Talking with Urayoán Noel about translating the wondrous Chilean poet Pablo de Rokha

By Harriet Staff


Over at Montevidayo, Daniel Borzutzky took the time to ask some questions of "stateless poet, professor, polemicist and performer" Urayoán Noel, who is also the translator of Chilean poet Pablo de Rokha! We are exclamatory here because, well, Borzutzky is pretty exclamatory himself. He writes:

[Noel] has recently translated a terrific, fabulous, historically important, and wondrous book entitled U by the great Chilean poet Pablo de Rokha, whom it appears has yet to have a book translated into English. And it doesn’t appear that there are many translations of individual poems by de Rokha out there as well. There are a few in The Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry (translated by Molly Weigel), but I can’t find much else that’s currently available.

This (U!) is an exciting, momentous event, and to mark the occasion I thought I’d ask Urayoán some questions about his work with de Rokha, and in the process it’s my hope to draw some attention to Urá's great project and to get some folks here in US poetry land aware of and interested in this great Chilean writer. It’s also important to mention that Pablo de Rokha’s wife/collaborator/co-conspirator–Winétt de Rokha is also a fascinating writer whose work is badly in need of some translating.

The interview is thusly charged with momentum. In discussing de Rohka's place in the modernish Chilean poetry canon "(e.g., Neruda, Mistral, Huidobro, Parra, etc.)," Noel says: "de Rokha’s peers aren’t Huidobro or Neruda, so much as José Martí or Sousândrade, Latin American innovators who found inspiration in Whitman’s forms and vistas for hemispheric poetics critical of U.S. imperialism. There is more to this:

DB: In “Dance Cards,” the Roberto Bolaño story in Last Evenings on Earth, the narrator posits a Chilean literary universe divided into Nerudians and Parrians (though for the Mexican poets it was Nerudians vs. Vallejans). He then goes on to ask: “Why didn’t Neruda like de Rokha?” Explain.

UN: Well, as I mentioned before, Neruda, de Rokha, and Huidobro had “issues” with each other. A lot has been written on this (so much so that de Rokha is, sadly, known more as their foil than for his own work), and it involves accusations on all sides: of plagiarism, of being a bad poet and/or a bad person, and/or of having bad politics (de Rokha’s recalcitrance would be one extreme and Neruda’s purportedly wishy-washy rock-star communism would be the other). I think what Bolaño is getting at is the distinction between Neruda’s “poet with a capital P” and Parra’s far more playful, self-effacing persona (a language worker). De Rokha would split the difference between the two; he would be a Parra-lover’s Neruda: a cosmically (and comically) self-important poet who can still get his hands dirty poetically and politically.

They also talk translation:

DB: What translation difficulties arise in U?

UN: de Rokha uses a high-poetic register with frequent prosaic twists and vernacular terms. There are many chilenismos, terms specific to Chilean Spanish of the 1920s and to which I, as a New York-based Puerto Rican of the 2010s, do not have easy access. This, I can research. The toughest part, though, is that de Rokha’s automatic writing typically involves so many linked prepositional phrases and dangling adjectives that it’s hard to tell what’s modifying what, especially since the images are often quasi-surrealistic anyway. When in doubt, I have gone with what sounds best, with what best renders de Rokha’s torrent into something resembling vernacular English. Finally, there are various typos in the original, so that when I come across a phrase that doesn’t sound right, it’s hard to tell if maybe he had meant to write something else. It would be great to have a definitive contemporary, critical edition of de Rokha’s works to consult. (Visor, the esteemed Spanish press, put out an anthology in the early 1990s, but, inexplicably, there was very little from U there.)

DB: Have you found a publisher for the book?

UN: I’m working on it.

DB: Give us a line or two from U that makes you say wow!

UN: For sheer shock value:

“Jhon Rockefeller defeca un telegrama sin ombligo”

Read the entire interview here.

Originally Published: September 26th, 2011