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Translator's Note: The Unfaithful Housewife

Sometimes you read a literal prose translation of a celebrated poem in a language you don’t have. It’s like viewing a landscape by an old master through frosted glass: you can make out enough of the outline to see that it’s gorgeous, but all the details are obfuscated. This is definitely true of J.L. Gili’s English rendering of the most infamous poem of Lorca’s most famous collection, Romancero gitano (Gypsy Ballads). I came across it in the summer of 2008, in my old Penguin edition on my mother’s shelves. I was en route to my kid brother’s remote semi-derelict cottage, having written nothing in almost a year. I was in a bad way, kind of on the run.

The one other version out there that I liked was Leonard Cohen’s “The Faithless Wife,” which has a song setting by Philip Glass in the Book of Longing cycle. The Cohen is even more a ballad than the original, but increasingly I could see that he had shortcircuited lots of detail to get his lovely rhythm: “Then I took off my necktie/And she took off her dress/My belt and pistol set aside/We tore away the rest.”

So mine happened between two competing versions. This is probably true of all poems, and not just translations. You’re trying to actualize your own silent invisible ideal that seems to exist in the white space between others’ extant versions of that ideal. I used Gili’s gloss to navigate back through the Spanish. Half of it was mine before I knew I didn’t want to do it, or shouldn’t.

Maybe the immediate familiarity I felt with the poem was no coincidence. Michael Hartnett had translated Gypsy Ballads before me, and with success. Lorca’s biographer, Ian Gibson, is from Dublin. There are clear twentieth-century parallels between Ireland and Spain: civil war; decades of Catholic fundamentalism and institutional fear; two longstanding repressive leaders, Franco and de Valera, who died within months of one another in 1975. My Lorca has “blackberry bushes,/rushes and whitethorn,” the pure stuff of Irish summer. “Su mata de pelo” becomes “her thatch of hair,” and “el mejor de los caminos” is “the pick of the roads.” And so on.

The lines of the original that cost me most sleep were: “La luz del entendimiento/me hace ser muy comedido.” I can only trust the quality of the original. But Gili’s literal rendering had no purchase in English for me: “The light of understanding/has made me most discreet.”

Every translation hits a crossroads like this. My preference is always towards idiom, to find some equivalence within those metaphors inherent to spoken English. Biting your lip, as a metaphor for discretion, came easily. It has a natural sexual dimension, enhanced perhaps by the distant echo of “bitten” and “ridden.” Later I remembered the image for realization we have, and it seemed apt for the setting: “It dawned out there/to leave my lip bitten.”

The malcasada (unhappily married woman) was a common trope of oral folk verse. In Lorca’s take, written in the mid-twenties, a gypsy gunslinger brags of making a woman of her in the wilderness in the heat of July. But for one or two expansions or contractions, my version maps “La Casada Infiel” line for line. One of the translator’s primary attributes, I increasingly believe, is the humility to accept those moments where the straight version is sweetest. Given the subject of the original, and the strange place I was working out of, this fidelity seemed more important than would usually be the case. I really wanted to be faithful to Lorca’s version of infidelity.

Sometimes I look at a poem and think, “How long ago did this begin?” I’d trace this one to Joe, our father’s best friend and the rock on which Dad leaned—often literally. Joe was in love with our mother and wooed her while the old man lay comatose on the floor between them. Joe was a civil servant with major odor issues and a Ford that had no reverse gear. Mam had five sons; she needed wheels. Joe lent us his Ford those weekdays he was lodging in Dublin and got to profess his lovesickness hopelessly on the Sunday night handover of keys—often with me sitting gooseberry in the rear seat. Of the many gifts he showered on her, there was a copy of Lowell’s Imitations inscribed with a line of Edward FitzGerald’s translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: “Look to the Rose that blows about us.” She shrugged and I, about sixteen, swallowed it wholesale. I loved Lowell’s version of Montale’s “Giorno e notte” so much that I eventually did my own version of the same poem. It was the first thing I ever had in print. Something of that has to be in here too.co

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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