Yukon poetry, found in translation

When Clea Roberts first drove up to the Yukon almost 10 years ago, it was the dead of winter, dark and 30 below. At some point along the Alaska Highway, she could see faint lights over the hills.

When Clea Roberts first drove up to the Yukon almost 10 years ago, it was the dead of winter, dark and 30 below.

At some point along the Alaska Highway, she could see faint lights over the hills.

“Those must be the city lights of Teslin,” she told her husband, when in fact they were the Northern Lights.

“I moved to the Yukon sight unseen and I had no idea that a dot on the map could mean such a rural village,” she told the News last week.

“There is significance in those dots and it altered my previous conception of solitude and isolation. I found that as soon as I moved up here, the landscape required some kind of response, more so than other places I’d lived in.”

Inspired by Yukon’s long winters and the diaries of men and women from the Klondike Gold Rush era, Roberts spent the next several years honing her craft and writing poetry.

The end result is called Here Is Where We Disembark, a collection published in English in 2010, and in German last year.

It turns out that German, with all its guttural sounds, was a great fit for her poetry because it contains words that can express complex concepts in English.

“They have these words that have a huge back story and meaning,” she said.

“They condense meaning down to one word, like schadenfreude. That’s the best poetry.”

Translators from different backgrounds approach ideas and images differently, and might filter them through their own cultural lenses, she said.

The translation process took three years.

Her publisher, Freehand Books, reached out to almost 10 German publishers and finally, it was Edition Rugerup that stepped up.

“I found the publishing industry a lot more competitive there,” she said.

“It appears as though their funding for contemporary poetry isn’t as good as it is here. They’re really limited in what they can publish.”

Roberts has German friends who read and compared the English and German versions of her book, and concluded the end result was very similar.

“She did a very accurate translation, both literally and figuratively,” Roberts said of the translator.

“It’s interesting given the German approach to wilderness, and how they might see it differently than we see it. They have these deep cultural memories of winter that go back to the Little Ice Age, a period between the 16th and 19th centuries when summers were shortened and they had to significantly adjust crop cycles to keep people fed. People started spending more time indoors and it definitely had an impact on people’s creativity.”

Now a mother of two, Roberts is inspired by her children and interested in exploring the internal and external components of landscape.

“The romantic poets used to use weather to reflect their current state of emotion,” she said.

“The words we use to describe the feelings evoked by the landscape suggest an interior element.”

She would love to see her future work published in other languages, such as French and Japanese.

“People have told me there’s a zen-like quality to my writing,” she said, “very much like a haiku.”

“I never meant to do that, it came naturally. It seemed like language was so foreign to foist onto this amazing place (Yukon), I wanted to be careful with the words I used because I didn’t want to overwhelm what I was describing with long line breaks.”

Roberts is currently working with renowned Canadian poet Don McKay on her latest manuscript.

Contact Myles Dolphin at myles@yukon-news.com

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