By Willis Barnstone

from Issue 22


To be a translator of poetry, at the moment of translation one must be a poet. Robert Lowell writes in the Introduction to Imitations (1981) about translation, “[t]he poetic inspiration must be expert and inspired, and needs at least as much technique, luck and rightness of hand as an original poem.” Cruelly, he also notes that academic versions “seem to live in a pure world untouched by contemporary poetry…they are by taxidermists, not poets, and their poems are likely to be stuffed birds.” Of the many qualities in Lowell’s own poetry, consider how signal to his work were his “Imitations of Villon, Baudelaire, Pasternak, and Montale. The translation of poetry profoundly affects the formation of the poet.

My best preparation for writing the 501 sonnets in my book, The Secret Reader, occurred in Argentina during the Dirty War. I came to Argentina as a Fulbright professor to teach at the university, but my writer self came to translate the poetry of Jorge Luis Borges. I lived across the street from Borges on calle Maipú, and I saw the poet regularly, read to him (he had been blind since his mid-fifties), traveled with him into the Andes’ interior of the country, and above all translated his sonnets. I would read my English draft, then the original Spanish. Borges had rarely heard his poems in his own Spanish tongue. Afterword he sat back with his immense Fernandel smile, and repeated lines sternly and melodiously in his deeply coarse milonga voice. !Qué lindo¡ How beautiful! he said, spontaneously about his own work. It was moving. His innocent cheer of self-praise contrasted with his public image, which was to carry a mighty club of modesty.

A few months after our initial collaborations, Holiday published six of these Socratic, resonantly passionate sonnets in English version, sending me a check for $600. I opened the door of his apartment. Borges was sitting sphinxlike before his bookshelves. I handed the check to him, a lot in those days when super-inflation made the local Argentine peso almost worthless. I remember his mischievous laugh when he took the check and, as if about to tear it in two equal parts, said, “Let’s split it.” I was lucky in all ways to have an active friendship with Borges for some eighteen years, and despite old New Critics’ implausible cry to the contrary, it helps substantively to be close to the author in writing about his life and work.

In those months in Buenos Aires of evening bomb blasts and kidnappings during the murderous Dirty War, I often worked through the night on translating new sonnets from a book Borges had just brought out called La moneda de hierro (The Iron Coin, 1975). One day a decisive event took place. Late in the afternoon, while English versions of his poems were still spread all over the living room floor, Carlos Frías, his Buenos Aires editor at EMECE, knocked at the door of my apartment.

“Borges has a message for you about the sonnets,” the editor said.

“What’s the message?”

“In your translation of the poem on Whitman, “Camden, 1892,’ ” ‘Frías said discreetly, “Borges thinks your rhyme in the last couplet is off. You have not found a rhyme wholly consonant with the sonnet’s end words, ‘Walt Whitman.’ ”

I wondered why Borges hadn’t called me or come himself. Why the messenger? I began to fumble with words, defending slant rhymes, saying how modern poets in English liked to use muted assonant rhymes, how . . .

Borges thinks you should try a little harder,” Frías coldly interrupted. He was prepared for my answer.

So I tried a little harder. I discovered it was not more difficult to make perfectly consonant end rhymes. And this achievement has advantages beyond that of simply euphonious final vowels. As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote in his novel, Vol de nuit, “On se mesure selon la résistance qu’on rencontre.” “One measures oneself according to the resistance one finds.” Each new formal obstacle orders the imagination to see further. By moving into the endless unknown, one avoids the initial seductive trap of easy literal translation. It is amazing what lies in the unknown, unperceived, if one makes the effort to find it. It’s not enough to tick off one or two versions, but ten or fifteen. Finally, eureka. Suddenly there is a version that in both music and meaning re-creates the original, without damaging sound, without thinning sense.

Willis Barnstone is a poet, memoirist, scholar, and translator of the moderns and the ancients, author or editor of more than seventy books over six decades of publishing. Born in Maine, he grew up in New York City. He has studied and taught in the United States, France, Switzerland, Argentina, Mexico, Greece, China, and other countries, and four times he has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in poetry. When not traveling, he now lives in Oakland, California.

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