Lost in Translation

What many translators say and we all hear many times: “The poetry of the language native to the poem is hard to capture in the transfer”. I find this most true with Neruda and even with the fine translations held in this book. Mark Eisner implores in the introduction: “Even if you do not speak Spanish, I urge you to read the original poems. The words have notes, they resonate like a song”. Consider the following line in “Only Death”:

No question, you can hear death’s footsteps

Now, the original Spanish opening two words, “Sin embargo”, translates to the more phonically resonate following: “however, all the same, but then, nevertheless, none the less, nonetheless, notwithstanding, then again, there again, though” (garnered from an online dictionary, as well as Spanish major). These are, in my estimation, prettier in the transfer than Robert Haas’ choice, “No question”.

Indeed, on the ideational level, the certainty of “no question” frightens me a little bit, since in the next lines the speaker repeats how he doesn’t know: “I don’t know, I understand so little, I can hardly see”. Then again, Robert Haas could be trying to make a stronger mood change by grounding the certainty of hearing death, then refuting it several lines later.

I am encouraged to prefer, however, the musicality of a language, which I feel Robert Haas has missed in his translation. I prefer any of the following lines for their sonic and even exciting argumentative tones:

“All the same, you can hear death’s footsteps”
“But then, you can hear death’s footsteps”
“Nevertheless, you can hear death’s footsteps”
“Nonetheless, you can hear death’s footsteps”

And the most favorite of mine in sound, image, and meaning in relation to the entirety of poem (by showing intimacy with death and the closeness of its presence), the creepy, affronting line:

“There again, you can hear death’s footsteps”.

All a matter of a not-even-amateur translator making a quibble I’m sure. Except to say in this particular line I feel that the idea and sound of Neruda saying “No question” rings false. Again I will refer to the quote from Mark Eisner and make sure to realize the music in Neruda when speaking with his native tongue and do my best to mark my margins with a more musical, fervent mirror of his poems in the English language. But really, I probably should translate a book of poems before I complain about two words. There’s always a critic, as they say.

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One Response to Lost in Translation

  1. AVZ says:

    Thanks for your thoughts on these opening words, Peter. Translators–perhaps especially when they are poets like Haas–take liberties too often. I appreciate your gloss, here, and the other possibilities the Spanish holds. I also like “there again”–much more gothic!

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