"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Lifting Yesterday – A Chapter Two Supplement: The Oral Tradition and Translation

In 1999 I attended a Bishop conference in Ouro Prêto, Brazil. A trip of a life-time for me, the memories of which remain vivid “after — how many years?” The paper I presented was about Bishop’s translation of Mina Vida de Menina (The Diary of ‘Helena Morley’). My focus was on how Bishop incorporated her own idiom, received in large measure from her childhood in Nova Scotia, into the translation, with special focus on her grandmother’s influence. Below is an excerpt from this paper, which was never published. If you are interested in reading the whole paper, I am offering a pdf of it gratis, part of the supplement to Lifting Yesterday.
Casa Mariana (Bishop's Ouro Preto house) with poinsettia tree. Photo by yours truly, September 1999
Excerpt from: “‘It Really Happened’: The Confluence of Elizabeth Bishop’s Nova Scotia and The Diary of ‘Helena Morley’

....What we read in the Diary is what might be called the first transcription of oral tradition to written language. Listen to how Bishop translated it: “She told us the story” (5), “telling stories about people” (9), “he told some very funny stories” (16), “one of my father’s stories” (19), “the story of her confession” (21), “the story of the owl” (27), “a story of the old days” (71), “the children tell stories” (73), “mama told a story” (95), “we begin to tell stories” (131), “make up some story” (138), “I like mama’s stories better than papa’s” (140), “Reginalda...knows the most stories” (140), “our aunts amuse us by telling stories” (158), “I like the stories about the old days better” (158), “he told me the story” (179), “mama tells stories of bygone days” (224), “sometimes she tells us stories” (275). And there are many more examples.

The Diary is also filled with a wonderful array of aphorism, one of the vital elements of the oral tradition which survives even in highly text-bound North American culture. Listen to how Bishop translated this element: “God helps more surely than getting up early” (265); “From day to day God smooths the way” (214); “Nothing comes free; money makes the mare go” (226); “The unlucky can’t cry forever” (108); “Marriages and shrouds are made in Heaven” (154); “A crooked stick can’t be straightened” (127); “What the eye doesn’t see the heart doesn’t feel” (43); “The fingers of the hand aren’t all the same” (37); “You must have been born with a caul” (103); “The place is a regular asylum” (188); “Those who have children will never have full bellies” (187).

While she tried to remain true to the tone and texture of the original, Bishop incorporated a good deal of her own colloquialism and idiom into the translation. I offer only one interesting example — there are many. One of Bishop’s favourite words was “awful” (and its variations). Listen to how many ways Bishop brings it into the translation: “awfully sorry,” “awfully funny,” “perfectly awful,” “how awful,” “awful things,” “something awful,” “an awful lot,” “this awful fault,” “that awful dentist,” “it’s awful,” “the rice is awful,” “it must be awful,” “so awful,” “awful uproar,” “really awfully bad,” “too awful,” “an awful shock.” And, again, there are many more examples.

The reason these forms of expression (story, aphorism, idiom) appealed to Bishop was because they went straight back to her own childhood. Great Village at the turn of the twentieth century was a world where written language and texts played major roles, but this place and time remained in many ways a highly oral culture — itself structured around storytelling and aphorism as the medium for education, entertainment and individual and communal creativity. People, places and events were known through what was said about them — the past, present and future were contemplated in the kitchens, parlours, churches and schoolrooms not only through words on a page, but through monologue, dialogue, experiential and expressive oral tradition.

Perhaps the most important nexus of oral tradition in Bishop’s and Helena’s childhood worlds was grandmother. In 1958 Bishop wrote to her maternal aunt, Grace Bulmer Bowers: "'The Diary' is doing pretty well, I think....It was hard to make it sound natural and quite often when I got stuck about how to translate some of the grandmother’s remarks or expressions, and I couldn’t translate them literally, I’d try to think of what Gammie would have said! I think it worked pretty well." (12 March)

Victoria Harrison has pointed out the way Bishop merged one of Gammie Bulmer’s favourite phrases, “Nobody knows,” with Dona Teodora’s way of speaking (176) — there are several examples of this particular confluence in the Diary: “Grandma said that all that is a mystery, that we never really know these things for sure” (102); “Nobody knows what it was” (199); “Nobody knows what she wants” (132); “God knows what he’s doing” (211). Helena herself adopts the phrase, “Nobody knows what a person is like inside” (65).

However, the link between these two grandmothers is apparent almost every time we encounter Dona Teodora in the Diary. Though Gammie Bulmer was not a wealthy widow with a houseful of ex-slaves, she was the matriarch of a large family, the arbiter of family disputes, the hostess of a regular stream of visitors (relatives and friends), a participant in the charitable activities of the community, a devout practitioner of her faith and a partly rational, partly credulous believer in the mysteries of life and death. Though smaller, Gammie Bulmer’s home was in many ways similar to Dona Teodora’s chácara, “a house with extensive gardens, or even a small farm, but not necessarily in the country” (Diary xxxv). These homes were the centre of family life. Moreover, besides “Nobody knows,” both women had a store of other aphoristic utterances. And with one of these, we see directly the practice Bishop described to Aunt Grace. One of Dona Teodora’s favourite exclamations was, “Forte coisa!” which Bishop tells us in a note literally means “Strong thing” or “Fine thing.” Bishop chose to substitute the literal English translation — which diminishes the complex connotation of the Portuguese — with one of Gammie Bulmer's actual phrases, “I never in my born days!”
Again, if you would like to read the entire paper, let me know and I can send you the pdf. I also want to reiterate, you can subscribe for Lifting Yesterday at any point. The cost is $25.00 for ten pdfs, which can be sent all at once, or once a month. Contact me at slbarry@ns.sympatico.ca.
A Great Village Update
 Our Great Village correspondent Patti Sharpe sent these photos the other day. Earlier this week, the old Great Village bridge was finally completely dismantled. The iron structure was lifted, impressively, and set on the ground, where the beams were cut up (we all assume for scrap). The end of an era, as this dear old bridge has been on this site for well over 100 years. As Bishop might say, “Good-bye to the bridge.”
Photos taken by Harold Sharpe


  1. After reading the engrossing chapter one of "Lifting Yesterday," the acuity of my emotional distress over the removal of the iron bridge in Great Village was restimulated when Sandra quoted both Bishop and Roy D. McNutt in her comments on their identifying with a particle place:

    Sandra quotes McNutt: "Stand at the iron bridge at Great Village, look up stream or down stream..." and Bishop: I stopped a the bridge to look at the river...Anyone from the village who crosses the bridge always stops and leans on the railing and stares down at the water...practically all the proceedings of the village are interrupted in this way. It is as if the little river with its clear, deep water, its trash and water logs flowed somehow between every transaction carried on in the village..."

    Now the literary legacy of the iron bridge is all that is left. Its material presence is no more. Having just read John Ralston Saul's "A Fair Country/ Talking Truths about Canada" in which he exposes the lack of content and meaning in Canadian politics of the last twenty-years, its be all and end all having been transformed into the triumph of utilitarianism in departments with scripted robo-speak as the only mode of communication and their inability to either think or feel on any topic their forte, I couldn't help but reference his insights with the process by which this unique surviving physical presence--the iron "singing" bridge of an internationally famous Nova Scotian literary reference (of which we have few). I suppose it was too much to hope that this phenomenon would last in he present political climate when I understand that the community was not even consulted about a drastic change to its physical ambience, which marks a severe blow for visitors coming to see what Bishop meant and for consideration of the community's historical and literary heritage when the narrow, closed concerns of a government department's authority is concerned. It's not as if the new bridge will have made things safer. The famous one way bridge slowed traffic coming into the hairpin turn preventing accidents and the deforestation and altering of the riverbanks I heard made the recent flooding of the village more severe than has been in the past.

    What then was the main reason for replacing the bridge? I understand that it was because it was in contravention of the "Rule" that no bridges on thoroughfare highways can be one way and that it was an oversight just "caught" after decades of "lying hidden" that this bridge had not been changed. So it seems the only measure for the action was the abstract generalized rule. Nothing else--the lay of the land, the need for the trees, the intellectual heritage that the bridge referenced, the community's opinion, the effect of such a change in light of flooding heightened by climate change consequences, the rights of the homeowners near the river--no content of any of these kinds could be considered in this major. life changing decision taken by one (?) bureaucrat in a single government department. It certainly confirms Ralston Saul's thesis which might be expressed by the oxymoronic value in the phrase "political 'thinking.' "

    Correct me if I'm sorely mistaken.

  2. 3rd par., line five: "twenty-years" should read "twenty-five years"

    3rd par., line twelve: "in he" should read "in the"

    4th par., line three: "one way" should read "one lane"

    4th par., line eleven: "in this major. life" should read "in this major life"

  3. I'm sorry that the mechanics of Blogger will not permit me to make your corrections directly to your original comment, so I have had them appended to it here. Thank you for your understanding! -- JAB