When did you first come across the work of Jaime Sabines?
In 2001, I moved to Linares, a small, northern Mexican city, and had been living there for about six months when I first heard of Jaime Sabines. I had begun to meet for coffee with a young teacher from the private school where we both worked. One rainy, August afternoon Verónica read me the following, opening lines of a prose poem:
I HOPE TO BE CURED OF YOU one of these days. I have to stop smoking you, drinking you, thinking you. It’s possible, following the moral guidelines of our times. I prescribe time, abstinence, solitude.
And immediately I knew in my bones that I had stumbled upon a major poet. From then on I felt compelled, destined even, to translate him.
What, do you think, accounts for his overwhelming popularity in Mexico?
I believe his enormous popular appeal in Mexico derives, in large part, from his ability to communicate universal truths in an original and accessible, authentically Mexican colloquial diction utterly without pretensions. His work is autobiographical to the point where the reader senses instinctively that Sabines the poet and the man are in fact one and the same person. There is no emotional or psychological distance between the poet and his audience. Ordinary Mexicans recognize him as one of their own. According to Mario Benedetti, “His contradictions are not pretences but vital paradoxes, junctions where he confronts heart and soul. This is why they affect us so deeply, why they call to us and give rise to doubts, why they become intersections and perplexities that we feel as our own.”
He has been called, among other things, 'the sniper of literature.' What, exactly, is meant by this?
His verse is direct, sometimes brutally so, and the effect on the reader is that of a sudden, intensely pleasant shock of illumination. Philip Levine writes: “His best poems are revelations of truths, odd truths, truths we immediately accept, which we long suspected as truth but have never before heard articulated.” This co-relates precisely to my feelings and thoughts the first time I read Sabines. W. S Merwin describes Sabine’s poetry as “shockingly powerful”.
What made you decide to take on the task of translating him, in order to bring him to wider attention in English?
I had been long familiar with the work of Borges, Julio Cortázar, Roque Dalton, Paz and Lorca, among many other Spanish-American authors, in English translation, so how could it be that a poet of Sabines’s caliber had escaped my attention? It was only when I began to learn Spanish in Mexico that I stumbled upon him, but the Mexicans with whom I shared daily contact, even those who didn’t read anything beyond the sports section of the daily newspaper, knew who he was and were aware, however vaguely, of his significance in Mexican literature. I purchased some previous translations of his work into English, and it quickly dawned on why Sabines hadn’t made the impact he should have in the English-speaking world. I made a private vow there and then that I would do my level best to do him justice.
What proved to be most difficult about the process? Most rewarding?
The most difficult part of the process was, firstly, being absolutely sure I properly understood what it was he was saying, and then, finding the appropriate equivalent for the idiomatic phrasing of the original in English. The most rewarding part is the sudden shock of knowing that you have adequately rendered a poem’s essence, when the poem “has been, so to speak, undressed of Spanish and dressed up in French” (in my case, English), as Canadian author and fellow Sabines translator Émile Martel put it in an email exchange.
I like to think that there are a number of poems in Love Poems that came close to capturing the magic of the original, but the one that I am quite partial to is “In the open eyes of the dead…” (“En los ojos abiertos de los muertos…”), taken from Sabine’s second book, La señal (1951):
IN THE OPEN EYES OF THE DEAD
there is a strange, lustrous sheen!
Film of air in the motionless pupil,
shadowy veil, tender light.
Love keeps vigil in the open eyes
of dead lovers.
The eyes are like a coveted,
impenetrable, half-open door.
Why does death defer lovers, entomb
them in a place of silence like the earth?
What is it about the weeping light
in the water of the eye—in that wasting
meniscus of trembling glass?
Guardian angels took them to their breasts;
in their gaze, they breathed their last,
died of their own veins.
Those eyes are like stones
left by a blind hand on the face.
Mystery spirits them away.
Ah, the beguiling sweetness
in the casket of the air that entombs them!
This poem underwent an almost natural rebirth into English; it seemed to come out whole, with comparatively little effort on my part, perhaps because I had read it so many times.
What role has translation played in your own development as a poet?
Because to translate is to sing in another’s skin, an awesome, almost sacred responsibility to faithfully and accurately render the work of a poet I purport to represent, this has caused me to be sharper, more cautious, focused, critical, patient, and less trusting of my ego when writing my own poems. In the broader sense, I’d estimate that a good forty percent of the books on my shelves are translations, many of them from languages that I cannot understand, and so translated works continue to edify me, and to enrich and inform my poetry.
Which project are you working on now?
I am working on a collection of poems, new and old, tentatively titled Sonnets and Cantos, which I hope to publish with Biblioasis upon completion. I would also like to translate a selection of the poems of Mario Benedetti, if I can get permission to do so.