Bolaño – A stranger

Since I won’t have the chance to publish my full translation of Roberto Bolaño’s poem “Tales of the Autumn in Gerona“, which also means I won’t get a forum to talk about the various choices I made, I thought I’d talk a bit about it here. It may be interesting, or it may be self-indulgent. We’ll see.

The first section of this poem was actually somewhat problematic. It sets the tone and introduces the ‘characters’ that will appear and reappear through the rest of the poem. When I first began translating it, I did what I normally do, which is translate as I’m reading. So I read with a notebook, writing my translation (or really, at this stage, transliteration, since my only concern in this stage is literal meaning of the words) as I went. Which led to a first draft of the first part of the first line that read something along the lines of: “A person (m/f)—I should say an unknown/strange woman—who caresses you” which is literally what is written. The problem is, as is often the problem with romance languages, that the nouns are gendered. The first reference to the female character “una persona” is ambiguous in the Spanish: “persona” is always gendered female, in which case the English “person” fits well because it doesn’t imply male or female. It’s not until we get to the phrase “una desconocida” we are told that the person is female by the gendering of the noun. Because here the form of the word could take masculine (un desconocido) the feminine ending emphasizes, though subtly, that the person we’ve just been introduced to is a woman. The appearance of “you” later in the phrase sets up clearly the interaction between the unknown woman as a distant figure referred to in the third person and a narrator/character who interacts with her. The multiplicity of referents for the second, male, character is something worth considering separately, so for now I’m going to just focus on the decisions made for the first phrase.

As I read on I realized that the woman is almost always referred to as “la desconocida” – literally “the unknown/strange woman.” Coming up with something that worked for this phrase in its every appearance was vital to the life of the poem in English. There is no one word in English that both captures the ambiguity, the foreignness and unavailability of her character, while at the same time signals that she is a woman. So then the question became whether to use a two-word phrase that is super-literal to the semantic value of the words, but adds an element that is not there in the Spanish like “the strange woman” or “the unknown woman” or “the foreign woman”. The problem for me with all of these is that, in addition to them being cumbersome and breaking the rhythm of the poem, “the strange woman” also implies that she is odd or weird, “the unknown woman” resonates too much with “the unknown soldier” and becomes archetypal in a way that works against the intimacy that develops, at least physically, between the narrator and the woman, and “the foreign woman” introduces the idea of nationality that, while sub-textually important, is not implied in the recurring description of her. The best solution, both rhythmically and for the meaning, was to use the phrase “the stranger” which elides the gender identification. Sometimes this could be solved by using “she” or “her” as the related pronoun, but in the first phrase, setting the tone for everything that would follow, there was no elegant way to introduce a feminine pronoun.

I might have rendered it “A person—I should say a stranger—she caresses you” but that not only sounds strange in English, but misses the descriptive impersonal tone of the Spanish. So I was left needing to introduce gender into the phrase somewhere else. Because one of the nouns in Spanish is gendered ambiguously and the other as feminine, I decided that maintaining that structure, while reversing the order in which the gendered and ambiguous nouns appear to allow me to use “the stranger” as the repeating phrase, would solve these problems best. That meant emphasizing the gender in the first reference, which I put as “A woman.” For me, this choice preserved some of the distance and ambiguity of “a person” while introducing the missing gender from “a stranger.” If the purpose of introducing her in Spanish in ambiguous terms first, and only then specifying her gender, is to preserve and emphasize the ambiguity of her character, I hoped that the ambiguity would be emphasized by the repeating of the non-gendered phrase in English.

As in most literary translations, a lot of the choice for me came down to the poetry. What preserved the poetics of the poem – the sound, rhythm, pace, repetition and subtexts of the poem. There is sometimes a misconception about how rhythm works from language to language – that preserving the rhythm means literally that, having the same number of inflections, pauses, short and long syllables, etc. Of course, each language carries its own rhythmic patterns that define its poetic possibilities, so that kind of one-to-one equivalence is at best impossible and at worst rhythmically void. The patterns that develop in the Spanish tend to be longer than the patterns that develop in English, in part because of the vowel sounds and in part because of the grammar which allows for longer sentences than are easily read in English. For me, the relationship between the rhythms of the phrases in this first part was especially important. The abbreviated, almost dismissive trochee – amphibrach pattern is immediately corrected, lengthened by the phrase between em-dashes that has a more cohesive almost lilting pattern that might elicit a subtle longing. In both Spanish and my English the phrase between the em-dashes has a feminine ending (an unaccented last syllable) that softens the phrase, simultaneously pulling the reader through the dash into the rest of the sentence. But more important than that is the accumulation of stressed syllables within the dashes in the English that performs the same slowing, corrective function as the lengthening of the syllables does for me in Spanish.

There’s a lot more that went into deciding on that phrase: “A woman—I should say a stranger—that caresses you” but I’m running out of steam for the moment (sick, rainy Boston days…) so will leave it at that, a partial insight into the decisions, and their alternatives.

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