Posts tagged Eduardo Espina

Translation symposium: “They wouldn’t mind minor mistranslations”

© Michele Hutchison

Wednesday, 15 June

This year the festival is increasing the amount of attention paid to poetry translation in the programme. A translation symposium for around forty professional translators was held for the first time on the opening day of the festival. In his opening speech, Bas Kwakman called translation “the backbone of the festival”, while colleague Jan Baeke described it as “the best way of reading a poem”. This year more than five hundred people (mainly Rotterdammers) were invited to try their hand at translating poems by the festival poets beforehand. As a way of inviting involvement in poetry, there certainly is a lot to be said for it.

Nevertheless, there is still a huge gap between the professional translator who must combine linguistic ability, expertise, sensibility and skill, and the amateur whose grasp of the language translated and prosody in general may be limited. How to bridge the gap and bring the two together in an experience from which both parties might benefit? The question was left open with many ideas for improving the programme next year.

Translator Mariolein Sabarte Belacortu outlined the many difficulties she had faced with the complex, often abstract poems of Uruguayan poet, Eduardo Espina. His poems did not include rare or archaic words; no dictionary could help her with the problems his cryptic style posed. She could often only guess at the meaning. Hearing that the particular poem used as an example was based on his experience of his mother’s death, Mariolein wished she’d had this information beforehand. But still, professional translators do often have to rely on their intuition and on reading the poem many many times.

Mariolein Sabarte Belacortu © Michele Hutchison

Eduardo Espina noted that it was difficult to write his poems too, and that they had made his translators look good: “If you can translate this, you can do anything,” he said. His English translator had won prizes. When the audience urged Maroilein to ask him about the very tidy form of his poem, a column of even-length lines, which she had yet been unable to reproduce (her translation was an ongoing work on progress, and she was pleased there was no publisher in sight), he explained that he counted the number of letters in each line. This extreme precision was something his translator currently felt unable to reproduce. Perhaps by getting to know him at the festival, her knowledge of his technique and aims will facilitate the revision stage. Not everything can be picked up on by close reading and intuition.

Canadian poet Erín Moure gave a talk which reminded of me of my previous experiences of poets translating poets. While professional translators tend to be tidy-minded people with good analytical skills, poets find the act of re-creating the poem more exciting than understanding it. They often translate using sound association and feeling, as though there might be a universal poetics, in the way some believe in a universal grammar. Moure explained her own translation technique: “the body responds to the text”, “at the moment of writing, there is no possible theory”, “all translation is creative” – an equally valid approach at the festival.

Finally, Norwegian translator Roald van Elswijk outlined the set of tools he’d used to translate Øyvind Rimbereid’s 2004 masterpiece Solaris Korrigert (Solaris Corrected) – an impressive futuristic epic poem which combines various dialects with old Norse, borrows from English, Danish, Scottish and Dutch and includes hybrids and neologisms. You could see the translators pricking up their ears all over the room. By putting together an equivalent tool packet made up of standard Dutch, old Dutch, dialects, Frisian, Afrikaans, Flemish and Dutch-English, van Elswijk was able to create an inspired translation. The freedom he had to mix sources was clearly beneficial: he’d had more trouble translating some of the poets more traditional work which left less room for manoeuvre. Rimbereid praised the translation, adding “a translator’s role is to remake, not to transport, you need to be a poet at the other end as well.”

The opening ceremony

Ion Mureşan © Elisa Gallego

Last night the festival opened with an event dedicated to Rotterdam and poetry entitled View from the bow. Bas Kwakman, director of Poetry International, presented the event and was joined by international poets Eduardo Espina (Uruguay) and Ion Muresan (Romania) who read poems inspired by archive films about the city of Rotterdam. Yan Jun (China) performed a sound piece inspired by one of these films. Alongside the international guests, Rotterdam poets, including Peter Goedhart, Marco Nijmeijer, Hester Knibbe and the official city poet Ester Naomi Perquin, performed their work.

Poets’ boat trip

Yesterday, the festival poets and staff of Poetry International eased into the festival with a boat trip along the Maas, followed by a reception with the mayor at the Rotterdam town hall, where Rotterdam translators and festival poets read together. After that we all ate dinner outside in a beautiful garden at the home of former Poetry International board member Jan Hendrik van Dorp. Many thanks for Jan Hendrik and his wife Elisabeth for their wonderful hospitality.

Michelle Tjoe, Eduardo Espina, Robert Hass and Correen Dekker © Sarah Ream

© Sarah Ream

Yan Jun © Sarah Ream

Correen Dekker, Erín Moure, Øyvind Rimbereid © Sarah Ream

Eduardo Espina reading at the town hall © Sarah Ream




© Sarah Ream

Interview with Robin Myers

© Robin Myers

How do you normally begin a translation? Did you use the same approach in the translation of Eduardo Espina’s poetry?

I usually start rough: I don’t do a starkly literal translation per se, but I start with a certain literal-mindedness, trying to get as much of the ‘stuff’ of the poem on paper as possible without worrying too much about cohesion or grace. From there, I return both to the original and to my draft, looking at how the particular phrases and images happen in Spanish – what they do, how they move, what they’re made of – and then trying to find a way to get them to happen in English, too. In abstract terms, I begin a translation by letting the poem teach me how to read it. Nothing about my approach as such was different in translating Espina’s poetry. But even the ‘literal-mindedness’ of the beginning was much harder, much more painstaking, than it often is, so there were more holes in my rough drafts as a result, more fits and starts along the way.

As the translator of these poems, do you agree with Espina’s views of his work being untranslatable? How successful do you feel you were  in translating his poetry?

You know, when I translate, I worry a lot about the other questions (some more rhetorical than others) that I think are embedded in your first question, and in Espina’s description of his work as potentially untranslatable: Can a poem really be defined as untranslatable? If so, does that mean we shouldn’t attempt a translation? What are our responsibilities and limitations – surmountable or inevitable – when we translate? Which are attributable to the poet and which to the translator? Is anything translatable?

In any case, Espina’s poems daunted me more than anything else I’ve translated, and I completely agree with him that some of its most important components – its syntax, its atonal music, its overlapping and fragmentary images and tenses – can so easily be lost. I know I lost them sometimes. And when I did, I often knew I was losing them, but I couldn’t quite figure out what to find instead. Those are the times when I was unsuccessful as a translator: when I could tell I wasn’t fully doing justice to the original self-contained complexity because I couldn’t fully configure a new one. There were other times when this reconfiguration did, I hope, take place.

That said, and without letting myself off the hook for what I didn’t pull off, I think it’s important to remind ourselves that a poem isn’t a collection of elements to be recreated, and that this isn’t what translation is for. Successfully or unsuccessfully, you have to move away from the original syntax, vocabulary, etc., in order to move closer to a new one – and the new one will have, like the first, its own logic, its own restrictions, its own possibilities. Ultimately, the poem must stand on its own two feet. And then walk around, run, skip, swim, whatever. A translator friend of mine says it’s like a musician covering a song: you must honor what you’re playing (you’re not making stuff up), but you are not beholden to every single thing that made the original what it was, and, in fact, you must imbue it with other things. I don’t think I always got the hang of this with Espina’s poems, but it’s an ideal he made me work towards; and so to him, and to the poems themselves, I feel both apologetic and thankful!

How were you able to cope with the non-conventional syntax in Espina’s poems?

Espina’s poems – his entire poems, but also their syntax – often seem almost ‘coded’: bristling with images and phrases that can be hard to parse on the most literal level. Even the grammar can be unorthodox: Espina sometimes elides verbs and sentence structures, condensing an entire serious of actions or emotions into a sort of suggestion of what has happened. To translate them, I had to try to learn his shorthand – to examine the literal pieces hidden from view, understand them, and hide them away again, albeit by different means and in different guises, in English. In some cases, even if it was impossible to maintain, say, the particular music of a particular phrase, or a particular rhythmic pattern, I tried to understand the effect of this music or this rhythm in the original, and then tried to find a way in English to reembody the effect, to keep the wheel turning in English as it turns in the original Spanish without trying to reproduce every cog.

Also, the more I read Espina’s poems and grappled with his syntax, the more I felt that not only the level but the nature of their complexity was a very tricky business. Even at their densest and most abstract, his work feels extremely meticulous and his choices deliberate. So, it was both sobering and liberating to realize that part of ‘coping’ meant not only permitting ambiguities (because there are so many, and of so many kinds) but making them sound sure of themselves. A line that’s intentionally opaque in the original needs to stay opaque in translation – but that doesn’t mean it can be sloppy. It should be confident; it should encourage the reader to follow.

Could you give us an example of a line or an image that was particularly difficult to translate?

Here’s a passage from the poem ‘Que pase el que sigue’ (Next in Line, Please):

desde el principio supo a la perfección
cómo respirar despacio, acercarse a las ideas huidas al jardín
que por diciembre en la mente era otro mes aquel, respirando
de menos a esto, o al revés porque está bien que el viento vea
de vez en cuando, cierzo al que solo el olvido ha podido dividir.

And my attempt:

since the start she’d mastered perfectly
how to breathe slowly, approach the ideas that had fled to the garden,
which, around December, was another month in the mind, breathing
from less to this, or else the opposite, because it’s good the wind can see
once in a while, the wind that only oblivion has managed to divide.

Has Espina’s work given you new insights into contemporary Hispanic poetry?

I don’t think any single poet can really do this. I know reading Espina’s work has given me new insights about what makes it Espina’s work: that means, even unconsciously, a clearer sense of how he inhabits language, the kinds of ideas that matter to him, even the other writers and thinkers who have shaped his own writing and thinking. In this way, reading Espina (or any other writer) can expose us to ideas or patterns or concerns that are threaded through, in this case, contemporary Latin American poetry, but I wouldn’t ask or expect him to expressly speak on their behalf.

Robin Myers (USA, 1987) is a freelance translator and editor. Born in New York, she has spent the past several years between the USA, Mexico and Palestine. She was a 2009 Fellow of the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA), and she is working on a collection of her own poems.