The Victorious Battles Are Withered Wounds: Translating Pablo de Rokha
On December 10 of this year, Copper Canyon will be publishing an anthology edited by Forrest Gander and Raúl Zurita called Pinholes in the Night: Essential Poems from Latin America. My husband Evan Lavender-Smith and I translated “The Old Man’s Song” by Pablo de Rokha for this amazing and ambitious anthology. That our marriage survived is testament to our long relationship as partners in all things literary, but as my first full-scale public experience as a translator, I discovered a great deal about my relationship to translation and to collaboration.
Translation is surprisingly intimate. Occupying the rooms of someone else's sensibility, and attempting to draw the same energies and impulses into another language, required a type of attention I hadn’t experienced before as a reader. Even the very closest readings I’ve ever done didn’t compare to the amount of work it took to know the poem well enough to translate it, because I had to think in another language, in a discourse I had mostly reserved for gossiping with family and friends.
This might be why the translation took over our life for several months. Every morning Evan and I woke up, had breakfast, and then sat in the living room—dictionaries, notebooks, and copies of the poem in messy heaps on the coffee table. Both of us worked on the same Google document, slogging through the translation, and discussing each word choice until we came to an impasse and the contradictions in our nature—I’m chaos to his order, Dharma to his Greg—gave way to dramatic arguments about what we thought de Rokha might mean when he went three layers into a wine cask metaphor. We argued about articles and prepositions and had lengthy heated philosophical discussions about his seemingly gold-star socialist credentials.
We listened to de Rokha read from the poem on YouTube and tried to note any sort of emotional tenor we could intuit from his voice. Because the poem is nearly 20,000 words long, we had to keep track of complex and recurrent figurative systems that sometimes helped guide us, but that also sent us into over-readings of the poem’s political and private outrage. We talked about him while dropping our kids off at camp, we read about him in English and Spanish; he entered our dreams. Sometimes we lamented how Pablo Neruda had eclipsed de Rokha. Other times we’d gleefully tear him to bits, mostly enraged that we couldn’t penetrate his associative and bizarre syntax. As Urayoán Noel points out in an excellent interview on Montevidayo about his own translation of de Rokha’s early work, which will be published some time next year by Shearsman, “At its worst, his work stagnates in its own lack of any kind of poetic economy…but there is a courage in that commitment, a beauty in that quest… ” It wasn’t unusual for us to be left hanging at the end of a sentence without any idea what the sentence meant, but living that much in the poem made it a living thing, and we became obsessed with doing it right, whatever that meant.
The poem is, in part, an elegy for his dead wife, poet Winétt de Rokha, but it is also a lament for the people of Chile who in de Rokha’s estimation had been shortchanged by Chilean government, American imperialism, and intellectuals professing to be Marxists. Most significantly the poem is an impeachment of the literati who he felt had overlooked his work. His indictments are often the best moments in the poem because of their rawness and grit, and may also be the reason Pablo de Rokha was referred to as “el provinciano estrafalario” (the bombastic provincial) by the scholar Frey Apenta. His confrontational style and his nationalist, socialist politics are as significant in his work as the powerful figurative worlds he creates.
Populated by mushroom clouds, shipwrecks, and coffins, “The Old Man’s Song’s” surrealism is more aligned with Bataille than Breton, which might have been the reason he was so overshadowed by Neruda: he is not a light poet. Forrest shared a bit of Zurita’s insight into the work: "…the real beauty is that, like the work of his nemesis and rival Pablo Neruda, this new writing is not limited to an aesthetic proposal, as with Vincente Huidobro, except in as much as Rokha proposes to re-found a continent just as Neruda does in Canto General, with the difference being that this territory for Pablo de Rokha, as fervent an anti-imperialist as Neruda, is devastated by the omen of defeat and absolute ruination.”
"Our old dreams of yesteryear are/now a delirium, our old dreams of yesteryear/are exhausted bouts of tears and phantoms' candelabras, just empty concepts and sequences,” writes de Rokha.
In one of our earliest attempts at translation, we thought we’d try to make the poem more vernacular in the English, a decision we abandoned, but that I kept attempting to no avail. Our desires for the poem sometimes differed, and occasionally clashed. I don’t think we’ve ever fought so intensely than when we were trying to determine whether a de Rokha line was idiomatic or literal, angry or glib (the answer was often a combination of all four). To change one noun in the middle of the poem meant changing three others in the first few stanzas, so we were constantly calibrating and reassessing our interpretations.
The very first stanza itself went through a dozen different iterations, particularly the last line:
Sentado a la sombra inmortal de un sepulcro,
o enarbolando el gran anillo matrimonial herido a la manera de palomas
............... que se deshojan como congojas,
escarbo los últimos atardeceres.
The stanza begins with an old man sitting in the shadow of a tomb, and the first image is of doves that, in a literal reading of the line are shedding like congojas, a noun form of the verb congojar meaning anguish or dismay. To settle an argument about the meaning of a word, I would sometimes type it into Google and look at the images to see if there was some kind of coherence to the accrual there, a type of divination. The images that come up for “congojar” are of people crying or in the fetal position. The word’s root is the Catalan congoixa, which is where the etymological road goes cold. We wandered around the abstraction of anguish, tried every other analog of the word until we returned to the metaphorical basis of the line: the dove shedding its feathers like tears. This took hours, but when the line clicked, it felt worthwhile.
We perseverated over the last line of that stanza. The poem returns over and over to the earth’s surface—there’s lots of scratching and scraping—and to a highly symbolic twilight. “The Old Man’s Song” is threaded with rage, regret, and disconsolation. Depending on how we felt about the poem and what we thought the poem’s themes were, the old man “clawed,” he “scored,” he “marked.”
I reached out to other translators who not only helped with specific passages, but also gave me glimpses into their own translation practices. I called my mother several times a day to double-check the accuracy of figurative language that the excellent Chilenismos, a dictionary of Chilean idiom, might have overlooked. Although my mom has advanced dementia, she still has a very good sense of words and not only confirmed or denied the possibility that some piece of language might have some idiomatic context, but also offered her interpretations of the particular passages, some of them as strange and shrewd as the ones we’d been considering. Her print is also in the book, although it would have arisen all the same because reading this Chilean poet speak the Spanish I recognized from my childhood; my grandmother’s use of the word “guata” for belly was one example.
This translation was series of searches and yearnings and investigations that underscored the layers of collaboration involved in the production of any poem: the poet, the audience and the medium in concert and toward meaning. This was one of the many gifts of this process. Another was the cranky old poet who came to more fully occupy my own sensibility. He's not going anywhere anytime soon. Sometimes, when imagining that first stanza, I saw an angry man tearing at the ground and other times I saw a defeated and helpless man barely making a sound. Occasionally my investment in the poet’s vision was informed by Walter Benjamin’s view that, “It is the task of the translator to release in his own language that pure language that is under the spell of another, to liberate the language imprisoned in a work in his re-creation of that work.” I could sense the English translation below the surface, especially since the subject of a nation swindled by the powers that be seemed so timely. Ultimately the poetry led us this translation, turning the man into a dove.
Sitting in the immortal shadow of a tomb,
or raising the great wedding band, wounded like doves who shed feathers for tears,
I peck at my final evenings.
[Editor's Note: Pinholes in the Night: Essential Poems from Latin America is a co-publication between Copper Canyon Press and the Poetry Foundation's Harriet Monroe Poetry Institute.]
Born in New York, poet Carmen Giménez Smith earned a BA in English from San Jose State University and an MFA in creative writing from the University of Iowa. She is the author of six collections of poetry, including Cruel Futures (City Lights, 2018); Milk and Filth (2013), a finalist for...