Translating Bolano’s Resurreccion

Roberto_Bolano-reflectionThis is our second blog post by Two Lines Press’s summer intern, Rachel Pesavento Brownell. (You can see her post last week on independent bookstores here.) In this post, Rachel takes apart Bolaño’s poem “Resurrección” and dives in to how Laura Healy’s translation works.

Rachel is a rising senior at Pomona College in Southern California hoping to pursue creative writing (particularly poetry) in a personal and professional capacity. This summer she’s been enjoying the poems of Tony Hoagland, as well as her late professor Hillary Gravendyk.


La poesía entra en el sueño
como un buzo en un lago.
La poesía, más valiente que nadie,
entra y cae
a plomo
en un lago infinito como Loch Ness
o turbio e infausto como el lago Balatón.
Contempladla desde el fondo:
un buzo
envuelto en las plumas
de la voluntad.
La poesía entra en el sueño
como un buzo muerto
en el ojo de Dios.

Resurrection (translated by Laura Healy)

Poetry slips into dreams
like a diver in a lake.
Poetry, braver than anyone,
slips in and sinks
like lead
through a lake infinite as Loch Ness
or tragic and turbid as Lake Balatón.
Consider it from below:
a diver
covered in feathers
of will.
Poetry slips into dreams
like a diver who’s dead
in the eyes of God.

Resurrection (literal translation, google translate)

Poetry enters sleep
as a diver in a lake.
Poetry, braver than anyone,
enters and falls
in an infinite lake Loch Ness
or cloudy and infamous as the Balaton lake.
Contempladla from the bottom:
a diver
wrapped in feathers
of will.
Poetry enters sleep
like a dead diver
in the eye of God.

“Resurrección” (“Resurrection”) by Roberto Bolaño presents a single image—that of a diver traveling far into the depths of a lake—to illuminate his perspective on the craft of poetry. The poem is short, consisting of fifteen brief lines, so in examining Laura Healy’s translation of it into English I had doubts as to just how much art could really be involved. Visually, the Spanish and English versions on opposing pages in The Romantic Dogs seem identical. After going through word by word, however, I soon realized how in the tight space of this powerful piece the most minute decisions carry a surprising weight.

In fact the entire poem arguably hinges on a single decision in translating the verb in the first line: “La poesía entra en el sueño,” literally “Poetry enters sleep,” becomes Healy’s “Poetry slips into dreams.” While “sueño” can easily mean “dream” as much as “sleep,” it’s Healy’s independent reading of “entra” as “slips into” rather than “enters” that fuels the mood of the poem as a whole. While “enters” would be the most accurate translation of the Spanish in a denotative tradition, the choice to include “slips into” sets up the quiet grace of Bolaño’s poetry-as-diver, with the diction clearly fitting an entrance into water specifically. A similar favoring of connotative significance occurs in the fourth line when Healy turns “cae,” meaning “falls,” into the English “sinks,” again staying within the world of aqueous words.

The most interesting decision Healy makes as a translator comes in the next line, though—the phrase “a plomo,” used to describe the manner in which the diver/poetry becomes submerged in the literal/figurative lake. “Plomo” means “lead” in English, so Healy’s version then is both accurate and in line with the poem’s aesthetic nature. Notably, though, “a plomo” is also an expression signifying “true,” “vertically,” or “just right.” While Healy took the phrase apart to form her simile “like lead,” she very well could have finished the thought as “sinks / true,” “sinks / vertically,” or “sinks / just right.”

All of these possibilities are valid and allow Bolaño’s poem to flow organically, yet it seems Healy thought a simile would be most evocative. While I would have still enjoyed this incredible piece had she chosen any of these options, I see the merit of the translator’s creative jurisdiction here. Favoring the simile and introducing the visceral concreteness of the word “lead” over the clumsier abstractness of words like “true” (or simply more boring words like “vertically”) keeps “Resurrection” alive for English readers much as “Resurrección” breathes in its original Spanish: it is complex, it spans the senses—it is felt.

The next few lines contain similar impulses from the translator to project the English version of “Resurección” as an insular, constructed world: “En un lago” becomes “through a lake,” rather than “in a lake” in line six to convey the correct feeling of movement; “turbio e infausto” (“cloudy/muddy” and “unlucky/ill-starred”) become “turbid” and “tragic” in describing Lake Balatón. These adjectives in line seven strikingly appear in the reverse of their presence in the Spanish—“tragic and turbid” instead of “turbid and tragic.” This reordering, as well as Healy selecting “tragic and turbid” rather than “cloudy and unlucky” or “muddy and ill-starred” reveal her focus on sonics in this moment: the specific word choice allows for alliteration while the reversed ordering allows for the hard, strong “tr” sound of “tragic” to introduce the phrase, rather than the concave, already-fallen sound “tur” in “turbid.” The artistic effort is clear, as Healy’s version builds on Bolaño’s original, introducing markedly euphonious additions where there were none to begin with.

Lin eight—“Contempladla desde el fondo”—stands reasonably as “Consider it from below” instead of “Contemplate it from the bottom,” and “un buzo / inocente / envuelto en las plumas / de la voluntad” very literally becomes “a diver / innocent / covered in feathers / of will.” Bolaño’s last sentence, though, stuns the reader and elevates the poem from something beautiful to something moving and deeply thought-provoking: “La poesía entra en el sueño / como un buzo muerto / en el ojo de Dios”—“Poetry slips into dreams / like a diver who’s dead / in the eyes of God.” The diver’s/poetry’s “innocent” journey, so far something long and clean and almost noble, is now suddenly sacrilegious. Healy syntactically ascribes such sacrilege to the last line by saying “like a diver who’s dead / in the eyes of God” rather than “like a dead diver / in the eyes of God” (the literal translation). God is not proudly or even sadly watching the corpse of an idea enter the poet’s mind during sleep. Instead He is reproachful, threatened perhaps by the secular, overly enlightened inspiration poetry introduces to the lake of the human mind, siphoning away some of His authority. Whether this is your reading or not, Healy’s translation suggests a rich, chilling ambiguity in this final sentence that “a dead diver / in the eyes of God” would in no way deliver. As a translator, Healy’s task is to make “Resurrection” exist just as multi-dimensionally as “Resurrección,” and, especially due to the brevity of the work, the slightest of linguistic permutations and transformations are what allow her to accomplish this.

Comments are closed.