THE CHRONOTOPE || Yvette Siegert on poetry + translation

Translating Alejandra Pizarnik

Posted in Language, Latin America, Literature, Pizarnik, Poetry, Translation by Yvette Siegert on Wednesday, 24 October 2012

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.

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To Learn or to Sleep?

Posted in California, Childhood, foreign, Language, Translation by Yvette Siegert on Friday, 29 July 2011

This post, frankly, is about nostalgia. I was at the office early today, before anyone else arrived. Summer mornings in New York that aren’t humid—these are rare, and the overcast ones, especially, feel like blessings, like complex pangs that remind me of Southern California and of practicing the piano before breakfast. They remind of me algebra in the summer. Or, from an earlier period, of growing up in rural foothills and of not speaking English, and of how this had everything to do with marvelling at how American children who did speak English got to school earlier than I did, and did so wearing corduroy, a fabric that I envied them because my mother didn’t find it dressy enough for school. This morning I was also reading an old Guernica post on Pedro Carolino, by my friend Ricky. Carolino wrote a guide to English even though he didn’t actually speak the language. I think I grew up doing this, in my own way. Before comprehension set in, my ear collected English suffixes and odd-sounding words. Like “luggage,” a term I must’ve picked up from my dad but that’s been with me longer than “father.” Family friends would come over and hear me mumble in my own squishy, mostly self-directed argot—“sh,” “wa,” “th,” and “-ing” sounds and the like, whatever swirled combination of these felt round and official.

When I finally did learn English, it was in Kindergarten, at a Montessori located on a drab industrial stretch of Foothill Boulevard, in Los Angeles. My teacher, Ms. Neela, was from Sri Lanka and wore her hair in a long, loose braid down her right side. A shy but hyperactive kid, I could barely communicate with my classmates, and I almost didn’t want to. Corduroy and language differences aside, these kids were half a foot shorter than I was and ate things that I couldn’t fathom consuming, like sand, or celery sticks lined with peanut butter. And in the afternoon they’d collectively get tired and take naps in Classroom 2. Nap-time was something I refused to participate in. The concept felt absurd and “American.” The cots issued for this purpose were low, short, and uncomfortable, and they came with none of the attendant dreaminess, say, of a siesta. (To sleep without my grandmother nearby? Without the radio? I feared the nap ritual because I worried that I wouldn’t be able to sleep, or that I’d doze off with my eyes half-open and be caught in this creepy, somewhat undead state.) So Ms. Neela would let me sit with her while the rest of the kids slept. It was the happiest part of the day, and this is how she taught me the language: We’d sit across from each other and work at her table, and she would talk to me plainly and comment on whatever we did. The key was to keep me occupied, to have me think that I was helping her, so that I didn’t realize that I was being tutored. Ms. Neela would lay out stencils of various shapes and have me outline polygons on construction paper; I’d entertain myself by iterating and coloring them in with the patterns of various flags of the world. Colombia’s, mostly, and Lebanon’s, and those of African and Central American nations, and Sri Lanka’s, with its elaborate lion. (I don’t recall a time when I didn’t love flags.) The first word that I remember learning with Ms. Neela came up over those flags. “Together,” she said. “We are sitting ‘together.'” Call it my claim to a Helen Keller-style “water” epiphany, but that word gave me a very specific sense of buoyancy and privacy, a feeling that I recognize now when I look at art that challenges me, or when I sit by myself at the opera. A longing for everything in the world. I’m almost embarrassed that “together” should be so fraught with meaning, given the circumstances, but that’s how English came to me, through this gentle woman who understood my loneliness and who let me learn instead of sleep. This morning, as I alternate between writing this post and reading the Times, I can still train my inner ear to hear the words in the lilt of her cadences.