Re-writing Neruda

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.

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3 Responses to Re-writing Neruda

  1. dana t says:

    I was just thinking about the immensity of translations this afternoon. I was going to write about the Spanish poet Blas de Otero today, whose poem “Loyalty” is in Robert Bly’s “Leaping Poetry”. The poem starts, “I believe in the human being”… and has as much Neruda in it as it does Whitman. I looked at some of his other poems online, and found one entitled “Fidelity” that felt extremely familiar, but seemed to have something huge lacking in it. It turned out to be the same poem in my book but with a different translator, yet it felt worlds different. It is amazing how specific translations can get, and how slight changes can mean a huge miss for the reader.

  2. Justine Rowe says:

    Jen, I think you raise an interesting topic. I am a French and English major so I am very aware of the difference in expression in different languages. I don’t do much with poetry (until now), but you are right, the specificity of words in poetry must really be affected by translation. It would be interesting to see a poet’s translation of their own poem compared with a translator’s translation, what kind of differences we may find. When reading translated poetry I guess we must always bear in mind the superficiality of our version, it can never be quite as the poet intended.

  3. AVZ says:

    Peter has an interesting post on this topic as well. I’ve never been great with foreign languages, and I’ve always been vexed in a similar way by translation. I think it is very helpful to think of these poems as “close readings.” That emphasize the level of interpretation–even distortion–involved in their making. You have to view it almost as a new poem–a poem that works to harness the energies of the original, but that must necessarily replicate poetic effects very particular to a given language in some other way. And the way some poets trade these poetic tricks and tropes between one language and another can create some pretty interesting monsters!

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