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He'd had the sense, moments earlier, that Caroline was on the verge of accusing him of being "depressed," and he was afraid that if the idea that he was depressed gained currency, he would forfeit his right to his opinions. He would forfeit his moral certainties; every word he spoke would become a symptom of disease; he would never win an argument.

Jonathan Franzen

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Saturday, January 10th, 2009

Poem and translation

Looking through Ellen's old poetry books I am glad to find a bilingual edition of Pablo Neruda's poetry, Fully Empowered. (Translations are by Alastair Reid, and I'm making a note to myself to look up this guy whose name is on much of the mid-century Latin American literature that interests me.) Take a look at the first stanza of the first poem in the book.

Deber del poeta

A quien no escucha el mar en este viernes
por la mañana, a quien adentro de algo,
casa, oficina, fábrica o mujer,
o calle o mina o seco calabozo:
a éste yo acudo y sin hablar ni ver
llego y abro la puerta del encierro
y un sin fin se oye vago en la insistencia
un largo trueno roto se encadena
al peso del planeta y de la espuma,
surgen los ríos roncos del océano,
vibra veloz en su rosal la estrella
y el mar palpita, muere y continúa.


The Poet's Obligation

To whoever is not listening to the sea
this Friday morning, to whoever is cooped up
in house or office, factory or woman
or street or mine or dry prison cell,
to him I come, and without speaking or looking
I arrive and open the door of his prison,
and a vibration starts up, vague and insistent,
a long rumble of thunder adds itself
to the weight of the planet and the foam,
the groaning rivers of the ocean rise,
the star vibrates quickly in its corona
and the sea beats, dies, and goes on beating.

A couple things -- why does Neruda say "casa, oficina, fábrica o mujer" -- is he meaning a woman is something to keep you cooped up like a house or a factory? This sounds sexist in a pretty retrograde tone which is not something I'd expect from Neruda; but then I don't really know that much about him -- think of him vaguely as progressive, which I take to imply egalitarian. "Adentro de... mujer" leads me to think of a fetus but I'm pretty sure that is not who the poem is addressed to... In the phrase "un sin fin se oye" is "un" a pronoun -- is this literally "something hears itself endlessly" -- I had thought "un" could only be an article, is this a poetic usage?

This is beautiful imagery; but I don't think I can read it closely enough in the translation to realy appreciate it -- I expect this is a failing more of my own reading than of the translation. I'm really happy to have read the observation (I think I read it first from Daniel Hahn; I've seen it referenced several places since then, most recently by Katherine Silver, so maybe it is a commonplace) that translation is a form of reading closely -- this is opening up a new understanding of how to read closely for me.

posted afternoon of January 10th, 2009: Respond
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The poems in Fully Empowered are kind of perfect for me to read in Spanish -- short stanzas, short lines, so I can hold them in my head while I go over Reid's translation and back over the original. And lots of repetition of words, so I can maybe get some of them into my vocabulary -- building vocabulary has always been the most difficult part of language study for me.

The repetitions seem meaningful -- certain words occur in almost every poem, like "línea" (in various senses), "caer" (in various forms), words relating to the water like "mar," "océan," "ola," "espuma,"... There are also frequent references to geography and geometry, to birds, to movement, to towers... I haven't quite put all this together yet -- the references to water make me think about Neruda being Chilean, seems like the ocean must be a pretty important part of life in Chile. (Jorge, can you speak to this?) The many repetitions of "línea" are making me think about geometry and language and again, the sea, and tying them together.

I just love the rhythm of this passage, which totally does not come through in the translation; I haven't been able to make a lot of sense of the passage, with or without the translation, but the sound of it is wonderful. From the second stanza of "Pájaro":

Cuando volví de tantos viajes
me quedé suspendido y verde
entre el sol y la geografía:
vi còmo trabajan las alas,
còmo se transmite el perfume
por un telégrafo emplumado
y desde arriba vi el camino,
los manantiales, las tejas,
los pescadores a pescar,
los pantalones de la espuma,
todo desde mi cielo verde.

posted afternoon of January 10th, 2009: 2 responses
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Word choice

So on the one hand I feel like who am I to criticize Reid's translations -- he surely knew Spanish better than I and was more familiar than I with the literature he was translating. Still I'm seeing a lot of lines in Neruda's poems that look poorly translated to my eye. But one in particular is kind of knocking me for a loop, because it just seems wrong, in a very basic and easy way. From "El desnudo":

Esta raya es el Sur que corre,
este círculo es el Oeste
is translated as
This ray is the running sun,
this circle is the East
when obviously the ray is "the South which runs" and the circle is "the West" -- why would you change "the South" to "the sun" and lose the parallelism between these two lines? Why would you make the West into the East? I'm missing something, or else this is just a botched job.

posted afternoon of January 10th, 2009: 3 responses
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Sunday, January 11th, 2009

Neruda resources

There seems to be a lot written about translating Neruda's poetry. Here are a couple of things I've found this morning.

posted morning of January 11th, 2009: Respond

Monday, January 12th, 2009

No me canso de ser y de no ser

Listening to the Colombian band Musicalizando sing Neruda's poem "Plenos Poderes" is, well, fun. I'm not quite connecting with the music -- it doesn't really move me -- but the poem is just lovely and I'm glad to be able to hear it recited rather than just reading it on the page and trying to figure out the cadences for myself. And also, it's just a nice feeling to see pop musicians rooted in the literary tradition like that. I wonder (with reference to El Laberinto de la Soledad) if this is more common in Latin America than it is here.

The lines

Y no me canso de ir y de volver;
no me para la muerte con su piedra,
no me canso de ser y de no ser.
seem like a disavowal of his earlier
Sucede que me canso de ser hombre.
(from "Walking Around"). I suppose without knowing, this might be connected to the political situations of the times when he wrote these two poems. The lines from "Plenos Poderes" work nicely as a response to Hamlet's question.

More Neruda-based pop music below the fold.

posted evening of January 12th, 2009: 5 responses
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Tuesday, July 12th, 2011

¡Feliz Cumpleaños, Pablo!

Come open up the door of my prison!

posted morning of July 12th, 2011: Respond
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