The Translator's Ego

from Antiphonal Swing, McPherson & Co., 1989.

In his introduction to my Selected Poems 1960-1985, Eliot Weinberger writes: "As for translation: the dissolution of the translator's ego is essential if the foreign poem is to enter the language-a bad translation is the insistent voice of the translator."

My first experience with what I think Weinberger means by "the translator's ego" was with Ben Belitt's translations of Garcia Lorca's Poet in New York, in 1959. Belitt appeared to be imposing his own poetic voice onto the Spanish text when, for example, he translated the last line of Lorca's poem "La Aurora," "como recién salidas de un naufragio de sangre" as, "as though lately escaped from a bloody disaster." Lorca's "shipwreck of blood," a powerful direct image that needs no translational revision, had not only been lost but turned into English-English slang-Belitt's "bloody," as in "he's a bloody good bloke," neatly effaced Lorca's "blood." In the case of Belitt's Lorca and Neruda translations, we hear the translator-poet's own mannerisms leaking into and rendering rococo the meaning of the original texts. It is as if Belitt is colonizing the foreign terrain of these poets instead of accommodating himself to the ways in which they differ from his own poetic intentions.

The image of a translator colonizing the foreign terrain of an original text has somber implications, especially in the case of a "first-world" translator working on a "third-world" writer. By adding to, subtracting from and reinterpreting the original, the translator implies that he knows better than the original text knows, that in effect his mind is superior to its mind. The "native text" becomes raw material for the colonizer-translator to educate and re-form in a way that instructs the reader to believe that the foreign poet is aping our literary conventions.

Belitt, of course, is not alone in such activity, although his imposition seems more monolithic and damaging than that of many other translators. When Robert Lowell drops out ten of Rimbaud's twenty-five stanzas in translating "Le bateau ivre," there seems to be a presumption that only two-thirds of one of the greatest poems in the French language is worth carrying over to English. Cid Corman, at times an extraordinarily fine translator, has a tendency to eliminate repetitive phrases and to drop articles. This appears to be a manifestation of his own poetics which have rendered the line, "pero me busca. Es una historia!" as, "but she looks and looks for me. What a fucking story!"

The Vallejo poem in question her is made up of a series of anguished lamentations on the failure of his wife to connect with him. During the first eight years that I translated Vallejo, I was unable to connect with Georgette Vallejo-by which I mean that she constantly blocked my work with the excuse that no one could properly translate her late husband's poetry. After much effort, by a fluke, Grove Press gained permission to publish the translation. One afternoon I was sitting in Gil Sorrentino's office going over galleys. When I came to the poem in question, I read it to Gil and complained that the last line-at that point rendered, "but she looks and looks for me. What a story!"-lacked punch. By that point, Vallejo's "Es una Historia!" was not only loaded with his consternation, but had taken on the symbolic weight of my struggle with the translation and with his widow. My memory is that after a moment's reflection, Sorrentino threw up his hands and exclaimed, "what a fucking story!" and in a giddy moment I said, "that's it!" and added the intensifier to the line. I was wrong to do so, and when José Rubia Barcia and I retranslated the poem six years later, we took it out.

I've gone into a little detail here not to excuse myself but to suggest that a translator's impositions upon his text are not necessarily a worked-out plan to create a new tone or meaning for the original. Were Lowell to be here, he might explain (probably not to our satisfaction) that he left all those stanzas out because he was unable to render them to his satisfaction. Corman might argue that by cutting here and there rather than adhering to every point, he had made a sharper and not really unfaithful version in English.

So, how might a translator work to resist ego imposition or, at worst, translational imperialism? For the fact is, there is no such thing as a literal translation of a poem-denotative choices come up in every line. There is a constant process of interpretation going on, regardless of how faithful one attempts to be to the original.

When the original poet is available for questioning, a certain amount of denotational guesswork can be eliminated. When one is translating the great dead, or out of contact with the author, the only indicators come from the text at large, and the way key words can be identified relative to the author's background. While translating the Martinican Aimé Césaire with Annette Smith, I visited Césaire several times, always with a few pages of specific word questions. Given Césaire's busy schedule, it was never possible to ask him all the questions that came up in translating him, so many tricky decisions had to be made on the basis of the text itself. As an example: Smith and I occasionally came across the word "anse," which can be rendered as "bay/cove/creek," of "[basket] handle." Since Césaire's poetry is very specific to Martinican geography, and since the entire island is pocked with bays and coves (which had led to such place names as Anse Pilote, or Grande Anse d'Arlet etc), the obvious choice here seemed to be "bay" or "cove" (assuming that the context of a particular poem does not call for a "handle" reading). Yet in the 1969 Berger-Bostock translation of Césaire's Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, we find "les Antilles qui ont faim...bourgeonnant d'anses frêles..." translated as "the hungry Antilles...delicately sprouting handles for the market." Not only has the Surrealist Césaire been falsely surrealized, but the translators have backed u their error by adding an explanation to the reader as to what these handles are for. When Smith and I retranslated the Notebook in 1976, we rendered these phrases as "the hungry Antilles...burgeoning with frail coves..."

In the case of Vallejo, I learned not only to check my work with Peruvians and Spanish scholars, but to check their suggestions against each other and against the dictionary. I worked to find word-for word equivalents, not explanatory phrases. I also respected Vallejo's punctuation, intentional misspellings, line and stanza breaks, and tried to render his obscurity and flatness as well as his clarity and brilliance. An unsympathetic reviewer of Barcia's and my work, John Simon, exclaimed: "Eshleman has tried to render every wart of the original!" Which is, in fact, exactly what we had tried to do-to create in English a non cosmeticized Vallejo.

As a poet translating another poet, I let my sense of my relationship to Vallejo and his poetry enter my own poetry, so that the translating activity, in the context of an apprenticeship, was envisioned and critiqued as an aspect of my own evolving poetics. Over the years, I constantly tried to skim my own imaginings of Vallejo off the surface of the translations and let them ferment in my own poetry. I came to understand that if a translator does not do this, he runs the risk of building up an imaginal residue in his translation, which with no outlet of its own, spills into the text.

The thing is: Imagination is always present. We know this when we try to remember and write down a dream upon waking. As we try to remember, we forget, and in the flux we reorganize, imagining the dream into a writing that ends up locking the nebulosity of psyche into a fixed grid of print. In a similar way, our imaginations are active as we move one language into another. As we read translationally, we risk revising the original to reinforce our dream of a poetics that might hold its own against alternative poetics.

All the poets I have spent long periods of translation time with-Neruda, Vallejo, Artaud, Césaire, Deguy-have drawn me because I felt that their poetry knew something that my poetry wanted to know. Besides attempting to make accurate, readable versions, I was also involved in a secondary plot, or a sub-text, wanting to shovel some of their psychic coal into my own furnaces.

Since translation is such slow work, requiring multiple rereadings, it can require a more prolonged reading-in-depth than when we read poetry written in our own language. As the translator scuttles back and forth between the original and the rendering he is shaping, a kind of "assimilative space" is opened up in which "influence" may be less contrived and literary than when drawing upon masters of one's own language. The kind of "influence" I have in mind here involves becoming porous to the character of the original, and to the various ways in which it resists or does not resist being transformed.

Thus in the case of Vallejo, I do not think of myself as having been influenced, at least not directly, by his Marxism, his Christianity, or by his own indigenous influence which, since he was a Peruvian sierra cholo, gives his writing much of its austerity, anxiety and immutability. No, in Vallejo's case, I believe that it is his capacity for contradiction, and the consequent complexity of viewpoint that has been the fuel. He offered me not merely ideas and stances, but a way of receiving and twisting the blow of the world.