Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Joys (and Challenges) of Translating Poetry with Guest Instructor Yvette Neisser Moreno

Exactly 4 months ago Yvette Neisser Moreno blogged on the topic of translation right here on First Person Plural. Yvette's a translator and workshop leader at The Writer's Center, and she and Luis Alberto Ambroggio, the poet whose work she translates, will be reading this Sunday at 2:00 P.M. at The Writer's Center. They'll read along with C.M. Mayo, who posted here yesterday. Scroll down to see that post, if you didn't get the chance already.

Yvette's book of Ambroggio translations, Difficult Beauty: Selected Poems, will be out this month. Learn more about Sunday's event here.

Now on to Yvette.


It's funny. Nearly every time I tell someone (a non-translator) that I translate poetry, the response is inevitably the same: “That must be difficult.”

Well, my friends, I’m here to tell you that first and foremost, translating poetry is a pleasure. This pleasure—like all forms of creative writing—is accompanied by challenges and sometimes frustrations. But isn’t this true of any life passion?

Two of my great passions in life are poetry and languages. For me, reading poetry in foreign languages is a great pleasure. So translating poems into my native English involves many pleasures: the linguistic pleasure of learning new words; the creativity of creating a poem; the pleasure of looking for a way to express a foreign phrase in my own language; and perhaps the deepest reward is the intimate relationship I develop with the original poem.

I had to say all that to preface the actual question posed to me for this blog—how does one handle the difficulties of translating poetry? Well, the “difficult” parts are what make translating poetry interesting. Occasionally, I have run into such a simple poem that I was able to pretty much do a word-for-word translation. That’s easy, but not particularly rewarding! The joy is in the word play, trying to figure out those linguistic puzzles, how to take something particular to one language and transport it into another.

I’ll give a brief example. One of the first poems I translated from Pablo Neruda ["Sonnet 64" from 100 Love Sonnets] included the following line: “Fui de rumbo en rumbo como las aves ciegas”. Literally, something like: "I went from one direction to another like blind birds." The word rumbo means direction, like a compass direction, but the phrase "fui de rumbo en rumbo" would usually be translated along the lines of “I wandered aimlessly”. But this is poetry—in poetry, sound is equally important as sense, particularly with an incredibly rhythmic poet like Neruda. The repetition of the word rumbo seemed important to me. I looked in Roget’s thesaurus for an English phrase with a similar meaning/effect: hither and thither, for example. Captures the sense and repetitive effect, but for the sound of this poem—flat.

Ultimately I decided to take a risk of doing something that poetry translators are cautioned against: I added a couple of images that were not in the original, in order to stay faithful to what I felt was the sentiment, the sound, and the rhythm of Neruda’s line: “I tumbled from limb to limb like a blind bird.” Believe me, I spent many hours pondering possible variations of that line, playing with the “mb” sound from rumbo, considering English verbs to use in place of the simple Spanish fui. But for a poet, what could be a more pleasant way to spend one’s hours than trying to mimic the style of one’s favorite poet?

This line was very difficult to translate, but I thoroughly enjoyed the process. May the adventurous among you find as much enjoyment in your own translations.

Yvette Neisser Moreno is a poet and translator whose work has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, including The International Poetry Review, The Potomac Review, Tar River Poetry, and Virginia Quarterly Review.

Her translation (from Spanish) of Argentinian-American poet Luis Alberto Ambroggio's Difficult Beauty: Selected Poems will be published in 2009 by Cross-Cultural Communications. In addition to working as a professional writer/editor, Yvette teaches poetry and translation at the Writer's Center in Bethesda, Maryland, and in public schools in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. The next workshop she will lead at The Writer's Center is Poetry Translation: Spanish/English.

Her translation Web site can be found here.

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