It’s been ten years since I started translating the entire work of Alejandra Pizarnik. Maybe college is the best time to start such a project, when the exuberance of her unedited prose and the obsessions of her lyric resonate with the life-before-us ardor of being young and literary. Her work is Kerouac, Nietzsche, and J.D. Salinger bundled up into the one essential existential suitcase containing your Cixous, your Sartre, your Arendt, your diaries of Virginia Woolf. No more Plath comparisons, please.
I recently started going over my manuscripts, now that I can bear to. (The wonderful people at New Directions are publishing a collection in the spring.) Here’s what I’ve discovered all over again: Pizarnik’s Spanish is exquisite. It is not cringe-worthy the way it felt the first time I rebelled against her. Behind the syntactic flights of fancy is an artist willing to take greater risks than most, for the sake of writing about the impossible and the essential.
I don’t know how I translated Pizarnik the first time around, in that one intense and endless swoop during my senior year when I had finished my coursework but didn’t have enough money to escape to Berlin. Maybe it was because I didn’t know any better. And because she said things I couldn’t say. She gave me visitor’s access to the slimmest, most inaccessible mandorla of the intellect and imagination: a punishing metaphysical sector that I longed for, but that I wouldn’t know how to inhabit on my own or for very long.
Those manuscripts. They are the epitome of a college-dorm existence in the dot-matrix era. I had serious issues with typeface: “Vivaldi” and the smallest possible Garamond, with Spanish punctuation. I had no idea what it meant to be a translator. All I knew is that Alejandra wrote in my native language, so to speak, and that I should do right by her and by Spanish—by my family, by South America—by being faithful in the English. Unfortunately, my train of thought when it came to mimetic reasoning was about as foolhardy as my selection of fonts. Because what I wanted was for my translations to look the way Pizarnik’s poems looked in the Lumen edition. If I could make my translations resemble her poems, I thought, then that would indicate fidelity—a kind of mimetic alliance—while communicating to my advisor a praiseworthy sense of authorial advocacy and scholarly exactitude. It would succeed in embodying Pizarnik. It would soften the blow of her suicide. Alejandra would exist again. Translating, on some level, is less about a wish for transmission and communication as it is about a longing for linguistic synesthesia and alchemy, for bringing back the dead. (I think I translated because i was grieving.) What does it mean to translate her? It is like discovering the first writer who means anything to you, who helps you make sense of the world. It is like your first romantic experience of autumn. My translation drafts of Pizarnik’s diary entries are smudged with sauce from Ollie’s. “A Musical Hell” has all of Agueda Rayo’s patient, lucid edits in the margins, along with my indignant, neurotic, post-adolescent protestations. The draft of “Diana’s Tree” is embarrassing; the lines are accurate and they do not sing. Dios bendito, what is that line about wolves, and what was I thinking with those verbs? And I think “Extracting the Stone of Madness” is water-damaged from sitting under a plant in Columbia’s German department during the penniless summer of 2002, when I stored all my belongings in my thesis advisor’s office. The point is, these translations were as much a part of my daily life as my wallet and keys, long before I had a smartphone to distract me. Off they’d go on the subway to Carnegie Hall with me. Off they’d go in my notebooks to public lectures, to the park, and on dog-eared visits home. I would sit for hours in my studio on West 113th Street, looping songs by Alicia Keyes and rendering these lines into English and inhabiting Pizarnik’s depression with an energy that frightened and still baffles me. Sure, my best friend had to come rescue me from my studio in the afternoon so that I could laugh and get some sunshine, but that work sustained me and gave me permission to write. You can graduate from college and forget that tactile ardor for literature, or pay nervous lip-service to career practicality by pushing aside such poetry and its fanciful “excesses.” I put away childish things, and regretted it. Pizarnik’s poetry—flawed, outrageous, utterly difficult—has helped me remember why literature matters. Her work is vital and full of grace.