Academic journal article Romance Notes

Reflections on Translating Nicolas Guillen's Poetry into English

Academic journal article Romance Notes

Reflections on Translating Nicolas Guillen's Poetry into English

Article excerpt

THE art of translating a literary work usually involves a spirit of generosity and goodwill, of wanting to share with a public of one language the treasures produced by a talent that creates in another language. At the same time translation implies a sense of responsibility, a keen awareness of the duty to translate and not to betray, to present to the readers of the language into which the work is being translated its authentic essence. But the theorists have shown that this task is not simple. Throughout the pages of journals such as Babel, one may see the many pitfalls that await the translator and even the opinion that the quest for the satisfactory translation is futile. If there is some indulgence with regard to the translation of prose, the idea that poetry can be effectively translated from one language into another has been known to meet with reservation, skepticism or denial. Many poets have offered their views. For example, the great Nicaraguan poet Ruben Dario placed himself among the demurrers when he wrote:

No creo en la posibilidad de una traduccion de poeta que satisfaga. Apenas en prosa se puede dar a entrever el alma de una poesia extranjera. En verso el intento es inutil, asi sea el traductor otro poeta y sea hombre de arte y de gusto [...]. Lo que el lector obtendra sera una poesia [del traductor] [...]. Don Miguel de Cervantes sabia bien lo que se decia con lo del reves de los tapices. (164)

Nevertheless, the impulse to translate poetry is uncontainable. I believe that the impulse to reveal and to share that inspires the translator proceeds from a humanist concept and is evident in the work of the translators of Nicolas Guillen's poetry. (1)

All these translators will probably have made a conscious selection of an approach to their task, from among contending approaches, and will have faced the issue of how literal or how free translation should be. Strong arguments have been made in favor of a translation that eschews an approximation of the words and even the sense of the original and aims to capture the intended sentiment perceived by the translator. Walter Benjamin's essay "The Task of the Translator" makes a spirited contribution to this view. In it he argues that beyond the historical relationship between languages there is a common human will to self-expression which should be given free rein. When he speaks of "fidelity and freedom" (79), he does not have primarily in mind an antinomal relationship between the two. Rather, he understands "fidelity" to be the subjective apprehension of the intention underlying the original work, a concept that allows for considerable license. For instance, he posits the view that the German "brot" is notionally different from the French "pain," hence the presumed insufficiency of rendering either intention simply as "bread" or "pan" in English or Spanish. Guillen, on the other hand, demonstrates that a word denoting the same object can have different, even antonymic, meanings in the same poem. In the "Elegia a Jesus Menendez," for instance, "metal" controlled by the villain of the poem is infected with monstrousness. When it is later controlled by the hero it comes to assume entirely positive meaning. Yet to signal these opposing meanings in any other way than by translating "metal" as metal in both instances would jeopardize the decisive associative power of people. But all this is contingent on the sense that is created by the accumulating contexts of the poem that is the object of translation. Benjamin pays little heed to such matters. For him "translation must in large measure refrain from wanting to communicate something, from rendering the sense... For what is meant by freedom" he asks "but that the rendering of the sense is no longer to be regarded as all-important?" (78-79).

The fidelity to the context and sense of the original that guides the translator of Nicolas Guillen's poetry may lead to difficulties involving the changing connotations of words. …

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