Gained in Translation
by Zachariah Wells
It's often said that poetry can't be translated, but poetry itself is an act of translation, as the alchemist poet attempts to transubstantiate external and internal realities into verbal structures. This is why poetry, like alchemy, is an art defined by failure. Translating a poem from one language to another is relatively easy, both being base metals, but nettlesome nonetheless. Pitfalls abound: individual word choices; syntax; rhythms and/or metre; rhyme schemes and other patterns of sound. To say nothing of peculiarities of diction related to regional dialect, idiomatic expressions, the neologistic predilections of the poet (many of whom have cultivated a highly personal idiolect), the passage of time, etc. What's remarkable—as with most human undertakings—is how miraculously well poetry translation often works.
When Colin Carberry, who knows the highs and lows of translation as well as anyone, invited me to take part in the Linares International Literary Festival, he asked that I come with poems translated into Spanish. My first step was finding a translator. I needed someone who could do better than make an accurate prose paraphrase of my poems in Spanish. I needed someone with an ear for poetry, who would be able not only to convey the sense of my poems, but who could also convert their rough Anglo-Saxon music into the melodious cadences of Spanish. The last thing I wanted, after travelling some 5,000 km, was to sound lame.
I put out feelers and got a few leads. The most promising came from Stephen Henighan, who introduced me to Lidia Valencia Fourcans, a former student of his at the U of Guelph. Lidia, a professional translator originally from Mexico City, had rendered a story of Stephen's into Spanish when he had read in Linares a year earlier and he said she'd done a very fine job.
My next step was to select poems. I skipped my first book altogether. Not only because I'm distant from it, but because its locus, the far north, is so far from Mexico that I feared more than usual would be lost in translation. My most recent collection, Track & Trace, with its coastlines and cities and farms, seemed a safer bet. Until I started going through it with an eye for the more easily translatable poems. All I could see was problems and headaches, potholes and hurdles. (One of my poems, “Orkney Report,” contains so many Orcadian dialect words it practically needs to be translated into English.)
I finally chose nine poems from the book that I thought strayed the least from Standard Written English, and added “Waypoints,” an unpublished poem dedicated to Elizabeth Bishop, who loved Mexico. I sent the works off to Lidia.
When she returned the first draft of her translations, I learned that my poems were more nodular than I'd thought. My knowledge of Spanish—acquired from a Mexican friend in high school who taught me to swear and from a first year Spanish class I took at the end of the last century—is extremely crude and Lidia's English is very good, but I knew enough to recognize a few instances of mistranslation. One culprit: idiomatic expressions. The sort of dead metaphors that native speakers of a language take for granted, but that second language speakers have a devil of a time (e.g.) mastering. So, for instance, “fag ends” became literal cigarette butts and “rest your bones” was “descansar tus huesos,” which I was pretty sure wasn't a colloquial equivalent to the English phrase it reproduced in good faith. And then there were the obscure words (“pardic”) and neologisms (“scudged”) where all poor Lidia could do was insert an ellipsis in square brackets. In a couple of poems, knottily recursive syntax left her unsure how to parse the originals.
So I went back to my own poems with fresh eyes, hunting for anything that might be ambiguous or otherwise problematic, and returned them to Lidia, heavily annotated. Working with Santiago Hernán Sicilia, whom she'd recruited to help her, Lidia produced not just one set of translations, but the two versions she describes below, along with a comprehensive set of notes explaining various choices. The poems still hadn't gelled completely, but we were getting there.
After a few more emails back and forth, we had our final versions. During this stage, I got actively involved in the translation process myself. One of the more vexing problems was posed by the rhymes in my poem “A Winter.” Spanish is a very rhyme-friendly tongue, but it turns out that nothing in Spanish rhymes with “Fraser.” Lidia, wanting to keep that majestic western Canadian river in the Mexican version of the poem, tried using “alka-seltzer” as a slant rhyme. But that so distorted the line that I couldn't live with it. I could, however, live with changing the name of the river, a liberty Lidia didn't feel licensed to take. And so, the mighty Colorado cut a canyon into “Invierno.”
I made other changes that had more to do with how the poems were sounding to me. Although I can't really speak Spanish at all, it's a phonetically regular language, and I can read it reasonably well. Knowing that cold readings of unfamiliar poems rarely go well, I intended to deliver the translations myself in Linares, so I practiced reading them aloud and in the process found a few things that just didn't sound quite right to me. (This is a test I routinely put to poems and prose I've written in English, too.) Using an online Spanish-English dictionary, I made tentative changes here and there, which I sent to Lidia and Santiago. A few of my changes were troublesome or downright wrong (I learned, for instance, that “moreno” doesn't just mean “brown,” but has racial connotations) and some needed slight modification, but I was chuffed to learn that a number of my tinkerings constituted improvements in the opinion of my translators. (I hasten to add that I would never have been able to venture such tweaks without the incredibly thorough, conscientious and inspired work done by Lidia and Santiago.)
The final step was, of course, reading the poems to real live Mexican audiences. In doing so, I learned something else about translation. In my poem “What He Found Growing in the Woods,” I describe slugs as “creeping beads / of cool snot,” a line that occasionally elicits mild disgust in those who hear it. The translation of that phrase, “reptantes gotas / de moco fresco,” which sounds to my ear like something a Starbucks barista might whip up on a sultry afternoon, is, it turns out, hilarious to Mexicans; it got laughs every time I read it. Lidia explained that it was a cultural thing; that Mexicans would not expect to encounter such a dirty image in a poem, hence the giggles. I suspect it has as much to do with the music of the thing, the comic assonance in those repeated R's, E's, T's, C's and O's. Every now and then, something unexpected is gained in translation.
Reproduction and Recreation
by Lidia Valencia-Fourcans
Poetry is probably the greatest challenge a translator can undertake, no matter the language or cultural context. The translator has not only to render the text accurately, but has to come up with an interpretative recreation of the original. This is not likely to happen while translating legal or technical documents, and certainly it is a risk no translator would consciously take with such documents.
The hardest challenge of poetry translation is walking the line between faithful reproduction and free recreation. It might be impossible to render a text with the same grammatical qualities, rhythms and rhymes, but when a translator allows herself many stylistic differences the result is a recreation of the original instead of a translation.
Most of the challenges I faced while translating ten poems by Zachariah Wells were related to idiomatic peculiarities. In certain cases, it was very difficult to find words with identical meanings, connotations or even associations. That is why it took a tremendous amount of time and discernment to make accurate word choices. Also, the ambiguities of syntax and punctuation were an interesting problem. Poetic language has rules of its own. Therefore, it is not simple to translate its syntax, rhythms and phonetic aspects from the original to target language. Spanish does not have much in common with English, as it has with other romance languages such as Italian, Portuguese and French. Hence it was more complicated to capture the “earthy” voice of the poems' lyric subject and all the syntactic ambiguities of the original. What I saw in these poems was a natural, "colloquial" lyric subject who was not very engaged with poeticism, but at the same time was very precise in his descriptions of places, objects, feelings and nature. The dialogue between the lyric subject and the reader is well defined, in both the original and the Spanish translation, by the use of a particular register and even a regional accent. The hardest part for me was to translate not only the meaning and the poetic expression but the style too. That is why I decided to work on two different versions.
The first version was more elaborate, maintaining the meaning of the poem, but focused mainly on the poem's stylistics. This translation took place more at the level of ideas than language. The second version focused on the use of language and fluidity of the poems in Spanish. The first version lacked literality but I kept the translation as faithful as possible to the original. No matter the stylistic differences, it was still a translation from the original, not a recreation. The second version was a more literal translation. It did not have many variations in the word choices and phrasal combinations but it lacked Spanish fluency in the poetic lines and had an impoverished rhythm. I was very fortunate to be able to question and discuss everything with the author throughout the translation process, which provided me with better insight into the essence of the poems. At the end I was very pleased to have a final version that stylistically and linguistically captured the essence of the original version in English but in the beauty of the Spanish language. Overall, it was a very enriching experience for me as a translator and as a poetry lover.
The following translations were published in Ten Poems / Diez Poemas by Cactus Press in a signed and numbered edition of 100. Copies can be ordered from Zachariah Wells.
WHAT HE FOUND GROWING IN THE WOODS
Green air and a rusty babble.
Tender tight fists of fiddleheads
fronding into bitter-leafed ferns.
Salamanders, nude under turned-
over stones, and slugs, creeping beads
of cool snot. Foam of bubbles
coating a dam of fallen tree rubble.
Cicadas scraping shrill creeds
and credentials. Flowers where a fire once burned.
Brown blurred pheasants churning
green air. His last full head
of hair and the first faint traces of stubble.
LO QUE ÉL ENCONTRÓ BROTANDO EN LOS BOSQUES
Aire verde y un susurro mohoso.
Tiernos puños apretados en retoño
brotando en helechos de hoja amarga.
Salamandras, desnudas bajo piedras
volcadas; y babosas, reptantes gotas
de moco fresco. Espuma de pompas
cubriendo un dique de árboles caídos.
Cigarras chirriando estridentes credos
y logros. Flores donde antaño ardió la brasa.
Borrosos faisanes marrones agitando
un aire verdoso. Su última rica cabellera
y los primeros bosquejos de barba.
It was a winter of atmospheric depressions
It was a winter of anhedonic ennui
It was a winter of dumb indecision
It was a winter of her, a winter of me
It was a winter of silt in the Fraser
It was a winter of tugboats and freight trains
It was a winter of rust on the razor
It was a winter of nightmares and rain
It was a winter of dull unemployment
It was a winter of landlords and in-laws
It was a winter of ill-planned deployments
It was a winter of hammers and saws
It was a winter of wrongheaded answers
It was a winter in which nothing clicked
It was the winter the cat died of cancer
It was the winter you quickened and kicked
Era un invierno de depresiones atmosféricas
Era un invierno de anhedónicö hastío
Era un invierno de irresoluciones huecas
Era un invierno de ella, un invierno mío
Era un invierno de fango en el Colorado
Era un invierno de remolques y lentos cargueros
Era un invierno de polvo y rastrillo oxidado
Era un invierno de malsueños y aguaceros
Era un invierno de aburridos desempleos
Era un invierno dentre afines y caseras
Era un invierno de despliegues erróneos
Era un invierno de martillos y argalleras
Era un invierno de respuestas muy dispares
Era un invierno en el que nada coexistió
Ese invierno murió el gato de cánceres
Ese invierno en que latiste y tu patadita se sintió
Zachariah Wells is the author of the poetry collections Unsettled and Track & Trace; co-author, with Rachel Lebowitz, of the children's book Anything but Hank!; and editor ofJailbreaks: 99 Canadian Sonnets and The Essential Kenneth Leslie. Over the past decade, his critical reviews and essays have appeared in numerous periodicals and anthologies in Canada and the US and he has won Arc Poetry Magazine's Critic's Prize four times. Originally from Prince Edward Island, Wells now lives with his family in Halifax, where he works as a freelance Zach-of-all-trades.
Lidia Valencia-Fourcans was born in Mexico City and has lived in Mexico most of her life. After completing her B.A. in English with a minor in Literary Studies and Translation, Lidia traveled to Quebec in the summer of 2006 to learn French and be able to read some of her favourite poets in their original language. In 2011, she completed an MA in Latin American and Caribbean Studies at the University of Guelph, with a dissertation focused on solitude as a leitmotif in the poetic work of the contemporary Mexican poet Jaime Sabines (1926-1999).