Serge Patrice Thibodeau’s Seul on est won the Governor General’s Award in 2007, an honour which no doubt helped it become one of the few books of contemporary French-Canadian poetry translated into English.
Seul on est is a slim, meditative sequence of 42 brief sonnets, which blend abstraction with concrete observations of nature, technology, and society. For the most part, Jo-Anne Elder does a creditable job in rendering Thibodeau’s poems accurately into English, even if she mangles the title. Thibodeau’s title comes from the book’s epigram, “Alone one is,” a quote from a poem by Paul Valéry. Why Elder truncated it I can’t imagine. It could be argued that the syntax is too odd, but it’s not exactly conventional in French either – “on est seul” is a more standard way of phrasing it.
Other missteps are scattered throughout the book. For example, one line of Thibodeau’s is “brindilles, coquilles et racines,” which, literally translated, is “twigs, shells, and roots.” Oddly, Elder renders it as “underbrush, undersea, undergrowth.” There is nothing in the original to suggest that the shells are necessarily seashells, nor that, if they were, they would be “undersea.” Given that the poem talks about the relations of parts to wholes, and that the other two nouns in the line are parts of a tree, it seems more likely that “shells” would refer to nutshells.
Gaffes aside, Elder’s translations are reasonably competent as English poems, but they lack the range of musical effect or lexical depth of the original. Elder’s One is a decent facsimile, but more workmanlike than wonderful, and far from the same as Seul on est.