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Translator's Note: Ode to a Large Tuna in the Market

by Robin Robertson

This is a place of skirmishes. A recent collection I made of some free versions of poems by Tomas Transtrmer has attracted spluttering fire from certain quarters. The accusations are either that the English renderings are not accurate literal translations (which they never set out to be) or that they are too similar to some existing translations (which is hard to avoid). The anxiety seems to center, repeatedly, on the term "version" and its conventional rubric "after Transtrmer," "after Neruda," etc., and it is baffling that a process that has been going on for over half a century seems to have been overlooked so comprehensively. If those critics had read Christopher Logue's magisterial "accounts" of various books of the Iliad, begun in the fifties, they would have been reaching for their flintlocks years ago. Robert Lowell's Imitations (1961) was surely harder to miss, particularly as it released a flood of free translation that continues unabated. After Ovid (1994; edited by Michael Hofmann and James Lasdun) actively encouraged modern reworkings of the Latin, and contains important interpretations by Heaney, Hughes, and Longley. The classics demand to be made new, to be dusted off and polished to reveal their currency. In the same way, in this Anglocentric literary world, we must attend to modern poetry in other languages and encourage new readers—not through slavish, mechanical transcriptions into English (which Lowell described as "taxidermy"), but through English versions that are true to the tone of the original and which are also viable as poems in their own right. Hofmann's versions of Durs Grnbein, Ashes for Breakfast (2005), or Don Paterson's new approach to Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus, published late last year, are good examples of this continuing process.

I might as well be specific about how this operates, at least in my case. In the preparatory work for my version of Neruda's glorious "Oda a un gran atn en el mercado," I studied the original, with a good Spanish dictionary, and produced a number of drafts, before turning to the valuable English translation by Margaret Sayers Peden. I found that we differed over interpretation, syntax, and delivery, which is interesting given the relative simplicity of the original. There is a telling moment halfway through when Neruda describes the living tuna as being "como enlutada flecha,/dardo del mar,/intrpida aceituna." He is enjoying the chime of "aceituna" (an olive) and "atn" (tuna), but it seems unrewarding for the English to try and follow his Chilean wordplay; as Peden has it: "a mourning arrow,/dart of the sea,/olive, oily fish." Equally, a few lines later, still describing the tuna, "mpetu/verde, abeto/submarino" isn't clarified by "green/assault, silver/submarine fir," only complicated. In rendering this Neruda ode into English I have taken minor liberties of addition and deletion and attempted to steer a middle ground between Lowell's rangy, risk-taking rewritings and the traditional, strictly literal approach. Effective translation is not accurate transliteration; it is a matter of losses and gains, and it requires a certain boldness (some might say irreverence) in attempting to reach the feel of the original. Nothing can replace the reading of the poem in its true language, of course, but—in my view—a loose version by a writer attentive to, and familiar with, the dynamics of poetry is always better than a straight literal verse translation that defers too dutifully to all the words in the order in which they first appeared.

I should also say, in further defense, that the brief odic line that gives the poem such impressive length is adopted not just because I'm Scottish and we're being paid by the line, but because I've followed Neruda's original: its sinuous, vertical shape is surely the shape of Chile itself.


This poem originally appeared in the April 2007 issue of Poetry magazine

April 2007

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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