Translation Crisis

Josh Corey's comments on reading poetry in translation have reminded me of a crucial element with translating Latin American poetry: the cultural and personal context surrounding each poet and his/her work. Corey points, for instance, to a piece by César Vallejo from his first book Los heraldos negros (1918) in its English version published by Copper Canyon Press. He notices the heavy use of "sincerity" or "duende" in the excerpted poem as representative of Latin American or Spanish poetry in general. While Vallejo's first collection does tend to be less innovative, or exciting, than his later work, I find little evidence of García Lorca's "duende" in any of his poetry. Or, one could argue that "duende" can be found in many poets outside the Spanish-language tradition. Corey's observations point to the obstacles faced by translation, beyond simply evoking the words in a particular poem. How does a translator convey to a reader the sounds, ideas and images that make a poem worth reading? I can't speak for Spanish poetry, since I've read too little of it to feel comfortable discussing its recent history. But regarding Latin American poetry and its life in English translation, there has been so little researched and translated by American or English scholars that we could very well speak of a translation crisis.

The situation goes both ways, of course. Not enough readers in Latin America know about American poets such as John Wieners or Frank Lima. But for obvious political and cultural reasons, readers in Latin America tend to have a more thorough understanding of poetic traditions in the U.S. and England. The U.S. 's role as the sole superpower makes it nearly impossible for a poet in Latin America to not know at least a little bit about poetry written in English (whether from the U.S. or England).

What I've noticed, as a bilingual reader, is the shamefully small amount of Latin American poetry that gets translated into English. The few poets who do end up in English tend to be the giants such as Neruda or Vallejo. Of these two, I find Vallejo to be infinitely more interesting. Vallejo's work in Trilce (1922) and in the uncollected poems he wrote during his years in Paris reflect an intense desire and ability to question the foundations of the Spanish language. While Neruda fancied himself a revolutionary, writing odes to Stalin and salt shakers, Vallejo was busy revolutionizing the Spanish language, trying to create poems that would reflect his own experience of mestizaje (as a cultural and racial phenomenon). Trilce is very difficult to read, whether in the original or in Clayton Eshelman's magnificent English version. But this difficulty is what forces the reader to understand some of the complexity and vibrancy of Latin America. Latin American critics have pointed to The Waste Land as an equivalent poem, in terms of influence and intent, published at the same time as Trilce. They are surely two manifestations of a specific Modernist impulse to break old forms, one in English the other in Spanish. (Not to confuse Modernism with the Modernismo movement in Spanish-language poetry.)

Vallejo's Paris poems (and his poems on the Spanish civil war) are suffused with this radical spirit of experimentation, although they never lose a certain humanistic or "sincere" stance. I think there's a reason Neruda is probably the most translated Latin American poet in English. He reflects the quick-fix, or the easily-digested romantic notion of Latin America as a "magical" or "passionate" region. I would never dismiss Neruda's talent, or the beauty in much of his work. In fact, his work was very important to me when I first began to read and write poetry. But Neruda's "sincere" style is not indicative of all Latin American writers. The same could be said in fiction, regarding the all-pervasive influence of Gabriel García Márquez, which has convinced some North American readers that Latin American fiction can only aspire to magical realism and its derivatives.

The poet I would recommend for North American readers to counterbalance the pervasive influence of Neruda would be Roque Dalton (1935-1975). The selection of his work published in English by Curbstone Press, The Small Hours of the Night, offers a good sampling of his talent. Dalton was as "sincere" a poet as you might find in Latin America (his participation in the early stages of the Salvadoran civil war is well-known) and yet he managed to be ironic, romantic, political and self-deprecating, depending on the poem. Unlike Neruda, his style never ossified into a routine. Like Vallejo, Dalton was often concerned with balancing the avant-garde and the visionary.

The fact that Dalton's greatest work, his posthumous novel Pobrecito poeta que era yo (San Salvador: UCA Editores, 2000), is unavailable in English indicates how little North American readers know about Latin American poetry's avant-garde traditions. This isin't necessarily the fault of readers. The responsibility would have to fall on scholars and translators, who haven't been dedicated enough to search out a wider spectrum of poets to translate into English. Although I haven't had a chance to read all of them yet, the translations of Bolivian poet Jaime Saenz by Kent Johnson and Forrest Gander are the types of adventurous and sound choices more American and English translators should make. Jen Hofer's incredible anthology of Mexican poets, Sin puertas visibles, is another example of what a dedicated and passionate reading of Latin American poetry by North Americans might look like.

I think about this translation crisis in relation to my own efforts in this blog to translate a few Venezuelan poets into English. When thinking about Venezuelan poetry in English one has to do so with the awareness that there has been no anthology published of Venezuelan poetry in translation. (In the early 1980s, Venezuela's PEN Club did publish an anthology of Venezuelan poetry in English translation but, as far as I know, that was a very limited edition.) Even in the Spanish-speaking world, Venezuelan poetry has remained relatively unknown. One example of this obscurity is the case of Juan Sánchez Peláez (1922-2003), in my opinion the most important Venezuelan poet of the XX century. His collected poems have only recently been published in Spain (in a beautiful edition by Editorial Lumen in Barcelona). And even though his admirers include Octavio Paz and Álvaro Mutis, Sánchez Peláez has remained a figure shrouded in silence.

When I post my translations each month at Antología, I never include information about the poets and their cultural and personal context. I prefer for the poems themselves to win over the reader (or not). I am very aware, however, of the necessity of critical and biographical information to help English-speaking readers have some sense of that poet's milieu and his or her approaches to the art. I know that whenever I'm able to publish the anthology I'm working on, it would have to include a long introductory essay, as well as shorter critical essays on each of the poets included. I visualize the anthology as having anywhere from a dozen to two dozen poets, ranging from the 1930s until the early 2000s. I also know that I would like to have at least a handfull of other translators working on the poems. For the moment, I've been the only one translating these poets and the limitations of my own work as scholar and translator are obvious. Having other translators work on the poems could only help widen the stylistic scope of the project. (You can consider this a call for translators.)

I'm several years into this project and I really think of it as something to be accomplished over a long period of time, a decade perhaps. In order to fully get started, I would need funding to allow me two crucial elements I currently lack: (1) the time necessary for editing and translating and (2) being able to spend several months researching in Venezuelan libraries and bookstores. Everything in Venezuela's political landscape points to my not being able to return any time soon, so perhaps that research will have to be done elsewhere. As of today, ordering books online from Venezuela is prohibitively expensive.

The translation crisis I see in the U.S. surely doesn't involve only Latin American poetry. I think it actually reflects a greater ill among Americans, a tendency to ignore the rest of the world. I have no illusions about this situation being remedied any time soon. However, I continue to translate poetry because it reflects my own existence as a translated being in a country that insists on forgetting its own multiple (and multicultural) history. One of the reasons why a fraud and a gangster such as Hugo Chávez can receive so much support from otherwise-insightful North American intellectuals is that so little is known about Latin America as a region, much less Venezuela. In this context, translation would appear to be a necessity.

(Having finished this, I see Jonathan has written a succinct and effective post on the topic of poetry in Spanish.)


I'm currently preparing a selection of English versions of the poet Jacqueline Goldberg (Maracaibo, 1966), from her collection Insolaciones en Miami Beach (Caracas: Fundarte, 1995). They'll be up at Antología in August.

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