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Climbing Macchu Picchu

Translating Neruda: The Way to Macchu Picchu

by John Felstiner
Stanford University Press, 284 pp., $18.50

Translators, more than anyone else, tend to become weary of the subject of translation. Enmeshed in it, they balk at discussing its impossibilities. For them, each literary work presents its peculiar problems, all requiring unique solutions, so that for them there can be no theory of translation, only the exacting act, varying enormously from text to text. Assailed by the reservations of others, they tend to throw down their finished versions defiantly, and stalk off without another word.

There are reasons for this. Translators tend to feel professionally rueful, less from a sense of going unrecognized and unrewarded than from having come to expect a lack of understanding of their complicated tribulations, for a suspicion still prevails that the translations of literary texts must be makeshift, second-hand, unsatisfactory, the glow of the original just beyond their horizon, a circumstance translators are more deeply aware of than their readers.

It has become something of a commonplace to refer to the last twenty-five years as an Age of Translation, a claim justified, I think, not so much by the assiduous bringing-over into English of difficult literary works from a great many languages as by a growing absorption in the act of translation itself as a mysterious process of revelation. And yet, translation continues to be cold-shouldered by the academy, and imagined but not unimaginable professors complain of students who “try to get away with doing a translation instead of some real work,” an attitude which has generated a mass of fruitless and pointless literary studies, exceeding the Nixon papers in bulk by far, and all doomed, as Borges would say, to oblivion. It would have been of much more use had these poor souls undertaken working translations, with notes, of texts from foreign languages not likely otherwise to have been translated.

Any translator can testify that the translation of a poem involves the most exhaustive possible reading of the original, which must be scrutinized, heard, and brooded over at length before it can assume anything like its shape in another language. Translation is an act that must go through the critical process and beyond it, since it must reach decision. Yet translation is a ground that the academy still shies from, although schools and departments of translation are beginning to sprout. The translation police, those dusty figures (dons, we were always sure) who used to patrol the pages of published translations on the lookout for errors to denounce in acid letters to the editor, are dying out, and a healthier interest replacing them. What we have certainly entered is an age of translation-consciousness.

If we look back over the patchwork history of literary translation into English, a view such as we get from the recently published Oxford Book of Verse in English Translation, which Charles Tomlinson edited amply, it becomes astonishingly clear what a crucial figure Pound was for translation, in demanding a more exacting attention to the literary mode of the original, rather than a merely intelligible English version. He saw too that to translate works from other languages into the English literary conventions of the day was often to distort them brutally; and indeed, no competent translator would think to offer up a version of, say, Cesar Vallejo “done into rhyming couplets.” The original demanded a language, its own English; the good translator discovered that language, that English. Yet, in the past, classical texts, dead and out of range, existed as a permanent testing ground for poetic ingenuities: an existence in English was being bestowed on them, and “imitations” were perfectly acceptable.

Certainly not all of our more celebrated translations are monuments to the translator’s art. It may be that, while poets make the best translators from a technical point of view, temperamentally they do not, since they feel less compunction about taking off from the original and proceeding by their own lights, translation by endowment. But most of us would now concede that there can be no one definitive translation of an original. Now our impulse is to compare versions, more aware of an original beyond them. Both Pound and Octavio Paz, however, underlined the main problem of translation as that of finding a language, so equating it with the creative act.

In his concise introduction, John Felstiner pins down his point of departure with two quotations from George Steiner’s After Babel:

Our analysis and judgement [of literature in translation] work from outside, they come after the fact. We know next to nothing of the genetic process which has gone into the translator’s practice, of the prescriptive or purely empirical principles, devices, routines which have controlled his choice of this equivalent rather than that, of one stylistic level in preference to another.

It is only very recently, and this is a revolution in the subject, that the “anatomy” and raw materials of translation are becoming accessible to methodical strutiny.

Felstiner lays down the design of his book quite straightforwardly. Troubled by the absence of connection between translation and interpretative criticism, he sets out to bring the two together by confronting the twelve cantos of Pablo Neruda’s monumental poem Alturas de Macchu Picchu, and by making explicit the complex process of arriving at a finished English version of the poem.

Neruda is a daunting presence, in the sheer quantity of his work alone, in his bewildering variety. Few people have written attentively or clearly about him, perhaps because few would claim to have taken in the whole; instead, out of the many, everyone tends to have a preferred Neruda. In English, he has arrived in haphazard pieces, not all of them in good condition. Single poems of his have become well known, but a sense of the entire work is missing, a sense of his poetic characteristics. This Felstiner confronts head on, with an exhaustive examination of Neruda’s famous poem, “Galope muerto,” the first and most intense example of the dynamic work which culminated in Alturas de Macchu Picchu.

Here is Felstiner on the title:

At the source of the poem’s twofoldedness, generating its rising and falling figures, stands the title. Galope starts a rising, forceful movement, muerto kills it. And each word has its double charge in Spanish, galope suggesting power but also fatal violence, muerto meaning “dead” but also “still,” as in “still water” or “still life.” All these meanings have their effect somewhere in the poem…. Unfortunately English provides no good equivalent for galope muerto (the Spanish is not a technical or colloquial term). “Dead Gallop” accents the noun too much, and could even mean a flat-out run, whereas galope muerto takes the stress on muerto, conveying a real force but one that has broken or frozen. Perhaps “Still Gallop” would do. In any case, the Spanish title instigates what follows. It proposes a world of forces, breaking out and breaking up, that the poem has to work through.

By admitting the reader into the process of arriving at an English version, Felstiner takes him as it were to the edge of the precipice where he can at least gaze over at the original; in a sense, his deliberations over choices are more illuminating than the final choices, since they make us aware of what is missing, they force us one step further than criticism, into the poem, physically almost, in order to be able to give it an English existence.

Felstiner’s book has a marked progression. He presents his credentials (a visit to Macchu Picchu, an essential geographical preparation, and the discovery of Neruda’s poetry in Chile) and prepares us exhaustively for the poem by tracing Neruda’s beginnings, and the emergence of the “prophetic” style of his Residencias, which came from the painful isolation of a consular sojourn in the Far East, up to the point when Neruda wrote the poem, in Chile, in 1945. Then, in his final section, he undertakes the translation of the poem, passage by passage, with the reader watching over his shoulder, and ends the book with the original poem and his achieved translation side by side.

Paradoxically, Felstiner proves the point of his book by the fact that his chapters on translating Macchu Picchu are more satisfying to read than his finished version of the poem. This is because he demonstrates how English is doomed to be inadequate in places.

No volverás del fondo de las rocas.
No volverás del tiempo subter- raneo.
No volverá tu voz endurecida.
No volverán tus ojos taladrados.

English can only barely approximate those primary negative stresses, much less the multiple assonances in Neruda’s lines:

You won’t come back from bottom rock.
You won’t come back from time under ground.
No coming back with your hard- ened voice.
No coming back with your drilled- out eyes.

The virtue of Felstiner’s commentary is that in showing us a handful of choices, he is bringing us closer to intuiting the original. He makes this point himself:

A través del confuso esplendor,
a través de la noche de piedra, déjame hundir la mano
y deja que en mí palpite, como un ave mil años prisionera,
el viejo corazón del olvidado!

Through the dazing splendor,
through the night of stone, let me plunge my hand
and let there beat in me, like a bird a thousand years imprisoned,
the old forgotten human heart!

To make the kind of rolling rhythm Whitman’s poems often start with, this passage could have gone: “Down through the dazing splendor, / down through the night of stone let me plunge my hand.” I still regret not letting it go that way, but a través alone does not quite justify “down,” even if the verb hundir (“plunge”) might. (Now and then, in an account such as this, one can have one’s cake and eat it too, by being discreet in translation and then reckless in commentary.)

Neruda talked obsessively about his deber del poeta, his poet’s obligation, which he saw as one overwhelming thing, namely, to be a voice, a conscious presence that governed all his poetry, for it is spoken poety, an all-embracing voice. This is what makes him truly difficult to translate, for the problem is always one of catching a tone. Neruda’s reading voice was memorable; his own voice was, in a sense, the instrument for which he wrote, and Felstiner frequently goes to the Caedmon recording of Neruda to verify an emphasis. But sometimes, that high, vatic tone cannot be matched in English measure, at times even for purely syntactical reasons. Felstiner faces this in translating the celebrated first lines of the sixth canto:

Entonces en la escala de la tierra he subido
entre la atroz maraña de las selvas perdidas
hasta ti, Macchu Picchu.

Then on the ladder of the earth I climbed
through the lost jungle’s tortured thicket
up to you, Macchu Picchu.

This is the watershed of the poem, as of Neruda’s entire poetry, and it makes a beautifully timed cadence. For hasta ti, Macchu Picchu, I am tempted to say “up to thee, Macchu Picchu,” to preserve the Spanish form used with one’s intimates or when praying to God.

But we are now without this distinction, in English, and it is one so crucial to Neruda as to be almost insurmountable in translation. There have been previous translations of Macchu Picchu, which Felstiner acknowledges and discusses, yet no one has seemed in itself to carry over the authority of the original. I don’t think Felstiner’s translation does either, and perhaps he should have left some blank pages for the reader to do his own version. But Felstiner’s commentary on the poem, as he wrestles it into English, is infinitely more interesting to read than a straight translation. Instead of replacing the original, it illuminates it.

Felstiner has managed to write a number of books in one: a discussion of translating poetry, a critical study of Macchu Picchu, and a quite unique demonstration of translation as criticism. While it would be too much to say that his book creates a genre (“the story of the translation”), it sets such a sensible precedent that I would not be surprised to see other translators write similar books, around works as dense and as demanding of attention as is Macchu Picchu. After this book, I feel there is something forlorn about sending an English translation out alone into the world, albeit hand in hand with the original. Translations are the residues of a long and complex process, and it may be true that, in the end, it is the process which is the more interesting.

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