Sunday, February 1, 2009

Oda a las cosas by Pablo Neruda

As I mentioned earlier, I've decided I need to read more poetry. I like poetry, or I think I do. Some of my best writing has been poetry, or at least I think so. I was starting to wonder if I like the thought of reading and writing poetry more than the actual stuff itself.

We actually own a fair bit of poetry for a pair of people who don't really read it. So I have lots of material to choose from. I chose to start with a volume of poetry by Pablo Neruda, a translation done by Ken Krabbenhoft that brings together many of Neruda's odes, called Odes to Common Things. I have loved Neruda's poetry, and the idea of Pablo Neruda, for years and years. Both of us have. My brother read Neruda, in both Spanish and English, for us at my wedding.

Of course, I am immediately confronted by a difficult situation. I know rather more Spanish than I think I do, but not enough to read through a poem in its entirety and understand it. Poetry seems to require a deeper understanding of the language it is written in than a lot of prose (this, of course, is not universally true, but with Neruda I think it is). When I am reading a poem in Spanish, I have to whisper along to get a feel for the sounds and the tempo, and my lack of skill at the language makes this difficult. It's a challenge I enjoy, but I wonder what I am missing.

When poetry is translated, what are we translating? Words, sentiments, feelings? I am not at all an English major, and I have very little experience with literary criticism or thoughtful interpretation. I know what I like, though sometimes not why I like it. I know how my favourite poems make me feel, and what they make me see (or hear, or smell). I know when words seem, somehow, to fit together so perfectly that they launch themselves off the page and into my brain. I have tried not to let my ignorance of the mechanics of poetry limit my enjoyment of it, and mostly it doesn't. I am not easily intimidated by cultural critics. Also, it's possible I might be a wee bit guilty of that superstitious fear of knowledge: "if I dissect it, I no longer love it."

Anyway, that is all the long way to saying that I have no idea what goes into poetry translation, what makes it work, which poem in which language is the "real" one, and who, then, is the poet? I know that of the three poems I have read through thus far in Odes to Common Things, only one of the English translations works for me, and the other two seem to change the meat of the Spanish poem to an extent that ruins the English translation for me. In a couple of them the translator was playing not only with meaning, but also with punctuation in a way that makes no sense to me. Maybe I am just horribly naive, but my thought is that in poetry, punctuation is sacred. The poet puts commas instead of periods, and colons instead of commas, for a reason. That way when there is a period in a certain place, it has a certain level of impact...

I think of the three of them, "Oda a las cosas" ("Ode to things") comes by far closest, and it is also my favourite of the three. It is Neruda's love-letter to the artifacts of human activity.

Even then, having read both versions several times (the book includes them side-by-side), I think I am able to understand the Spanish version well enough that the following lines evoke in me a complete understanding of what Neruda was getting at. I read them and have a visceral, physical reaction to the flash of insight I get.

las cosas,
no porque sean
o fragrantes,
sino porque
no sé,
este océano es el tuyo,
es el mío;

Those lines in particular work in Spanish when they seem almost haphazard and amateur in English. Those lines are the feeling I get when I walk into a room full of antique bottles, bells, metal signs, ancient typewriters -- I can see the sunlight and dust and I know exactly how that feels.


Katia Shtefan said...

I know what you mean about the challenges of ranslation. I often translate between English, Spanish, Russian, and Greek, but some things are simply beyond translation. Or perhaps it just seems that way because existing translations are inadequate, whether through the fault of the translator or language itself. Also, GREAT poem! Neruda's sense of ownership of or relation to all things probably stems from his childhood in Temuco and influenced him not only aesthetically, but also politically. If you really like Neruda, check out Red Poppy at It's a non-profit set up to create a documentary about Neruda, publish his biography, and translate his works into English.

Unknown said...

There are words in every language that defy easy translation. I can't think of exact examples right now, of course. And with poetry, one of the beauties is economy of language -- being able to get a world across in as few words as possible. If you can't translate a word exactly, and it takes a sentence or a paragraph to replace the word, much of the poem's momentum is lost.

Thanks for the link! What an interesting site. I'm going to have to spend more time looking at it, absolutely.