Translation Slam with Modern Poetry in Translation

Susan Wicks and I both translated the same poem (‘Rien n’empêche d’autres oiseaux’) by Ariane Dreyfus, then came together for this Ledbury Festival event, chaired by Sasha Dugdale, editor of MPT, to discuss the intriguing choices and exciting discoveries we made during the translation process.


Wearing my writer-translator hat, I’ve recently been interviewed by Tash Keary and Theophilus Kwek for The Kindling, issue three, and by Francesca Beretta for the Oxford Writers’ House.

The Kindling interview

Oxford Writers’ House interview

Louise Labé

Louise Labé, French Renaissance woman, poet and proto-feminist, published her complete works in 1555, prefaced by France’s first literary feminist manifesto.

I’ve recently translated her stunning sequence of twenty-four sonnets, some of which appeared in MPT No.1 2016 ‘The Great Flight’.

You can read Sonnet 18 on the MPT website (with a brilliant ‘distraction-free reading’ option), Sonnet 7 in the Europe issue of Eborakon, and Gareth Prior’s post on Louise Labé and translation generally, on his blog.

Louise_Labé image

Louise Labé (1524-1566) Engraving by Pierre Woeiriot (1532-1596) (detail), 1555

Burmese women poets project for Modern Poetry in Translation

I’m delighted to have co-translated, with Pandora, four poems by Nge Nge (Kyaukse), which appear in MPT No.2, 2015 ‘I WISH…’

You can read ‘State of Emergency’ here


Guy Goffette, Commended, Stephen Spender Prize 2014

‘Fèvrier à vélo’, by Guy Goffette
Translated from the French as ‘February Bike Ride’ by Olivia McCannon


Read the original poem and the translation on the Stephen Spender Prize website


This open-air poem called to me, as it would to any serial escape artist. I was carried away by it (or rather, emballé – a Goffette verb, see 2, line 18). Wanting to continue both the momentum and the conversation of the poem, I began to translate.

Goffette’s poetry travels well into English, due partly to poetic affinities (Auden, Frost, Larkin), partly to its distinctive tone of voice. I felt that my way in would be to try, in English, to ‘hear’ this tone, with its disarming blend of self-deprecating humour, irony, and humanity.

His inventive use of irregular metre, incisive caesura, stanzas that change gear (couplets, tercets, quatrains) and a runaway last line, serve the play between serious and humorous, heavy and light. It’s as if he uses the weight of his troubles to freewheel down one hill, the better to race up the next and find a lightness in his writing to counter them.

French is good at expressing impersonality. The directness of ‘we’ or ‘you’ in English always feels like a disappointing loss of range when rendering the French ‘on’, especially here, where (1, lines 9-18) it enacts a shift towards the therapeutic distancing from the ego the cyclist craves.

Challenges came from highly idiomatic, or culturally specific, language. In part three: le rongeur de frein (‘brake rodent’), la mouche du coche (‘stagecoach fly’), and la Cour des Miracles: in the Paris of Louis XIV, the nickname given to the slums, for the beggars miraculously cured of their ills when they went home at night. I went for ‘rookery’, as it assumed a dual function, a wink to the original that also caught the atmosphere of the closing stanza: it’s dusk, you can’t drag your heels any longer, it’s time to head home…

(©Olivia McCannon 2014)