Last week I caught an excellent triple reading in the Blue Letter series at Watty & Meg in Brooklyn, and in between wonderful poetry by Geoffrey G. O’Brien and Alan Gilbert, the translating poet Mónica de la Torre presented a fascinating excursus on self-translation. Her comments were taken from an essay on translating her own poetry that will be forthcoming this fall in Translation Review, the official journal of the American Literary Translators Association, but I wanted to give you a foretaste.
For one thing, it isn’t hard to imagine the sorts of dilemmas a self-translating poet must face, especially if the poems being translated were written a long time ago. It has to be tempting to just rewrite the poems in the new language with one’s more mature voice. Adding to the complexity in de la Torre’s case is the fact that she used to be primarily a Spanish-language poet but now writes primarily in English – so the change of language has no doubt influenced her approach to writing as well. But for purposes of her talk, she set herself the task of translating a poem from her first book of poems, Acúfenos, published in Mexico City in 2006 (but written mostly during the 1990s). She decided to use her old diaries and writing notes from the time to help her reconstruct, almost archeologically, what had been on her mind when she wrote the poems, so as to uncover the intention behind them. Now, authorial intention is a notion with a storied and often controversial past – how can we know what an author was thinking, and doesn’t what s/he actually wrote take precedence over what s/he may have intended by it? But of course, when the author is the same person as the interpreting translator, one degree of separation is removed from the critical operation.
De la Torre reports that she has used self-translation as a writing exercise with her students, as a way of focussing their attention on the materiality of language itself and freeing them from “the burden of self-expression.” I, too, have found in my teaching that students produce the most exciting work when they can be persuaded or tricked (usually via some logistically complicated exercise) into not trying to express themselves. Because of course the most profound acts of self-expression come from the part of the brain that is not consciously thinking about what it wishes to say. But in delving into her own ancient poem from the point of view of intentional fidelity, de la Torre – being the fine poet she is – arrived at some beautiful responses to the original poem, e.g. using the word “flame” to stand in for “llamarada” or “sudden blaze.” “Flame” shares the original word’s richness of resonance, since it also has emotional/erotic connotations.
As an parallel exercise in non-intentionality, de la Torre called on GoogleTranslate to help her with the poem, and she discovered (along with the usual mishmash you’d expect), occasional flashes of accidental genius, as for example when the computer mistakes the verbs “taste” and “know” (both “saber” in Spanish) to produce the line “A sip of coffee before I knew bitter.” This is translation without preconceived notions of the text and its interpretation, and as such it can work like an automatic exercise meant to overrule cognition. But of course it’s only on occasion that GoogleTranslate actually produces a line that might strike human beings as beautiful.
And of course the experience of translating her old poem does to de la Torre what one might expect: It prompts her to write a poem, a new one all her own.