The Art and Practice of Poetic Translation, by Brandon Holmquest

In my work as a translator of poetry, I have found over time that my work conforms in a broad sense to the following three guidelines. They are:
1. The translation should say, as closely as possible, what the original says.
2. The translation should say it, as closely as possible, the way that the original does.
3. The translation of a good foreign-language poem should be a good English poem.

These are not rules, they are guidelines, and loose ones at that. Hard and fast rules have no place that I can see in literary translation. They would result in nothing but the repeated abandonment of work that cannot conform to rules. To demonstrate the way these guidelines function in practice, I shall detail my work on one poem. That poem is El general Quiroga va en coche al muerte by Jorge Luis Borges.

Before we get to any actual translation, I have already done a great deal of very important work simply by choosing this particular poem. I could, after all, have chosen any poem in the vast body of Spanish poetry. Why this particular one? Well, for one, I simply like Borges’ poetry. For another this particular poem has for its subject a violent murder, which is rendered in very forceful language. I feel that I can convey the force of this language well in English. For another it is a famous poem which has been translated many times, but I do not feel that any of the other translations of it that I have seen are satisfactory.

The next thing I need to do is to know the poem. In this case, the poem deals with an historical event, the assassination of the Juan Facundo Quiroga, which took place on February 16, 1835, in Argentina. A little research gives me information about Quiroga, the man the poem accuses of his murder, Juan Manual Rosas, the circumstances of the murder, its location and so on. None of this information is particularly relevant to the discussion taking place in this essay, so I omit it, but research of this kind can and will prove extremely useful in the course of translating. Also useful to know is when the poem was written. This one came early in Borges’ career. It was first published in his second book of poems, Luna de enfrente, in 1925, and characterizes much of his work of that period, with its preoccupation with Argentine history and violence.

With all of that in my pocket, I can now proceed directly to the work. I leave the title to the end. I know what it says, of course, but I wait to give my translation a proper title until the work is done, so that the poem can illuminate the title for me more fully. The poem’s first line reads:
El madrejón desnudo ya sin una sed de agua

The first word in the line, madrejón, can be rendered, like all words, any number of ways. “Floodplain”, or “riverbed”, perhaps even “river valley”, and several other choices are available to me. The second bit, desnudo ya, means “naked now” or “already naked” or perhaps “naked already”. The last part, sin una sed de agua, is fairly simple: “without a thirst for water”.

With these rough options sitting on the table, I just start tossing them together to see how they sound. I quickly narrow it down to two choices. The first is “The floodplain naked already without a thirst for water”, and the second is “The floodplain already naked, without a thirst for water”. I have chosen “floodplain” for madrejón because it is rhythmically closer than my other options, and also because the long “a” in “plain” serves in some slight way to echo the accent on the last syllable of madrejón. As for my two choices for the line on the whole, I choose the second because the formulation “The floodplain already naked…” simply seems clearer to me, and because the comma I have inserted in the middle of the line replicates the caesura I have perceived after ya in the original. Understand, that caesura may not be there for another reader, but it is there for me and so it goes into my translation, in the form of a comma. So, my first line reads:
The floodplain already naked, without a thirst for water

Borges’ second line is:
y una luna perdida en el frío del alba

Personally, I find the phrase una luna perdida to be quite beautiful. I wrack my brains for a while, trying to find an English phrase that will be as beautiful. I come up with nothing. Therefore, I move on, and realize that the language of the line is very simple. So I translate it simply. My line reads:
and a moon lost in the cold of dawn

Line three is:
y el campo muerto de hambre, pobre como una araña.

Here I have two slight problems. The first is with the word campo, which is the rural area, what in English we call “the country”. However there is also the English use of country to mean “nation”, the Spanish word for which is país. To avoid confusion I could use another word such as “countryside” perhaps, but I reject this simply because I do not like the sound of it. I reconcile myself to the slight possibility of confusion between the two senses of the word, and choose “country”. The other problem is with the word como. This is a minor dilemma. Como in this context means either “like” or “as”, and the choice is mine, to be made along poetic lines rather than others. I choose “as”, and my line reads:
and the country dead of hunger, poor as a spider.

With the poem’s fourth line I run into a serious difficulty for the first time:
El coche se hamacaba rezongando la altura;


El coche here means “the carriage”. The problem is with the word hamacaba. I don’t know the word, so I look it up, but it isn’t in my dictionary, so I consult a battery of on-line dictionaries. Not there either. So I call my native-speaker friends and ask them. They don’t know. So I return to my dictionary to hunt for similar words, to see if I can puzzle it out, and I find, buried in the definition for hamaca a listing for the verb hamacar. This is the first time it occurs to me that hamacaba is a verb. I feel foolish, then proceed.

Hamaca is the Spanish word for “hammock”, and hamacar is a verb meaning “to rock or sway gently”. Since the word is clearly derived from hamaca, I assume that the rocking or swaying carries hammockesque connotations. The problem them becomes the utter lack of a suitable English word to translate it. If I say “rocked” or “swayed”, I have thrown out the hammock connotations, which I assume Borges wanted, since he could easily have chosen a more common word. I agonize over this for perhaps ten minutes before finally coming up with the idea of a hyphenated solution. “Hammock-rocked” or “hammock-swayed” are the most obvious. I prefer the latter but do not like the “-ed”, so I alter the tense of the verb and settle on “hammock-swaying” because I like the phonetic properties of “swaying”, the way the word itself seems to sway.

I also have to deal with rezongando la altura; and the word here that troubles me is altura. It means “height” or “high”, but the height of what? The carriage? Perhaps the surrounding land? I decide that, given the fact that the carriage is “hammock-swaying“, the top of it must be rocking back and forth, and in the process it is making noise, indicated by the word rezongando. To clear this bit of confusion up, I toss an “of it” in and arrive at this version of the line:
The carriage hammock-swaying, the height of it grumbling;

Now, I am far from happy with that line. The original is so much smoother and more musical, even with two more syllables than mine, but what can I do? I think about a while longer and decide I have done the best I can. The line says what Borges’ line says, more or less, and is not as bad as it could be, so I let it go, and move on to the next line:
un galerón enfatico, enorme, funerario.

A galerón is a type of song accompanied by a specific dance. There are many such music and dance pairings in South America, such as the tango. The term “tango” refers both to the music that is played and the dance that is danced to that music. While the tango is an urban form, galerón is a rural one. The problem, from the point of view of translation, is that galerón is basically unknown to English readers, unlike the tango. This means that I cannot simply use the word galerón. I must find another. In order to find the best English word for galerón, I first proceed to the rest of the line, thinking that once I have those words set they will help guide my choice. The three adjectives in the line I translate using the words that most closely resemble them in English. In this case, I am fortunate because each word has a nearly exact English counterpart. When this is true, I almost always use the English word that is homophonically closest to the Spanish. Here I go with “emphatic”, “enormous”, and “funereal”. With those words in place, I return to the problem of galerón. The first thing I come up with is “folk song”, which carries something of the rural natural of a galerón. With this formulation the line would read “an emphatic, enormous, funereal folk song”. But when I read the line together with the others I have translated I do not like the rhythm of it. It is one beat too long, and so I drop the “folk”, and with it the hint of rurality and the alliteration, but the result is a better line:
an emphatic, enormous, funereal song

The poem’s next line:
Cuatro tapaos con pinta de muerte en la negrura

Here I run into a problem that is similar to the one I encountered earlier with the word hamacaba. I cannot find a definition for the word tapaos anywhere. Not in any dictionary of any kind, including the Real Academia Española online edition. None of my native speaker friends know the word. For all intents and purposes, it doesn’t exist. So I sort of cheat. I go get my bilingual edition of Borges and I look at the translation of the poem in that book. The word used is “horses”, which works with the rest of this line and the next, so I steal it. The first part of the line is “Four horses…”.

There is some difficulty with the phrase con pinta de muerte in la negrura, mostly because the Spanish construction is very clear and very specific to Spanish. I have trouble finding a translation of this phrase that is clear in English. I get around this by substituting a possessive preposition, “their”, for the Spanish definite article, la. This makes it clear that the negrura, blackness or darkness, is that of the horses specifically, and my line reads:
Four horses with the mark of death on their darkness

The next and final line of this stanza is:
tironeabon seis miedos y un valor desvelado.

Here the difficulty is with miedos and valor desvelado. Miedo is the Spanish word for fear. In this usage it means men who are afraid. To convey this I have to add something, and I decide on the word “souls” because it will give me an alliteration with the word “six” earlier in the line. As for valor desvelado, it is more complicated. Valor has many meanings, from “value” to “worth”, “staunchness”, “courage”, etc. I choose “brave” for the contrast with the earlier “fearful”. Desvelado means one who is kept awake. The common English word for such a person is “insomniac”, but I reject this first because I do not like the sound of “brave insomniac” and also because of the connotations of neurosis that “insomniac” carries. But there is no other, better word which means the same thing. I resolve this by changing desvelado from a noun to an adjective, “sleepless”, after which my line reads:
pulled six fearful souls and one brave and sleepless.

The first line of the third stanza reads:
Junto a los postilliones jineteaba un moreno.

At this point we run into a problem of a cultural rather than purely linguistic nature, centered around the word moreno. Its most literal translations are “brown” or “swarthy”, but is used colloquially in the Americas to mean a person with very dark skin, a descendant of African slaves.

The issue here is one of Latin American blood mongering. Societies throughout Latin America are and have historically been very stratified in terms of race. At the top of the scale are the Spanish, or people who physically look Spanish. They tend to have lighter skin than the people further down the scale. The further down the scale you go, the darker the people get and the more marginalized they are. This sort of thing is of course familiar to any North American. However, unlike in the United States, where there basically is no significant Native American population and the descendants of African slaves have long occupied the bottom of the racial social order, the bottoms of Latin American societies are crowded with a mix of people of African and Native American descent. The Spanish word for “Indian”, Indio, is an insult, applied, for example, to an exasperatingly bad driver.

The case of moreno is more complicated. I have seen Puerto Rican people look both ways in a bar before using the word, then apologize for saying it. The appropriate English word for that usage would obviously be “nigger”. However, I have also heard people from the South American mainland use the word matter of factly, in the way that American liberals of the 1960’s would have used the word “Negro”. In contemporary American society, “Negro” has fallen out of use, but in its day it was the most widely used inoffensive term.

A valid part of this question is whether or not Borges was himself a racist. If he was, then the unfortunate word “nigger” will have to be used. If not, then “Negro”, with its English connotations of an out-dated and somewhat condescending liberalism would be the better choice. The decision is essentially mine. Reflecting on Borges work, all of which I have read, I do not recall anything that might resemble racist ideology. On the contrary, Borges was an early and vocal critic of Hitler’s regime. Also, we live in an age when writers and artists are constantly being re-evaluated along political and ideological grounds. I am not aware of any academic or critical scandal surrounding Borges’ thoughts on race. Therefore, I decide, in a purely subjective fashion, that Borges was not a racist, and make my word choice accordingly. The line reads:
Beside the postillions pranced a Negro

The poem’s next three lines, which conclude the third stanza, present no major difficulties. Those lines are:
Ir en coche a la muerte ¡qué cosa más oronda!
El general Quiroga quiso entrar en la sombra
llevando seis o seite degollados de escolta.

And I translate them more or less literally as:
To go toward Death in a carriage, what thing more vain!
General Quiroga wished to enter the shadow
carrying six or seven severed heads as escorts.

The only note on these lines is my choice of “toward” as opposed to the conventional “to” for the Spanish preposition a in the phrase a la muerte. The English construction of a verb and the phrase “to death”, such as “beat to death” implies that is was the action of the verb that brought about the death. That is not the sense of the Spanish here, hence my use of “toward”. Also, I have capitalized “Death” because the original seems to grant death some small agency.

Borges begins the next stanza with the line:
Esa cordobesada bochinchera y ladina

There are two problems here. The first is cordobesada. This is another word that is not in any dictionary, which no one seems to know. This is a frequent problem in the translation of Borges’ early work, in which he strove, through the use of old forms and archaic words, to be a Spanish poet of the 16th century. I cheat again, consulting another translation. It has “gang from Córdoba”. I alter the formulation, making it into “Córdobans”. The other difficulty is with bochinchera, which means a person or group producing noise through ostentatious activity, usually partying or other rowdyness. It is a complicated adjective, difficult to bring into English with a single word, and so I split it into two, using “flashy” for the ostentation and “loud” for the noise. My line reads:
Those Córdobans, flashy, loud, and sly

The next two lines are relatively simple:
(meditaba Quiroga) ¿qué he de poder con mi alma?
Aquí estoy afianzado y metido in la vida

My version of them is:
(thought Quiroga) what power could they have over my soul?
Here I am secure, well-placed in life

The last line of the stanza is:
como la estaca pampa bien metido en la pampa

The problem here is la estaca pampa. It is a term meaning a stake which is driven into the ground in order to tie animals to it. The term estaca pampa indicates that this is a tool used in the flat plains of Argentina, called the pampa, where there are very few trees to which horses might be tied. I feel comfortable expecting English readers of Borges to know what the pampa is, but the estaca pampa is much more specific. I again resort to a hyphen to get the meaning across in a somewhat fluid fashion:
like a horse-tying stake well-placed in the pampa.

The first three lines of the next stanza go smoothly from:
Yo, que he sobrevivido a millares de tardes
y cuyo nombre pone retemblor en las lanzas,
No he de soltar la vida por estos pedregales.

To:
I who have survived a thousand afternoons
and whose very name puts a trembling in the lances
cannot lose my life in this stonescape.

Here I have changed millares de, literally “thousands of” to “a thousand” because my formulation still connotes a great many and is smoother in English. I have also translated pedregales as “stonescape” which is only vaguely a real English word, it does, however, mean what the Spanish means more than any other option I might have used, and I believe it to be comprehensible with a minimum of effort.

The final line of this stanza detailing Quiroga’s certainty of his safety reads:
¿Muere acaso el pampero, se mueren las espadas?

Here we find the word pampero which means the winds that blow, usually from the southwest, across the pampa. I translate this as “pampa’s wind” and make the line into two rhetorical questions, rather than one long one, for the sake of smoothness in English that would not exist in a literal translation of the line:
Do the pampa’s winds die, perhaps? Do swords?

The next stanza in its entirety presents no major problems:
Pero al brillar el día sobre Barranca Yaco
hierros que no perdonan arreciaron sobre él;
la muerte, que es de todos, arreó con el riojano
y una de puñaladas lo mentó a Juan Manuel.

My version is:
But as the day shone over Barranca Yaco
iron, which grants no pardon, raged upon him;
Death, which is for all, drove with the man from Rioja
and one of the daggers mentioned Juan Manuel.

Here I have altered hierros, literally “irons”, singularizing it into “iron” because this is the more natural English formulation. It is interesting to not that in this passage Borges has altered the historical facts, of which he was certainly aware. General Quiroga was actually killed with a pistol shot, rather than daggers.

The next and final stanza begins with the line:
Ya meurto, ya de pie, ya inmortal, ya fantasma,

Which I translate as:
Now dead, now on foot, now immortal, now a phantom,

The Spanish word fantasma is more commonly given as “ghost”, but I use “phantom” here and elsewhere use that or “phantasm” due to my predilection for homophonic translation where it is possible without much violence to the sense of the original.

The final three lines are complicated in that the information that they convey very easily in Spanish becomes muddled in the simplest available English translation. They are:
se presentó al infierno que Dios le había marcado,
y a sus órdenes iban, rotas y desangradas,
las animas en pena de hombres y de caballos.

The first is easily made clear by making presentó, “presented himself” into a simpler, shorter verb. I have chosen to use “met”; and by adding a possessive preposition, indicating whose infierno it is for certain. The line reads:
he met the Hell that God had marked as his,

The next line is complicated because it is saying, essentially, that even in Hell Quiroga is still a general. This is conveyed with the phrase a sus órdenes. Rendered simply the phrase translates as “on his orders”, but this is not as clear in English due to the presence of two possible subjects in the sentence, God and Quiroga. I have resolved this by making a sus órdenes into “under his command” and letting the lower case “his” make it clear that the command is Quiroga’s rather than God’s. This line, then, is:
and under his command went routed, pouring blood,

For the final line I have altered the phrase animas en pena, literally “souls in Purgatory”. In my version it reads “suffering souls” because this is better English poetry and the presence of the word “Purgatory” might cause confusion regarding the location of this final scene. The last line reads:
the suffering souls of men and horses.

With the poem now translated, and a complete picture of both the original and my version of it in my head, I return to the title. In this case, it is very simple: General Quiroga Goes Toward Death in a Carriage.

As this real-time simulation demonstrates clearly, the guidelines given at the start of this essay are indeed just that. As has been shown, I follow them when I can and ignore them completely when I have to, but I always return to them again once a particular problem has been solved and proceed with them until the next time the must be stretched or discarded. They function to provide a foundation for the work, and in that sense are very useful.

Another thing this demonstration illustrates is the extent to which literary translation is a totally engaging act. It requires the mobilization of the translator’s every resource, from his or her knowledge of the language, to memories, intuitive associations, sense of image and metaphor and much more. In this sense, translation is every bit the kind of demanding literary work that the composition of original material is, and presents many of the same problems. Where translation differs from original composition is obvious. I have attempted here to illustrate the extent to which translation is in no way as simple as it may seem.

In short, there is a great deal of difficult work involved in the translation of even a short poem. If this work is done well by a person who is capable of doing it, the result is a good translation, which is something distinct from but intimately related to the original. If it is done haphazardly by a bad craftsman the result is a bad translation, which is something that benefits no one.

I conclude this essay with the full text of Borges’ poem, followed by my own version.

El general Quiroga va en coche al muerte
By Jorge Luis Borges

El madrejón desnudo ya sin una sed de agua
y una luna perdida en el frío del alba
y el campo muerto de hambre, pobre como una araña.

El coche se hamacaba rezongando la altura;
un galerón enfatico, enorme, funerario.
Cuatro tapaos con pinta de muerte en la negrura
tironeabon seis miedos y un valor desvelado.

Junto a los postilliones jineteaba un moreno.
Ir en coche a la muerte ¡qué cosa más oronda!
El general Quiroga quiso entrar en la sombra
llevando seis o seite degollados de escolta.


Esa cordobesada bochinchera y ladina
(meditaba Quiroga) ¿qué he de poder con mi alma?
Aquí estoy afianzado y metido in la vida
como la estaca pampa bien metido en la pampa.

Yo, que he sobrevivido a millares de tardes
y cuyo nombre pone retemblor en las lanzas,
No he de soltar la vida por estos pedregales.
¿Muere acaso el pampero, se mueren las espadas?

Pero al brillar el día sobre Barranca Yaco
hierros que no perdonan arreciaron sobre él;
la muerte, que es de todos, arreó con el riojano
y una de puñaladas lo mentó a Juan Manuel.

Ya meurto, ya de pie, ya inmortal, ya fantasma,
se presntó al infierno que Dios le había marcado,
y a sus órdenes iban, rotas y desangradas,
las animas en pena de hombres y de caballos.



General Quiroga Goes Toward Death in a Carriage
By Jorge Luis Borges
Translated from the Spanish by Brandon Holmquest

The floodplain already naked, without a thirst for water
and a moon lost in the cold of dawn
and the country dead of hunger, poor as a spider.

The carriage hammock-swaying, the height of it grumbling;
an emphatic, enormous, funereal song.
Four horses with the mark of death on their darkness
pulled six fearful souls and one brave and sleepless.

Beside the postillions pranced a Negro.
To go toward Death in a carriage, what thing more vain!
General Quiroga wished to enter the shadow
carrying six or seven severed heads as escorts.

Those Córdobans, flashy, loud, and sly
(thought Quiroga) what power could they have over my soul?
Here I am secure, well-placed in life
like a horse-tying stake well-placed in the pampa.

I who have survived a thousand afternoons
and whose very name puts a trembling in the lances
cannot lose my life in this stonescape.
Do the pampa’s winds die, perhaps? Do swords?

But as the day shone over Barranca Yaco
iron, which grants no pardon, raged upon him;
Death, which is for all, drove with the man from Rioja
and one of the daggers mentioned Juan Manuel.

Now dead, now on foot, now immortal, now a phantom,
he met the Hell that God had marked as his,
and under his command went routed, pouring blood,
the suffering souls of men and horses.


1 comment:

Tiago said...

You have done a great artistic work traslating this Borges´ poetry. I know that it is really difficult to translate both humor and poetry, not only is it difficult, it is impossible to express exactly the same that the original author wrote in the original.
I have read for the first time a Borges story years ago when I was living in an apartment in buenos aires because of my work. In my opinion he was one of the 10 best writers in 20´s century, I hope that more translations of his work get done so most people could enjoy it.