Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Adventures in Amateur Translation: Part I

As with many translated things, the original text of Lorca's “Ode to Walt Whitman,” appears on the left-hand page, while Carlos Bauer's corresponding English lines are printed on the right. When I read the poem in English, I kept a very casual eye on the Spanish text, since my Spanish is, lately, little more than casual (hell, my English is going the same way. I'd tell you about the absolutely ordinary English word that I couldn't remember yesterday, but I've forgotten it*). My understanding of Spanish isn't a sophisticated one. I can count the novels I've read in Spanish on one hand (one of them was about this unspeakable badass), let alone novels from Spain. Though I've read some Lorca, I'm not in touch with his literary burden.

I know a little something about English poetry. I know that "In a Station of the Metro" is the closest thing in the English language to a perfect image: a phrase so potent and evocative that reading it causes a violent existential shock. And despite my hobbled Spanish, I had a strong aesthetic reaction when I read the line, "gotas de sucia muerte con amargo veneno," and found that it had been translated as, "drop by drop, the bitter venom of a foul death." It seemed a wimpy and unnecessarily long-winded rendering of what should simply be "drops of dirty death with bitter venom." I wasn't offended on behalf of Lorca, or the "Oda." I was offended on behalf of the English poetry that I read through the Spanish words--the poetry that was the merest literal translation of what I had read, but which gave me escalofríos, cold stairs climbing up my spine.

Why did the translator, Carlos Bauer, forgo the relentless, rhythmic alliteration of "drops of dirty death?" By separating his drops from the death they bestow, Bauer suggests that the foul death is held in reserve and meted out drop by drop, as from a medicine bottle, and that this ministry is bitter venom. Perhaps he did it this way to eliminate the awkwardness of the hanging tag, "with bitter venom," which has an uncertain function in the more literal translation. The bitter venom is given alongside the drops of dirty death? It just sort of inevitably comes with it--combo number four, a side of bitter venom with your dirty death? Though that last bit may be vague and un-rigorous, I think it's made up for by the shape of the sounds, and by the elemental quality of the line. Dirty drops--like sooty rainwater, semen, or the swirl of blood in the syringe.

My strong feelings about this line prompted me to try to translate the whole poem with only conversational Spanish, an online Spanish-English dictionary, a Roget's Thesaurus, and a copy of Leaves of Grass. My translation is inferior, by several orders of magnitude, to Bauer's. It has a rushed, awkward, inconsistent quality. Overall, it doesn't hit its stride as a poem. But I was pleased with one or two lines, and the process brought up questions about the Oda and about translation in general which I found interesting--it's always fun to bump up against an opinion you didn't know you had. The poem itself is quite long, so I've posted it as a separate entry. The original is here. I wish I could provide you with a fair-use copy of Bauer's translation, but I just can't. It is heavily excerpted below.

I assumed that the literal, bare bones approach that I took with "gotas de sucia muerte" would inform my choices throughout the poem, but this was far from true. I had no consistent approach whatsoever, and my motivation for picking certain words or phrases over others changed from line to line. I was often swayed by the sounds of the words in English, and I was likely to overlook closeness of meaning in favor of verbal musicality. I had originally translated "manadas de bisontes" in the third stanza as "flocks of bison," before it occurred to me on a re-read that bison do not fly. I was tempted to leave it, since the bison in question descend from the sky, but I felt it would likely be perceived as a mistake.

I also saw that it would be necessary to alter the punctuation of the lines--English doesn't have the same capacity as Spanish to pile clause on clause. Sentences that are perfectly correct in Spanish are run-on in English when translated literally. Thus, "los muchachos cantaban enseñando sus cinturas" becomes "the boys were singing, showing off their waists." Mostly I just added a judicious comma here and there, but in one place I was moved to set off a phrase between two em dashes. Where Lorca writes, "tus muslos de Apolo virginal," and Bauer has "your thighs of a virginal Apollo," I decided to fuck with the very structure of the line and this is how I did it: "your thighs--like a virginal Apollo--".There's something more intimate about this clause as an aside, as if Lorca were moved to whisper it in a fit of reverence for Walt Whitman's thighs (and I relate to that).

So, a few places where I was especially pleased with my choices, and some places where I had to accept that Bauer had already gotten to the best possible phrasing. In stanza eight, I had originally translated carbón as graphite, because it sounded architectural and urban, but it didn't flow well, so I went back to coal. In stanza nine, I was excited to translate "Macho" as "Big Guy." I think it's best to avoid anachronisms when translating (so "mantastic" would have been inappropriate). But "Big Guy" is subtle enough, and besides, Walt Whitman is the Big Guy in American poetry. Where Lorca has "girando en las plataformas del ajenjo," I prefer "spinning on the ramparts of absinthe" to Bauer's "flitting about on the platforms of absinthe." But I found it difficult to find an English phrase that would satisfactorily encapsulate everything contained in Lorca's phrase, "os cierren las puertas de la bacanal." "Os" is the reflexive form of the pronoun vosotros (which basically means y'all), and "os cierren" implies that the action of "cerrar" (to close) is directed towards the y'all that Lorca is addressing (about whom more later). Not only are the gates of the bacchanal to be shut, or, more nearly, sealed, but they are to be shut on somebody, somebody is to be shut inside. In Spanish this is conveyed so simply and efficiently by adding the pronoun; I couldn't find an equally elegant formula in English. I grumpily settled for "shut you up inside the bacchanal" and looked to see what Bauer came up with: "slam the doors of the bacchanal in your faces." Pretty good.

The poem's fifth stanza is its most mysterious and harrowing. "Cuando la luna salga / las poleas rodarán para tumbar el cielo; / un límite de agujeros cercará la memoria / y los ataúdes se llevarán a los que no trabajan." Ataúd, which means coffin, is probably my favorite word in Spanish. It doesn't sound like other Spanish words; its origin is Arabic, but it lacks the give-away "al" prefix (almohada, alambre, alcatraz). It sounds like what it means--hollow and wooden, a dry scraping sound. I've translated the stanza like this: "When the moon comes out, / the pulleys will churn up the skies; / a fence of needles will encircle the memory / and coffins will carry away those who do not work." The Spanish verb "cercar" is a cognate of the English "encircle;" Bauer has "enclose," which is probably more like the sense of the word in Spanish, as the related word "acercar" means to draw near. I've chosen encircle because of its nearness to the sound of the Spanish verb, and because of the image of a hoop of needles, binding the skull like a crown of thorns, the points facing inwards.

To be continued (next time: Lorca and faggots).

*oh yeah: it was "palindrome."


  1. I really enjoyed your translations. You shouldn't be so down on yourself. I think translating poetry is one of the hardest things to do. And just out of curiosity, you mentioned you used an online dictionary, but you didn't say which one. There are so many out there. When I do translations, I usually use Roget's Thesaurus as well, but for the spanish english dictionary, I prefer SpanishDict since it has two dictionaries: Chambers Harrap and Velazquez, both of which are excellent.

  2. that was the one.