by Anne Greeott
You have been working with Gelman’s poetry for several years. In what ways has translating so much of his work contributed to your development as a translator?
I find his work contagious. When I first read Carta abierta, I thought I was exploring ways to write about grief but ended up so moved by the text that I decided to translate it. The book is loaded with euphony and torture, and I realized I needed to recreate that clash of elements, which took a lot of experimenting and polishing. Another thing that struck me about this book was his neologisms: difficult to render, but a lot of fun in the search for analogous roots, prefixes, suffixes, or compounds. Once I got into Citas y comentarios and Com/posiciones, I began to grasp how instrumental generative translation and pseudotranslation had been in his work. Translating his modes of afterpoems made me more daring. So, from a time of toiling over semantic accuracy in my first labors, after rendering Gelman’s poetry, my translations began to bloom with new musical overtones and creative boldness.
What were some of the particular challenges and/or delights of translating this final book of Gelman’s?
I hardly know where to begin. Capturing Gelman’s rhythm and punning is always an elating challenge, but this book contains some problems that I’m still fretting about more than a year after beginning work on the collection. The theme of action through poetry is represented here in some fascinating ways. For example, the word fuga, which can mean fugue or escape, is used as a pun in many of the poems. Both meanings are important to his core concerns of action/passion (lyrical or otherwise) as opposed to escape or impassivity. I tried pairing words—flighty fugues, escapist reverie, musical flights, lyrical escape—and settled, for now and depending on the poem, on the word lyricism since it encompasses a bit of both notions. However, in one of the poems selected for your journal, “¿And,” he also plays with the word mayor, which can mean major or older: “una fuga en mí mayor.” Mi/E major is associated with music, but orally and because of the accent mark on mí, it sounds like “a flight in me, now older.” To use two periphrases was out of the question, so I made it “a venerable fugue in me major” to compensate for the age/key and me/mi duplicity within lines that chime with /f/ and /v/.
Another challenge: Gelman muses on the notions of passion and action throughout the book with the words ser and estar, both of which mean “to be,” (and Hamlet is never far from Gelman’s oeuvre), but it seems to me that estar is used as a sort of Dasein, being here/present (see “VII”). Since I was translating the book at Looren Translation House in Switzerland, the possibility of using the German word with all its philosophical cargo provoked a rich discussion at the dinner table, but it didn’t solve my conundrum because, in the end, I felt I couldn’t use any highfalutin philosophical imports to translate his typically stripped-down language. Plus, estar either conveys an idea of transience and awaits a gerund to denote the progressive mode or a complementary adjective, rather like Hamlet’s “to be.” Thus, “if it were?” at the end of the poem also needs a completion: If it were useful? Revolutionary? “Worth the while”?
Of course, the very title of this poem—“¿Y”—is quite a poser. Strange in Spanish with this open-ended punctuation—a question opens with an inverted question mark and then closes with a normal one to ensure the proper tenor—it leads the reader to ask where this question ends, making the title a part of the body of the poem. How can this be achieved in English? With “What if”; “And?”; or by brazenly including an inverted question mark, expanding the English language to suggest the proper “tonality,” as Adorno called it. Questions are central to Gelman’s poetics—“the frozen sign of doubt […] a mark of life,” according to writer and filmmaker Marcelo Pichon Rivière—and so they deserve to be particularly visible in translation, which I believe is achieved in this unorthodox usage of an inverted mark in the English version.
However, I’m still weighing these solutions; I still have 30 months to keep mulling words before the book goes to print with Co.im.press.
In what ways do you think Gelman’s poetry enters into a conversation with US contemporary poetry? What does it offer US readers which they perhaps could not find in Anglophone poetry?
I’m not sure how to answer the first part of this question, but I could go on all day about what writers can find in his work. Gelman’s particular way of melding social commentary and poetics, his sense of euphony, his quest to move from the individual to the collective, and the richness of his intertextualities—the troubadours, the mystics, Hebrew poets and the Bible, English Renaissance poets, Latin American poets, tango—all take Anglophone poets out of their comfort zone, exacting a broad vision of literature and life. As a translator, I’ve had the constant pleasure and burden of researching ancient authors and lyricists, reading their works just to get a handle on a word or a line. Most of his quoted material, however, is not even close to anything I can locate with precision. Naturally, in his zest for inventing poets and shaking things up, reconceiving lines for real poets would not be much of an oddity or a challenge for him.
You write poetry as well as translate the poetry of others. In your experience, how do those two closely-related arts interact and inform each other?
One of his “com/positions”—con/versations with ancient Hebrew poems—is called “Invitation,” and it has a central, erotic line, “Your wine is in my mouth.” This is my approach to the merging of mouths and words. Whether it be a question of style, words, or response, Gelman’s wine is often present in my own writing. In fact, while at Loorenhaus, one day I sat down and began to write a prose poem because, after the workout I’d had in translating this form in “Today,” a line popped into my head, “the hole swallows the whole,” which arose from a translation problem, and I realized it could only blossom in a paradoxical and slashed up vignette like the ones I was translating:
Mind the Gap
That thing, that want. An absence is a no-thing / not a scar to be grafted / gash to grow closed. You fall in and the hole will swallow the whole. (As immense as a boulder where roots grow round, never hollow out.) So it is and it isn’t / a mountainous thought / a reflection you cannot touch and can’t but see. Blackcap singing in a dense fig tree / then not. You mind a lack / a boring void of black.
Are there any other works of Gelman’s that you may translate in the future? Can we look forward to any forthcoming translations of his work after Today, or else possibly a volume of your own poetry?
I already have another book translated, Bajo la lluvia ajena (“Under Foreign Rain”), as well as many selected poems, mainly from his later, untranslated works. A posthumous book of his just appeared, Amaramara; another project? To date I’ve done six full books… Translating leaves so little space in my brain for honing or disseminating my own work, yet I have been putting together a couple of volumes over the years. It requires time. There’s just never enough time.
Lisa Rose Bradford teaches Comparative Literature at the Universidad Nacional de Mar del Plata, Argentina. She has published poems and translations in numerous magazines and edited various books on translation (Traducción como cultura, La cultura de los géneros) and of translations into Spanish (Usos de la imaginación: poetas latin@s en EE.UU. Los pájaros, por la nieve. Antología de la poesía femenina contemporánea de los Estados Unidos). Also, four of her bilingual volumes of Juan Gelman’s verse have appeared since 2010: Between Words: Juan Gelman’s Public Letter (National Translation Award), Commentaries and Citations, Com/positions, and Oxen Rage. She is currently translating Gelman’s last book of poems, Hoy.