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Translations That Get Adopted as Originals in Their Target Culture

dictionary for poetry translation

Neruda once declared, “Nothing remains except that which was written with blood to be listened to by blood.” Neruda trusts and celebrates his senses and inextricably links his experiences, quite specifically, to the natural world he loves: to the damp forests of southern Chile; to the thick, gnarled roots of the pines deeply penetrating the earth; to the lonely rains that occluded the sun and cast the world through its fine veils; to the roiling rivers and seas that brought renewal and hope and, sometimes, destruction. For Neruda, this tightly woven web of nature symbolism became a grid through which he could begin to make sense of his life, to explore both the spiritual and physical worlds. For him, it was a continuous geography.

He spoke to the Chilean people of their mountains and trees, of their rivers and nocturnal flowers, of their dreams. Neruda held up a mirror in which Chileans could view themselves and be pleased. Reading Neruda, they could feel a common identity beyond their separate lives, landmarks, and scents they could call their own.

Several artistic and literary movements emerged that reflected the social and philosophical crises of the times: cubism, futurism, Dadaism, ultraism, creationism, modernism, and in the same year that Neruda published Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, the explosion of surrealism.

With their gorgeous sweep and intimacy, their sensuality and rhapsody, and their “secret revelations of nature,” Neruda’s poems also made me want to reclaim Spanish, the language of my teenage years. It is not an exaggeration to say that they helped me to discover who I was what I was meant to do. How I sang these poems aloud, again and again, in Spanish and in English, for the pure joy of hearing them on my tongue, for the imagery they conjured up and the longings they roused.

Neruda’s poetry challenged readers to less static lives, lives susceptible to transformation, like nature itself. He talks about Chilean earth, the country, more so in a subconscious state to illustrate to his countrymen the country’s beauty as opposed to the physical beauty of a woman. There is this raw sense of patriotism, natural, imperative and inherent. It shows the political climate at the time in Chile, whilst the people in Chile despise their government in comparison to the sense of darkness of the night. Neruda’s poetics are more indirect in showing the pain and they are whimsical and charming combined with melancholy.

Merwin’s translation evokes more the inclusive experience of an individual, more on a conscious level (of choices and of knowing), a man’s perception on his woman’s physical and spiritual beauty. His translation of Neruda’s poems is solemn and straightforward.

Below are four Spanish-English original translation comparison examples of Pablo Neruda’s poems, translated by W.S Merwin.

SIEMPRE

Antes de mí
no tengo celos.

Ven con un hombre
a la espalda,
ven con cien hombres en tu cabellera,
ven con mil hombres entre tu pecho y tus pies,
ven como un río lleno de ahogados
que encuentra el mar furioso,
la espuma eterna, el tiempo.

Tráelos todos
adonde yo te espero:
siempre estaremos solos,
siempre estaremos tú y yo
solos sobre la tierra
para comenzar la vida.

Pablo Neruda.

ALWAYS

I am not jealous
of what came before me. [1]

Come with a man
on your shoulders,
come with a hundred men in your hair,
come with a thousand men between your breasts and your feet,

come like a river
full of drowned men
which flows down to the wild sea,
to the eternal surf, to Time!
Bring them all
to where I am waiting for you;
we shall always be alone,
we shall always be you and I
alone on earth,
to start our life!

[1] I always understood before as a true temporal adverb but curiously there are other English translations appear to be “…facing you, I’m not jealous..”. I’m not saying that they are not consistent texts, only wonder about the accuracy of the temporary nature of the word before as the potential meaning for the poet.

CUERPO DE MUJER

Cuerpo de mujer, blancas colinas, muslos blancos,

te pareces al mundo en tu actitud de entrega.
Mi cuerpo de labriego salvaje te socava
y hace saltar el hijo del fondo de la tierra.

Fui solo como un túnel. De mí huían los pájaros
y en mí la noche entraba su invasión poderosa.
Para sobrevivirme te forjé como un arma,
como una flecha en mi arco, como una piedra en mi honda.

Pero cae la hora de la venganza, y te amo.
Cuerpo de piel, de musgo, de leche ávida y firme.
Ah los vasos del pecho! Ah los ojos de ausencia!
Ah las rosas del pubis! Ah tu voz lenta y triste!

Cuerpo de mujer mía, persistiré en tu gracia.
Mi sed, mi ansia sin límite, mi camino indeciso!
Oscuros cauces donde la sed eterna sigue,
y la fatiga sigue, y el dolor infinito.

Pablo Neruda.

 

BODY OF A WOMAN

Body of a woman, white hills, white thighs,

you look like a world, lying in surrender.[2]
My rough peasant’s body digs in you
and makes the son leap from the depth of the earth.

I was alone like a tunnel. The birds fled from me,
and night swamped me with its crushing invasion.[3]
To survive myself I forged you like a weapon,
like an arrow in my bow, a stone in my sling.

But the hour of vengeance falls, and I love you.
Body of skin, of moss, of eager and firm milk.
Oh the goblets of the breast! Oh the eyes of absence!
Oh the roses of the pubis! Oh your voice, slow and sad!

Body of my woman, I will persist in your grace.
My thirst, my boundless desire, my shifting road![4]
Dark river-beds where the eternal thirst flows
and weariness follows, and the infinite ache.

[2] Merwin’s translation is quite powerful and literary, compared to other popular versions that are more conscious-driven and literal in your attitude of giving.

[3] Here Merwin’s translation exceeds again over other popular translations by focusing on “… en mi…” hence, the night became an active role. The other popular translation would be “I was invaded by the power of the night.”

[4] Shifting road on top of boundless desire is complementing, much stronger than “my infinite anguish, my indecisive path…”even though this is less close as a translation version, it is closer to what Neruda meant originally.

INCLINADO EN LAS TARDES

Inclinado en las tardes tiro mis tristes redes
a tus ojos oceánicos.

Allí se estira y arde en la mas alta hoguera
mi soledad que da vueltas los brazos como un naufrago.

Hago rojas señales sobre tus ojos ausentes
que olean como el mar a la orilla de un faro.

Solo guardas tinieblas, hembra distante y mía,
de tu mirada emerge a veces la costa del espanto.

Inclinado en las tardes echo mis tristes redes
a ese mar que sacude tus ojos oceánicos.

Los pájaros nocturnos picotean las primeras estrellas
que centellean como mi alma cuando te amo.

Galopa la noche en su yegua sombría
desparramando espigas azules sobre el campo.

Pablo Neruda.

LEANING INTO THE AFTERNOONS

Leaning into the afternoons I cast my sad nets
towards your oceanic eyes.

There in the highest blaze my solitude lengthens  and flames,
its arms turning like a drowning man’s.

I send out red signals across your absent eyes[5]
that move like the sea near a lighthouse.[6]

You keep only darkness, my distant female,
from your regard sometimes the coast of dread emerges.

Leaning into the afternoons I fling my sad nets
to that sea that is thrashed by your oceanic eyes.

The birds of night peck at the first stars
that flash like my soul when I love you.

The night gallops on its shadowy mare[7]
shedding blue tassels over the land.

[5] Other popular translations use the word “over” to hinder “sobre” instead of “across.” It’s interesting to see the different perspective from Merwin’s translation, so the protagonist is sending red signals TO her instead of ABOVE her, which connects well to Neruda’s political inferences the next line.

[6] “Smell” would be a typical choice for “olean.” However, “move” is the more sensible option. This way, the protagonist becomes the sea or the people of Chile, and the lighthouse has transformed to be the government that needed enlightenment. Here, Merwin’s translation makes a big leap from personal yearnings to state-level affairs.

[7] The choice “its” for “su” instead of “her” does reinforce the political interpretative layer linking to [6].

ME GUSTAS CUANDO CALLAS

Me gustas cuando callas porque estas como ausente,
y me oyes desde lejos, y mi voz no te toca.
Parece que los ojos se te hubieran volado
y parece que un beso te cerrara la boca.

Como todas las cosas estan llenas de mi alma
emerges de las cosas, llena del alma mia.
Mariposa de sueno, te pareces a mi alma,
y te pareces a la palabra melancolia.

Me gustas cuando callas y estas como distante.
Y estas como quejandote, mariposa en arrullo.
Y me oyes desde lejos, y mi voz no te alcanza:
dejame que me calle con el silencio tuyo.

Dejame que te hable tambien con tu silencio
claro como una lampara, simple como un anillo.
Eres como la noche, callada y constelada.
Tu silencio es de estrella, tan lejano y sencillo.

Me gustas cuando callas porque estas como ausente.
Distante y dolorosa como si hubieras muerto.
Una palabra entonces, una sonrisa bastan.
Y estoy alegre, alegre de que no sea cierto.

Pablo Neruda.

I LIKE FOR YOU TO BE STILL

I like for you to be still: because it is as though you were absent, [8]
and you hear me from far away and my voice does not touch you.
It seems as though your eyes had flown away
and it seems that a kiss had sealed your mouth.

As all things are filled with my soul
you emerge from the things, filled with my soul.
You are like my soul, a butterfly of dream,
and you are like the word Melancholy.

I like for you to be still, and you seem far away.
It sounds as though you were lamenting, a butterfly cooing like a dove. [9]
And you hear me from far away, and my voice does not reach you:
Let me come to be still in your silence.

And let me talk to you with your silence
that is bright as a lamp, simple as a ring. [10]
You are like the night, with its stillness and constellations.
Your silence is that of a star, as remote and candid.

I like for you to be still: it is as though you were absent,
distant and full of sorrow as though you had died.
One word then, one smile, is enough.
And I am happy, happy that it’s not true.

 

[8] A better translation for this line should be “I like you when you are quiet,” in the sense that stillness is not enough, quietness on both physical movement and speaking terms would be.

[9] Here I’d translate to “a butterfly in lullaby” for “mariposa en arrullo.”

[10] I’d like the word “clear” for “claro” here because of the narrator’s unblemished reasons, not in reference to the light intensity.

What Happens When a Poem is Translated from the Original Language?

poetry translation

Languages are wonderful devices that have their own nuances that add to a poem’s depth. Rather than learn several different languages to enjoy the works of international poets, professionals translate them. While translations allow you get a general idea of what a poet communicates, they often don’t capture a poem’s true essence. By being aware of how translations change a work, as well as cultural considerations, you can derive a deeper meaning from the words on the page.

How Translations Change Poems

Missing Linguistic Equivalents

Every culture uses phrases that don’t make sense when directly translated into another language. In Spanish, for example, the phrase, “Nada que ver,” directly translates to, “Nothing to see.” In reality, the phrase means that one idea or circumstance has nothing to do with another (e.g., Missing lunch had nothing to do with getting a flat tire). If a translator is not aware of the linguistic nuances and its equivalents, a reader will not grasp the full meaning of a poem.

Linguistic Evolution

All languages evolve. This evolution gives birth to new languages. It sparks cultural revolutions and introduces one society to another.

When speaking English, individuals no longer say “thy,” “where for art thou,” and other phrases unless they’re intentionally using old English. If you don’t know what these phrases mean, it might be hard to understand Shakespearean works. Similarly, when modern interpreters translate ancient works and fail to account for the historical context of a poet’s words, the true meaning of the words might get lost.

Translator Inference

When translators interpret poetry, they change the words into something that they’re not so another audience can appreciate them. This makes the audience dependent on the translator’s understanding and knowledge of the poem, the poem’s original language, and the target language. If a translator lacks in any of these areas, the interpretation will not be as exact or faithful to original work. It becomes the translator’s poem, not what you necessarily intended to read.

Voice

A good translation maintains the original poet’s voice. Translators must choose words wisely to interpret and shape the text, and remain true to its rhythm, tone, logic, imagery and aesthetics. In this respect, a good translator must be as equally artistic as the poet is.

Cultural Considerations When Reading Translated Poems

Poets reference the world around them, making poems a means of cultural enrichment. A reader might not understand the significance of tin flatware or plain chipware in Gwendolyn Brooks’ The Bean Eaters, for instance, if they’re not familiar with household items that lower class Americans used in the 1960s.

Translating poetry is a subjective activity in which the professional is restrained by cultural and social factors. Professionals must understand the values, rules, attitudes, history and beliefs of the poet’s culture. They must understand how the poet felt and how the new audience will feel, as well as identify common cultural experiences and functional equivalents.

Culture-specific references in poetry include those about the names of places, foods, drinks, national pastimes, education, politics, art, history, legal systems, institutions, animals and religions. A translator must understand their significance when examining metaphors and allusions.

Grammar, gender and syntax are other important considerations when interpreting poetry. English is a gender-neutral language, while many other languages identify words as masculine or feminine. It also uses pronouns and punctuation marks differently than other languages. A translator must understand how the different grammatical elements in a work apply to a poem to provide an effective translation.

Examples of Famous Translated Works

Always

By Pablo Neruda

 

I am not jealous

of what came before me.

 

Come with a man on your shoulders,

come with a hundred men in your hair,

come with a thousand men

between your breasts and your feet.

Come like a river full of drowned men

which flows down to the wild sea,

to the eternal surf, to Time!

 

Bring them all to where I am waiting for you;

We shall always be alone,

we shall always be you and I,

alone on earth to start our life!

 

Dance

By Rumi

 

Dance when you’re broken open.

Dance when you’ve torn the bandage off.

Dance in the middle of fighting.

Dance in your blood.

Dance when you’re perfectly free.

 

To a Creole Lady

By Charles Baudelaire

 

Translation I:

In scented countries by the sun caressed

I’ve known, beneath a tent of purple boughs,

and palm trees shedding slumber as they drowse,

a creole lady with a charm unguessed.

 

She’s pale, and warm, and duskily beguiling;

Nobility is moulded in her neck;

Slender and tall she holds herself in check,

an huntress born, sure-eyed, and quiet-smiling.

 

Should you go, Madam, to the land of glory

along the Seine or Loire, where you would merit

to ornament some mansion famed in story,

 

Your eyes would bum in those deep-shaded parts,

and breed a thousand rhymes in poets’ hearts,

tamed like the negro slaves that you inherit.

 

Translation II:

I met, among the amber tamarinds

and lotus leaves, blue seas and empty space,

down on a sun-touched island’s scented sands,

a lady whose great charm seemed out of place.

 

Black hair, enchanting eyes and olive skin,

a bearing of aristocratic grace –

the long-limbed, slim young huntress, wild Diane,

with quiet self-assurance on her face.

 

Madam, if you should visit Glory’s land,

along the Seine, beside the green Loire’s strand,

our noblemen would beg you for your hand,

 

A thousand new love songs would germinate

in budding groves where poets meditate,

more docile than those slaves you now command.

 

Translating poetry is a difficult task. Rather than forego the works of international writers, immerse yourself in different translations to derive the poet’s original meaning for yourself.