Pizarnik Translator's Introduction

by Madeleine Stratford

These three texts are from Alejandra Pizarnik’s final book of poetry, El infierno musical, published in 1971, shortly before the author’s death. The source texts come from the latest anthology of Pizarnik’s complete poetry, edited by Ana Becciú, who claims the “new” versions to be more faithful to the poet’s original manuscripts. I chose to translate them as a group, because they are formally and thematically related. First, they are the only poems in the El infierno musical to present the same formal structure: three double-spaced sentences lacking cohesion among them. Then, they seem to complete each other as far as content is concerned. To my knowledge, they have not yet appeared together as a triptych in English.

The first text, Signos, shares strong thematic links with the second, Fuga en lila. The love that the body remembers in the second line of Fuga en lila seems to refer to the first line of Signos, where “Everything makes love to the silence.” The mention of como encender la lámpara (like lighting a lamp) seems to be linked both to the silencio como un fuego (silence like fire) in the second line of Signos and to the light which becomes a drum in the last line. The last line of Fuga en lila clearly summarizes the first two of Signos, which is mostly about silence and how it is both a temptation, a sexual attraction (“Todo hace el amor con el silencio“), and an expected gift or a promise (“Me habían prometido un silencio como un fuego, una casa de silencio”).

In Signs, I preferred to translate hace el amor as makes love to instead of makes love with, because this act of love felt intrusive. It does not happen between two equals, but rather between an overwhelming everything and a little nothing, silence. I decided to translate the definite article el in order to keep the contrast between the actual silence (as opposed to silence in the abstract sense) and the one that the lyrical I was supposed to get as promised. Finally, I understood the segment “Me habían prometido” as an impersonal formulation quite common in Spanish, and translated it into English as a passive structure. This enabled me to put more emphasis on the lyrical I by making it appear right at the beginning of the line, as in the original.

As the word fuga suggests, the second poem is both a sort of escape and a musical composition. As for the Spanish word lila, it can refer both to a color and to a flower, and its ending evokes the note “la,” which strengthens the musical connotation of the title. Unfortunately, this wordplay is bound to be lost in English, since the word lilac does not end with the syllable “la.” Furthermore, English speakers tend to call this note “A,” referring to the diatonic scale instead of the fixed-do system. The first line of the poem has a repetitive structure: sin para quién echoes sin para qué. This creates a fugue-like rhythm. It is thus important to keep the repetition. Here, Pizarnik plays with linguistic categories: para qué and para quién are question phrases, but Pizarnik uses them in a nominal context, as synonyms for razón (reason) and destinatario (addressee). I chose to translate the uncanny effect of the words instead of focusing solely on their meaning. As for the second line of the poem, it is grammatically ambiguous, mainly because of the infinitive, encender (to light or to turn on). Usually, one would expect the second verb of the comparison to share the same subject as the first one, el cuerpo. Yet here, because the second verb is not conjugated, it is impossible to know for sure who or what the subject of encender is. Once more, Pizarnik seems to be playing with grammatical categories, treating encender like a noun, as in “el hecho de encender.” I have chosen to recreate Pizarnik’s ambiguity by using a present participle, which permitted me to evacuate the subject.

As for the third text of the series, Del otro lado, its thematic connection with the other two seems to depend mostly on the musical theme. In Signs, there are silences and a drum. In Fuga en lila, there is a fugue and a silence, and in Del otro lado, the word música (music) appears four times, and the word voz (voice), twice. In this third poem, the silence desired by the lyrical I, both its temptation and its promise, has disappeared. Only music and voices are left, which could explain why the lyrical I is sad. While light was present in the first two poems (fuego and luz in Signos; lámpara in Fuga en lila), it has faded away in Del otro lado, which takes place during the “night of a wolf’s fangs.” Thematically, the first two poems seem to be both “on the same side,” while this third one, is “on the other side,” as its title indicates. As for the structure of Del otro lado, it is interesting to observe how close it is to that of a musical fugue. Indeed, the theme (or exposition) stated at the end of the first line,“cae la música en la música is repeated word for word at the beginning of the third line, and then altered to produce a variation on a theme (como mi voz en mis voces). Thus, it was important for me to reproduce this fugue-like movement in the English translation.

According to Pizarnik, only the reader can “complete” her poems, make them “whole” and meaningful by reading and interpreting them:

“Únicamente el lector puede terminar el poema inacabado, rescatar sus múltiples sentidos, agregarle otros nuevos. Terminar equivale, aquí, a dar vida nuevamente, a re-crear”.

This is without a doubt a wonderful invitation not only to read and interpret her poetry, but also to translate it and give it a new life.

Madeleine Stratford
Québec City, March 2, 2007


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