Is it possible for the original text to be reborn through the
If a text is not reborn in translation, then it’s not a very ambitious
translation. In fact, I think the regular reawakening of work in
translation is one of the many gifts of work from another language.
Mandelstam and Ahkmatova come to readers of English in multiple
versions, inviting debate about the differences in tone, syntax,
figurative constructs—essentially the innumerable decisions poets make
(both conscious and unconscious) that contribute to a poem’s effect on
a reader. Some of that debate addresses nearness, fidelity to the
original, but also on the choices translators make, creative
decision-making, and even (as an extension of Mandelstam’s idea) a
“secret hearing” of the poem. In this sense, I’m less interested in a
“definitive” version, and more interested in the aggregate of many
small choices a writer makes.
And isn’t that some of the pleasure of reading poetry in its original
language? For all the wildness of Whitman’s 1855 edition of Leaves of
, he’s making all variety of decisions. Set that original
alongside the deathbed edition nearly forty years later and we see the
creative choices a poet makes. What are those choices and to what
The meaning Gongora’s poem is notoriously difficult to parse, given the
complexity and mystery of its references. As a translator of this work,
what relationship does your translation have to this history of
I tend to have a high appetite for gorgeousness of sound, and there are
any number of poets for whom the primacy of sound creates complexity.
Hart Crane comes immediately to mind: He debates this complexity
famously in letters with Harriet Monroe that she published in Poetry
along with his poem “At Melville’s Tomb.” But as challenging as Crane’s
work can be, the richness of sound is immediately available in much of
his poetry even when the meaning or sense eludes us.
Gongora has a similar appeal for me: gorgeous, Elizabethan in its
learnedness and constructions, and Baroque in its aesthetic. I also
love the mix of high and low in Gongora. Some who dismiss him for his
complexity and learnedness miss much if the fun of his work: the bawdy,
the playful, the wit, the moodiness.
Las Soledades/The Solitudes
a much longer narrative sequence, but the magic of the poem for me is
in its lyric moments and descriptions. So I did not set out to
translate it in its entirety. Instead, I focused on the concentrated
moments, faceted, brilliant, with extended metaphors that move beyond
their original likenesses, to see how he moves so efficiently from one
facet to another.
I read over the Spanish original and my drafts with native speakers of
Spanish. They all marveled anew at the difficulty of the language and
the meaning. We debated lines, some of them with as many different
syntactical readings as there were readers. Sometimes seemingly simple
questions—like which noun is performing the action of the verb—did not
have simple answers. But that is some of the fun of translating: taking
the machine apart to see all its marvelous little parts, to see them
all working in accord and in time to create the life of the machine.