Category: Translation

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series: Cole Swensen, Poet, Translator, Professor, interviewed by David Garyan


Cole Swensen

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series:

Cole Swensen, Poet, Translator, and Professor

interviewed by David Garyan

 

Cole Swensen’s poems to appear soon in Interlitq’s California Poets Feature

 

DG: Let’s approach your work in the most sensible way—the process of translation. Borges’s idea of the translation becoming an original, or Ken Liu’s idea—very much connected to George Steiner—that all acts are miracles of translation both come to mind. You’ve done a great deal in bringing French writers into English. How has this informed your own creative vision?

CS: First, I’m struck by your thought that the most sensible way to enter a writer’s work is through the work that she does with others—Thank you! I like that very much—and in part because it begins us with the notion of fluidity—of one person’s work flowing into another’s, eroding the notion of writing as individual, and emphasizing that writing is always to some degree a communal project. Thinking more specifically, translating others’ poetry has given me access to forms and tones that I probably wouldn’t have found otherwise. It was through translating that I began to see, many years ago, the possibility of the book rather than the individual poem as the basic poetic unit. And I know that I’ve also picked up rhythms from French that are different from Egnlish rhythms; the French approach to the prose poem is a bit different as well, perhaps more matter-of-fact, and I think I’ve absorbed that as well.

DG: How do you choose what to translate? Do the writers’ personalities draw you to their words, or is it the unique way in which they use language?

CS: I’m drawn to translation as a conversation, a conversation around poetics. All the people I’ve translated were living at the time—and most still are—and in all cases, I’ve talked the translation over with them in detail, which always leads beyond the specific work to its larger contexts and to the principles of thought, creativity, imagination, etc. that direct the work. Those conversations are extremely rewarding, and they inform the way I read other works—in both English and French—as well. I think of translation as a form of reading, the most intense and engaged form possible. I almost always meet the work before the writer, and it’s when I find myself wanting to write the line I’m reading—it’s not a feeling of “Ah, I wish I’d written that!” but rather of “I would love to write that!” I think it’s not sufficiently emphasized that translation is not just decoding and recoding; it’s also, and above all, writing.

DG: How much liberty should a translator be allowed—in other words, if you see the opportunity to improve something, do you follow that path, or is it better to remain ever-faithful to the original?

CS: What constitutes an improvement is extremely subjective. What I might consider an improvement, the writer might consider ghastly. But beyond that, translation for me has nothing to do with judging the text, of thinking whether it’s “good” or whether it could be “better”; it’s about engaging with it, and the deepest engagement is not necessarily the one that sticks to it the most literally, but the one that most deeply grasps its specific terms and aims and recreates them as much as possible. I’m committed to presenting the work as the writer would have written it had he, she, or they been writing originally in English.

DG: You travel often to Europe. What would you say are the most notable differences between how poetry is appreciated and promoted in North America, compared to France, or Germany, for example?

CS: I can’t say for Germany—in fact, I can really only say for France—and it seems to me that it’s oddly similar. And I say oddly, because there are so many cultural differences between France and the US, but poetry is, in a sense, its own culture separate from the one it’s surrounded by (like all airports, taken together, form their own country). This is perhaps particularly true of France and the US because there has been such a long history of poetic friendship and exchange. There have been several books, a couple quite recently, that detail these exchanges. Especially during the 20th and 21st centuries, the two poetries have importantly informed each other. In the late 20th century, there was Emmanuel Hocquard’s important project “Bureau sur l’Atlantique,” which engaged with experimental poetics from the Objectivists through the Language Poets, paralleled by Juiliette Valery’s series of publications, Format Américain, and later, beginning in the 2000’s, a bi-national group, Double Change, has been fundamental in a series of readings, conferences, and publications that bring North American work to French attention. In the other direction, Rosmarie & Keith Waldrop’s Burning Deck Press published many French poets over its 60 years, and other presses have also focused on contemporary French work.

But often influences are less obvious. A good example might be the important influence that France and French poetry had on Ashbery. If we then think, in turn, of how important Ashbery’s influence has been on American poetry from the late 20th century on—so many American poets who wouldn’t think of themselves as influenced by anything French have been through Ashbery—and through many others of his generation and those immediately following. And earlier, think how many of the modernists spent serious time in France and with French work. The same is true regarding the influence of some American writers on French poets—so there’s a lot of entwined shaping that many poets are not necessarily aware of. As for the contemporary moment, in both countries, poetry is equally marginalized and largely published by small presses devoted to the form for the love of it.

DG: Over the years, you’ve emphasized the importance walking has had on your creativity. In the philosophical tradition, Nietzsche was perhaps the most fervent adherent to physical movement, at least in relation to creativity: “Sit as little as possible; do not believe any idea that was not born in the open air and of free movement—in which the muscles do not also revel.” And yet, the poet must eventually sit down to write. What were some particularly memorable walks for you, and did they lead to the best poems you wrote?

CS: That quotation, particularly the “in which the muscles do not also revel” is so key—that thinking and writing must also have a kinetic aspect. Though I don’t think it has to be as thorough as, say, walking. You cannot write without the hand’s being active—whether you’re writing by hand or on a keyboard—the hand or hands are dancing, and I’ve always been struck by how many writers enjoy not only letting their imaginations go, but also enjoy the physical act of writing. I began a fairly recent book, On Walking On, with the question of why, for as long as such things have been recorded, so many writers are also inveterate walkers, and it’s interesting to me that the ensuing book didn’t end up persuing the question; it instead wallowed in the experiences of such writers as presented through their writing. Clearly, so many writers have thrived on the complete fusion of the two activities—perhaps it’s because the mind works so differently when the body is active.

DG: European towns—for the most part—are built very differently from cities in the US. Even in big urban areas, everything seems to be in closer proximity, meant to be explored on foot, while North American metropoles are vast, spread out, and this especially in the West. Coming from California, having lived on the East Coast, and experienced Europe, do you feel that any given setting changes your writing, or do you find that the length of your sentences, for example, stays mostly constant?

CS: I like that idea! That a more extensive space might extend the line, but I don’t find that to be true. That said, I do think setting affects my work. Because of Covid, I spent most of 2020 and 2021 in California, just north of San Francisco. And whether there’s any connection or not, I don’t know, but my writing changed completely—much more subject based and based on immediate surroundings. I’m currently on a sabbatical in France, and that focus on the immediate has continued.

DG: In the introduction to your most recent book, Art in Time, you talk about the need to engage “the landscape genre in a fluid way,” in a way that “puts the landscape back into motion,” in order to find alternatives to some of the presumptions and practices of landscape art common to Euro-centric contexts.” Indeed, you’ve also said elsewhere that landscapes are never silent, though they often appear that way to us. What’s the best way to reorient the perception of our own surroundings? Can poetry help us do this, and, if so, what are some of your favorite poems in this respect?

CS: Yes I do think that poetry can reorient our perceptions and perspective, and often does so through the “startle.” Which is not an epiphany—that supposed sudden quasi-spiritual realization that is often closer to emotional manipulation—I’m thinking instead of those startling moments triggered by unusual uses of language; they’re often just about shifting perspective, suddenly de-habituating the scene. Shklovsky used the term “ostranenie”—defamiliarization, and though it’s a heavily-theorized term that been around for a long time, I think it’s a valuable concept and an even more valuable device that allows language to operate constructively on our modes of perception.

Regarding landscape, I’m interested in recognizing a continuity, an inclusivity, that involves everything in sight including the viewer because I think it changes structures of responsibility. Clearly, we as a species, need to take a dramatically different kind of responsibility, which I don’t think we can do as long as we see ourselves as separate from nature and perpetuate distinctions such observer/observed.

DG: With David St. John, you edited a fascinating anthology of poetry, American Hybrid, with the aim of closing the gap between traditional and experimental poetry. Thirteen years after its publication, do you feel that the margin has been closed, or has it perhaps widened unexpectedly?

CS: What interested me at that point, and still does, is a shift from a perception of American poetry as on a linear continuum from the traditional to the experimental—of course that linearity wasn’t “true,” but it was often talked of in that way. It seemed to me that from the 1990s on, there has been an profusion of different tendencies that increasingly cannot be mapped in relation to each other. It’s an exploded field, expanding outward in all directions, full of tendencies that resist comparison—and I think that that’s an extremely promising mode of development; may it continue.

DG: Would you say that those working in the “experimental” genre have perhaps—and in this case, rather unfairly—born a burden that isn’t necessarily only theirs to bear? In other words, many formalists and lyricists, for example, are also trying to do new things with language—tackling taboo subjects, for example, or pushing the boundaries of metaphor, all the while remaining dedicated to their artistic fields; these experiments, however, are sadly not considered “experiments,” but rather interpreted as the “creative impulse,” which, in my view, cheapens the effort of crossing new aesthetic frontiers. Can we really say, hence, there’s an actual difference between creative uses of language and linguistic experimentation?

CS: I’m going to start with the end of the question—yes, I think there is a difference, but I think that the differing cultural values assigned to various practices are inaccurate and unproductive. All language uses have their value—and that value is always determined by the reader/hearer; it’s not inherent in the language use itself. I happen to be very interested in unprecedented uses of language, in broken language and its relationship to the limits of the sayable, and, ultimately, I’m probably more interested in the unsayable than the sayable, and certainly in the volatile boundary between them because I think that’s where the potential for the “startle” mentioned above lies, where our capacity to use language to expand what we can think and feel is based. But many people would not agree and would, instead, find that same potential elsewhere—in tackling taboo subjects, for instance. And I don’t mean to dissolve into a mush of relativism, but to discourage an endless tendency that we all seem to have to judge—to assign definitive value—which is actually simply lazy; we do it just so that we can say “Good, that’s settled. I don’t have to think about it anymore.” Which is an error; we do have to keep on thinking about it, whatever it is; we can never allow anything to settle, or, rather, nothing ever does settle, and if we view it as such, we’re fooling ourselves. This is related to the view of landscape as always fluid that you mentioned above. That reality of the concrete world follows through to every aspect of living.

DG: You teach writing and literature at Brown’s reputable Literary Arts program. There have been rabbit-hole debates about the benefits of teaching writing. Without getting into that, what are things writing programs can do and what are their limitations? In addition, it would be interesting to hear how teaching informs your own creative process.

CS: Writing programs, above all, can give people two or three years to focus almost exclusively on writing and among a variety of resources—courses, libraries, other writers. MFAs allow them to completely immerse themselves in aesthetic questions and their relations to politics, culture, and society. And that, for most people, is a transformative process. No matter what they do afterward, they’ll do it with a different perspective. Regarding limitations—they are based on presumptions. If people think a writing program will, for instance, make them better writers, they’ll likely be disappointed, but if instead, they simply presume that it’s going to change them, and remain open about the directions such change might take, they’ll probably get more out of it. It’s hard for me to say how teaching informs my own writing practice as I have no basis for comparison—I’ve been teaching since I was 20 years old, so it’s inseparable from my writing.

 

About Cole Swensen

Cole Swensen is the author of 19 books of poetry, most recently Art in Time (Nightboat Books, 2021) and a book of faux-logical nano-essays, And And And (Free Poetry Press, 2022). A former Guggenheim Fellow, she has received the Iowa Poetry Prize, the SF State Poetry Center Book Award, the National Poetry Series, and the PEN USA Award in Literary Translation and has been a finalist for the National Book Award. Co-editor of the Norton anthology American Hybrid and founding editor of La Presse, she also translates literature and art criticism from French. A native of the SF Bay Area, she divides her time between there, France, and Providence RI, where she teaches at Brown University.

Beatriz Hausner, Former President of the Literary Translators’ Association of Canada, interviewed by David Garyan


Beatriz Hausner

Beatriz Hausner, Former President of the Literary Translators’ Association of Canada, interviewed by David Garyan

 

Beatriz Hausner’s most recent collection of poems, Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart
Read Beatriz Hausner’s “Enter the Racoon,” a prose poem published by Interlitq
Read Beatriz Hausner’s translation of four César Moro poems, published by Interlitq

 

DG: You’re both a poet and a translator of poetry—thus, I’m interested to know: Which art came first for you and how does one influence the other? It seems natural to assume that being a poet is an indispensable part of becoming a translator of verse, and, yet, many people who often produce good translations of novels, biographies, and other texts are neither novelists, biographers, and, in some rare cases, not even writers. Along with the first question, how is the translation of poetry different than that of prose and how have your own poetic sensibilities shaped that process?

BH: For me, initially, translation came first from interpreting between Spanish and English. It is a role familiar to most immigrant children. In my case, when my family immigrated to Canada from Chile, only my mother, Susana Wald, spoke English, and did so perfectly. Ludwig Zeller, my step-dad, found it difficult to learn English, partly, I sense, because he continued throughout his exile to be a Spanish language poet. There really was no part of his existence outside of Spanish. As a result, I often assumed the role of interpreter between spoken English and Spanish.

During those early years in Canada I became an interlocutor to Ludwig, so that parallel to my university studies in literature, I acquired a deep literary education at home. Ludwig was, like many of the authors I translated, and who serve as my models, incredibly broad-minded: there was nothing, it seems to me, that did not interest him in art and in literary expression. His knowledge of the Classics, Romanticism, the 20th Century Avantgarde, Latin American literature and art, was astonishing. I read everything he recommended and listened to him telling me about it.

Of course, the principal context was that of international surrealism. Our home was an important locus of surrealist artistic activity, with my parents organizing exhibitions and publications (through their press Oasis Publications) for and of their surrealist friends throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s, a time of fervent activity in the movement. In fact, my first translations of Latin American surrealists were published through my parents’ press, Oasis Publications. So too was my early poetry.

I can safely say that my own bilingualism developed during those important formative years, when I became both a translator and a poet. I have no doubt that translation has provided me with the best poetic education possible.

Having translated both poetry and prose, I can say that the process differs according to the author of the original and, in the case of prose, the length of the work. I loved translating the early fiction of Alvaro Mutis (The Mansion, Victoria BC: Ekstasis Editions, 2005). He was a great stylist and the themes and moods he explored matched my sensibility. I felt the same about translating his poetry. I’ve translated the essays of Aldo Pellegrini, and some of Eugenio Granell’s fiction, but my focus in translation has been primarily poetry. The intensity and concentration of the diction, the way levels of meaning come through analogies and combinations of sounds, the use of images, these are all characteristic of the surrealist poets I’ve had the great fortune of translating.

 

DG: It’s been my experience that people to whom a certain literary legacy belongs are more inclined to believe in the untranslatability of their own national poets and writers, mainly to attach greater mystique and importance to them; at the same time, those looking in from the outside (foreigners eager to consume the riches of another culture) tend to believe exactly the opposite—that translation is not only just as effective but can also improve the original. On one hand, we have scholars like Mohammad-Reza Shafiei Kadkani, an Iranian writer, who wrote the essay “On Poetic Untranslatability,” in which he argues that translation is mostly about transferring culture, not linguistics. In other words, according to him, it’s not possible to really translate Hafiz into European languages because of the cultural differences that exist between where the work comes from and where it tries to “go.” On the other extreme, in a 1998 review article praising Robert Daglish’s translation of Quiet Flows the Don, the authors, Barry P. Scherr and Richard Sheldon, argue that readers looking to discover Sholokhov’s “original intentions” would actually fare better by reading the novel in translation, rather than in the original Russian, further stating that “in terms of textological issues, Daglish’s translation is arguably superior to any of the available Russian-language editions of the complete novel.” Where do you fall on this spectrum? Do you side more with Kadkani, or Scherr and Sheldon?

BH: I loathe all notions of nationality, or ownership of a literature. Rather, my sense is that translatability has to do with language and the patterns that give form to literary expression as it develops and changes through time and place in each language. Rhyme, formal constraints, devices such as meter for rendering musicality would certainly present different challenges when translating the sonnets of Francisco de Quevedo, than, say the poetry of César Vallejo. In both instances the cultural context absolutely informs the poetics, requiring that the translator of either Quevedo, or Vallejo have a broad understanding of both the cultural and literary contexts of the original and also that of the target language.

It’s interesting what you say about Daglish’s translation of Sholokhov’s novel. Dare I say that perhaps Scherr and Sheldon’s perception, that Sholokhov reads better in translation, is pure and simple a function of Daglish being a very good writer in his own right? I do think that translators are authors of their translations, so that their talent may determine the transcendence of their translations in the long run. In some cases, a translator’s work can have a profound effect on the trajectory of an entire literature.

A case I’ve written about in the past is that of Augusto D’Halmar’s translations of Oscar de Lubisz Milosz. Related by parentage to Czelaw Milocz (he was his uncle) Lubisz Milosz was of Lithuanian origin and is known as a French poet and mystic. His poetry extends the French Symbolist tradition. D’Halmar, a Chilean fiction writer was one of his many followers, and while living in Spain, made it his mission to visit Milosz in Fontainebleau. D’Halmar’s translations of Milosz’s Selected Poetry is extraordinary, no doubt because of his talent for staying within the inner spirit of the original, while assuming creative freedom to render the whole into Spanish in a way that made it almost a classic of Chilean poetry. D’Halmar’s translation was adopted as a kind of guide by two generations of Chilean poets: echoes of his poetry, direct borrowings from D’Halmar’s translation are evident in the poetry of Gabriela Mistral and Pablo Neruda, both of whom would go on to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.

 

DG: For many poets and writers, the inspiration to create seems to come out of nowhere; while some have romantic notions of “waiting” for the right moment, others seem to believe in consistency and routine—almost an exercise-like regiment designed for the brain when it encounters the desk. In either case, the spark comes sooner or later. Translation is a different thing, however; in other words, before inspiration even causes you to think of the perfect phrase or expression in the target language, you must first choose the person to translate. How does this happen for you? Is it a romantic experience of “waiting” to fall in love with an author or do you actively and methodically seek out the genius?

BH: Writing for me functions as a response to an inner force that drives creation. Over time I’ve come to accept that the best writing happens when, after a period of accumulation of sensations, material experiences, reading and studying, talking with others, something is triggered and the writing flows. Or not. In the past, when I was doing more translating, often of works commissioned by children’s publishers, I was working towards a deadline, in which case I could not wait for inspiration to take over. Until very recently, I’ve had to do my writing and translating on the side, while complying with the exigencies of a full-time day job as a public librarian. I worked in the evenings, or very early in the mornings. Mornings are definitely better. Regardless, the more time I have to delve into the universe that informs the writing I’m doing, the better. The process is the same where translation is concerned: I feel a need to immerse myself in the inner and outer contexts of the work I am translating.

For many years I put translation aside and devoted myself to my own writing. Part of the reason was a complete failure at finding publishers for the kind of work I enjoy translating. No presses in Canada were interested in publishing my translations of the Latin American surrealists. If they were, they simply could not find the resources to publish such work. I tried with U.S. publishers also, in vain. I believe this is part and parcel of the resistance, even rejection of surrealism, especially after the Second World War. Thankfully, this situation seems to be changing.

 

DG: Do you think all talented poets—if they master a second language—can become good translators, or is there some other magic ingredient? We’ve already talked about culture; in addition, knowing how to navigate the environment inside which your language is situated can be incredibly useful, but what, if anything, in your opinion, does an excellent translator with poetic sensibilities have that gifted poets alone do not? 

BH: Yes, I think all talented poets, who master a second language, can become good translators. The “magic ingredient” is a willingness on their part to surrender to the voice[s] of the author of the original. Also, they need to have a sufficient generosity of spirit to spend the time and energy that translating someone else’s work requires. This is time which cannot be spent on one’s own writing, after all.

My sense is that a gifted translator must possess the same confidence as an author of “original” works. In other words, a gifted translator must be willing to embrace the spirit of the original and act as a creative conduit for the original’s inner reality, while always making sure to remain loyal to the original. It’s a terribly difficult balance, which must be achieved.

 

DG: We’ve talked about untranslatability and it seems that a focus on aesthetics might be a good compliment to this discussion. What I’ve noticed is that the poetry world has unfortunately managed to divide itself along two lines: Experimental poets, often so difficult that they’re only read by other poets or academics, and those who espouse clarity above all (the lyricists as scholars know them); the argument is always that the former is ruining poetry with their pretentiousness while the latter is simply too easy—prime for Instagram feeds, in other words. Again, we have two extremes, and, once more, the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle. As a Surrealist poet fond of Rimbaud and Vallejo (not easy poets, by any stretch), for example, how do you align yourself with regard to this issue?

BH: Like Benjamin Péret said “Je ne mange pas de ce pain là.” The stupidity of dividing poets into two camps is beyond comprehension. I reject all limitations. In fact, poetry is the opposite of limitation. Poetry equals freedom; poetry is a vehicle for the transformation of the world. Perpetuating this divide (“experimental” versus “lyrical” poets) is a convenient way of dividing the meager resources that exist for the publishing and promotion of poetry. In other words, the divide is a political construct; it has nothing to do with poetry.

 

DG: People often ask what it means to be a poet: Is it a condition or a profession? The idealist wants to see it as the former, while the MFA chair, for example, prefers it to be the case of the latter. How do you see the issue? Are people born with the poetry “gene” or can anyone pick up the pen and choose this thing as a career—and to make it even more complicated, what about translation? In either case, language is never something we’re born with—it’s always something we “learn,” and yet, the translator, if he or she is to become one, must either learn, unlike the poet, at least more than one tongue, or have the good fortune to be born into a multilingual society for us to answer this question. How do you see it?

BH: I am of the opinion that artists, whatever their creative medium, should be able to live from their art. Insofar as being a professional is defined as making a living from what one practices, then every poet and every translator should be a “professional!” Being reduced to making a living at something other than one’s artistic calling is society’s way of oppressing the imagination.

 

DG: What advice would you give young poets or translators who are just starting to develop their skills?

BH: I would advise young poets starting out to learn the classics in the language they write in, at the very least. I would advise that they become educated in literature, that they read literature in translation, so that their world is broadened from an early time. I would advise that they experience the world intensely, that they listen to music, that they try as many ways of writing as they can. I would advise that they organize readings and events with others and for others, so that they get to form communities of writers. To translators I would say start off by translating the most important, the BEST writers of the original literature.

 

DG: What are you currently working on and how do you prefer to work? Do you focus on both your own poetry and translation at the same time, or do you tend to focus on them separately?

BH: Last winter I finished two poetry books I had been working on for several years. Otherwise I tend to work on several projects concurrently, with a natural cross-pollination seeming to characterize this stage of the process. Over time distinct manuscripts appear. That is not the case with translation, which requires a kind of concentration and focus that eschews a freewheeling mind.  I’m currently finishing the translation of a Selected Poems of César Moro.

 

About Beatriz Hausner

Beatriz Hausner has published several poetry collections, including The Wardrobe Mistress, Sew Him Up, Enter the Raccoon, and most recently, Beloved Revolutionary SweetheartSelected poems and chapbooks of hers have been published internationally and translated into several languages. Hausner is a respected historian and translator of Latin American Surrealism, with recent essays published in The International Encyclopedia of Surrealism in 2019. Her translations of César Moro, the poets of Mandrágora, as well as essays and fiction by legends like Aldo Pellegrini and Eugenio Granell have exerted an important influence on her work. Hausner’s history of advocacy in Canadian literary culture is also well known: she has worked as a literary programmer in Toronto, her hometown, and was Chair of the Public Lending Right Commission. She is currently President of the Literary Translators’ Association of Canada, a position she held twice before.

Suzanne Jill Levine’s translation of “Proust’s Bedroom”, a poem by Pedro Xavier Solis Cuadra

 

Suzanne Jill Levine‘s translation of Proust’s Bedroom, a poem by Pedro Xavier Solis Cuadra

(This translation first appeared in Issue 20 of Interlitq)

Proust’s Bedroom

“Around the bed a trillion concentric colored circles making centrifugal or centripetal movements like interlacing kaleidoscopes, shapes like those cast by the magic lantern, creating a strange and, for me, painful vision. The red point in the center keeps sinking into incalculable, spastic distances, then returning, close up, and its coming and going felt to me like an unfathomable hammer.”
–Ruben Dario, “Autobiography”

For Marcel Proust, his bedroom was
the fixed and painful point at the center
of his preoccupations. His mother,
to distract him from his melancholy,
sent for a magic lantern to be placed
in the room, changing its opacity
with a rainbow of colors
as in Gothic stained-glass windows.
But this intrusion destroyed
the anesthetic effect of habit,
and his uncertainty and sadness grew.
When his mother died, he removed the lantern
and relined the walls in cork
so that only the indecipherable mystery
of being one would flow within. Seeing you
In the oil lamp’s beam of light, pale in the submissive
routine in which you know and do not know yourself
I remember Proust. Open your eyes
and though you don’t look at me and down deep
the little girl you were seems imprisoned.
I want to rescue her, but you cut me off.
Only a faint ray of light like the little girl
you enclose in your eyes
barely appears in the crack of the door.

La habitación de Proust

“Alrededor del lecho, mil círculos coloreados y concéntricos, caleidoscópicos, enlazados y con movimientos centrífugos y centrípetos, como los que forma la linterna mágica, creaban una visión extraña y para mí dolorosa. El central punto rojo se hundía, hasta incalculables, hípnicas distancias, y volvía a acercarse, y su ir y venir era para mí como un martillo inexplicable”.
Rubén Darío, Autobiografía.

Para Marcel Proust, su alcoba era
el punto céntrico, fijo y doloroso
de sus preocupaciones. Su madre,
para distraerlo de su melancolía,
mandó colocar una linterna mágica
que cambió la opacidad del cuarto
por irisaciones multicolores
como en los vitrales góticos.
Pero esta intrusión devastaba
el influjo anestésico de la costumbre,
y acrecía la incertidumbre y la tristeza.
Al morir su madre, quitó la linterna
y revistió de corcho las paredes,
para que sólo fluyera el misterio
indescifrable de ser uno. Recuerdo
a Proust, al verte al haz del quinqué,
pálida en la sumisa rutina en que
te reconoces y te desconoces.
Con dificultad abres tus ojos
aunque no me miras, y, en el fondo,
me parece confinada la niña que fuiste.
Quiero rescatarla, pero me atajas
y sólo una rayita de luz muy débil,
como la niña que cierras en tus ojos,
asoma apenas por la ranura de la puerta

Ode to the Tomato, a translation by Paul Scott Derrick of Pablo Neruda’s “Oda al tomate”

 

Pablo Neruda

from Elemental Odes, 1954

 

Ode to the Tomato

 

The street

was filled with tomatoes,

midday,

summer,

the light

splits apart

like the halves

of a tomato,

the juice

runs out

into the streets.

In December

the tomato

comes loose,

it invades

kitchens,

it gets in through lunches,

it sits down

calmly

on sideboards,

in among the glasses,

the butter-dishes,

the blue salt-shakers.

It has

an inner light,

a benign

majesty.

We must, unfortunately,

kill it:

the knife

sinks

into the living pulp,

in a visceral

red

a fresh,

profound,

inexhaustible

sun

fills the salads

of Chile,

joyfully it marries

the clear-skinned onion,

and, in celebration,

we cast

upon its partly-opened spheres

a sprinkling of

oil,

essential child

of the olive,

the pepper

contributes

its fragrance,

the salt

its magnetic charm:

these are the weddings

of the day,

the parsley

raises

its banners,

potatoes

bubble and boil,

the roast beef

knocks

against the door

with its smell,

it’s time!

let’s go!

and, on

the table, in the circle

of summer,

the tomato,

orb of the earth,

fertile

and various

star,

reveals

its convolutions,

its canals,

illustrious plenitude

and abundance,

without a bone

or a shell,

without a scale or a spine,

it makes us

a gift

of its fiery red

and the total sum of its freshness.

 

 

from Odas Elementales, 1954

 

Oda al tomate

 

La calle

se llenó de tomates,

mediodía,

verano,

la luz se parte

en dos

mitades

de tomate,

corre

por las calles

el jugo.

En diciembre

se desata

el tomate,

invade

las cocinas,

entra por los almuerzos,

se sienta

reposado

en los aparadores,

entre los vasos,

las mantequilleras,

los saleros azules.

Tiene

luz propia,

majestad benigna.

Debemos, por desgracia,

asesinarlo:

se hunde

el cuchillo

en su pulpa viviente,

en una roja

víscera,

un sol

fresco,

profundo,

inagotable,

llena las ensaladas

de Chile,

se casa alegremente

con la clara cebolla,

y para celebrarlo

se deja

caer

aceite,

hijo

esencial del olivo,

entre sus hemisferios entreabiertos,

agrega

la pimienta

su fragancia,

la sal su magnetismo:

son las bodas

del día, el perejil

levanta

banderines,

las papas

hierven vigorosamente,

el asado

golpea

con su aroma

en la puerta,

es hora!

vamos!

y sobre

la mesa en la cintura

del verano,

el tomate,

astro de tierra,

estrella

repetida

y fecunda,

nos muestra

sus circunvoluciones,

sus canales,

la insigne plenitud

y la abundancia

sin hueso,

sin coraza,

sin escamas ne espinas,

nos entrega

el regalo

de su color fogoso

y la totalidad de su frescura.

 

 

About Pablo Neruda (1904-1973). Pablo Neruda, whose real name is Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto, was born on 12 July, 1904, in the town of Parral in Chile. His father was a railway employee and his mother, who died shortly after his birth, a teacher. Some years later his father, who had then moved to the town of Temuco, remarried doña Trinidad Candia Malverde. The poet spent his childhood and youth in Temuco, where he also got to know Gabriela Mistral, head of the girls’ secondary school, who took a liking to him. At the early age of thirteen he began to contribute some articles to the daily “La Mañana”, among them, Entusiasmo y Perseverancia – his first publication – and his first poem. In 1920, he became a contributor to the literary journal “Selva Austral” under the pen name of Pablo Neruda, which he adopted in memory of the Czechoslovak poet Jan Neruda (1834-1891). Some of the poems Neruda wrote at that time are to be found in his first published book: Crepusculario (1923). The following year saw the publication of Veinte poemas de amor y una cancion desesperada, one of his best-known and most translated works. Alongside his literary activities, Neruda studied French and pedagogy at the University of Chile in Santiago.

Between 1927 and 1935, the government put him in charge of a number of honorary consulships, which took him to Burma, Ceylon, Java, Singapore, Buenos Aires, Barcelona, and Madrid. His poetic production during that difficult period included, among other works, the collection of esoteric surrealistic poems, Residencia en la tierra (1933), which marked his literary breakthrough.

The Spanish Civil War and the murder of García Lorca, whom Neruda knew, affected him strongly and made him join the Republican movement, first in Spain, and later in France, where he started working on his collection of poems España en el Corazón (1937). The same year he returned to his native country, to which he had been recalled, and his poetry during the following period was characterised by an orientation towards political and social matters. España en el Corazón had a great impact by virtue of its being printed in the middle of the front during the civil war.

In 1939, Neruda was appointed consul for the Spanish emigration, residing in Paris, and, shortly afterwards, Consul General in Mexico, where he rewrote his Canto General de Chile, transforming it into an epic poem about the whole South American continent, its nature, its people and its historical destiny. This work, entitled Canto General, was published in Mexico 1950, and also underground in Chile. It consists of approximately 250 poems brought together into fifteen literary cycles and constitutes the central part of Neruda’s production. Shortly after its publication, Canto General was translated into some ten languages. Nearly all these poems were created in a difficult situation, when Neruda was living abroad.

In 1943, Neruda returned to Chile, and in 1945 he was elected senator of the Republic, also joining the Communist Party of Chile. Due to his protests against President González Videla’s repressive policy against striking miners in 1947, he had to live underground in his own country for two years until he managed to leave in 1949. After living in different European countries he returned home in 1952. A great deal of what he published during that period bears the stamp of his political activities; one example is Las Uvas y el Viento (1954), which can be regarded as the diary of Neruda’s exile. In Odas elementales (1954- 1959) his message is expanded into a more extensive description of the world, where the objects of the hymns – things, events and relations – are duly presented in alphabetic form.

Neruda’s production is exceptionally extensive. For example, his Obras Completas, constantly republished, comprised 459 pages in 1951; in 1962 the number of pages was 1,925, and in 1968 it amounted to 3,237, in two volumes. Among his works of the last few years can be mentioned Cien sonetos de amor (1959), which includes poems dedicated to his wife Matilde Urrutia, Memorial de Isla Negra, a poetic work of an autobiographic character in five volumes, published on the occasion of his sixtieth birthday, Arte de pajáros (1966), La Barcarola (1967), the play Fulgor y muerte de Joaquín Murieta (1967), Las manos del día (1968), Fin del mundo (1969), Las piedras del cielo (1970), and La espada encendida.

 

 

About Paul Scott Derrick: Paul Scott Derrick is a Senior Lecturer of American literature at the University of Valencia, Spain. His main field of interest is Romanticism and American Transcendentalism and their manifestations in the art and thought of the 20th and 21st centuries. His critical works include: Thinking for a Change: Gravity’s Rainbow and Symptoms of the Paradigm Shift in Occidental Culture (1994) and “We stand before the secret of the world”: Traces along the Pathway of American Romanticism (2003). He has co-edited several critical studies, including: Modernism Revisited: Transgressing Boundaries and Strategies of Renewal in American Poetry, with Viorica Patea (Rodopi, 2007); and with Norman Jope and Catherine E. Byfield, The Salt Companion to Richard Berengarten (Salt Publishing, 2011). As a translator, he has published bilingual English-Spanish editions of a number of works by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Adams and Emily Dickinson and has co-authoredand co-translated, with Juan López Gavilán, a critical Spanish edition of Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs [La tierra de los abetos puntiagudos] (2008). He has also published translations into English of poems by Jorge de Montemayor, Luis Cernuda, Pablo Neruda and Jorge Luis Borges. He is coordinating a critical study and translation into Spanish of Emily Dickinson’s fascicles and is currently preparing, with Miguel Teruel, a Spanish version of Richard Berengarten’s Black Light.

Jorge Luis Borges’s poem “Al olvidar un sueño”, translated into English by Suzanne Jill Levine

 

Suzanne Jill Levine writes: “Al olvidar un sueño” was brought to my attention recently by a friend who noted that this poem, dedicated to a young woman Borges met late in life, was published in one of Borges’s last books La Cifra while the poet was still alive, but has been omitted in posthumous editions of his poetic works. In my recent Penguin series of Borges’s poetry and essays, editor Efrain Kristal’s beautiful selection of Poems of the Night would be an appropriate context within which to consider “Upon Forgetting a Dream,” as well as these words in his helpful introduction to the volume: “Throughout his career as a poet, Borges returned to the night and the crepuscular world of visions and dreams?.” [PON, ix] Borges was a dreamer and this meditation poignantly expresses the universal as well as the particular, the longing to capture those elusive images or feelings which seem so real in our dreams.”

 

A translation from the Spanish of Borges’s Al Olvidar un Sueño

 

Upon Forgetting a Dream

To Viviana Aguilar

In the uncertain dawn I had a dream.
In the dream I know there were many doors.
I have forgotten the rest. In sleepless vigil
This morning let that intimate fable slip away
Now no less unreachable than the shade
Of Tiresias or Ur of the Chaldeans
Or than the ethics of Spinoza

I have spent my life spelling out
The dogmas ventured by philosophers.
We know that in Ireland a man said
That God, who never sleeps, perceives
Attentively, eternally, every dream,
Every solitary garden, every tear
Uncertainty grows and the dark encroaches.
If I knew where to find that dream
I dreamed or imagined I dreamed,
I would know everything.

 

About Jorge Luis Borges:

Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) was an Argentine poet, essayist, and short-story writer whose tales of fantasy and dream worlds are classics of the 20th-century world literature. Borges was profoundly influenced by European culture, English literature, and such thinkers as Berkeley, who argued that there is no material substance; the sensible world consists only of ideas, which exists for so long as they are perceived. Most of Borges’s tales embrace universal themes – the often recurring circular labyrinth can be seen as a metaphor of life or a riddle which theme is time. Although his name was mentioned in speculations about Nobel Prize, Borges never became a Nobel Laureate.

“When the end draws near, there no longer remain any remembered images; only words remain. It is not strange that time should have confused the words that once represented me with those that were symbols of the fate of he who accompanied me for so many centuries. I have been Homer; shortly, I shall be On One, like Ulysses; shortly, I shall be all men; I shall be dead.” (from ‘The Immortal’)

Jorge Luis Borges was born in Buenos Aires. His family included British ancestry and he learned English before Spanish. His father was a lawyer and a psychology teacher, who demonstrated the paradoxes of Zeno on a chessboard for his son. In the large house was also a library and garden which enchanted Borges’s imagination. In 1914 the family moved to Geneva, where Borges learned French and German and received his B.A. from the Collège of Geneva.

After World War I the Borges family lived in Spain, where he was a member of avant-garde Ultraist literary group. His first poem, ‘Hymn to the Sea,’ is published in the magazine Grecia. In 1921 Borges settled in Buenos Aires and started his career as a writer publishing poems and essays in literary journals. Among his friends was the philosopher Macedonio Fernandez, whose dedication linguistic problems influenced his thought. Borges’s first collection of poetry, Fervor de Buenos Aires, appeared in 1923. He contributed to the avant-garde review Martin Fierro, co-founded the journals Proa (1924-26) and Sur, which became Argentina’s most important literary journal, and wrote for Prisma. He also served as literary adviser for the publishing house Emecé Editores, and wrote weekly columns for El Hogar from 1936 to 1939. As a critic Borges gained fame with interpretations of the Argentine classics and displayed a deep knowledge of European and American literature, in particular for such writers as Poe, Stevenson, Kipling, Shaw, Chesterton, Whitman, Emerson, and Twain.

Borges’s father died in 1938, a great blow because the two had been unusually close. Borges also suffered a severe head wound and after recovery the experience freed in him deep forces of creativity. His first collection of the intricate and fantasy-woven short stories, El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan, was published in 1941. Later collections include Ficciónes (1944), El Aleph (1949), and El hacedor (1960). Borges’s interest in fantasy was shared by another well-known Argentine writer of fiction, Adolfo Bioy Casares, with whom Borges coauthored several collections of tales between 1942 and 1967.

From 1939 to 1946 Borges was a municipal librarian, but he was fired from his post by the Péron regime, and between the years 1946 and 1954 he was a poultry inspector for Buenos Aires Municipal Market. Borges’s political opinions were not considered inoffensive and as a sign of negative attention an attempt was made to bomb the house where Borges and his mother lived. After Peron’s deposition Borges was appointed Director of the National Library (1955-1973). “I speak of God’s splendid irony in granting me at once 800 000 book and darkness,” Borges noted alluding to his now almost complete blindness. Borges also was professor of literature at the University of Buenos Aires, and taught there from 1955 to 1970. In 1961 Borges shared the Prix Formentor with Samuel Beckett. During this decade started his series of visits to countries all around the world, continuing traveling until his death.

“A librarian wearing dark glasses asked him: ‘What are you looking for?’ Hladik answered: ‘I am looking for God.’ The librarian said to him: ‘God is in one of the letters on one of the pages of one of the four hundred thousand volumes of the Clementine. My fathers and the fathers of my fathers have searched for this letter; I have grown blind seeking it.'” (from “The Secret Miracle”)

In 1967 Borges began a five-year period of collaboration with Norman Thomas di Giovanni, and gained new fame in the English-speaking world. When Juan Perón was again elected president in 1973, Borges resigned as director of the National Library. Despite his opposition to Perón and later to the junta, his support to liberal causes were considered too ambiguous.

Borges, who had long suffered from eye problems, become totally blind in his last decades. He had a congenital defect that had afflicted several generations on his father’s side of the family. However, he continued to publish several books, among them El libro de los seres imaginarios (1967), El informe de brodie (1970), and El libro de arena (1975). After the death of his mother, who had been his constant companion, Borges began travelling feverishly. Borges died on June 14, 1986 in Geneva, Switzerland. He was married twice. In 1967 he married his old friend, the recently widowed Elsa Asteta Millán. The relationship lasted three years. After the divorce, Borges moved back in with his mother. His last years Borges lived with María Kodama; they married in 1986. In 1984 they produced an account of their journeys in different places of the world, with text by Borges and photographs by Kodoma.

Borges’s fictional universe was born from his vast and esoteric readings in literature, philosophy, and theology. He sees man’s search for meaning in an infinite universe as a fruitless effort. In the universe of energy, mass, and speed of light, Borges considers the central riddle time, not space. “He believed in an infinite series of times, in a growing, dizzying net of divergent, convergent and parallel times. This network of times which approached one another, forked, broke off, or were unaware of one another for centuries, embraces all possibilities of time.” The theological speculations of Gnosticism and the Cabala gave ideas for many of his plots. Borges has told in an interview that when he was a boy, he found an engraving of the seven wonders of the world, one of which portrayed a circular labyrinth. It frightened him and the maze has been one of his recurrent nightmares. (from ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’) Another recurrent image is the mirror, which reflects different identities. The idea for the short story ‘Borges y yo’ was came from the double who was looking at him – the alter ego, the other I. There is a well-known man, who writes his stories, a name in some biographical dictionary, and the real person. “So my life is a point-counterpoint, a kind of fugue, and a falling away – and everything winds up being lost to me, and everything falls into oblivion, or into the hands of the other man.”

Influenced by the English philosopher George Berkeley (1685-1753), Borges played with the idea that concrete reality may consist only of mental perceptions. The “real world” is only one possible in the infinite series of realities. These themes were examined among others in the classical short stories ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ and ‘La muerte y la brújula’ in which Borges showed his fondness of detective formula. In the story the calm, rational detective, Lönnrot (referring to the philologist/poet, the collector of Kalevala poems) finds himself trapped in labyrinths of his own making while attempting to solve a series of crimes. In ‘La Biblioteca de Babel’ the symmetrically structured library represents the universe as it is conceived by rational man, and the library’s illegible books refers to man’s ignorance. In ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ Borges invented a whole other universe based on an imaginary encyclopedia. The narrator states, that ‘Tlön is surely a labyrinth, but it is a labyrinth devised by men, a labyrinth destined to be deciphered by men.”

“Almost instantly, I understood: ‘The garden of forking paths’ was the chaotic novel; the phrase ‘the various futures (not to all)’ suggested to me the forking in time, not in space. A broad rereading of the work confirmed the theory. In all fictional works, each time a man is confronted with several alternatives, he chooses one and eliminates the others; in the fiction of Ts’ui Pên, he chooses – simultaneously – all of them. He creates, in this way, diverse futures, diverse time which themselves also proliferate and fork.” (from ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’)

As an essayist Borges drew on his European education and brought attention to ancient philosophers and mystics, Jewish cabbalist and gnostics, forgotten French poets, the Finnish national epos, and above all such English writers as John Milton, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, G.K. Chesterton and John Keats. His key books were Discusión (1932), Historia de la eternidad (1936), and Otras inquisiciones (1952). When many Latin American writers dealt with political or social subjects, Borges focused on eternal questions and the literary heritage of the world. However, Borges has criticized his friend, a politically highly visible author, for denouncing all the South American dictators except Juan Perón, Borges’s own arch-enemy. “Perón was then in power. It seems that Neruda had a lawsuit pending with his publisher in Buenos Aires. That publisher, as you probably know, has always been his principal source of income.” (Jorge Luis Borges: Conversations, ed. by Richard Burgin, 1998).

 

About Suzanne Jill Levine:

Suzanne Jill Levine is Professor at the University of California of Santa Barbara. For translation projects she has been awarded three National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship Grants, and a National Endowment for the Humanities Research Grant. Among her honours, she has received the first PEN USA West Elinor D. Randall Prize for Literary Translation and the PEN American Center International Career Achievement Award in Hispanic Letters. She was also awarded a Rockefeller Individual Scholar Residency at the Villa Serbelloni in Bellagio, as well as a John Simon Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship (1997). Some of Professor Levine’s recent translations are included in the definitive Non-Fictions of Jorge Luis Borges which received the National Book Circle Award for Criticism, and in 2000 she published a 450 page literary biography of Manuel Puig, Manuel Puig and the Spider Woman: His Life and Fictions. Other scholarly works include: El espejo hablado, Guia de Bioy Casares (The Spoken Mirror: A guide to Bioy Casares) and The Subversive Scribe: Translating Latin American Fiction.