The Translation of Poetry: An Universe Made Anew

Marta López-Luaces
Poet, writer and translator

Whereas literary translation is an important bridge between cultures that can help promote dialogue and understanding, poetry translation is a dialogue among two different systems of symbols and metaphors and there lays its importance. Yet only three percent of all of the titles published in the Unites States is in translation, and out of that three percent the translation of poetry amounts to not even a one percent.  Even though this sounds very discouraging, actually it is not.  In the United States translation from Spanish into English is growing. Translators such as Gary Racz, Forrest Gander, Anna Deeny, among others, slowly, but surely, are having a very positive impact in the literary scene of the USA. Their translations of contemporary poets from both Latin America and Spain are changing, little by little, the cultural and aesthetics perceptions and expectations of the United States toward the current trends in Spanish-language poetry.

Whether it is possible or not to translate poetry has been a discussion throughout history. Translating poetry has taught us that a poetry translator has to accept some losing of meaning and/or symbolic resonances; or some losing of linguistic density. Even though a translator has to accept there will be some lost, we also have to insist on the fact that—at least in any legitimate translation—there are some gains as well.

The translator of poetry has to be aware of language equivalences at three levels: lexical, phonic and syntactical.The transgression of the canonical language structure present in much of contemporary poetry confronts the reader with a sense of estrangement. The translator has to assume and explore this fact in all its extent. He or she has also to take advantage of the full range of lexical options available in the target language to convey the essence of the poem at hand.

Lexical and syntactical transgressions are a literary strategies through which the author seeks the reader to experience his/her work as establishing a clear distance with everyday language; yet others seeks the reader to experience some form of immediacy and use a poetic idiom as close as possible to the oral language.  The translator must be aware of the poet’s intentions. It is these differences that make the translation of poetry a recreation of poetic intent.

Before my anthology New Poetry from Spain: An Anthology (New Jersey: Talisman House, 2012)was published this year, only the anthology Roots and Wings: Poetry from Spain 1900-1975 had been published, and that as far as 1972. Only two anthologies of Spanish poetry published in the States in for decades. Again, this sounds very discouraging. And yet New Poetry from Spain: An Anthology is not alone anymore like Roots and Wings was back in the seventies. There are other anthologies of Spanish poetry being prepared right now. The American novelist, poet and translator Forrest Gander is compiling an anthology of contemporary Spanish poets. Poet, professor, and translator Mark Statman has just published Black Tulip, his translation of the poetry of José María Hinojosa (Malaga, Spain, 1904-1936). All of this demonstrates the emergence in the United States of a new interest in Spanish poetry.

While I was compiling and translating New Poetry From Spain: An Anthology—a volume including twenty five contemporary poets born between 1945 and 1971—I realized I had to represent not one but a variety of aesthetic trends in the contemporary Spanish poetry scene. As a translator, I was aware I had to present a poetic tradition not known too well in the United States. So I had to choose poets and poems that will show the broadest poetic range within the corpus of poetry published and most enthusiastically read in Spain in the last several decades.

The poems chosen for this anthology make apparent that the relationship between the old literary tradition of Spanish poetry and the new poetic waves is a complex one.

To achieve poetic legitimization some of the new poets choose to refer to tradition —even if in order only to subvert it. Others, on the contrary, choose to reject it. But for all of them the new is an important aspect of their poetics. Thus, to be an agent of change is a must for most contemporary Spanish poets. This dialectic relationship with both tradition and the historical avant-gardes will have to be transmitted as well in the translation of Spanish poetry today.

I also believed that the poetic texts chosen for this anthology had to represent somehow the profound social and cultural change lived in Spain from Franco’s dictatorship (1936-1975) to the full establishment in the country of the democratic system. This is reflected in the fragmentation of discourse, which allowed the poets to introduce more challenging and volatile images, metaphors, and voices into their work. The freedom to break with limits was also apparent in the blurring of literary genres – prose, poetry, and drama

As a translator, I also noticed that present-day poets often return to and create a dialogue with the poetic tradition in order to recuperate familiar symbols while at the same time subverting and offering new connotations to those symbols.  In this way, the new poets are "breaking" from tradition, at the same time they engage in a conversation with their predecessors. The Spanish poetry translator must be very aware of the poetic history of Spain to be able to transmit the conflicting character of that very literary dialogue nowadays.

To take someone else’s poetic voice is to take his or her mask, a transformation that affects the expression in both the original and the target language.The translator of poetry negotiates not only between two languages, and between two cultures but also between two literary traditions.

The poem is an aesthetic object, and as such its language is loaded with not just with meaning but with cultural nuances and connotations. The accurate translation of those nuances and word values is crucial for the reader to have access to that new poetic territory represented by the original text.

The translation of a poem then must be an aesthetic act, bringing out the connection between two different literary and cultural traditions.

The poetry translator must be aware that, many times, he or she is introducing to the reader not just a poet and his or her text, but a whole poetic tradition. The reader might have problems situating or decoding the new symbols and metaphors coming from another culture. It is one of the tasks of the translator of poetry to guide that reader by choosing the closest symbolic equivalence between the original and the translated text. And last but not least, the translator of poetry has to achieve this through an essentially rhythmic—if not musical—series of verses. This is another main element of the translation of poetry—length, accents, feet, repetitions and contrasts and alliterations are as basic elements of poetry (even the so-called free verse) as images and metaphors and its very topics are.

Even though the poets represented in New Poetry from Spain are very different from one another, there is a common thread that runs throughout the anthology. Yet they all had different poetic styles and voices. Translation should be subtle enough to convey all those differences. The new poetry reader must sense that which go even beyond the rational within a poem; that which it is related to an emotional or sensitive knowledge. The relationship between the poet´s interiority, the emotional, the imaginary and the subjectivity of his/her poetic universe should be transmitted through the target language.

As we’ve just advanced, the translator of poetry has to worry as well about the rhythm or the musicof the poem, about its rhetorical density.  Beyond the specific linguistic issues at play in the translation of poetry from Spanish into English, tradition-specific features such as voice, diction, tone, register, rhythm, narrativity, and metrics can present even greater challenges to “natural-sounding” renderings in the target language (English) than the translation of an image or the topic itself. The linguistic transition in translation is a movement that develops the relationship between the two languages and aspires to create a text by which the author and the translator may negotiate a new symbolic order within the target text. Poetry translation always tests the limits of what it is symbolicallyand linguistically possible to articulate, creating by doing so a new literary aesthetic system that has an impact on the social consciousness of the new readership.