Links, Literary Translation, Translation

New Words #10: Translating Formal Poetry

I used to say I would never translate poetry—especially not formal poetry. Conveying meaning and overcoming gaps in cultural knowledge is tricky enough, so adding rhyme and meter into the mix just struck me as unreasonable.

That changed about two years ago when I read Íntimas, the 1913 novel by Adela Zamudio, a writer, educator, and activist who is remembered as the foremost figure in Bolivia’s feminist movement. I loved the novel’s morally complex protagonists and the author’s use of acerbic wit to offset the sentimentality of the plot, and since it has never been published in English, I decided to translate a sample to see if I could get a publisher interested. (After a round of encouraging rejections and a break to focus on other projects, I’m about to head back into the trenches, so wish me luck! If you’re interested in learning more about the novel and hearing an excerpt, check out my video from the Jill! reading series).

Given that the author was better known for her poetry than her prose, it is little wonder that Íntimas is peppered with short verse. For example, one character’s teasing takes the form of a limerick, while another is perplexed by the cryptic quatrain recited by a mysterious woman at a masked ball. Wanting to include the ballroom scene in my sample translation, I prepared myself for a slog. I thought those four lines would take me longer to translate than a typical page. And I was right.

But you know what else? It was fun. It was a puzzle—one that may or may not have a satisfactory solution, granted, but the process of working out a solution felt familiar. (For more on this topic, I recommend May Huang’s lovely essay about the overlap between literary translation and crossword puzzles.) So I tried my hand at a few of Zamudio’s poems unrelated to the novel, and guess what? More puzzles! More fun!

Among those early experiments were “Nacer hombre” (perhaps Zamudio’s most famous poem) and “El hombre,” my translations of which were published together, in bilingual format, in The Los Angeles Review that same year. In the case of “El hombre,” I found that the poem worked better in English using stanzas of four lines rather than five—Spanish is sometimes wordier than English—but I felt comfortable adapting this poem using another form frequently used by Zamudio. However, the off-kilter, uneven patterns of “Nacer hombre” were tied to its theme, and I believed the only way I could do the poem justice would be to model my translation after its form as closely as possible.

Taking a look at the full original poem (available at the link above), you’ll notice that each stanza except the last has the same rhyme scheme (ABACDBC) and that two lines (the C rhyme) are repeated in each of those stanzas. I am not aware of any standard poetic form that uses this rhyme scheme—if it rings a bell for you, let me know!—but the rhyme feels both consistent and fundamentally unbalanced, much like the power dynamic the poem illustrates.

Here’s a look at a single stanza (Zamudio on the left, my literal-ish translation in the center, and my final translation on the right):

As you can see, while all the elements—awesome women, despicable scoundrels, sexist voting laws—are there, I’ve adapted them and moved several of them around within the stanza in order to make the rhyme scheme work. The A rhyme was always going to require some finessing; “superior” doesn’t rhyme with “worst,” but it hardly matters, since English typically puts adjectives before nouns anyway. Meanwhile, I can’t make “vote” and “idiot” rhyme in English, the way “vota” and “idiota” do in Spanish, but I can say that a “fool” is allowed to vote because that’s the “rule.”

Let’s take a closer look at the repeated C rhyme, and in particular the fourth line of each stanza, where I’ve deviated significantly from the literal meaning of the source text. When translating within formal constraints, I think it’s important to consider the way those same constraints affected the author’s choices, and that fourth line is where I most clearly see Zamudio doing battle with the form she has chosen. The phrase “Permitidme que me asombre” is used not just because Zamudio wants to be sarcastic (although that is definitely part of it!) but because “asombre” rhymes with “hombre,” the word on which each stanza lands. As a result, I prioritized the literal meaning of “hombre” in my translation—these stanzas, I decided, must end with the word “man”—but I consider the literal meaning of “asombre” to be less relevant than its effect (rhyme + sarcastic tone).

It’s worth noting that I have never figured out the right approach to a rhyme scheme the day I begin working on a poem. Here’s the inside scoop on my technique: I spend some time scribbling potential end rhymes, decide it can’t be done (not by me, at least!), give up, sleep, wake up the next morning still convinced there is no solution to this particular puzzle, then have an epiphany while brushing my teeth. What can I say? Yelling Oh, duh! with a toothbrush in my mouth is a vital step in my creative process.

A Humble Suggestion

In each newsletter, I’ll offer at least one recommendation for your reading, watching, or listening pleasure. While I’m not exactly recommending Succession—with the fourth and final season underway, folks have likely decided whether or not this series is their cup of tea—I am recommending a few sources of Succession-related humor:

• Simon Henriques’s painfully accurate “Which Succession Character Are You?” quiz in McSweeney’s. I have rarely felt so seen!

• Maris Kreizman’s weekly Twitter thread inviting viewers to tag themselves in the new episode. This week, I was a high-calorie info snack.

• And of course, Demi Adejuyigbe’s wildly enthusiastic performance of the lyrics he set to the show’s theme music.

Here, Look at My Cats

The world is a mess, and you might welcome a pleasant distraction. For what it’s worth, here are my cats.

Two cats sit on a black desk. On the left, a tuxedo cat faces the camera; on the right, a dilute tortie has her body facing the camera as well, but she has turned her head to lick her brother’s cheek.
David’s displays of affection tend toward the elaborate, but Alexis opts to give a simple kiss on the cheek.

See you soon for more adventures in creativity and dental hygiene!