Over the years of the Griffin Poetry Prize, we have invited shortlisted poets to share on our Web site their experiences with Griffin events and initiatives, as well as their unique insights into the processes of writing and translating poetry. These accounts have taken the form of dynamic and captivating blog entries, some of which we’ve excerpted here.
Poets’ Blog entry from Clayton Eshleman
As the translator scuttles back and forth between the original and the rendering, or engages in dialogue with a co-translator, a kind of “assimilative space” opens up, in which influence” may be less contrived and literary than when drawing upon masters in one’s own language. Before considering why this may be so, I want to propose a key difference between a poet translating a poet and a scholar translating a poet.
While both engage the myth of Prometheus, seeking to steal some fire from one of the gods to bestow on readers, the poet is also involved in a sub-plot that may, as it were, chain him to a wall. Besides making an offering to the reader, the poet-translator is also making an offering to himself – he is stealing fire for his own furnaces at the risk of being overwhelmed – stalemated – by the power he has inducted into his own workings.
Influence through translation is different from influence through reading masters in one’s own tongue. If I am being influenced by Wallace Stevens, say, his American is coming directly into my own. You might read my poem and think of Stevens. In the case of translation, I am creating or co-creating an American version out of – in the case of Vallejo – a Spanish text, and if Vallejo is to enter my own poetry he must do so via what I have already, as a translator, turned him into. This is, in the long run, very close to being influenced by myself, or by a self I have created to mine.
While I have thought more about poetry while translating César Vallejo than while reading anyone else, I do not feel that my poetry reflects Vallejo’s. He taught me that ambivalence and contradiction are facets of metaphoric probing, and he gave me permission to try anything in my quest for an authentic alternative world in poetry.
When I speak of creating an American version out of a Spanish text, I do not want to imply that I think of myself as writing my own poem in the act of translating or cotranslating Vallejo – or to put it more vividly, à la Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony,” writing my own sentence in the back of a victimized text. I do not believe in so-called “free translations,” Robert Lowell’s “Imitations” or homophonic translations (with the exception of the Zukofskys’ rendering of Catullus). I see the poet-translator as being in the service of the original, not attempting to improve on it or to outwit it.
By adding to, subtracting from, and/or re-phrasing the original, the translator implies that he knows more than the original text does, that, in effect, his mind is superior to its mind. The “native” text becomes raw material for the colonizer-translator to educate and to re-form in a way that ends up instructing the reader to believe that the foreign poet is aping our literary conventions.
All translations are, in varying degrees, specters or emanations. Spectral translations haunt us with the loss of the original; before them, facing the translator’s inabilities or hubris, we feel that the original has been sucked into a smaller, less effective size. Like ghosts, such translations painfully remind us to what extent the dead are absent. Emanational translations, on the other hand, are what can be made of the original poet’s vision; while they are seldom more potent than their prototypes, good ones hold their own against the prototype and they bring it across as an injection of fresh poetic character into the literature of the second language.
While I am primarily a poet, I have worked as a translator and as a co-translator. In both situations I have encountered problems and successes. I began to work on Vallejo in Kyoto, Japan, in 1962, when my self-taught Spanish was inadequate to his complexity. Over the next few years, I bounced from one Latin American helper to the next, being mislead as often as I was helped by native speakers who were generally stumped as I was by Vallejo’s arcane, figurative language. The situation was even more complicated because all of the editions of the Poemas humanos I was using contained typos, erroneous stanza breaks, and missing lines. So I hitchhiked, bused, and flew from Indianapolis to Lima, Peru, where the Vallejo widow lived, in 1965, hoping to get access to Vallejo’s typescript. The French Georgette Vallejo turned out to be demented and very manipulative, with a nasty ambivalence toward her late husband’s art. She refused to show me the typescript and also refused to give me permission to publish my translations on the basis that no one could translate Vallejo (she was then, it turned out, in the process of preparing a “selected poems” of Vallejo’s in French). Via some wily action that I will not go into here, I completed the translation on my own once back in the States and Grove Press brought it out in 1968.
In the early 1970s, I showed this bilingual edition to José Rubia Barcia, a Spanish essayist teaching at UCLA. He told me what I feared was true: it was not a bad job on a killer of a book, but it could be done better and, if I wanted him to, he would revise it with me. José and I spent the next three years, putting in around 20 hours a week, reworking every poem in the collection. By this time the dreadful widow had sold Vallejo’s typescripts to a Lima publisher who brought out a facsimile edition of them, enabling us to work with an accurate text. University of California Press brought out our collaboration as César Vallejo: The Complete Posthumous Poetry in 1978.
In the late 1980s. I teamed up with the Peruvian poet and scholar Julio Ortega to translate Vallejo’s Trilce, a much more difficult job than the Poemas humanos. Ortega quit after six months and for the next two years I worked on my own with some crucial research input from Américo Ferrari, a Vallejo scholar living in Geneva. My bilingual Trilce was published first by Marsilio in 1992; Wesleyan University Press brought out a revised edition in 2000.
Between 2002 and 2006 I revised all my previous versions of Vallejo and translated his first book, Los heraldos negros, enabling me to present a translation of all of his poetry to the University of California Press, which published The Complete Poetry of César Vallejo, with a Foreword by Mario Vargas Llosa, in 2007.
My life with Vallejo has been a crazy-quilt trajectory. Its usefulness, as an example, for a young translator, might be this: sink your teeth into a project that you are willing to go to the ends of the earth to complete and make sure that it is a project whose completion will teach you something about poetry you cannot learn elsewhere.
While 20th century American poetry is rich and diverse, it is a single nation poetry and not representative of global, human experience. By translating, a poet learns things about his own language that he does not learn reading English language poetry and, more importantly, translation enables him to tap into lodes of non-American experience that can deepen and density his own base. Miklos Radnoti, Aimé Césaire, Vladimir Holan, Antonin Artaud, and Vallejo have offered me, via translation, aspects of the human and the inhuman that I do not believe exist in our poetry.
As a co-translator, I have been extremely fortunate to have had two great co-translators to work with: José with Vallejo, and Annette Smith with Césaire. Besides being alert and responsible, José and Annette were both rigorously honest, which means in this context, among other things, being able to express ignorance, which leaves a problem open, rather than sealing it with a guess.
I think that the key lesson Vallejo holds today may be that of a poet learning how to become imprisoned, as it were, in global life as a whole, and in each moment in particular. All of his poetry urges the poet to confront his own destiny and to stew in what is happening to him – and to believe that his bewildering situation is significant. To be bound to, or imprisoned in, the present, includes not only confronting life as it really is but also psyche as it really is not – weighing all affirmation against, in a North American’s case, our imperial obsessions and our own intrinsic dark.