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Issue9: The Missing Body

Issue8: The Lily

Issue7: Passages

Issue6: No More Tears

A quick list to poets featured in this issue:

Quan Barry

Cal Bedient

Joshua Bell

Nadia Colburn

Carolina Ebeid

Odysseas Elytis

Nathalie Handal

Connie Hershey

Timothy Liu

Drago Stambuk

Franz Wright

One Crystal in Another:
A Translation Conversation

No Shelter: The Selected Poems of Pura López-Colomé
Translated by Forrest Gander
87 pages. Graywolf Press  

Reviewed by Mark Schafer

I wanted to review No Shelter: The Selected Poems of Pura López-Colomé for the opportunity to read more of Forrest Gander's poetry, which I greatly admire and enjoy, and Pura López-Colomé's poetry, which I had only dipped into previously. I also anticipated a delightful and challenging dialogue between these two thoughtful poet/translators. I was not disappointed on any of these counts. Gander's translation is a pleasure to read. He provides us with a live version of López-Colomé's poetry in English and continues his work of invigorating the English language itself. At the same time-as he notes in his succinct and intelligent introduction to this volume-he grapples with the questions of faith and truth in his translation, as López-Colomé in her own way does in her poetry. "I am not above inventing rhyme or wordplay in translation where there is none in the original in order to make up for wordplay or rhyme that is lost elsewhere." As we shall see, the skill and care Gander applies at the micro level of these translations pays off in various ways at the macro level.

López-Colomé's poetry is, as Gander puts it, "exacting". Her language itself is demanding, uncompromising, precise. Rather than spooling out narratives or dramatic scenes, her poetry is constantly, rigorously honing in on moral truths with a spiritual intensity that is unusual, surprising even to find in poetry nowadays.

I give my word
and it returns to my mouth.
I swallow it, digest, it, retch.
How many times have I said
my spirit is nearing affliction's
peak and I don't know how
to christen the suffering
and how many others have I vomited
I'm so sorry
my most sincere condolences

(from "Death of the Kiss")

The appearance here of "word," "spirit," and "christen," is not coincidental. At the heart of López-Colomé's poetic project is the attempt to bridge the sacred and the profane and in that passage to reveal that one inhabits the other. And as the poet delves with full awareness into that dual-faceted reality a powerful mix of contrasting emotions arises. At the end of the poem "Prism", the poet describes visiting the abandoned campsite of a group of modern day pilgrims:

Going back as though to touch the votive stone, the feet or hands of the worn image of some miraculous saint:

I found nothing but garbage.
The Lord's mouth agape,
his stinking breath.

On the one hand, the sacred space the poet seeks turns out to be a very human wasteland; on the other, this wasteland stinks with the breath of God. This is a perilous place to stand, emotionally, morally, and spiritually, ("I prayed in terror or envy […] The next morning, full of admiration and rapture, I returned…"), but López-Colomé holds her ground.

I confess to getting lost on occasion as I read López-Colomé's poetry, to following the momentum of a phrase or line and finding myself veering right off the poem as it continues on its tightly drawn path. Suddenly I am, á la Bugs Bunny, reading in the mid-air of the margin. This occurred, for example, when I read this passage from "Los cachorros":

Nubarrones, runas echadas,
este verano sólido,
padre paciente, manantial
de lo que viene ocurriendo
para seguir pasando,
esqueleto del magnífico
lugar común.
Este lugar.

[Storm clouds, thrown runes
this solid summer,
patient father, fountainhead
of what comes on, continuing
what has been,
skeleton of the magnificent
This place.

(from "The Cubs")]

The intelligence of Gander's reading provided me with assistance in navigating this somewhat tricky passage. A good translator is first and foremost a very careful, thoughtful reader. I find myself frequently grateful to Gander for two conversations as I read his translations--the conversation between him and me, and the earlier conversation he held with López-Colomé's poems. It is not that he explains what I don't understand or that he shows me the way through the complex movement of her language and thought (two hallmarks of poor translations), but that his English versions are living, breathing texts in dialogue with the original Spanish texts. His phrase "fountainhead/of what comes on, continuing/what has been" is not only an English version of the Spanish, it is an insightful reading and creative rendering of it. One of those insights is that while one could translate "para seguir pasando" as "to continue happening", one doesn't have to because "continue" contains all the indication of the present that we need, and what is implied-and what he successfully brings out-is that it is the past that continues happening in the present. This is just a detail within this stanza, but I bring it up to illustrate the level on which I find Gander conversing with, questioning, and exploring López-Colomé's poetry.

As a good translator must, he holds this conversation at the level of sounds as well. The resonance of n's, u's, and r's in the first line of this passage appears in English as o's, r's, n's, and m's. The two p's of "padre paciente" in the poem's third line become the two f's of "father, fountainhead"-"fountainhead" doing double duty here, being far superior and more evocative than any of the alternatives I can think of. And Gander's use of "commonplace" for "lugar común" is obvious as one reads the stanza, but equally important is that the word precisely reproduces the nested repetition and wordplay of the same lines in the Spanish.In the end, however, the success of this translation lies in the way it flows from "Storm" right down to "place." Gander's choice of sounds and words all serve to create a poetic movement equivalent to that of the original Spanish.

On occasion Gander seems to misread the Spanish, but these instances are minor. For example, in the second part of "To Good Shelter", he translates "Aquel sonido no parece tener eco, / va en su busca,/en busca de la aurora" as "The sound doesn't seem to echo / but veers off, / off toward the dawn". As I read the Spanish, the sound is not veering off toward the dawn, but seeking its own echo, which is also, perhaps the dawn. In the third section of "Death of the Kiss," he writes "I kissed you like a shipwreck". It is a significant l iberty to translate náufrago, a shipwrecked person or castaway, as a shipwreck. The substitution of the ship for the sailor gives the line a clichéd pitch and eliminates the possibility that the narrator is comparing herself to a castaway.

These few awkward moments in Gander's translation are exceptions that prove the very rules he sets for himself in the introduction: to create a faithful translation "where faith is a form of knowledge and belief" and to refresh American English, an act that "may serve also to inoculate readers against a language of manifest destiny, the language of the New York Times." "I kissed you like a shipwreck" is followed by the line "like one who insufflates the word." Beware--translators are taught early--of translating cognates literally, unquestioningly. And here is Gander's translation, not only full of English cognates of Spanish words, but words that many of us would have to look up in a dictionary: "insufflates," "amatory," "excrescencies," "inapprehensible," "circumlocution." But translators, beware also of following rules without question! These words are not common or colloquial in Spanish either, and the poet is clearly choosing them with intention. In five magnificent volumes of his own original poetry, Forrest Gander has proven himself to be a masterful, precise, daring poet, a writer whose work has for years been giving American English vigorous "injections" of new poetic forms, ideas, images, and rhythms, and a resuscitated richness of vocabulary. Which is to say, I come to this book already trusting Gander and his translation, and I find my trust confirmed. I am willing and eager to be inoculated with live insufflates or excrescencies providing I sense that his text is well-grounded in a careful reading of López-Colomé's original. It is.

Here is one more example: In the first part of "The Cubs", the word shorn catches my eye in the line "The tigress in that shorn landscape, under a shrub." A shorn landscape? It's just far enough outside what I would expect that I wonder whether it is the poem that is challenging me (in English) or the translation. So I flip to the Spanish text and find the line: "La tigresa, en aquel árido paisaje, bajo un arbusto." Why, I wonder now, did he translate árido as shorn when surely the cognate serves perfectly well in English? The ultimate strength of Gander's translation derives from the accomplishment of the final goal he sets forth in his introduction: "I aim to recreate, sometimes in different places, the same degree of reader participation in the translation as in the original." And here is a perfect example of the conversation between the translator as reader (Gander) and the reader of translations (I), which I mentioned earlier. As I let his translation speak to me, it underscores the sound of the line in Spanish, the seven as in a row, two of them followed by rs-árido and arbusto. And then I see that by using shrub instead of arid, Gander linked shorn and shrub in English just as árido and arbusto are linked in Spanish, particularly important since there is no way to reproduce the assonance of the Spanish here in English. Not only in my opinion does Gander's translation justify his choices, but driven by the Spanish, his translation helps to revitalize American English at the same time. Now I own shorn again-and anew.

Finally, I am grateful for the organization of this bilingual volume: the complete translation in English followed by the original text in Spanish (in contrast to the standard format of presenting translation and original texts on facing pages.) I firmly believe that the facing-page format should be reserved for bilingual volumes specifically designed for the study of the two texts. When I opened this book and found page after page of English and then the original poems in Spanish afterward, I relaxed intellectually and physically with the knowledge that I could read the translation on its own terms without having to constantly check it against the Spanish, and vice-versa. To set the two texts (literally) against each other is to proclaim on every page "This Is That". Of course one could read each text separately, but how many of us ever do even when we decide to? The traditional bilingual format practically demands that every reading be a comparative reading. I am a translator and a poet, and I certainly love to compare translations with their originals for reasons ranging from editorial obsession to linguistic inquisitiveness. Nevertheless, I think that the facing-page format diminishes each text for the reader, diminishes the trust the reader might have or build in each text and its respective author. So I was relieved when I opened this book. I read Forrest Gander's translation with all the pleasure and questions it produced in me, only occasionally flipping to the Spanish. Pura López-Colomé's poetry in Forrest Gander's English! And then I read López-Colomé's poems in Spanish, only occasionally flipping back to the English to satisfy one curiosity or another. And then I read Gander again--and then López-Colomé. My reading of this book has become an ongoing conversation in which each person has his or her turn to speak and to listen, myself included.

Mark Schafer is a literary translator and visual artist who lives in Cambridge. He recently translated Antonio José Ponte's collection of essays, Las comidas profundas (Meaning To Eat), along with some of his poetry. Schafer is currently translating La escala de los mapas, a novel by the Spanish author Belén Gopegui, and Migraciones, an epic poem of memory by the Mexican poet Gloria Gervitz. When he is not translating, Schafer is hard at work dissembling and reassembling the world in his map collages. His first solo exhibit, "Imaginary Maps, Invented Landscapes", took place in a map store.