Translating Madness by Doreen Stock

Madwomen, The Locas Mujeres Poems of Gabriela Mistral, a bilingual edition, Edited and Translated by Randall Couch, University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2008.

To approach the grand theater of madness is to sing the song of the other using what is extreme in the emotional ground of the self.

To attempt an articulation from perspectives of empathy and witness of such states, which exist with their own inner grammar, requires on the part of the poet a self-induced trance to translate them into poetry, and on the part of the translator a rigorous transparency which allows this trance to flow into the second language.
Randall Couch has gathered a remarkable collection of Mujeres Locas, the Mad Women pivoting brilliantly within twenty six poems by Gabriela Mistral, taken from previously published and unpublished sources. He has accepted the challenge of setting them forth in English, and one can only respect and applaud his efforts, undertaken with painstaking scholarship and impassioned linguistic acuity. In his introduction, Couch beautifully evokes the terrain of the poems: “Again and again in Locas Mujeres, the landscape presents a timeless liminal space in which boundaries between physical and spiritual realms dissolve… The terrain is rural or wild: houses, villages, lighthouses, farm buildings are virtually interchangeable among settings in ancient Greece, the Eliqui valley, or biblical Palestine… Such stripped-down scene contributes to a sense of suspension, of synchronic rather than diachronic time, of the step that’s always ‘about to land, that never does.’ ” How do the translations succeed in rendering the states within them in the movement from Mistral’s original Spanish into Couch’s English? I will try to highlight some of these movements and the problems they embody for me. The first word of the first poem in the collection presents the question of what to do with gendered words. “La Otra” in Spanish is markedly feminine, while “The Other,” in English is not.
Una en mi mate
Yo no la amaba
I killed one of me
One I did not love
The poem begins simply enough in the original Doris Dana translation, (John Hopkins Press, 1961). John Couch renders this line:
I killed a woman in me
One I did not love.
And were I to take a “stab” at this line I would probably come down closer to Dana’s line:
I killed one of me
one I didn’t love
feeling, perhaps, that the use of the first person by a female poet is sufficient to confer the feminine on the other, the use of the word “woman” displacing the drama from the center of the self by focusing on marking gender. Also, the pronoun “ella,” “she,” appears in the third line, firmly establishing the gender of the subject. In another poem, “La Bailarina,” Couch solves a similar problem using the word “Ballerina” in English, which to the non-Spanish-speaking eye looks like the Spanish, but is far from it, the word “bailar” meaning simply “to dance,” and having only tangentially to do with ballet via the common root. “The Dancer” would be simpler, truer, the pronoun “ella,” “she,” also appearing in this poem in the third line, marking gender. The larger than merely word choice issue here is that in translating madness, the flow of the inner state should take precedence over a diction that pulls the reader of the poem into a more objective or even ironic position as the reference to the formalism of ballet is apt to do. I’d like to return to “The Other,” because it seems emblematic of the poems in the collection, creating as they do narratives that proceed in dreamlike images and exclamations to their conclusions. In this poem, two images, that of a flaming cactus flower and of a fierce, starving eagle characterize The Other and bear her through her transformation and separation from the self that is trying to exorcise her. The interesting question that the poem poses but leaves essentially unanswered: does the killing of the other free the speaker of the poem, or is the act of killing it (i.e. the repression of the other) the source of her madness? In this parable of the scorching cactus- flower woman the grasses actually twist away from her hot breath as she naps on the ground and her words can’t flow freely. The violent and deliberate self-annihilation occurs at the very point in the poem where the cactus flower woman becomes a starving eagle :

La deje que muriese,
Robandole me entrana.
Se acabo como el aguila
Que no es alimentada.

I left her to die
Robbing her of my heart’s blood
She ended like an eagle
Starved of its food.

I tore my guts from her.
I let her die,
a starving eagle
left unfed.

I let her die
tearing my guts from her
She ended like an eagle
left to starve.
The progression of images conjures up a terrible hunger and thirst, a thirst unto death, but the speaker is then haunted by grieving sister spirits of the eagle whom she urges to create “another burning eagle” from the clay of the ravines. Here we are at that terrain Couch has so aptly described as both physical and spiritual, the states dissolving one into the other. The final utterance of the poem is an exhortation to these grieving sisters to kill the other within themselves as well if they should fail to recreate her from the fiery clay, the poem ending at the intersection of the rising up of dark cravings and the need to destroy them. Or, as Couch describes it, in "synchronic time,” at “the step that’s about to land but never does.” Here I want to ask, does the translator take it upon himself to embody the meaning of the poem before attempting to render it? Can he? All considerations of diction, meter, word choice fall away, it seems to me, in the face of this central question. Can he be female? Be mad? What would this entail? And how would the poem be sung should he allow himself to experience it at his depths? Should the translator merely transpose the Spanish words of the poet into English, or should the state the poet is channeling also be taken into account? And if the answer involves the latter, what would it take to make this happen? How would the poem’s syntax emerge then? The inner grammar of a poem has to do with its form in the unconscious. From this the poet sings it into the original language, passing it through her own vocabulary and voice. What should be done to get back to the original prelingual poem? Can this ever be done as a group activity? Can a poem be lost in committee? This question occurred to me as I read the translator’ introduction and acknowledgments. The final stanza of “The Other” is addressed to the grieving sister spirits of the dead eagle:
Si no podeis, entonces,
!ay!, olvidadla.
Yo la mate. 1Vosotras
Tambien matadla!

“If you can’t do it, then,
too bad! Forget her.
I killed her. You women
must kill her, too!”

“If you can’t, then
forget her.
I killed her. You
kill her, too.”

“If you can’t , then,
!Ay! Forget her.
I killed her. You
must kill her, too.”

“Too bad,” does not work for me here. I would prefer the soul wrenching “Ay!” of the original Spanish to convey the emotion involved in this traumatic form of forgetting, the letting go of a part of the self engaged in such passions as are conveyed in this poem. And the gender marking here (“You women”) again, seems to underscore the distance of the self translating the poem from the unconscious drama being concluded.

Translating madness demands no less than an exclamation coming from the self in extremity, and if there is no evidence of a descent to this state, the new poem becomes a linguistically apt shadow of it former self.