En passant

En passant : Une passeuse de ce qui ne passe pas partout…

by Erín Moure

Pato sets my language on its edge; in my own English, I am made other to myself (and am grateful for this).

At the end of January 2023, Hopscotch Translation will be celebrating its 2nd anniversary. Just as we did for our first anniversary last year, we decided to observe the occasion by inviting a number of fellow translators to offer brief personal reflections on a common topic. This year’s forum takes as its theme the seemingly impossible translation of certain words, and as its mascot, you might say, the figure known in French as the passeur/passeuse. Erín Moure, a poet and translator who happens to be intimately familiar with French, here invites us in turn to accompany her on a multilingual excursion to the heart of the very notion of (un)translatability. Her essay isn’t just a prelude to the Hopscotch anniversary forum; it’s an adventure unto itself. Buckle up—and bon voyage!

Paraguayan Sea / Mer paraguayenne, Andrew Forster, 2017-18. This artwork of public typography uses text from Erín Moure’s Frenglish translation of the Portunhol/Guaraní novel Mar Paraguayo by Brazilian Wilson Bueno on a yellow band wrapped around a Concordia University building in downtown Montreal. Forster created the font ‘Iguana’ specifically for the project.

When I think of words that pass between languages only with difficulty, or barely at all, or that leave bits of themselves behind on the journey, I think of the French word “intraduisible” — not the adjective, which does mean untranslatable, but the noun, as in Barbara Cassin’s Dictionnaire des intraduisibles. This word — which indicates a concept known in French and Portuguese, at least — when translated into English as “untranslatable,” has a downside: it gains a negative connotation that seems inherent in the English, giving us the idea of failure, defeat, impasse. Intranslatable and untranslatable, however, are not the same thing.

As Cassin indicates in the introduction to her dictionary in its 2014 and 2019 editions, taking up her definition first elaborated in 1995, an “intranslatable” is not what cannot be translated, but what one “does not cease to (not) translate,” a double negation that opens up not failure but a thinking about the possibilities inherent in words, in languages. (The 2019 expanded edition of the Dictionnaire des intraduisibles adds an entry on “intradução,” intranslation — cousin and ancestor, in a sense, to the noun “intranslatable” — contributed by Fernando Santoro, Brazilian thinker of the intraduisible and the intersections of poetry and philosophy.)

In my case, it is not the stories of untranslatable words that interest me (because one eventually finds a translation, even if good only in a particular context, since what is seen as untranslatable is so, largely, because of context, and not because of a crevasse in lexicon per se).

What really interests me, more than anything, is the incessant passage of a word in the same language, the language of reception, where the arrival of the foreign word provokes a kind of constant movement between words, of and in each word (even when a translation seems obvious), which makes translation complex, yes, but also joyful, feverish, alive. Words, which seemed so stable that we eagerly built texts by using them as bricks, are not so stable. Our recognition of this fact points us to the febrility of thought itself, to its unceasing possibilities. Its openings. As Fernando Santoro says in the Dictionnaire, “it is not just a question of translating a text into another language, but of the intranslation of a complex textual lattice of several languages into another language.” The word itself, along with its companions, reveals something I see as akin to Édouard Glissant’s “trembling thinking.”[1]

As such, to take the case of Chus Pato and her poetry (as an example), I must translate not just Galician but a “complex textual lattice” that also includes a culture, borderline and bordered (which is to say unbordered), penetrated by the colonial tongue, Castilian, and by its own descendant, Portuguese, as well as by the political and social circumstances of Pato’s own life (she grew up under Francoism, in short, in a dictatorship). Galician, galego, is a language historically oppressed and today still suppressed in many ways — subtle and not so subtle — in the state where it is at home, and I must work to translate it without ingesting it and causing its difference, its Galician difference, to vanish in the hegemonic yet multiple language that is English. How to keep her accent, her difference, audible and palpable in the English text?

In 2021, in a lecture for Naropa University, I spoke about the notion of the intranslatable, that which one “does not cease to (not) translate,” which I first received from Barbara Cassin indirectly (in fact), via an article by Galician-Portuguese-German thinker and translator Burghard Baltrusch. I referred at Naropa to my translation from Galician into English of Chus Pato’s book Secesión (2009), published in English in 2014 with my parallel text, Insecession. This long text of Pato’s begins with an epigraph from Roland Barthes, which already has a translation in English. Rather than use this translation, however, I made a transluçine[2] of Barthes’s French, translating the concept of writing by the concept of translation, so as to shed light on my own task (in this particular work) of trembling-displacement, and to describe, subtly, how I receive Pato’s works, even before translating them, and how, in receiving and translating them, I am drawn to challenge translation just as Pato challenges the commodification of writing. At the same time, I must translate her texts without transluçinating. I must attend to her every linguistic gesture and tense and formulation, in order to let her work speak in English without colonizing it with my own reading (impossible to avoid this completely, but…).

A readerly text is one I cannot re-produce (today I cannot write like Atwood); a writerly text is one I can read only if I utterly transform my reading regime. I now recognize a third text alongside the readerly and the writerly: let’s call it the intranslatable. The intranslatable is the unreaderly text which catches fire, burns in the mouth, an instance continuously outside any likelihood, whose function – ardently assumed by its scripter – is to contest the mercantile constraints on what is written. This text, guided, armed by a notion of material, prompts me to redact the following words: Dear Chus, I can neither read nor write what you produce, but I can intranslate it, like a conflagration, a drug, an insecession, an e(ri)nigmatic disorganization.

Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes
Richard Howard translation,
altered by Ruin E. Rome

My readings and translation of Pato do leave “me” “e(ri)nigmatically disorganized,” defeated and (yet) reopened in my very self. I translate, aiming for an integral and complete text that reflects Pato’s reverberations and structures, her musculature and movement in Galician, even if the action of translating it into a different culture leaves my “me” upended, disorganized, perturbed. Pato sets my language on its edge; in my own English, I am made other to myself (and am grateful for this).

My painstakingly learned findings about this disturbance of translation — this doubled negation which is an affirmation — that is my own act of intranslation, findings which I discovered in Pato and other poets, in and concurrently with the repeated performative and corporeal act of translation (which is an act of supreme and partly impossible listening, a compossible listening) are akin to the view set out on the other side of Europe from Pato by the venerable and prolific Ukrainian translator and writer Andriy Sodomora, in a (mostly) Petrarchan sonnet penned in response to a colleague’s views on untranslatability. Here is its translation, unrhymed, into English, made by Roman Ivashkiv:

If untranslatability is superstition
Then I’m one of the most superstitious of all:
In unison with the pines of Verlaine?
To flash white via Lermontov’s lonely sail?

For a translator it’s not punishment, it’s the law
You can’t step into the same wave twice.
Each new string will ring a different tone
And bear a different mood each time.

That’s why, as the most superstitious translator
I’ve sailed and will sail among failures,
Each word composing its way to the next.

To avoid getting caught up in extremes—
I grapple with superstition over and over
If untranslatability is superstition.

So in translation and “untranslatability” (so often made into a superstition!), it is the grappling that interests Sodomora as he translates into Ukrainian. And this grappling is the act I think of as “intradução,” in-translation, intra-nslation, which is a response across languages to the trembling of thinking itself.

In grappling with the intraduisible, the intranslatable, I am aware of a language of reception that cannot fail to self-multiply and remain in movement, and this in every case of translating a text, of listening to its language, of trying to pin it down as it moves. As such, to simply pull out a treatment of one word to describe it to you to show you my alacrity (or how marvellous language is) isn’t much use, and may even reinforce paradigms (or superstitions) of translation that I don’t find useful (faithfulness being one, literality and its opposite whether pragmatic or creative, being another).

The intranslatable is a condition of joy, not a failure. It allows entry into sonically meaningful spacings and registers in and between languages that disturb one’s own (the target) language, and these disturbances, which are chronic and moving and not monumental (not exemplary as individual instances), are part of the human condition of being in a language. 

So I’d rather hear/read more than one translation of a text than read about a single word.

By the time you arrive here, I will already have translated these thoughts for you; you are receiving them, for the most part, in translation! For up until my first quote, they were written in French.

Erín Moure, 21 January 2023
Canada France Brazil Martinique Galicia Ukraine Illinois


[1] « La pensée du tremblement éclate partout, avec les musiques et les formes suggérées par les peuples. Elle nous préserve des pensées de système et des systèmes de pensée. Elle ne suppose pas la peur ou l’irrésolu, elle s’étend infiniment comme un oiseau innumérable, les ailes semées du sel noir de la terre. Elle nous unit dans l’absolue diversité, en un tourbillon de rencontres. Elle est l’Utopie qui jamais ne se fixe et qui ouvre demain : comme un soleil ou un fruit partagés. » Édouard Glissant, in La Cohée du Lamentin. Paris : Gallimard, 2005, 33. For one example.

[2] transluçine: see Moure, O Cadoiro, 2007, from the expression in Spanish used by Chilean poet Andrés Ajens, “translucine”.


Baltrusch, Burghard. “Sobre tradutibilidade e intradutibilidade em Walter Benjamin,” in Cadernos de Tradução, v. 38 n. 2 (2018).

Barthes, Roland. Barthes on Barthes. tr. Richard Howard from French. NY: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1977.

Cassin, Barbara, et. al. Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon, tr. and adapted by Emily Apter et al. from the French edition of 2004. Princeton, NJ: Princeton U Press, 2014.

Cassin, Barbara, et. al. Vocabulaire européen des philosophies : Le Dictionnaire des intraduisibles, édition augmentée. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 2019.

Glissant, Édouard and Sylvie Sémavoine Glissant. « La pensée du tremblement, »  Contemporary French and Francophone Studies, 20:4-5, 2016, 526-529, DOI: 10.1080/17409292.2016.1219027. Repris dans É. Glissant, La Cohée du Lamentin. Paris: Gallimard, 2005. http://www.edouardglissant.fr/tremblement.html https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bd1ZKEzpPuw

Moure, Erín. “Elisa Sampedrín and the Paradox of Translation, or The Intranslatable,” given as a talk at Naropa University, 2021, and downloadable: https://erinmoure.mystrikingly.com/#es-and-the-paradox-of-translation-or-the-intranslatable-pdf

Pato, Chus. Secession tr. Erín Moure, with Insecession by Erín Moure. Toronto: Book*hug Press, 2014.

Santoro, Fernando. « INTRADUCTION : La traduction de la philosophie rencontre les déis de la traduction poétique » dans Philosopher en langues : Les intraduisibles en traduction, ed. Barbara Cassin. Paris, Rue d’Ulm, col. « Etudes de littérature ancienne », 2014, 167-182.

Santoro, Fernando. « INTRADUÇÃO » dans Vocabulaire européen des philosophies : Le Dictionnaire des intraduisibles, édition augmentée. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 2019, 1555-1557.

Содомора А. Студії одного вірша. Львів: Літопис, 2006, 230. Sodomora, Andriy. Studies of One Poem. Lviv: Lytopis, 2006, p. 230. English version of the poem is by Roman Ivashkiv. (Ivashkiv’s translation of Sodomora’s The Tears and Smiles of Things: Selected Stories is upcoming from  Academic Studies Press.)

Erín Moure is a poet and translator based in Montreal. She has published 18 books of poetry, a coauthored book of poetry, essays, articles on translation, a biopoetics and two memoirs, and is translator or co-translator of 26 books, mostly poetry, from French, Galician, Portunhol, Portuguese, Spanish, and Ukrainian (with Roman Ivashkiv) into English, and Galician into French. Most recent translations: Chus Pato’s The Face of the Quartzes (Veliz Books, 2021) and Chantal Neveu’s This Radiant Life (Book*hug Press, 2020). Theophylline: an a-poretic migration (via the modernisms of Rukeyser, Bishop, Grimké), is upcoming in 2023 from House of Anansi Press in Toronto. [Photo: E. Sampedrin]

Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, January 24, 2023

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