So yesterday two things happened. The first was something I had been looking forward to for some time: the publication of an excerpt of “Tales from the Autumn in Gerona” by Roberto Bolaño (from Tres) in my translation in Words Without Borders. And by a long time, I mean a year and a half. Not through any fault of anyone, just the rights with something like this get very, very, very complicated. And so it takes a lot of time.
This is literally the most beautiful poem I’ve read in the past decade, and I’m thrilled to have had the chance to work on it so deeply. Translators are inevitably some of the closest readers a work will ever have, and there’s no better experience than engaging at the compositional level creatively and critically with a work as dense and beautiful as this. In order to translate poetry well one must at the very least be in love with the work. (I’m of the school of thought that believes one must also be a poet to translate poetry, but that’s another discussion for another time.) Falling in love with this work was easy, immediate and consuming; I hope that my version will inspire people to fall in love with it in the same way I did. Bolaño isn’t well known in English for his poetry, which is a shame since his prose poetry is some of the most exquisite poetry I’ve ever read. I can speculate why this might be, that English readers haven’t responded to the poetry of his that has already been translated, and perhaps it has something to do with the fact that English readers tend to prefer narrative prose. But whatever the reason, I hope that with the availability of an example of what is considered to be his best poem (and I agree, though I am admittedly biased) his reputation as a poet can be revised.
Which brings me to the second thing. I was notified yesterday that I will not be allowed to publish my translation of the book Tres. As I alluded to above, I’ve had the translation finished for several years (since early 2008, actually). Rights are complicated. Bolaño has gained a huge amount of fame in the past few years and there is a lot at stake in terms of his reputation. Probably in terms of money as well, though as a translator that has never figured into my consideration (I came into this knowing there is no money to be made in the translation of poetry). In fact, I would happily give my translation away were I permitted to do so. But that’s neither here nor there. After having fallen in love with this work, studied it critically, written my dissertation on it, translated it and spent years waiting to know what its fate will be, I was told yesterday that a new translation will be commissioned by the translator who did his first book of poetry to be published in English. This is great news, in that these books will finally be made available to English readers. But devastating for me.
Two weeks or so ago I wrote short piece on “the language police” – these people that pick apart a creative translation piece by piece. I find this practice utterly wasteful – there is a difference between creative choices – for example the title of this post – and misreadings of the text. The title of this post is taken from a line in “Tales of the Autumn in Gerona” which in the Spanish reads: “Crac, hace tu corazón.” Crac is onomatopoetic, and another translator might have (and might still) choose to standardize that into the English onomatopoetic “crack.” I chose to preserve some of the strangeness, the alterity of the sound. “Hace” comes from the verb hacer, which is literally and most commonly translated as “to make.” Though no one in their right mind would say “Crack, makes your heart” one might put this as “Crack, goes your heart” or or something along those lines. As in any great poem there are many choices, many meanings. Part of the translator’s job is to come to an understanding of the possibilities and select from them. A large part of the translator’s job is making these choices. But a larger and more important part of the job for translating poetry is to make it poetry in a new language. Hence my choices here.
But when I was asked to review the translation of The Romantic Dogs when it came out, after reading through it several times, I refused to write the review on the grounds that I could not do so without resorting to the kind of “gotcha” finger-pointing that I abhor in reviews of translation. There were a number of choices that, no matter how generously I read the translator’s intention, I couldn’t reconcile as creatively made but rather misunderstandings of the text.
Every translator makes mistakes. I know I’ve made mistakes before. But that’s where a good, careful reader (or five) of the translation who can read both languages, is vital. I hope that, for the future of these books in English, the translator is able to find that kind of reader and listen to him. And I hope that, for the future of Bolaño’s reputation as a poet in English, she is able to find the delight, surprise, innovation, and love of language that suffuses these works in Spanish, and re-create that in English.