One of my very favorite things about translating is how hard it is. As any five translators to work on the same sentence and you’ll get five different results, all of them perfectly legitimate and yet none the same. There are a ton of great translation theorists who talk about this (many of whom I’ve been teaching this semester in the phenomenal translation theory class I’m doing with the Low Residency MFA in Literary Translation at Mills College!), but that openness of the text, even a generally-perceived closed text, is one of the things that excites me most about working as a translator. It’s most evident in poetry.
I’ve been translating graphic lit for the past few years, which I love more than anything else I’ve gotten to translate. It helps that my brilliant editor at Fantagraphics has impeccable taste and has picked some really exciting projects. I’m currently working on Paco Roca’s Los Surcos del Azar, which is a historical narrative about a Spanish man who fought on the side of the Republic during the Spanish Civil war. The title is a quote from an Antonio Machado poem, Proverbios y Cantares, and the couplet it’s taken from is the epigraph of the book:
“¿Para qué llamar caminos
a los surcos del azar?…”
Literally it is:
“Why call/name roads
to the furrows/wrinkles of chance/fate?”
So say you make all of the easy either-or choices based on dictionary definitions, you get:
“Why call roads
to the furrows of chance?…”
Of course, this isn’t necessarily the best translation, though it is accurate. But to me this translation loses the music of the Spanish. Spanish poetry is generally syllabic, while English is metric, or stress-based, and so often when I’m working from Spanish into English I end up moving towards a kind of metrics that drives much of my own English-language poetry. The stress pattern in the original Spanish looks like:
/ u / u / u / u
¿Para qué llamar caminos
u u / u / u /
a los surcos del azar?…
The first line has 8 syllables organized in a rising and falling pattern of stresses that to an English-poetry reader could be organized into 4 iambs, and the second has 7 syllables which could be organized into 3 feet, an anapest and two iambs. So I want to prioritize a metrical correspondence in whatever I do.
There is an extant translation, from the book There Is No Road translated by Mary Berg & Dennis Maloney, available from White Pine Press which is Dennis’s press. I know Mary and Dennis (the translation community is small) and I deeply admire their work. But I’m not quite satisfied that their translation works on the levels I think it needs to in order to stand alone as an epigraph. Theirs reads:
“These chance furrows
why call them roads?”
First of all, I’m sorry to lose the inverted syntax, which isn’t all that exceptional in Spanish and is a bit jarring to the English contemporary poetic ear. But that jarring is something that I’m interested in preserving, because there are other things in the Machado that make it non-normative to the Spanish reader. So I’m going to keep the order of syntax as close to the original as I possibly can:
“Why call/name them roads,
these furrows/wrinkles of chance/fate?”
This means I need more prepositions in English than the modernist-trained contemporary English mode of poetry generally prefers. Concision, minimalism, imagism, etc. tend to be undermined by an excess of prepositions, but that is precisely what I want to do. Machado shouldn’t sound like an American modernist, at least not in my opinion. So that little “of” that makes the phrase looser and less modern is actually doing something I really want.
Then I can start thinking about my word choices. For llamar I have given myself call/name, but once I move into English the choices multiply:
Why call them roads
Why name them roads
Why say they’re roads
Why give the name roads
I prefer “call them” as Dennis and Mary did, so I’m going to stick with that for now. But I’m not loving “roads.” Caminos most commonly is used to mean road, but can also mean path or way. And because of the context here, the idea that our lives are guided not by intent but by chance and we retroactively impose meaning and coherence to them, I think I prefer path. I think of “path” and not “road” when I think about the path of one’s life, or the path one has gone down. And there’s something echoing Longfellow’s Dante:
“Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.”
Though I much prefer Mary-Jo Bang’s contemporary translation of Dante, this canto has worked it’s way into the English poetic subconscious and so “path” has a ring of familiarity, but is still perhaps a bit unfamiliar. So now I have two more choices to make, at least:
“Why call them paths
these wrinkles/furrows of chance/fate/fortune?…”
I was struggling with the choice between wrinkles and furrows, and so I called a dear friend and native speaker of Spanish, Lina Ferreira, and we talked about it. But the choice ended up being almost no choice at all, to her ear it was clearly furrows, like you would plant seeds in while farming, and that idea of fertility and growth made a lot of sense to me, even though furrows is not a particularly common word in contemporary English usage.
The real conversation ended up being about chance for azar. Azar evokes a sense of either good or bad luck, according to Lina, and is very commonly used. It contains both misfortune and good fortune inscribed in it, but it is more or less a-moral (in that it doesn’t direct one to either moral or immoral, but is moral in the man-against-nature sort of way). And azar is a commonly used colloquial word in Spanish that often refers to the loteria and other games of chance. And we have that same connotation for the word chance in English, making it seem like chance is the obvious choice in the way furrows was. But then I go back to the sound of the poem, and to me “furrows of chance” is discordant, unlike “surcos del azar” which has that r carrying through it. So I start thinking about “fate” instead of “chance.”
I like “fate” at first mostly for the sound “furrows of fate” which is alliterative in a way that draws on the repetition of the r sound of “surcos del azar” and also keeps the prepositional phrase that I want. I worry that it’s too metaphysical though, and possibly overly poetic in terms of the register once we combine the abstract and weighty “fate” with the specialized and sonic “furrows.” So clearly I need Jesus. Actually, literally. I turn to the next two lines, completing the stanza as a quatrain, which are:
“Todo el que camina anda,
como Jesús, sobre el mar.”
Literally: “Everyone who walks walks / like Jesus, on the sea.”
So the second couplet works against the notion of “fate” in a sense of predestined paths. It underscores the arbitrary and quotidian of the path, the randomness of it, and the absurdity, the longing for order that results in us calling these things paths as though they were intentional. So in some way, “fate” makes explicit the subversion of itself.
In any case, that’s what Lina and I decided, and we decided we were metaphysically justified in terms of the register by the presence of Jesus.