Translating Amiri Baraka into Spanish
Serrano, Pedro, The Antioch Review
for Barbara Kastelein
Poetry can be translated only by poets. This is something I can neither support nor deny because I completed my first translation after years of writing poems. Imagining the linguistic action of the mind without that previous knowledge is something beyond my understanding. Nevertheless I can perfectly imagine someone discovering through translation what I first did by dealing with words in Spanish. The real dilemma lies elsewhere. There are two main approaches to poetry translation. One of them assumes that a poem written in another language should be appropriated and re-created as a new poem in the translator's own language. The poem thus becomes an object that, even if it is faithful to the original, modulates itself in an idiom closer to the translator's than to the author's. And it is an approach some poets cherish and support. But even if the results are at times powerful and efficient, there is in it a swerving from the real challenge that translating poetry presents. This kind of work does not produce translations, but interpretations.
The second approach purports to find a way through which a poem emerges almost by its own drives in a different language. Its achievement lies in those correspondences found not only in the translator's personal idiom, but in the wider streams of another language. There should be in the new version something faithful to the poet's aims in his or her own language. The poem becomes, if the translator is able to achieve it, autonomous and enjoyable without the need to look immediately for the original. The fascination of translating poetry means then to detach oneself from one's linguistic self and become a new poetic persona. It is also a highly enriching experience in itself, a kind of hermeneutics.
In this sense, translating Amiri Baraka's poems represented a fascinating experience, for different reasons. At the beginning of the '90s I was asked to translate a few poems for the Spanish edition of Eliot Weinberger's Anthology of North American Poetry from 1950. All the poets who happened to be well known in Mexico had already been chosen by the other translators, so I was presented with a handful of names that I knew barely or not at all. I have always enjoyed writing reviews of books previously unknown to me, because it is a fortuitous way of discovering authors, so I decided to go for the least-known poet of the selection and try to do my best. I remember reading those poems and noticing their hypnotic power. I also liked the challenge.
As the editors were in a hurry--they always are--I didn't have the time to conduct any proper research. That meant I started reading those poems without knowing anything about this author. I also had to extract from such limited material all I needed in order to reconstruct in Spanish a thoroughly unknown poetic self. It represented in a way the closest I have ever been to Eliot's idea of impersonality. And the most faithful also. I had to find out, from the poems themselves and from the proper act of translating them, the clues that would lead me both to this author and to the Spanish I needed. The three poems I translated were "Beautiful Black Women...," "Study Space," and "Das Kapital."
Reading those poems and working on them was an experience equivalent to reading Paul Celan. I'm not talking about "Todesfuge," his most popular poem, because it is quite explicit. Celan's more hermetic poems become clear only after a painstaking reading. At first they are opaque; once one has dealt hard with the words involved in them their luminosity becomes apparent. And that experience is overwhelming, precisely for its unexpectedness and shimmering condition. Jam not saying that Amiri Baraka' s poems are similar to those of Celan, but they partake of a power that in the case of the former I have called hypnotic.
The only thing I knew at the time about Amiri Baraka was that he had changed his name from LeRoi Jones and that he had become a Muslim. …