Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Vallejo Translation Debate

A killer article on Vallejo’s Complete Poems (edited and translated by Clayton Eshleman):

The author of this review, John Kotter, makes some great points and takes the translation debate on full steam, offering what seems to us non-translators as a salient point:

“Most readers of any translation won’t know what connotations Vallejo’s Spanish words may have had in Peru in the twenties, or Paris in the thirties, so a translator who aims for exactitude must establish a bond of trust with the reader. When Eshleman translates the Spanish word ‘grave’ as ‘low,’ we follow him up to a point. In the poem ‘El Momento Más Grave De Le Vida,’ several men describe the most grave moment in their lives. One says, in Eshleman’s version, ‘The low point in my life occurred during a tsunami in Yokohama, from which I was miraculously saved, sheltered under the eaves of a lacquer shop.’ Another says, ‘The low point in my life has been during my greatest loneliness.’ ‘Low’ plays well against ‘loneliness’, and we’re reassured by the choice. But when it’s brought to our attention that Gianuzzi and Smith translated ‘grave’ as ‘serious,’ we’re led to wonder what sort of insider information convinced Eshleman to run with ‘low.’ ‘Serious’ encompasses but doesn’t emphasize ‘low,’ and seems to be appropriately compatible with ‘grave.’ Consider how the poem ends in Gianuzzi and Smith’s version:

And another said:
—The most serious moment of my life is having surprised my father in
And the last man said:
—The most serious moment of my life has yet to come.

‘Serious,’ the Gianuzzi and Smith choice seems to me more accurate. Perhaps it’s a question of taste. ‘Serious’ also avoids running three stresses together at the beginning of a repetitive line. Other of Eshleman’s choices seem more eccentric. Personally, I wonder why neither went with the English ‘grave,’ which, to my amateur eye would do the job pretty well.”

I agree with Kotter, though the reasons for Eshleman’s and Gianuzzi and Smith’s choices ache to be considered. The translation debate is never going to end, which is fine by me. It never should. I own the complete Vallejo, and I will grab as many of the other translations as I can. I have the posthumous poems as well and have done some light comparisons, but it’s Trilce that seems to be the most puzzling, and most intriguing of Vallejo’s works. Published the same year as Ulysses and The Waste Land, this collection, every bit as challenging and inventive as the European modernist’s works, has enjoyed something of a rebirth. All the new translations are certainly helping. This is why we always need new translations, to keep the reexamination of literature active.

Thanks for listening.