Inventive Translation: Poet Trevor Joyce Returns to Miami

On Wednesday, October 12, poet Trevor Joyce drew an impressive crowd for a reading in Irvin Hall. Joyce has published fifteen volumes of poetry to date, including poetry he translated from Chinese, Finno-Urgic, Hungarian, and Old Irish. Currently, Joyce is working on an English-English translation of the Mutabilitie Cantos from Edmund Spenser’s The Fairie Queene, and though he did not share any parts of that upcoming work, he kept the audience engaged with readings of his work spanning many themes.

In introducing Trevor Joyce, Dr. Keith Tuma of the Department of English praised him, calling DSC_2776him a “friend of the program.” This is Joyce’s third visit to Miami over the past fifteen years, and that familiarity shone through his comfortable presence addressing the audience and in Dr. Tuma’s brief account of Joyce’s history: “Trevor’s career is kind of odd… and just plain odd biographically. He started in the 1960s…and began a magazine that promoted modernism.” For about twenty years, Joyce did not publish any poetry, and then “came back in a big way” with stone floods, which Tuma called “fascinating” and “unprecedented.”

Joyce began with a lyrical poem in translation titled “Capital Accounts.” The original 1200-year-old Chinese poem from the Tang dynasty gives an “extraordinarily urban” account of the capital city Luoyang. Joyce read his “fairly literal” translation deliberately, occasionally puncturing the lines of the poem with a snap of his fingers. Hearing the poem aloud was an interesting collision of cultures: the English words of the poem brought to life the ancient Chinese city, articulated through Joyce’s Irish accent.

Joyce also read 36-word poems. “[These are from] The Immediate Future, which is now the recent past,” he quipped. “The strains [in these poems] are a combination of financial speculation written in the years following the ’08 crisis and Chinese divination.” The futility of trying to divine the future was thematic in the set, and Joyce followed with a sorrowful topic: a translation of a poem that records the lamentations of Irish queen Gormlaith after her husband Niall Blackknee dies in battle. “Love Songs from a Dead Tongue,” as the poem is called, is “a wonderful creation; the closing phrase [of a verse] echoes the opening,” explained Joyce—so each verse ends and begins with the same word or phrase. “[The original] is in delicate condition, so some text is missing and I try to preserve that, but they know the last word of the poem.”

Joyce also read from his most recent publication, Rome’s Wreck, which is an English to English “translation” of Edmund Spenser’s work The Ruins of Rome, which itself was a translation of French poet Joachim du Bellay’s Antiquités de Rome. Joyce gave a brief history of Spenser’s violent past, explaining how Spenser shared the responsibility in the massacre of Irish rebels in the Battle of Smerwick during the Second Desmond Rebellion. “They were given the opportunity to convert, and those that didn’t, which was the majority, were hanged. I thought it was a little ironic to give [his poem] back, transfigured,” explained Joyce, who transformed Spenser’s overtly elaborate version into monosyllabic words.

Joyce finished off the night with an enlightening question and answer period with the crowd. Dr. Cathy Wagner, Professor and Director of the Creative Writing Program, asked Joyce, “You said you like things that are planned from the beginning. Can you say why you like them?” regarding “Love Songs from a Dead Tongue.” Joyce responded, “The spontaneous element is evident, but [the end is known from the beginning]. I love that, I like the way the even the most artificial of poetry is always reliant on some level on the transaction of ordinary speech and ordinary human materials.”

When asked about how he became interested in translation, Joyce responded with a story. “When I was too young to know better, around eighteen or nineteen or something like that, this guy who was older than me, Mike Smith, he gave me a dual language text of the DSC_2775famous Middle Irish text, Buile Shuibhne, or The Madness of Sweeny… He just said, you know, ‘You need to read more, you need to try a little harder in this poetry you’re writing.’ So he made me work at it you know, ‘Try translating it, just try.’” Eventually, Joyce’s translation was published. “That showed it was possible that I could, even without a very extensive knowledge of languages, do [translation]… and everything is translation. You’re in conversation with somebody, you’re translating in your head, you’re explaining what they said to somebody else… It’s part of what we do. There are various degrees, there are various degrees of our faithfulness, but I like inventive translation.”

An audience member who noticed that Joyce is now working on his second translation of Edmund Spenser asked, simply, “Why Spenser?” Joyce responded, “Spenser wrote most of The Faerie Queene in Ireland… and my father’s people came from just on the other side of [Spenser’s castle] back around 200 years ago. My great grand uncle was the first person to locate Spenser’s landscape in The Faerie Queene as being actually the landscape of Munster and southern parts of Ireland, so that gives me a connection with him… But also that he was writing this great English poem… in Ireland, so I thought it was worth responding to.”

Joyce’s translation of the Mutabilitie Cantos from The Faerie Queene is forthcoming from the Miami University Press. His reading was sponsored by the Creative Writing Program and Miami University Press.

Alison Block
MU Press Intern
English Department Ambassador
Professional Writing ’17