The translation of poems into a new language, by a poet who did not write the original poem, is an odd concept. In the introduction to The Essential Neruda: selected poems, one of the translators, Mark Eisner quotes another previous Neruda translator, John Felstiner’s feelings on multiple translations of the same poem:
“We have always to ask if a given translation comes across in its own right, as convincing as any poem of the day. In most cases the idiom of translators goes stale sooner than that of other writers, so that ideally, the salient poets from any period deserve retranslating for the ear of each new generation.”
This theory isn’t new, the bible for instance has thousands of translations and someone continues every decade or so to produce a more hip or contemporary reading of the ancient text. But does something having been written in a language apart from our own give us the right to update it a hundred years later? I doubt there have been any re-translated versions of the text in Spanish.
I am not arguing the practice of translation, without it I would have had to learn another language in order to fall in love with Neruda and other non-English poets. But if one states that he/she believes that there are unlimited translations of a text, that have the right to be updated to accommodate the current readers, then these translated poems are put at an advantage over older classical poetry that was written in English. Imagine if we were to take Whitman’s poetry and replace wording that is uncommon in today’s language with wording that is, or that scholars have determined years later is more “Whitmanian.” It is because of this that I have a difficult time comparing the “New-world” qualities of these two poets, and other translated poets. Even though Whitman is contemporary in his form, evocative subjects and images, and language, there is a quality to Neruda that greatly resonates in the now, which I attribute mostly to his ingenious use of language, but also to the continual renewal of his work through translation.
Never-the-less, I still very much enjoy reading the various translations, and even trying with the bits of Spanish I know to translate Neruda on my own. The book is very helpful in that it provides us with the original version of the poem, and therefore allows the reader to keep in mind that he/she is in fact reading someone else’s close reading of the poem, and not the poet’s exact words. If you’re interested more in the translation of Neruda, I found a cool blog online that has a post on a project where kids in Spanish classes tried to translate Neruda and then wrote about the arguments over word-choice and the findings from their own close readings.