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A conversation with translator Stephen Frech

Is it possible for the original text to be reborn through the translator?

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 Grass, 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 effect?

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 difficulty?

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 is 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.