The Lost Neruda Poems, Trans. Forrest Gander

hardcover image, Then Come Back, The Lost Neruda

Then Come Back, The Lost Neruda Poems —Translation by Forrest Gander

I love reading translations into English–the imagery and metaphors of another mindset, worldview, often come across so fresh and startling when they come from another language. But translations bring challenges. First, how good is the translation of Then Come Back, The Lost Neruda Poems? Second, how good is the reader?

hardcover image, Then Come Back, The Lost Neruda
Then Come Back, The Lost Neruda

Challenge: How Good Is The Translation

Unless you are a native speaker of the original language, it is difficult to know the quality of the translation. And the original language and the language of the translation don’t always allow for the same intent, effect, meaning in roughly the same form, line, structure. The translator’s skill in general, and affinity in particular for the poem in its native language, come into play here.

Challenge: How Good Is The Reader

Some poems, in translation or not, present everything directly within the poem which the reader needs to experience the poem.  But some require the reader to know more. They rely on the reader to know the political, cultural, artistic, intellectual background out of which the poem or poet operates. Some require the cultural subtext associated with charged vocabulary to inform the reader.  The translator of such works needs to ensure denotation and connotation come across in the translation appropriately. So the reader must bring the necessary knowledge, but the translator is still critical—the translation must adequately represent the poetic and cultural background from the native poem in the second language.

It’s a three-way dance: poet, translator, reader

Then Come Back, The Lost Neruda Poems is a translation of 21 poems culled from the notebooks and other writing left by Pablo Neruda to his estate. They were published in Spanish in 2014. The English translations are by Forrest Gander, who has previously translated some of Neruda’s work. The bilingual edition was just recently available, published by Copper Canyon Press in Spring, 2016.

Reading Translations—Inhabiting Another Mindspace

When I read translations I like to start with the translator(s) note(s) or introduction.  This helps me understand what the translator believed was most important — connotation, denotation, form, music—what could be represented in English, what could only be represented in compromise, what could never be compromised without gutting the poems themselves. It often tells where the translator felt that s/he fell short, was unable to make the translation capture the original to his/her satisfaction.

So, full disclosure: I have not fully read the translator’s introduction to Then Come Back, The Lost Neruda Poems.  I’ve tried, but I’m currently limited by my inability to get past the parallels between Gander’s having to deal with his mother’s decline due to Alzheimer’s and my own mother’s recent passing. My mother’s death was due to complications of COPD, but for the last year or two her lucid moments had been growing too far apart for any kind of comfort.

Also, full disclosure: I have not finished thoroughly reading the poems of Then Come Back itself, short though the work actually is at only 21 poems. I kept getting stopped by the imagery. These poems are arresting, at least in English.  They operate mostly on images and personal impression (vs. political and cultural commentary). Also I kept getting interrupted, by the demands of family and job and eventually my mother’s passing. So I’ve read the poems but some have not had the reading they deserve, the attention from this reader which allows each poem to fully speak.

Finally, I admit to a certain trepidation when I started reading the poems. I began with solemnity and intent, then soon found myself slipping into this other head space, communing with the virtual poetry-mind of Neruda. It’s a place full of Neruda’s characteristic patterns, rhythms, sensuality. I was in the midst of the revision on a series of linked poems and felt I couldn’t risk losing myself into that other space. It would be too easy to bring some of Neruda’s vernacular and tone back with me, into poems where it didn’t belong. So this, too, delayed me. Perhaps that was an unfounded fear. Yet Gander says it better than I just did, in his introduction:

“What do I ever give up to take on a translation project? My own writing goes on hold, but when, eventually, I come back to it, I bring to it something new—a feral vocabulary I’ve adopted from the translation, a fresh set of syntactical and rhythmical strategies, the image repertoire of someone else’s imagination. I always come back changed.”

How Does Then Come Back Fare in Translation?

Simply: it fares beautifully.

One is hardly aware of the translator’s presence at all, at least in English. There is no stuttering, no awkwardness of vocabulary, no over-use of obviously literal translation which doesn’t work in English. If I were a native Spanish speaker I could tell you how is the contrast between the English and Spanish versions. I’ll speak to that more below, but my suspicion is that the bilingual versions are highly compatible with poetic intent.

As poems in English, the first thing that strikes one is the simplicity of language, combined with the strikingly original imagery. This is Neruda as seen in so many other works—able to take precise and common language and rearrange it to evoke uncommonly arresting images and emotions.

Because I have gone back so many times, starting with Poem 1 and moving each time further through the book, I have spent the most time on the first poem and I’ll use it as exemplar here. I should note that the poems are not titled but numbered, in deference to Neruda’s lack of titles for them in his papers.

Poem 1

Here is the first line of the poem: simple, precise, intense, drawing you in with sensual possibility:

I touch your feet in the shade, your hands in the light,

And then the second lines dives in out of some other world, falls from the clouds at intense speed, bullets its way down into the poem, and strikes deep into the heart of the subject:

and on the flight your peregrine eyes guide me

That image has stayed with me for weeks. Imagine: peregrine eyes. A sense of sexual connectedness, enabled not by the poet’s sensual exploration but by the fierce, taking-my-prey eyes of the lover. Guiding is almost too soft a concept for the peregrine, except that the guidance is provided by the eyes—the potential for explosive danger remains in the beak, talon, everything else the peregrine is, with all that energy barely restrained, but spoken to by the eyes which hold back nothing. A charged, coiled potential is channeled into that moment of touching “your feet in the shade” and “your hands in the light”.

How much of this impression is the poet, how much the translator, how much the fancy and reaction of this reader? It is probably impossible to say. One might suggest that, with language so clear and simple, the job of the translator here is merely to scribe literally the move from Spanish to English. Yet even in such straightforward language, if we look closer, we see it isn’t simple.

Changes in Translation—One Example

Bilingual editions often give the same poem in both languages on facing pages. It makes for interesting reading if you are bilingual, to see them presented together. Or even if you are only poorly conversant in the original language, you can see the correspondence of word choices, wonder at their correspondence, or not, of effect.

Then Come Back doesn’t do this. In this version, the English language poems are first and then the same poems are given in the same order in Spanish. I imagine that for the Spanish language reader, this makes for a completely immersive experience, as it does for the English speaker reading only the English translations.

Here are the same two first lines of Poem 1, in Spanish:

Tus pies toco en la sombra, tus manos en la lus,
y en el vuelo me guían tus ojos aguilares

Notice that the eyes are “aguilares” not “peregrino” as I might have expected. If it were me, I would have translated “ojos aguilares” as “eagle eyes”. Why choose the less obvious peregrine over the eagle?

Well, it is always possible that “peregrine eyes” is the more colloquially used translation of a common phrase, but I think not. I’ll give you three other reasons that “peregrine” is a better choice than “eagle”, and then I think you’ll see why the translator is so essential to the process here:

  • Peregrine doesn’t drag along all the English-language connotations we have of eagle in the West and in the U.S. specifically. It doesn’t bring along all the political imagery or our emotional connections to eagle which have become so common as to make the eagle seem almost tame. By contrast, using “peregrine” keeps the focus on the animal, sexual, wild world.
  • The peregrine hawk is the world’s most widely known bird of prey because it is so broadly occurring. Peregrine hawks are found everywhere in the world except the arctic and the rain forest. It therefore doesn’t intimate a place beyond the wilderness—which is important because until the end of the poem we don’t get a place reference.
  • The place finally referenced in the poem, at the end, made synonymous with the lover’s heartbeat, the peregrine eyes, and the syllable which represents the lover (or which has been represented by the lover all along) is in southern Chile and western Argentine — the home of the Araucano, a pre-Incan people. The Auraucanos are known for their independence and for insistent resistence to being colonized by the Incas and later by the Spanish.  This fierce spirit fits perfectly the lover’s “peregrine eyes”. (It also helps to know that the Matilde mentioned in the poem is Neruda’s third wife and widely recognized as his muse.)

Neruda did not precisely choose the word peregrine in his original. However, in translation, “peregrine eyes” is a much better choice than the more literal “eagle eyes” might be.

Here’s the last line of the poem:

my blood pounded out your Araucan syllable.

Here the spirit of the Araucan lover is equated with the peregrine and its coiled energy, it’s insistent eyes, and oddly, a syllable, a specifically Araucan syllable. With this line, the poem takes a turn from celebrating the sensual and sexual. It requires you read back upon the poem the metaphors of syllable as lover, lover as syllable, and syllable standing in for the poem, the poetic, and lover standing in for muse. You are compelled to reach back up into the shade and light of the poem’s beginning, to see this poet as loving a poem, seducing it, being seduced and guided by it, as much as by any untamable lover. It’s a startling turn, unsettling in its unexpectedness. Most of all it is fitting, and hardly fits with my connotation of an eagle at all.

You can see why it takes me so long to get through this book—I stop and start and review the Spanish versions and look up words (English and Spanish) on line. I consider and then revise my considerations—I “Then Come Back” from impression to impression within the same poem.

So much richness, packed into so few lines.

Whether you are a long time Neruda fan, or never yet knew his work, I highly recommend this new book.