Poems resist paraphrase. If we could easily say what a poem means, then it might just not be a poem. William Carlos Williams even quipped that we “should never explain a poem, but it always helps nevertheless.” If each poem is its own unique experience, then what do we do with translations? How can the experience wrapped up in the original language of the poet transfer to another? In a way, each translation is its own poem that has to straddle the line between the poetic tradition of both languages.
I’ve been working on my Spanish comprehension lately and thought I would share my clumsy translations with you. For this post, we’ll look at a poem by diplomat and Nobel Prize winner, Octavio Paz.
Un silencio de aire, luz y cielo.
En el silencio transparente
el día reposaba:
la transparencia del espacio
era la transparencia del silencio.
La inmóvil luz del cielo sosegaba
el crecimiento de las yerbas.
Los bichos de la tierra, entre las piedras,
bajo la luz idéntica, eran piedras.
El tiempo en el minuto se saciaba.
En la quietud absorta
se consumaba el mediodía.
Y un pájaro cantó, delgada flecha.
Pecho de plata herido vibró el cielo,
se movieron las hojas,
las yerbas despertaron…
Y sentí que la muerte era una flecha
que no se sabe quién dispara
y en un abrir los ojos nos morimos.
(Lee todo en: El pájaro – Poemas de Octavio Paz)
Here’s my translation:
There was a silence in the air, the light, and the sky.
The day was resting in transparent silence:
the transparency of space was the transparency of silence.
Heaven’s still light was soothing the growth of the grass.
The bugs of the earth, between the stones,
under the same sun, were stones themselves.
Time was sated in the minute.
Midday was consummated in rapt stillness
AND a bird sang, a slender arrow.
A wounded silver breast shook the sky,
the leaves moved, the grass woke…
And I felt death was an arrow
loosed by an unknown hand,
and in the blink of an eye we die.
I can see my own obsessions in this translation. As a reader of Gerard Manley Hopkins, I kept thinking of “God’s Grandeur” and “The Windhover” as I read Paz’s meditation on death. “Vibrar” is a cognate with “to vibrate” and has been translated in this poem as “shivered,” but I couldn’t help thinking about the “shook foil” in “God’s Grandeur” and how the brooding bird of that poem who ensures that “nature is never spent” is almost a counter to the bird in this poem that sings death. Following “The Windhover” where a bird bursts in on the poet’s awareness in a similar way, I capitalized “AND.” I was thinking that this might also link it more to the abruptness of “Y” at the beginning of the line in the original poem.
Something I couldn’t decide on was line spacing. Do I want to retain the enjambment to emphasize that we are in a liminal space with the poet when the bird sings, or do I want to maintain the same line lengths to create a similar soothing, somnolent effect? I ended up taking quite a bit of liberty with the lines. A translation is, in a sense, its own distinct poem since no language lines up perfectly with another and poetic language in particular is so pregnant with meaning. So I decided to manipulate the lines into a sonnet with an octet and a sestet, and a turn in between, but without the corresponding rhyme scheme. Instead of rhyming, I held the lines together with consonance.
I love the way tense works in this poem, and I don’t think I captured it in English. Paz opens in the first stanza with the imperfect. Everything is in this calming, dreamlike state that has no clear beginning or end even though it’s in the past. And then the birdsong breaks in with the preterite. The day was resting, but then the bird punctuated that rest when it sang.
Here’s Muriel Rukeyser’s translation from this collection, which follows the line breaks perfectly, but omits the first line. I include the first line in parenthesis in the way I think follows this translation style. I have to say that I love the way Rukeyser mimics the sound of “flecha” with “flicker.” I think she’s also right to emphasize the reflexive nature of the last two lines of the first stanza, but I wanted to emphasize “consummation” with all its connotations over “consumption.”
(A silence of air, light and sky.)
In transparent silence
day was resting:
the transparency of space
was silence’s transparency.
Motionless light of the sky was soothing
the growth of the grass.
Small things of earth, among the stones,
under identical light, were stones
Time sated itself in the minute.
And in an absorbed stillness
noonday consumed itself.
And a bird sang, slender arrow.
The sky shivered a wounded silver breast,
the leaves moved,
and grass awoke.
And I knew that death was an arrow
let fly from an unknown hand
and in the flicker of an eye we die.
What do you think? How would you translate this poem? Did I take too much liberty with it? What’s untranslatable about it?