Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Afterglow—Alberto Blanco (trans. Jennifer Rathburn)

Bitter Oleander Press, as I learned when I read the most recent issue of their journal, has an interest in international poetry and side-by-side translations. This is seen once again in their publication of a side-by-side translation of the work of Mexican poet Alberto Blanco, Afterglow, translated by Jennifer Rathburn.

I find it fun to read the original of a poem next to its translation whenever I know even a little of the language. In this case I got to see some of the interesting choices that Rathburn made. A good example is “Psalm of Transfiguration”. 
En las amapolas de cobre
Cantan los pájaros ultramarinos;
En la espuela de caballero
despunta la fiebre que no cesa.
El fuego se aviva y el humo crece
como las ramas de un árbol planetario.

In copper poppies
chant ultramarine birds;
In the knight’s spur
spikes the endless fever.
Fire arouses and smoke grows
like the branches of a planetary tree.
Rathburn translates “cantan” as “chant” instead of “sing”, which fits the poem well. The original Spanish original has a sense of both possibilities, but an English translation must pick only one.

She translates “la fiebre que no cesa” as “endless fever”, but think of all the possibilities: it could have been “fever that never ends” or “fever that never ceases” or “neverending fever” or “fever without end”. It’s always a challenge to balance truth to a translation and poetic necessity; I think Rathburn does a great job in this volume.

Another interesting think to note in this poem is how sound devices, which are usually destroyed in a translation, can be spontaneously (or intentionally?) created. “Amapules de cobre” ends up as “copper poppies”, and the line “el fuego se aviva y el humo crece” results in the wonderfully alliterative/assonant sentence “fire arouses and smoke grows”. Whether by serendipity or design, it is fun, and somewhat reassuring, that the sound elements of poetry aren’t doomed upon translation.

As for the poetry? It is something like the wild hallucinatory prophetic visions of the Old Testament prophets or the Book of Revelations. The entire book is written in the present tense, and there is no sense of specific everyday life. There is nothing that happened, only things that happen, always, universally, even in cases like
The failing calf
in the corral dies.
A dazzling bull
contemplates the field.
The images spill forth as from a dream—disconnected, intense, packed with significance but without meaning. Any references to “you” or “I” are disembodied and universal as well. Either one might refer equally to the poet, the reader, or anyone else, real or imaginary. We never get to see into Alberto Blanco’s life—only into his mind, and the visions that live there.

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