“…I’m sure it was a noble, / heavenly poet / heart made mature / by shadow and science.”
-Antonio Machado, “The Water Wheel”
By the time you read this, I will have just landed in London to begin a new chapter in my life. It seems fitting, as a celebration of my Americanness in the broadest sense of that word, that A River & Sound Review today published my new translation of Antonio Machado’s “The Water Wheel.” Like Umberto Saba’s “The Goat,” this poem takes up the sorrow of a domesticated animal as its topic.
I am sure that, if he were still alive, my poet-friend Sandford Lyne would have been pleased to hear this news. His poem “Machado, Lorca, Neruda, Jiménez” captures the sense of respect we both felt for the great Spanish-language poets. It took many years of writing my own poems in English for me to realize that I could combine my love of poetry with my knowledge of the Spanish language to bring new understanding of these poems to myself and others through translation.
Sex reassignment surgery was not commonly known in Pablo Neruda’s time. And Facebook did not exist. So, when he first wrote “I am tired of being a man,” he likely did not endure the same kind of ribbing I got for making it my status update. In searching for a good English translation of the poem “Walking Around,” which made this line famous to me, I simply could not find a version that I really liked.
Neruda is tough to translate well. I imagine similar perils await poets who try to translate Wallace Stevens into another language. Foremost among them is a kind of strangeness that makes linguistic, but not literal, sense. Many of the versions I found were over-literal in places where they should have favored more adherence to tone and theme from line to line. Also, given a Spanish word that resembled an English word, first-language-English translators almost always chose that English word, even if it did not carry the most precise shade of meaning across from its Spanish cousin. This reliance on word-by-word mapping actually introduces more and inappropriate strangeness into the poem, not the least through awkward syntax.
And so, I set out to preserve more of the fluidity and atmosphere of the poem in rendering my own translation.
by Pablo Neruda
So much of contemporary poetry seems to be a reaction against sentimentality and self-aggrandizement. To this end, many poets seem to be attempting to remove themselves as a direct presence in their poems. Persona poetry is one device by which an interplay of consciousness can exist without the complications of the troublesome “I.” Yet without the poet in the poem, so many poems of consummate craft fall short of the ultimate aim — to touch on the human condition in a way that transcends intellectual tinkering.
Even as Adrienne Rich speaks of “a permeable membrane between art and society,” so, too, does a permeable membrane exist between the inner and outer realities of the poet. Expressing this interplay effectively requires not only skill and sensitivity, but self-awareness.
Consider the following translation (mine) of Umberto Saba’s “The Goat”:
I was speaking to a goat.
She was alone in the field, tied up.
Sated with grass, wet
with rain, she was bleating.
That selfsame bleat was brother
to my own pain. And I replied, at first
in jest, then because pain is eternal,
a constant voice.
This voice sounded
in the groan of a lonely goat.
In a goat with a Semitic face,
a sound to represent all other woes,
all other life.