Lisa Rose Bradford / Notes on Translating Juan Gelman´s Com/posiciones
Notes on Translating
Juan Gelman’s Com/posiciones
by Lisa Rose Bradford
Though most translators endeavor to transplant a given work into a new language-land in order to share and perpetuate its beauty, not all of them strive to clone the source text, preferring rather to cultivate it by means of “generative translation.” By this term I am referring to a translational poetics that functions to reveal and revive the original articulation as a continuation of the seminal frisson while producing an entirely fresh work of art. Based on the creative translation and dialogical orchestration of an inspirational pre-text, the new expression reflects the genius of both the original author and the translating author. Juan Gelman’s Com/posiciones represent a rich example of this process, taking lines and stanzas from ancient Hebrew texts to intertwine, prune and graft with his own phases in order to accompany and converse with these poets. However, what happens to this poiesis with further translation, particularly when many of Gelman’s sources are English translations? Will a new conversion entail back-translation or additional generative strategies, meaning that the translator’s techniques will give these poems yet a different flight, beyond what’s considered as “translation proper,” not, as Gelman writes in his “Exergue,” to better them, but rather to merge with their spirit in creative dialogue?
In the case of my translations of Com/posiciones, my third of four Gelman collections, I was possessed by a liberating inclination to keep these texts in generative play. Thus, giving euphony and wordplay priority in the new versions, I often found myself amping up imagery, assonance, alliteration, and rhythm: the driving forces in all of Gelman’s verse. Regarding source material, moreover, I did not begin by reading the many existing English translations, preferring rather to produce a naïve reading/rendering. After finishing my versions, I often found ripe words to lift from texts by Carmi, Scheindlin, Cole, Rothenberg* and the King James Bible, perhaps not even from the same poem, to weave into my translations.
Take, for instance, one short poem, “The Perfidious Woman,” (Solomn ibn Gabirol). Here I strove for slant rhyme and condensation, sometimes with a tendency toward the archaic, as seen in the title itself, which in the Carmi English version of this poem is simply “The Faithless Woman,” but Gelman moves toward a notion of treachery:
me dejó/se fue al cielo/
la de bella garganta envuelta en un collar/
tiene labios dulcísimos/
pero ella es amarga/
sacaba espadas de sus ojos/
lanzas que afila para matar a los hombres sin suerte/
sus ojos hacen señas/
está llena de ansias/como venado sediento/
su ceja/o arco/o arcoíris/
recuerda el pacto con Noé/la señal que el diluvio acabó/
si tenés sed/
ella ordena a sus nubes inundar tu corazón de cristales/
The Perfidious Woman
she has left me / climbed to heaven /
the one whose throat’s bejeweled with beauty /
her lips are of the sweetest /
though she is bitterness itself /
she draws swords from her eyes /
lances whetted to murder hapless men /
with beckoning eyes / she bursts
with longing / thirsty as a deer /
her eyebrows / archer’s bows / or rainbows /
remind you of Noah’s pact / the sign
the flood had ended / if you are parched /
she commands her clouds to flood your heart with crystal shards/
Comparing the two texts, the first a “Gelmanized” version, one may observe that my English lines are a bit longer, and that the language less simple—“climbed,” “bejeweled with beauty,” for example, both augmenting the rhetorical affect. In order to achieve the chiming sounds present in Gelman’s verse—not always the same sounds or in the same places—in the last two lines of the first strophe I created the resononce of “lips,” “itself,” “sweetest,” and “bitterness.” In the second stanza I elided the subject in line 2 and again created echoes in the words “whetted” and “hapless men.” The same occurs in the mirrored sounds in “murder,” “bursts,” and “thirsty,” where the effect is somewhat enhanced from the literal version of Gelman’s line, “she is full of longing.” In changing the lineation of the third line, the alliteration of “beckon” and “burst” is more evident and forceful with its final masculine foot. In the last stanza, I added “archer’s” to bow to fix the meaning of bow and so continue the motif of the woman’s being both deer and hunter. Altering the lineation of the middle lines, I tried to highlight the antithesis of remaining flooded and parched. Finally, I added “shards” at the very end to resonate with “heart” and accentuate the effect of being served broken glass to quench a thirst.
All in all, I haven’t produced a generative translation per se, but rather a translation that continues the inertia of generative poetics, which Gelman’s poetry invites a translator to do, and, so far, this strategy has been to his liking. One may deem this sort of version as ethically treasonous, but in creating a delightful poem, English readers can enjoy in a revived version of kindred spirit, I believe the goal of translation has been successfully achieved.
*T. Carmi. The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse, 1981.Raymond Scheindlin. Wine, Women and Death. Philadelphia. Jewish Publication Society, 1986. Peter Cole. The Dream of the Poem. Princeton, 2007. Jerome Rothenberg. The Big Jewish Book. NY: Anchor, 1976.
Lisa Rose Bradford teaches Comparative Literature at the Universidad Nacional de Mar del Plata, Argentina. Her doctoral work, “A Generation of Castaways: A Study of the Translation Process in Four Argentine Poets of the 1970s,” was completed at the University of California at Berkeley, and since then she has edited three compendiums on translation and cultural studies, Traducción como cultura, La cultura de los géneros, and “Crítica cultural en Latinoamérica: paradigmas globales y enunciaciones locales,” Dispositio/n51, 2000. Her poems and translations have appeared in various magazines, and she has edited and translated two books in 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 and three volumes of Juan Gelman’s verse in English, Between Words: Juan Gelman’s Public Letter (recipient of the National Translation Award), Commentaries and Citations, and Com/positions. She is presently finishing a fourth volume, “Oxen Rage” under the auspices of an NEA grant.