“A basket full of God’s bones” and the “Strange Art“of Translation: Bishnupriya Chowdhuri In conversation with Mario Melendez and Jeremy Paden

Jul 30, 2021 | Colloquy | 1 comment

“It was foggy that night
& damp; Paris was a party
of wounded bats…”

Our endless digging into the “strange art” translation is fueled when we get to meet such poems. Poems with the caliber to stop your tendency of swiping up and down, poems that catches your monkey-mind before it jumps to another branch—another screen, advert, or a story. Poems, which, if they were not translated, we would never have met or fallen in love with. What makes a poem? What does it take to transfer that making to a different language?
Because there is no one answer to either, all answers illuminate, all answers, like parts of a puzzle that keeps slowly revealing itself, converge in one (but never uniform or linear) discourse.
This week we have acclaimed Chilean Poet Mario Melendez and Prof. Jeremy Paden, the translator of his works and many other speak to Antonym about the craft of writing and translation—their personal journeys. Paths may have been different but in the body of translation, they converge.

We read. We listen. We learn.

Mario Meléndez

Bishnupriya – What makes a Poem?
Mario – Poems are made in many ways, sometimes they come in words or individual lines, sometimes in an idea on a given topic. Then I begin to give the poem form. I routinely edit a lot and sometimes the final version is rather different from the first draft. I even edit poems already published. I believe what Picasso has said about unfinished works, they remain alive and dangerous. A book of poems is always only a first draft of something. Books are almost always open books, made so that time or death get the final word.

Bishnupriya – Where and how did you find your form?
Mario – In the never-ending readings of all those writers that have gone before us; in short, through the tradition that allows us to move forward and converse with other realities. I believe, like Apollinaire, in that knot of tradition/invention. This is what allows us to gamble, to play our game, if we can, but in an informed way.

Bishnupriya – When did you write your first poem?
Mario – Poetry is that kind of homecoming about which Celan spoke. Thus, memory is essential to every creative process; it’s the quarry to which we continually return. But it’s also a selective memory. The present changes the past, Borges tells us. I wrote my first poem during my adolescence: it was to a tree in the yard of our house. It was a terrible poem, truth be told; but it was my first encounter with that earthquake, that lightning bolt about which the Chilean poet Gonzalo Rojas spoke, and that later, once in university, was honed in and through my readings.

Bishnupriya – Living with art, how has it been so far? Heaven or hell?
Mario – Everything has a balance to it, and the possibility of creating a blueprint happens in the same plane. Neruda provides a vivid example of this. He wrote Residence on Earth under rather terrible conditions, of loneliness, neglect, while he was the Honorary Consul to the Orient (1927-1931). This was the most sorrowful period of his poetry, as he himself has noted. But to my mind, it’s his best work. Therefore, those moments in hell, of which Rimbaud has talked about, also help us move into and attune us to our craft.

Bishnupriya – What are you made of? What soil, history, people, and wars?
Mario – One is made of the moment in time in which one lives, of a collective time and a also a personal one, but one is also made of readings, of feelings, and, above all, of the dialogue maintained with other disciplines that ultimately end up nourishing our cultural heritage.

Bishnupriya – Impulse, diligence and miracle: In what order of significance do they come in your creative process?
Mario – Work and tenacity. That is how many of the great works that reside in our collective memory have been made and have been handed down through the generations. Beginning with that wonder, the Sistine Chapel, those glorious frescos by Michelangelo or his David. Or we could move to the countless versions Claude Monet painted of the Rouen Cathedral, or that lighthouse in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. There we find the formula for everything. Talent coupled with tenacity, with indefatigableness.

Bishnupriya – Tell us a little bit about you writing routine, if you have any, that is. Do you thinks it’s important for a poet to have a routine?
Mario – I think that having talent or an ability to do something is not enough, it provides no assurance of anything, thus work has to be coupled to it, a continuous engagement with craft. One must certainly develop a process. Without a process, it’s rather difficult to achieve those few true words that the great master Antonio Machado spoke about.

Bishnupriya –  I found your poems often dazzle with their stunning metaphorical language. Metaphors are probably one of the two rhetorical devices that everybody knows about. However, only the insiders know the struggle and craftsmanship it takes to deliver a truly successful moving work of metaphor. Do you want to share your thoughts on this?
Mario – Some critics have noted this game in my poetry, but a game of unheard, unexpected metaphors. This has to do with my relationship to the absurd that characterizes part of my work. After all, we know that reality itself is the most absurd thing of all. If that weren’t the case, what then is this dystopia that we inhabit and that seems to have no expiration date.

Bishnupriya – Listening to your own poem in a different language, how does it make you feel? Do you recognize them still as yours?
Mario – Someone has said “great poems make their authors.” Sometimes it sounds strange to see them translated into other languages. But that means the text has begun to walk on its own because the shape of its body, its specific and unique weight, has allowed it to have that aspect, to be recognized in other languages.

Bishnupriya – What about other forms—fiction, prose and hybrids, do you have a second favorite after poems?
Mario – My poetry has always had a narrative element, I like to tell stories in texts. Thus, the genres are mixed up and my work gives way to a hybrid mode that takes hold of the poems and sets them in constant dialogue with other forms of writing. I believe this gives the work a dynamism and vitality that, in this case, is nourished by a diversity of languages and aesthetics.

Bishnupriya – What bearing does the awareness of your time—the politics, conflicts and history has on art. Is it important?
Mario – It is impossible to extract oneself from the conditions and the moment in time to which one belongs, the era in which one lives. What happens in the world is, at times, much too violent not to take notice of it, one cannot wash one’s hands of it. The moment we are living in is a proof enough of this. But just as language has the ability to serve as a testimony to its time, it also possesses a quality that lets it create other worlds. Vicente Huidobro speaks of this when he maintains, “This afternoon we will stroll along parallel routes,” as does Alejandra Pizarnik when she proposes that she is “Waiting for a world to be unearthed by language;” this is what the great Lewis Carroll has been able to do to perfection in his Alice in Wonderland and in almost all of his work. That is, the creation of worlds that only exist or can be understood within the logic of the text.

Bishnupriya – Advice for those who are on their way to master the craft of words
Mario – I don’t consider myself the best person to give advice to anyone regarding this craft. But I believe without reading there is no writing. The more imagined worlds we know the greater chances we have to enter into the creative process. Therefore, it is vital that we know the authors who have gone before us. Furthermore, it is an act of humility that lets you know where you stand in relation to them. I take seriously the idea of “Not knowing what it means to arrive,” that condition, of which Goethe spoke, of being an eternal apprentice. Let the following statement by the great Roberto Juarroz serve as the truest illustration of what I am trying to say: “When I am asked, What is the best way to perfect poetry?, I respond there is only one way: to read, but to read carefully, to ponder every line, every turn, every image, every component part, each and every silence of the great poets.”

Jeremy Paden

Bishnupriya – Lets, start with a bit of background. What brought you to the craft of translation? How did you find Mario’s poems? Have you been raised multilingual?Jeremy -Let’s start with the last question, I was raised multilingual. I grew up in Central America and the Caribbean in an English speaking family. That said, I do not think one needs to have been raised multilingual to be a translator; one simply needs a good command of the language. Some, like the poet and translator Willis Barnestone (who was himself multilingual), think that in lieu of command of the original language one simply needs a good informant. I have not worked with informants, but I know a number of translators who have and to good effect. I came to the craft of translation through poetry. W. S. Merwin, Julio Cortázar, and many other writers have used translation as a means of learning and honing their own craft. Translation is that form of deep, slow reading of which Mario speaks. He and I run in similar circles. I knew of him through poets in Spain and Mexico and through the online poetry journal he runs; he knew of me through a Chilean poet/professor here in the USA whom I met at a poetry festival in Granada, Spain.

Bishnupriya – How hard or beneficial is it to have more than one language at your disposal?
Jeremy – Though there are moments when I might invent a word in Spanish or English and moments when I might structure my sentence in one language according to syntax allowable in the other, having multiple languages is nothing but a boon. I regret not having kept up my French, German, and Italian. I also regret not having spent more time with other languages, especially those with non-Latin script alphabets. While the scientific method or meditation are technologies we’ve invented that make us, as a species, powerful, able to understand ourselves and the world and exert some level of control over it, language is a superpower we have been born with; one we can hone and develop in myriad ways that, if used well, helps us understand each other better.

Bishnupriya – Spanish, in which the poems were originally written has a very different rhythm than English. While, during translation of prose, One doesn’t worry too much about the rhythm, for poetry its unavoidable and crucial. How was your experience in working with these poems?
Jeremy -In a sense, this is true; the two languages possess different music. At the same time, both are European and the poetry of both languages are tied to the Renaissance and to the 20th century Avant-Gardes. Also, English contains a lot of Latinate words. Even if most people tend to talk about classic Spanish verse as strictly syllabic and classic English verse as metered foot, traditional verse in both languages is metered. The poems of Unamuno, Darío, Valle-Inclán, Asunción Silva, and others, employ anapests, iambs, trochees, etc. Yet, as stated, each possess different rhythms and the preferred music of each language goes back to Latin in the case of Spanish, which seems to prefer vowels and longer words, and Proto-Germanic in the case of English, which seems to privilege consonants and short words. While one might think that given the fact that both languages use metered verse in formal poetry that this might make translation easier; yet almost always when one goes from Spanish to English the line shrinks. Hendecasyllabic lines (traditional to a Spanish sonnet) do not translate into a pentameter (traditional to an English sonnet), but into a tetrameter. The Avant-gardes, though, shook everything up. In the wake of Vallejo’s Trilce, of Huidobro’s Altazor, of Borges’ Fervor de Buenos Aires, meter is less attended to. A similar change happened in English: William Carlos Williams, George Oppen, Carl Sandburg, the Black Mountain Poets, among them Charles Olsen and Denise Levertov, all moved toward the open or organic form. (I do apologize for how U.S. centric this list of poets is.) This isn’t to say that there aren’t differences between the languages, but it is to say that both linguistic traditions have moved toward idiosyncratic, poet centered rhythms rather than handed down forms.

Bishnupriya – In what ways, do you think translation affects a poem?
Jeremy -Translation ends up transforming poems at every level. As you have mentioned, there are the differences of rhythm; there are also syntactical differences, which affect the rhythm. These are inevitable. Another effect is that poetry is a dialogue, an art of allusion and employs words to conjure up worlds and feelings. This dialogue is with the reader’s imagination and memory. Words exist in a sticky relationship with one another and with the emotions, with the emotional intelligence and imagination of the reader. Changes in music and quibbles over mot juste, are among those changes we most think about. Yet also, as Mario has noted, poets write in conversation with other poets, and these readings leave an echo, a trace. Good readers of poetry have ears tuned to hearing these echoes. A poet like Mario quite consciously plays with the allusive nature of poetry. While a reader familiar with Apollinaire or Pessoa might catch the reference, especially when they are explicitly named, it is more difficult when the reference is made through citation of a line. The particular turn of phrase won’t be heard, the poem alluded to won’t be called up. Also, and related to this, the translated poem will now be in conversation with a body of poetry in another language, a body the translator presumably knows and has called upon when translating. Thus, the poem is placed in a new setting, establishing new possible connections and allusions. In some ways, opening up the poem in surprising ways.

Bishnupriya – We, at Antonym, had a discussion few days back about the idea of collaborative translation and its many aspects—both up and downsides. What do you think of the idea of working as a team in a translation project?
Jeremy – Translation is a strange art. The Argentine poet Jorge Luis Borges (better known in English for his two collections of short stories than his volumes of poetry and his curious literary essays) was also a translator. Yet, he is barely known as such, as translation is an invisible art. Another way to look at it is that translation is a true art of collaboration. The translator works with the writer (whether closely through conversation or only through what has been left on the page) to bring over something into a new language. That, perhaps, is not what you meant. More to your point, Barnstone endorses working with an informant if one does not have the requisite skill and nuance in the original language. This too is a form of collaboration. And it can result in lovely translations. For example, the work of Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy that radically remakes Rilke. In translations like their version of The Book of Hours, they render formal/rhyming poetry into open form, sometimes even combining two poems. Not all collaborations necessarily end up taking these kinds of liberties, and there are those who disagree with the liberties taken; still, their versions of Rilke are quite good. I, too, have recently begun collaborating. I am currently working with a student of mine to translate together a contemporary US poet into Spanish.

Bishnupriya – How important is it to research—have knowledge about the poet’s background, style and socio-political context when taking up a translation project?Jeremy – Very important—especially with older poetry. One must do deep dives into language, style, and socio-political context. For example, when working with the poetry of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz or Quevedo or Góngora, one needs a good grasp of period specific language, intellectual culture, philosophical debates, etc. This helps elucidate words one might misinterpret were one not to know the period. Also, the better one knows a poet, the better one can render tone. Two of the best books on translation I have read, on the craft of it, and that display the importance of this necessary background knowledge, books that are also literary biographies of their subjects, are John Felsteiner’s Translating Neruda: The Way to Macchu Picchu and his Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew. It is important to know the literary heritage or lineage of a poet, to know what they are trying to do. And with languages like English, Spanish, French, that is, colonizing languages spread across the globe, it is necessary to know what national, what regional, what socio-political dialect a poet might be using. After all, no matter how cosmopolitan our readings and our allusions, we all write in local dialects.

Bishnupriya – What is your favorite part of Mario’s craft?
Jeremy – His absurdist humor and postmodern playfulness was the first thing that drew me in. This, of course, does not mean that there aren’t things that are deadly serious in Mario’s poetry. And quick on the heels of his humor, I enjoyed his imagery.

Bishnupriya – How do you edit translated poems? What are the compromises and blessings?
Jeremy – Word by word, to quote Anne Lamott. Any translation should go through multiple stages. A quick version that pulls in various possible synonyms and does not immediately settle on the words. A version that looks at the grammatical and syntactical structure, at the connectors, the deictics, etc. As you begin to settle on one synonym over another, you also decide whether a specific turn of phrase, say an idiom, should be rendered literally or metaphorically. If for example, the poet has used truism like, en casa de herrero cuchillo de palo, do you translate that as the equivalent phrase, the cobbler’s children have no shoes, or do you translate that in a literally, the blacksmith keeps wooden knives at home? The phrases express the same thing, but they get to their point very differently. Then, as you work through various versions, you pay attention to line length, to end words, to music and rhythm.

Bishnupriya – Do you need to be a poet yourself to translate poems?
Jeremy – No, there are many good translators of poetry who are not themselves poets. Anthony Geist and Margaret Sayers Peden are two such Spanish to English translators. Both are scholars and translators that have the necessary respect and care for the nuance of language, the necessary command of both languages, and of the literary traditions of both languages to bring poems over into English. Likewise, they both try to reproduce what the poets do in Spanish in their English language translations in period appropriate language. This is not to say that a radical reimagining of a poet might not also produce interesting and valuable translations. I think of Macy and Barrows’ Rilke or Coleman Barks’ Rumi as examples of such radical reimagining. Is Barks’ Rumi Rumi? No, it is Rumi through a glass darkly and in a radically new context. But all translation is a mere shadow of the original. Still, one does not need to be a poet. One need only to love language and to use it well and carefully.

Bishnupriya Chowdhuri is a Bengali artist and writer trying to find her roots across continents and oceans. She weaves hybrid pieces about memory, women and bodies using what is often awkward if not an unsavory tangle of Bangla and English. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Central Florida. She is a collector of girl-names, pretty pebbles and family-recipes. Her address keeps changing. 

1 Comment

  1. J. H. S.

    This is a wonderful and enlightening correspondence, a lovely read, thank you. Both poets well deserve the educational spotlight.



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