Maverick translation

What with vital writers and artists — Rainer Maria Rilke, Pablo Neruda, Paul Celan, Franz Kafka, Joan Baez, Robert Lowell, and others in Memoirs of a Maverick Translator — what with them, a time comes for various other people, events, jokes, unique ideas, and more. They have wild difference, thus not much order or connection.

Decades ago I heard the excellent poet W. S. Merwin (1927–) when we were concerning a poem’s value. A few people were lamenting its translation, so Merwin simply said: “The original is never harmed.”

The Dark Room and other poems by Enrique Lihn, a fine Chilean poet, was translated in 1978 by New Directions. Payment went to someone who edited and introduced; with him, we three translators also got some pay; Lihn got an okay amount; New Directions certainly did. Our four fellows, however, would not receive $25 payment until this $2.45 book succeeds. After three decades I got it. 

When Federico García Lorca was murdered in 1936, Roy Campbell wrote: “Not only did he lose his life / By shots assassinated: / But with a hammer and a knife / Was after that — translated.”  

Frost did not write “Poetry is what gets lost in translation,” though he must have spoken it. He wrote “Poetry is that which tends to evaporate from both prose and verse when translated.”

Simone de Beauvoir replied, in French, to my article about young Pablo Neruda’s use of women: Chère Madame …, “Dear Madam, Many thanks for your essay on Neruda which gave me lively interest et que j’ai fait lire par mes amies feminists. En toute sympathie, S de Beauvoir [and which I’ve had my feminist friends read. In all kindness, S de Beauvoir].” Why “Madam”? Well, she translated “John” to Jean in French, then thought I was female.

A Stanford event asked me to translate an ancient Hebrew epigram into English…: “The broadest land’s too tight to squeeze / To give two foes an ample space, / Just as a very narrow place / Can hold a thousand friends with ease.”

Yves Bonnefoy’s Ce qui alarma Paul Celan translates to “Why Paul Celan Took Alarm” when one can learn his eloquent syntax of phases, layers, inversions, delays.

Caminante, no hay camino, / se hace camino al andar.

Clearly this holds for blazing a trail and bushwhacking and walking cross-country: where there’s no given path, you make your own way. Whether it holds for poetry, for translation, for life itself — we’ll see as we go. Antonio Machado having had his say, we’re bound to bring these lines into decent English or else learn Spanish, or marry a native speaker, or settle in Spain or Latin America.

Deeper than the eye, the ear senses rhythmic repetition: Caminante … camino … camino. But Caminante (walker) and camino (road, way) don’t seem to yield cognate terms in English, if that’s of the essence here. To begin with, then:

Walker, there is no way,
A way is made by/in walking.

“Walker … way” turning round to “way … walking” provides a telling bonus, a balancing of thought. Yet doesn’t that doubled “walk” miss the point? Since the walker’s already walking, a way must be made by something else. “Traveler, there is no trail …”? No, camino’s not “trail.” “Pathfinder, there is no path …” Interesting, but pathfinders already do more than just walk, and they’re mostly lost to us now, with their leather stockings. 

Is there a way to follow the “way” throughout this maxim? Taoist and Christian overtones alone would justify it, even though Machado’s thoughts point toward experience before and beneath religion or philosophy. A word comes to mind that feels hackneyed, but I (for one) would go with it: “Wayfarer, there is no way.” What happens next depends on how we hear se hace — “is made,” “gets made,” “you make”? — and andar. Since the second verse has general force, we could try this:

Caminante, no hay camino,
se hace camino al andar
Wayfarer, there is no way,
A way gets made as you go.

The Spanish lines, in equal syllables, take three stresses each that change place from one moment to the next, so it helps to get that pacing in English too.

Sure enough, just as poets find a way as they go, so do translators, so do we all.

“Fertile Misremembrance.” Denise Levertov started a poem:

In the forties, wartime London, I read
an ode by Neruda I’ve never found again, …
I could search out the Obras Completas
I know …

I couldn’t find Denise’s source. It was not an ode, but one of Neruda’s Tres cantos materiales, three material songs. She wanted Apogeo del apio (“Apogee of Celery”).  Translating I played with “Celebration of Celery,” and she said “Thanks very much for the translation … Perhaps one’s misremembrances are always more fertile than accurate recollections.”

Everyone knows The Oprah Magazine. One time she had the great British writer, A. S. Byatt (1936–), do “A. S. in Wonderland.” Byatt’s pages gave us her favorite seven books of all time, “Books that change you, even later in life, give you a kind of electrical shock.” These books are: Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass; Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot; poems by Alfred Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge; The Poems of Emily Dickinson; George Eliot’s Middlemarch; Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Those — and also, I must say, my Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew.

Dickinson and Celan: not close friends, at least not for Dickinson. In 1961, Celan dedicates Für Nelly Sachs, a Dickinson stanza for Sachs. A few years later, Dickinson and Celan joins: a little-known Dickinson poem plus a Celan version.

So you are turned—a Someone
As I had never known—
You heart a drum that summons
All through a Land of Flow.
Where no Mouth drink—and nothing
Will cleave where Shadows form—
Where Water wells to Seeming
And Seeming falls—to Foam

You rise in every Wellspring—
Through every Seeming—run
You’ve conjured up a Playing
That begs—Oblivion

So bist du denn geworden
wie ich dich nie gekauut:
dein Herz schlägt allerorten
in einem Brunnenland,
wo kein Mund trinkt und keine
Gestalt die Schatten säumt,
wo Wasser quilt zum Scheine
und Schein wie Wasser schäumt.

Du steigst in alle Brunnen
du schwebst durch jeden Schein,
du hast ein Spiel ersonnen,
das will vergessen sein.

Celan’s alternating seven-six-seven-six syllable count answers nicely to Dickinson’s odd orthographic emphases. Also syntax, rhythm, staccato, etc. Celan has taken Dickinson’s wry and rueful address to one of those putative romantic figures in her life, and readdressed it to the lost figure in his own life, his mother deported from Bukovina (known for its wells).

All this proves thought-provoking, as Celan finds solutions for Dickinson’s lines in lines that sound strangely like his own voice. Then I let on just how “little-known” the Dickinson poem was. The English quatrains in “So you are turned” are in fact an imitation. A friend and myself made a pseudo-Dickinson rendering, translating into English a 1950 Celan lyric, So bist du den geworden, which does address his mother. A learnable hoax, though a deeper source.

Now almost everyone knows Samuel Beckett, who was, as Wikipedia says, an Irish avant-garde novelist, playwright, theatre director, and poet who lived in Paris for most of his adult life and wrote in both English and French (1906–1989). And maybe more of us know his En attendant Godot, “Waiting for Godot” (1953). In Paris I met a German translator, Elmar Tophoven, who gave me a triple-language Godot: French, English, German. Beckett himself got a leg-up on his own English translation, “Waiting for Godot,” by dint of his work with Tophoven.

Tophoven’s happiest stroke of translational intervention occurs in Act Two when Pozzo, now blind, has fallen in a heap with Lucky. The heroes debate whether to help him up, then tumble down themselves. One hero, ESTRAGON, says  Ce qu’on est bien, par terre! (“How good it is, on the ground!”) Tophoven gets a bit wordy, suggesting less supple: Man ist doch gut aufgehoben bei Mutter Erde (“Indeed one is well taken care of by Mother Earth”). Whereupon Beckett cleanly re-enters his own voice, by way of Elmar’s heartlifting Mutter Erde — but stunningly simpler: “Sweet mother earth!”

During eleven years, Claudio Spies selected seven Shakespeare sonnets, expanded by including German versions of the same sonnets by Paul Celan, then gave it all music: soprano, bass-baritone, violin, viola, violoncello, clarinet, bass clarinet, conductor.

Princeton composer, born in Chile of German Jewish parents, Claudio (1925–) called this “Seven Sonnets,” Sieben Sonette. Scores of letters occurred between him and me.

Normandy in August 1984, Études sur Paul Celan: Colloque de Cerisy-la-Salle occurs mainly in French. I give a talk: “Langue maternelle, langue éternelle: La présence de l’Hébreu dans les poèmes de Paul Celan.” At one moment I illustrate a point by singing the Hebrew Sabbath hymn L’cha dodi, which warms some folks. Right afterward, an arrogant dogmatic French academic stands up to warn against surjudaisant for Paul Celan, “over-Judaizing” him. Ah well …

Gisèle Lestrange, Celan’s widow, enjoys the Hebrew hymn, though in Cerisy she feels her husband has entered history — a loss for her. Their son Eric remembers when he was thirteen, his father walking in streets with him, singing revolutionary songs in Russian, Yiddish, French, proud of his Dad. In Cerisy, playing table tennis with Eric, I fear that winning with him might feel unkind then.

Ezra Pound tells us poetry’s “language is charged or energized in various manners.” Then he shows that melopoeia’s musical property is impossible to translate from one language to another, and phanopoeia casting images can wholly translate, while logopoeia does not translate “locally.” He also says, “Poetry is news that stays news.”

“It is difficult / to get the news from poems,” William Carlos Williams tells us, “yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” The famed “Red Wheelbarrow” was not a title for W. C. Williams. He wanted none, just

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Some persons don’t believe it’s a poem at all, but still it is. No rhyme to poeticize it, no title to emblematize it, no capital letters or climax at the end to organize it. Just an image urged upon us, trimmed to four two-line stanzas, each stanza a phrase with consistent syllables.

Taking another view on Williams now, there’s a little-known angle of his poems and translations. Decades ago I took his modern bench mark, “The Red Wheelbarrow,” and tested two versions of it in the Spanish American grain.

The Nicaraguan poet and priest Ernesto Cardenal gave this:

Tanto depende


 una carretilla


 reluciente de gotas

de lluvia

junto a las gallinas



Phrases two and four do sound right in Spanish, with nouns coming before adjectives. Yet with “red” and “white” coming first, we absorb radiance. Because only the barrow would be red, a momentary “red wheel” vision lightens the sky. Likewise “wheel” and “rain” adjectives each show their prime, their free nature, before “barrow” and “water” simply remind plain facts. In a way, Yehuda Amichai’s “It’s the living child we need / to scrub when he’s back from play” moves in a rhythm somewhat similar to these phrases by Williams.

The Mexican poet Octavio Paz is our second translator. In 1970 he’d written a famous essay arguing that translation is crucial, and that translating a poem is akin to creating one. (Strangely enough, in working on this chapter I found an eighteen-page translation — when and why I don’t know.) Paz did this:

so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white

de una carretilla roja
barnizada de
agua de lluvia
junto a blancas

Unlike Cardenal, the rhythm slackens, no overhangs lean us into the poem and keep impending interest. Paz’s cuánto also implies “how” much depends, as if the speaker already knew how much, concerned by something rather than wondering. Or my grandmother: “so much, I can’t tell you!” After all, how much depends upon the barrow, water, chickens, and what depends on them? Maybe everything. Whatever depends depends on seeing those things afresh by saying them anew. Since “depend” in line one is the poem’s only Latinate word, we can see Williams’s delight in the rest, all Anglo-Saxon compound. But that’s hard for Spanish. At the end, though, Paz did follow English adjective-noun, “white / chickens,” blancas / gallinas.  

One more word, “glazed,” turns out to be curious. Cardenal’s glazed wheelbarrow is reluciente, shining like a halo or the family silver (as a Chilean friend told me), while Paz’s is barnizada, varnished (varnishing began in Berenice, Libya). Williams liked “glazed” a lot: his old mother wakens to birds “skimming / bare trees / above a snow glaze.” Doughnuts and pie, pottery and majolica, oil paintings, snow, eyes are glazed. “Glaze” has a thriving family: glass, gloss, gleam, glow, glare, glint, glitter, glisten, glimpse, glance, glide, glee, glad, gold. This wheelbarrow stands radiantly for itself.

William Carlos Williams, born to a half-Sephardic Puerto Rican mother, made translation a profession, along with daily medicine and poetry. He translated Neruda, Andrade, Nicanor Parra, and with his mother, a Quevedo novella. In fairness to Octavio Paz, his other Williams poems came out better: “Nantucket,” “Young Sycamore,” and especially “Hymn Among the Ruins.” What baffled him was intense simplicity in “The Red Wheelbarrow,” the poem free of title.  

And translating Spanish, Pablo Neruda took Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”: “Urge and urge and urge / Always the procreant urge of the world,” Impulso, impulso, impulso, / siempre el procreador impulse del mundo. That’s possible, unless one prefers perfection. Yes, Neruda must be with us.

Now to translate the last lines of another material song, Entrada a la Madera, “Entrance into Wood.” His last paragraph begs “come to me … / and clasp me to your life, to your death, / to your crushed materials, / to your dead neutral doves.” Then the last lines:

y hagamos fuego, y silencio, y sonido,
y ardamos, y callemos, y campanas.
and let us make fire, and silence, and sound,
and let us burn and be silent and bells.

Again Neruda comes keen. English can’t mime -ego, -cio, -ido, / -amos, -emos, -anas. As campanas is a noun not a verb, then “bells” act the same! Neruda’s a joy and more: “Floods,” “Guilty,” “Heights of Macchu Picchu.” Lots of sharp toil in Translating Neruda: The Way to Macchu Picchu (1980).

Sad, sad, the 2014 death of José Emilio Pacheco: Mexican poet, essayist, novelist, short story writerlisted  in Wikipedia with Federico García Lorca and Octavio Paz and Pablo Neruda Awards, but no mention of translation. Similar to Paul Celan writing on Shakespeare’s four-hundredth year, in 1989 Pacheco took on T. S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton” and “The Dry Salvages” from Four Quartets. As ever, Latin languages use more words than English.

Words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die.
Las palabras se mueven, la música se mueve
Nada más en el tiempo; pero lo que solo está vivo
Sólo puede morir.

In the first line, four in English, eight in Spanish — yet in the third line, three for both. More to the point, Pacheco has translated for his people.