or “a creature” for “Žcriture.” I and many others have utilized this method (including Canadians bpNichol, Yolande Courtright, Stephen Scobie and Douglas Barber). The most notable American contributions are Louis Zukofsky’s translations of Catullus and David Melnick’s Men in Aida, a splendidly homoerotic rendition of the first two books of Homer’s great epic Iliad.

NF: Would you explain some of the methods you used when you approached Stein's text? 

SM: I employed several methods and quite unsystematically. The main one I employed was what Dick Higgins and I called “allusive referential” in which one follows the trajectories of one of several allusions. For instance, “the dog growls” might yield “a noun is very angry,” or via the allusive track of “dog” = “Fido” and “Fido equals faith” arrive at “Faith makes canine noises.” I also employed functional reversals (e.g. nouns for verse forms). Stein’s sentence “The difference is spreading” became “No one same article unlike a wide” where “The difference” yielded the first five words and “is spreading” became “a wide.” One method I didn’t employ was homophonic translation (which I describe above). We can trace the influence on such maverick methods of translation to Oulipo (the predominantly French-based Workshop for Potential Literature, although the homophonic method goes back through Jonathan Swift to classic times).

NF: Are there any passages that stand out for you as having been difficult to translate? What are some of your favourite transformations?

SM: It was so long ago I really can’t remember. As I recall there weren’t any insurmountable hurdles, although I baulked from a translation of the lengthy section on "Rooms." If I had to chose a favourite on grounds of minimalism or concision I think it would be my rendition of Stein’s “A White Hunter:” “A white hunter is nearly crazy” which I translate as “m. ad” (i.e. “Monsieur Ad). Among the longer ones I would have to choose “A Substance in a Cushion.”

NF: Why did you choose to translate Tender Buttons? What is your relationship with this work?

SM: As I mention earlier, Stein was not my first choice but I did come to see her special importance. Tender Buttons offered me a text whose descriptions were deliberately and effectively skewed, rendered epistemologically uncertain; they presented a series of Cubist still lives in words in the manner of Braque’s and Picasso’s analytic cubist paintings of violins, table tops, glasses and bottles etc. Much of Stein’s work does not experiment with Cubist method but with cinematic effects (e.g. her portraits and her monumental The Making of Americans, are structured on repeated paragraphs that recur with only the slightest of changes, on the analogy of the cinematic frame that changes in a similarly minimal way). Such a style offers itself readily to parody (which I have) but presents an overly daunting challenge to alternative translative methods.

NF: Why do you think that it is important to see a Canadian edition of Tender Buttons? How has Stein influenced Canadian writing?

SM: I talk briefly about the history of Stein’s creative and critical reception in Canada in my Introduction. In 1977, when I composed them, it made perfect sense. Stein’s influence on myself and fellow poet the late bpNichol was enormous: the challenge of a text that pushed mimesis to a limit. Both of us were fascinated by the “limit text” and saw another one in Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. I think of the them as a homage to the spirit of inquiry and indefatigable invention in Stein’s methodology. On a broader note I think it important to revisit the poetry of High Modernism with a parallel, though different, inventive fortitude. Modernism’s destructive agenda is well known and reaches an apex in Stein and Joyce. Today’s agenda (and I hold back from the term Postmodern) might be more a spiritual updating or transplanting. Instead of Pound’s “Make it New” why not “Make it Different?”   

NF: What are you working on these days? Would you tell us a bit about your current projects?

SM: I always work on multiple projects. Right now, I’m nearing completion of The Zebras’ Progress: Collected Correspondence of Dick Higgins and Steve McCaffery with Related Texts, co-edited with Stephen Cain and to be published by New York’s Granary Books (since Coach House weren’t interested after Darren Wershler quit as editor). I’m also close to finishing another book that gathers a decade of critical writings on Contemporary Poetics and Architecture and completing a work eight years in the making: Dark Ladies, probably my most bizarre work to date that tries to articulate vaudeville, comedy, theory and unmitigating high-minded scholarship onto philosophy around the fundamental subjects of laughter and death. It’s structured along lines of constraint and includes twice all the end-rhymes in Shakespeare’s 1609 sonnet sequence with stage directions laminated on them from the 1623 folio. I’m also working on a volume of short narrative texts that will include my previously published Crime Scenes and two ongoing pieces called Canterbury Tales and Sky Mall. Additionally, I’m putting together a new selected for Wilfred Laurier Press, working on a manuscript for MiekAl And’s Xexoxial Editions and another for Geoffrey Gatza’s Blazevox. Lastly, a manuscript of poems tentatively entitled Shadowland.




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