Tomás Q. Morin has received many distinctions for his poetry, including the APR/Honickman First Book Prize for A Larger Country (2012). Tomás and I first met at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in 2009. A few years later, I was fortunate enough to read several of his English translations of Pablo Neruda’s The Heights of Macchu Picchu before they were published. I’m not a Spanish speaker, but reading Neruda in the original is a great pleasure. It’s easy to appreciate his cadences, alliterations, and Whitmanesque lines. One of my favorite poems is “Oda a Walt Whitman.” I recognized that Tomás was able to make Neruda’s poems sing in English as well. Adapting poetry and prose from one language into another is no easy task. I’m familiar with this challenge, having translated poetry from Hebrew to English. When Copper Canyon Press published The Heights of Macchu Picchu this year, I wanted to ask Tomás about his relationship to Neruda, the process of translating this book, and the role of translation in the world today. We conducted the discussion over email in January.
The Rumpus: Tomás, congratulations on The Heights of Macchu Picchu! I was fortunate to get a peek at earlier drafts of the translations. You’d already made Neruda’s Spanish-language poetry sound harmonious in English. It’s exciting that the book has now come to press.
I’d like to pose some questions to you about your connection to Neruda and the translation process. What drew you to this complex poem, in which a man “[ascends] / through the savage tangle of the lost jungles?” I’d like to start with a comment that appears in your translator’s preface. You give much credit to past translators of Neruda. You also say that at some point, you “went back and forth between the Spanish and English and found that sometimes Neruda’s ambiguities or his music hadn’t been transferred over into English.” Can you recall a few of these ambiguities or instances in which you felt Neruda’s musicality could be conveyed more accurately? These mistranslations seem to be important starting points for the project.
Tomás Q. Morin: I wouldn’t call these moments mistranslations. Rather, I would say they are approximations, just as my versions of those lines are also approximations. My goal was twofold. First, I wanted to try and get closer to Neruda’s music. For example, like any poet worth his salt, Neruda can write a line in which he uses his full orchestra and really soar and then in the next line quiet everything down so that all you hear is the solo of a single instrument. He not only does this from line to line, but sometimes also within a single line. As I read all the translations that had ever been made of The Heights, I realized that sometimes this quality did not get transferred and with good reason: it’s damn hard. I don’t know that I did any better in reproducing the musical variety of the master, but I sure as heck tried.
My second goal was to try and create the poem that Neruda might have written had he been born in the US and written it in English. It was important for me that my version of his poem be a good poem in English. This meant I sometimes had to stray a bit from the Spanish. For example, a literal translation of the first line would be “From air to air, like an empty net”. I think “from air to air” has zero value in English, and even less as poetry. Rather than double Neruda’s noun “Del aire al aire, como una red vacía,” I decided to double the verb that is implied when someone uses a net and translate the line as: “Cast and cast, like an empty net through air”. I feel like that’s a line that might have come from him had he been writing in English.
I think Neruda would have approved of my attempting to channel an English-speaking version of himself. In a Paris Review interview, Neruda talks about this very same difficulty of translation, in particular in relation to his work:
It is not a question of interpretative equivalence; no, the sense can be right, but this correctness of translation, of meaning, can be the destruction of a poem. In many of the translations into French—I don’t say in all of them—my poetry escapes, nothing remains; one cannot protest because it says the same thing that one has written. But it is obvious that if I had been a French poet, I would not have said what I did in that poem, because the value of the words is so different. I would have written something else.
Now, I’m sure someone will at some point come along and say, “Who does this bozo think he is tinkering with Neruda’s words?” And I’m ok with that because I know their objection would be coming from a love of Neruda, which is the same place I’m coming from.
Rumpus: Yes, Neruda’s music soars. Since the Spanish and English poems are placed side by side in the edition, even if the reader isn’t acquainted with Spanish, it’s a pleasure to go between the languages. A reader might notice that in both languages, Neruda’s lines are long and Whitmanesque. “La poderosa muerte me invitó muchas veces: / era como la sal invisible en las olas…” “Almighty death invited me many times: / it was like the hidden salt in waves…”. The poetry is transcendent, spiritual.
Now can you discuss a passage for which the translation came easily, fluidly? Can you also discuss a passage that you struggled with a great deal? Translating is a complex task, and often I find that the “simplest” lines can be the sneakiest. Indeed, “From air to air,” which sounds like it would be straightforward to translate, doesn’t make much sense in English. For the translators out there, how did you overcome this obstacle related to language, meaning, and/or form?
Morin: Believe it or not, the lines that came easiest and hardest were both in part III. The easiest was the last line of this section: “like a black cup from which they drank trembling.” That coordinating conjunction in the middle of the line delivers so much of the force of that line that all one has to do is get the words and their order right and the conjunction does the work of bringing this terrifying image to life.
The hardest line was the third: “miserables, del uno al siete, al ocho,” which I rendered as “covering the full spectrum of misery, and beyond”. Now, anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of Spanish would look at those two and think, “Hey! Where are the numbers in the translation?” This was one of those hard moments where I realized that an idiomatic expression in Spanish had no true equivalent in English. I couldn’t just say, “covering the full spectrum of misery nine to five”. That would have no meaning in English. What Neruda was after was describing the misery of a people that knew no end, that simply kept brimming over for all eternity, irrespective of time. I hope someday someone more resourceful than me will come along and render this line better so that an idiom in English can do the work of “del uno al siete, al ocho” and not only make sense, but also sing!
As I mentioned earlier, when I had hard moments like this, I let my imaginary, English-speaking Neruda guide me in my choices. Whatever mistakes are in the book are his alone. I’m kidding! I’m proud to say they’re all happily mine.
Rumpus: The line in section III is a challenging one, being so idiomatic. How long before you decided to move from the numbers to “beyond?” Do you perceive a difference between a “mistake” in translation and an artful interpretation of a line? How close do you believe a translator needs to stay to a poem’s original work? Do you have any translations in mind that served as models for you—not necessarily Neruda? Finally, I’m curious to hear more about that English-speaking Neruda in your head. When did he start speaking to you? Before or after you started translating? About history, culture, register, tone? Grocery shopping?
Morin: I knew an English idiom similar “9 to 5” would never work so I left a blank in that spot and just kept going, returning to it each new day to see if I could come up with something better. As I mentioned, I think my choice of the “the full spectrum” is the best I could do. Who knows, maybe thirty years from now I’ll come up with something better. I’d much rather someone else beat me to it and render that line with more magic than I could muster sooner.
Mistakes are made all the time. We’re only human, after all. And yes, a mistake is different than someone purposefully straying from the original. In the end, though, it’s never about creating the perfect translation because that just doesn’t exist. Even when a master like W.S. Merwin translates Neruda, Lorca, or Mandelstam brilliantly, I still find myself disagreeing with certain passages. And that’s ok. Merwin and Edith Grossman were my models in terms of what to shoot for, namely an English version that not just sings and communicates, but that sings and communicates in the same way that the original does.
That English-speaking Neruda was with me from the time I first tried translating the first stanza. Living with him was interesting. It didn’t take long before I would go for a walk and I started seeing everything through his eyes. The trees suddenly all had shapely legs and the world felt like an ode. He’s one of those artists like Goya or Hopper whose vision is so intense if you spend a long time with their work you start seeing everything the way they did. My English Neruda still comes around from time to time. Whenever I see the moon during the day, I think of his chubby cheeks and sad eyes.
Rumpus: Have you “lived with” another poet for so long? I definitely relate, having lived with Whitman, writing about him, for him, to him, through him. I don’t think there’s any barrier—gender, historical, cultural, or otherwise—that can prevent one poet from “merging” (to use Whitman’s word) with another poet or artist.
Whitman’s influence on Neruda is captured beautifully in the English translation. I want to mention two sections from Neruda that reflect Whitman’s cataloguing, repetitions, and chant-like lines.
Astral eagle, vine of sea mist.
Lost bastion, blind scimitar.
Cosmic belt, solemn bread.
Torrential ladder, immense eyelid.
Triangular tunic, pollen of stone.
Granite lamp, bread of stone.
Mineral serpent, rose of stone.
Rise to be born with me, brother.
Give me your hand out of the deepest
field your sorrows have sown.
You will not return from under the rocks.
You will not return from subterranean time.
You will not regain your hardened voice.
You will not recover your drilled eyes.
Whitman is all over these lines! Yet Whitman, in much of his poetry, is exuberant, joyous. Were you affected at all by the way Neruda, as opposed to Whitman, very much despairs in The Heights?
Morin: Years ago when I was pursuing a PhD in Hispanic & Italian Studies at Johns Hopkins, I took this wonderful seminar on Neruda and Whitman. All we did that semester was read the two of them. It was marvelous. I have to admit, I was wary of turning Neruda into Whitman, something other translators have been accused of doing. The thing is, there are moments when Neruda does sound like Whitman. And why shouldn’t he? He embraced Whitman’s spirit completely, and then some. In a wonderful article about this connection, Delphine Rumeau reminds us of all the portraits of Whitman in Neruda’s houses, not to mention how any time Neruda would come across a copy of Leaves of Grass, he would buy it. Whitman, of course, does not hold the patent on despairing in poems, but it’s easy to find it in his work if we only revisit some of the Drum Taps poems:
The noble sire fallen on evil days,
I saw with hand uplifted, menacing, brandishing,
(Memories of old in abeyance, love and faith in abeyance,)
The insane knife toward the Mother of All. (“Virginia—The West”)
But really, I think Neruda’s true kin of spiritual despair is T.S. Eliot. Whitman influenced them both deeply. For Neruda, Whitman’s embrace was an opportunity to hug him back, unlike Eliot who wrestled against our good grey papa.
Rumpus: It’s amazing that Neruda bought up all those editions of Leaves of Grass. In the 1930s and 40s, Whitman was not seen in the US as the major canonical poet that he is today. Pound and Eliot were ambivalent towards his poetry to say the least.
That excerpt from Drum Taps does show Whitman despairing. A passage that conveys similar darker sentiments is in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”: “It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall, / The dark threw patches down upon me also.” Neruda must have been in touch with this side of Whitman.
An additional similarity between Neruda and Whitman that I identify is dialogue with an Other. The Other in “CBF”—“you”—transcends temporal boundaries. Neruda is also in dialogue with an Other, in fact various Others, including death, a “solemn bird,” and Macchu Picchu itself. Having lived with Neruda for so long, what would you say about the meaning of the work it its entirety? Is there a central message about the human condition? Is Neruda’s message mainly about how we struggle?
Morin: I’d add to struggle and misery, also empathy. I think that’s the greatest lesson of the poem. The speaker begins as someone who is feeling isolated, dislocated from not just his country and his people, but also himself, as can be seen in the second section:
like a jumbled deck of cards, the soul:
quartz and insomnia, tears in the ocean
like cold puddles: go ahead and kill
the soul and torture it with paper and hate…
He climbs Macchu Picchu in the hope of reconnecting with a golden age that has everything his current time period doesn’t: peace, prosperity, spirituality. He has the Inca in mind, of course. His disappointment comes when he realizes that glorious Macchu Picchu was built upon the backs of nameless men and women from the lower class. While his disillusionment makes his despair worse, he finally finds someone to connect with and thus is pulled out of his existential funk. In the end, he becomes a trumpet for the lost and mistreated. By giving them a voice and restoring them to history, he finds a new purpose to his life. So yeah, empathy. It’s always a gift for the recipient and the giver.
Rumpus: The empathy Neruda finds truly is a gift to his readers. So can we touch on the place of translation in the United States and the world today? You brought up Why Translation Matters by Edith Grossman. I’d like to quote part of the preface that relates to the link between empathy and translation.
Translation not only plays its important traditional role as the means that allow us access to literature originally written in one of the countless languages we cannot read, but it also represents a concrete literary presence with the crucial capacity to ease and make more meaningful our relationships to those with whom we may not have had a connection before.
I agree wholeheartedly that the translator job is to help to bridge the gap between human beings who are largely unknowable to each other. Translation can help foster communication and understanding. Yet translation continues to be relatively marginalized relative to other genres. Why do you think that is, and what can we do to fortify how translation is regarded?
Morin: Really, I think it has to start at the top with the folks who publish books. They have to commission more translations or at least be open to increasing the number of translated authors on their lists. As Grossman points out, translation is such an important tool for making “the Other” not so strange, suddenly relatable, and like us. This is not that different from the experience the speaker in Neruda’s poem has. As you rightly pointed out, Neruda was reading Whitman and appreciating him even before we were! Like so many people from other countries, Neruda was fluent in more than one language and thus had the luxury of being able to read Whitman in the original. Most of us in the US are not that fortunate, and so translation is a great doorway that can lead to news ways of thinking and feeling. Three Percent, a group dedicated to raising awareness of international literature, estimates that every year less than 3% of all published books in the U.S. are translations. That’s abysmal. Without translations, I would have never read Zbigniew Herbert, Isaac Babel, Wislawa Szymborska, Vasko Popa, and countless others. Without them I would be a much different writer, not to mention person.
Rumpus: Following the completion of The Heights of Macchu Picchu, what can you say that is hopeful about the future of translation? What advice do you have for a person who is, as we speak, ruminating over a word, a line, or an entire volume of poetry or prose?
Morin: The only advice I could impart is to make sure that the impulse to try to recreate a work in another language involves love somehow. I think translation is no easier than making an original poem, story, novel, whatever, because the translator is making something that never existed before. Even if it’s a work that has been translated a hundred times, that particular translation will still be unique in some way. Back to love: it’s important because the rewards for translating, like for most art, are so miniscule that if one of the reasons you’re translating isn’t love of the original, then you’re setting yourself up for a lot of disappointment. If in the end something you translate doesn’t get published then that still doesn’t take away the sheer joy and privilege you experienced wandering around in someone else’s work and bringing something new into the world. No one can take that away. It’s a reward that is yours and yours alone.