Residence on Earth
Five Decades: A Selection (Poems: 1925-1970)
“We are many” is the title of a rather unconvincing poem by Pablo Neruda about his own multiple selves. The phrase could be applied with greater force perhaps to the translators of Neruda into English. They really are many: Ben Belitt (Selected Poems, 1961, A New Decade, 1969, New Poems, 1972, Splendor and Death of Joaquín Murieta, 1972, and now Five Decades), Nathaniel Tarn (The Heights of Macchu-Picchu, 1966), W.S. Merwin (Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, 1969), David Ossman and Carlos B. Hagen (Early Poems, 1969), Anthony Kerrigan (in Tarn’s Selected Poems, 1970), Robert Bly and James Wright (Neruda and Vallejo, 1971), Alastair Reid (Extravagaria, published in England in 1972), Donald D. Walsh (The Captain’s Verses, 1972, and Residence on Earth).
They are many and they are not, on the whole, very good. Only Robert Bly and Anthony Kerrigan make Neruda sound in English as if he might be a good poet in Spanish. Belitt makes Neruda sound like Belitt, a man lost in a maze of affected diction and syntax. Tarn makes him sound like a fluent minor Victorian (“it was from far, I know not when”), and the rest usually mislay him altogether in a limbo between languages, in that translators’ territory where people speak of “irreplaceable rapture” and an “innumerable mouth,” say things like “He was dazzling, that bony one,” and “My sad tenderness, what comes over you all at once?” Reid quite often escapes into readable English, but since he chooses to translate poems that are mostly slender or trivial in the original, we are still left wondering about Neruda’s real stature as a poet.
The author of Extravagaria may well be a great writer (and is, in my view), but in this book he is merely flexing his muscles, playing his scales and paying a few debts. The work is casual, whimsical, silly, sometimes charming, occasionally clear and strong (as in the poem reproduced on the following page), and almost willfully minor when set beside Residence on Earth, or any section of the Canto General, or beside the later Memorial de Isla Negra. Walsh also eludes some of the general indictment because he is not trying to translate Neruda, merely to provide us with literal versions. “since Neruda expresses his poetic ideas very simply and directly,” he writes blandly in his introduction to The Captain’s Verses, “it is possible to translate him quite literally with no loss of validity.” No loss at all? Walsh doesn’t risk the same sort of statement about Residence on Earth, but his practice remains the same: honest, dull, stilted, usually accurate, the right sort of rendering for people who are really reading the Spanish with a little help from across the page.
Elsewhere, though, the most elementary errors turn up all over the place: a failure to understand that solo, for example, means alone while sólo means only, or that por means by as well as for; an inability to distinguish …