Matthew Brennan on the Personal Nature of Translation
Margarita Ríos-Farjat‘s, “Cafe in Pioneer Square” has a special place in my heart because it was my first: the first poem Margarita sent me, and the first I translated. I was fairly new to translation at the time, having only worked with the poetry of two other poets, and had a lot to learn then (still do, of course) about the Spanish language and its unique poetics, about poetry in general (my primary training is in fiction), and about Margarita herself. I had the fortune of meeting Margarita and her family about a year into our partnership when both of our travel itineraries happened to converge for the same weekend in Boston, but while I was translating this first poem, I knew almost nothing about her personally.
While there are different schools of thought regarding what biographical information about a poet is useful or necessary to the reading of a poem, I have always found it helpful. Especially when translating. Even fiction, told through the hand and eyes and experience of its author, is informed by the writer’s life, and poetry is usually even closer to its author than fiction. I think it is telling that this was the first poem Margarita sent me, and only now having worked through the poem as well as having met Margarita and gotten to know her do I understand why. Early in the poem, I struggled with the first line: “Five years ago I had a round afternoon.” It wasn’t an issue of the Spanish, that’s what the line says, but I didn’t know what she meant by that. Despite several other obvious (in hindsight) references in the poem, Margarita had to tell me directly in our revision process that the theme of roundness was referring to her being pregnant at the time of this memory. It wasn’t complicated, it wasn’t a language barrier, I just didn’t know Margarita well yet and didn’t understand how her family informed her writing.
Of course, once she told me that detail, everything else clicked into place, and as a poem itself, this is one of my favorites. The sensory details and imagery that Margarita creates to capture this winter afternoon are wonderful: the sky “a cotton bedspread / thick with dreams and caught upon the fingers of the winter branches” and the “clusters of lamps on each pole” glowing in the fog while she and Gabriel are warm inside the cafe. And then the poem turns, and her thoughts about life and new life and “the grace of turning in the spiral of time,” which is “sometimes difficult to discern, as in the fog” I have always found particularly insightful, and still faithful to the poem’s imagery, not waxing overly philosophical.
Sometimes the most difficult element of translation has nothing to do with language, culture, or poetics; it has to do with intention. It takes a lot of work with language, culture, and poetics to finally arrive at the point where you understand the poet’s original intent for the poem, and once you find that, then you’ve successfully translated the poem into your target language. You can run the original poem through an internet translator all you want, but there’s more to literary translation that switching between languages. You have to work your way into the poem, find and understand the heart of the work, and then work your way back out to allow the poem to reflect this understanding; this is one thing Google will never do for us.