THERE is something uncanny about the Peruvian poet César Vallejo. He was what might be called a Catholic impossibility, since both his maternal grandfather and paternal grandfather were Catholic priests. When was he born? The best guess is 16th March 1892, but we have no birth record, just a baptismal certificate which is vague about dates. What did he die of? When he fell ill in Paris in mid-March 1938, the doctors at the Arago Clinic were mystified by his worsening condition, and he finally died on Good Friday, 15th April 1938. His death certificate listed an intestinal infection, but the debate still rages about the cause of death: malaria, physical exhaustion, syphilis; some say he died of a broken heart as a result of Republican losses in the Spanish Civil War, others that he re-enacted Christ’s Passion. Then there are the more ‘academic’ mysteries – how, for example, was he able to compose arguably the most important avant-garde work in Latin America, Trilce (1922), after reading only a few rather mediocre poems in literary magazines such as Cervantes and Ultra? The quantum leap between the inspiration and the finished product has never been satisfactorily explained. And Vallejo left the best for last; rather like Emily Dickinson, his strongest poems were discovered after his death.
His widow, Georgette de Vallejo, published them in Paris as Poemas humanos (Human Poems, 1939), a volume which unleashed a virulent tirade of abuse mainly from Vallejo’s Spanish poet friend, Juan Larrea, who accused her of being an incompetent editor. The title of the collection, it soon came to light, had not been chosen by Vallejo, and the edition also included the fifteen war poems, España, aparta de mí este cáliz (Spain, Take This Cup from Me, 1939), which should have been published separately (the present translation, indeed, completely ignores Georgette’s title and simply calls this group of works The Later Poems). Another, more academic, dispute may arise between the two translation projects beavering away independently – one here and one in the United States – both vying for the prize of producing the first complete English translation of all of Vallejo’s poetry. Valentino Gianuzzi and Michael Smith brought out their bilingual editions of Trilce and the Complete Later Poems 1923-1938 last year, and when they publish The Black Heralds and Other Poems, due out this autumn, this will make a full set. Clayton Eshleman is preparing an edition of The Complete Poetry: A Bilingual Edition with California University Press, and it too is scheduled for publication this autumn. It will be fun to see who makes it to the finishing line first. Vallejo would have chuckled at the idea.
Gianuzzi and Smith’s fine bilingual Selected takes poems from all the periods, and provides a good sense of the variety of Vallejo’s work, ranging from the post-Romantic The Black Heralds, the vanguard Trilce, the political poems set in Paris and those inspired by the Spanish Civil War. The preface argues that “this strange Peruvian is now being recognized as the major voice in 20th-century Latin-American poetry”, and it is true that there are statues of Vallejo dotted all over Latin America, as well as schools, bookshops and publishing houses named after him. His poetry has been translated into Chinese, Czech, English, Estonian, French, German, Greek, Hindi, Portuguese, Rumanian, Sanskrit and Slovak, and there is now even a rather intriguing novel written about him (by the Chilean novelist Robert Bolaños, entitled Monsieur Pain – it was published in 1999), as well as two films based on his life. But not everyone would agree with this: for many years, the prevailing doxa has been that Pablo Neruda is the poet wearing that particular crown. Vallejo died too young, of course, to receive a Nobel Prize, unlike Neruda, and there have been reports of Neruda’s jealousy about Vallejo’s growing posthumous reputation. Whether or not Vallejo is – pace Neruda – “the major voice” of 20th-century Latin-American poetry, it is clear that the difficulty of his poetry initially hindered the international recognition that his work deserves.
In one of his essays, ‘The Universality of Poetry Through the Unity of Languages’ from Art and Revolution, Vallejo argued that, if you amputate a verse, a word, a letter, even an accent, from a poem, it dies, and furthermore that the translation of a poem inevitably causes it to lose its vital integrity. So it is perhaps not surprising to note that the craft of translation has not always been kind to Vallejo. Sometimes his poems seem untranslatable because they are embedded within the specific phonetic fibre of his native tongue, and in this he joins hand with James Joyce. Just as the great Irish writer in Finnegan’s Wake expresses how literature is linked with excrement by fusing two words together (‘copyright’ plus the Greek word for excrement, ‘kopros’) to produce the neologism “copriright”, so Vallejo will bring together two words – ‘tos’ (cough) and ‘voz’ (voice) – and produce a new word “toz”, which suggests in one word that the voice has a disturbing similarity to meaningless noise, which is, more or less, what a cough is. Though this makes sense, how can you translate it? It is interesting to note that the translators clearly made a conscious decision to keep the translated poem as natural-sounding as possible. Thus, while other translated versions give “toz” as “coughv” and “toz hablada” as “spoken splutterance”, Gianuzzi and Smith chose a more straightforward approach:
I want to write – but I feel like a puma,
I want to be laurel – but am onion-wreathed.
There’s no spoken cough that’s not just fog,
no god or son of god bereft of growth.
This reads well, and, indeed, this is the virtue of the versions Gianuzzi and Smith provide. They read as poems, that is, as complete sense-units. This is not to say that the translators’ penchant for naturalness means that accuracy has necessarily to be sacrificed. As Octavio Paz once wittily demonstrated in his double translation of an ambiguous poem by Stéphane Mallarmé, there are sometimes two ways of translating a poem, and both may have been intended, indeed – Empson would concur – both are very likely to have been intended. Far from sticking with Vallejo’s easier poems, Gianuzzi and Smith deliberately chose what most critics would agree is his most difficult verse, ‘Trilce XXV’. Here is their translation of the first four lines:
Omens leap up to grapple
the joints, the base, the brow,
the under-face of walking numerators.
Omens and warp-ends of lupine lamps.
This is a creative reading. You can imagine a room which is inhabited by human beings “walking numerators” – the logic here being that we human beings walk around, and we have numbers in our heads – as well as omens hovering around. Yet the normal translation for “alfiles” is “bishops” (i.e. in a chess sense) rather than “omens”. Eduardo Neale-Silva suggested the “afiles” could not mean “bishops” and proposed instead “undergrowth” (I confess I do not quite know why), while James Higgins, Saúl Yurkievich and Juan Larrea have described the poem as impressionistic, chaotic, even incomprehensible. Clearly Gianuzzi and Smith see the poem as a veiled allegory of the “ghosts” and misery left over as a result of the conquest of America. The germ of this idea was in Neale-Silva’s early reading of this poem, but the translators have taken this idea one step further and produced a convincing translation of the poem which is also (as it must be) an interpretation. The final result reads surprisingly well.
It is clear that these translations are built on the back of scholarship about the poems, and this must be seen as their strong point. In the notes, the translators often indicate where the idea for their choice of word comes from. This is the case, for example, with their wonderful translation of the last two words of line six of ‘Sermon on Death’: “esdrújulo retiro” as “gravest retirement”. The notes indicate that González Vigil’s reading of “esdrújulo” (which means ‘proparoxytonic’, or ‘stressed on the third-to-last syllable’) as a mixture of ‘acute’ and ‘grave’) has been used in order to create the translation. The word ‘gravest’, because it is used in a rather unusual context, throws the reader back on his interpretative devices and forces him to look for other levels of the word; we can now hear ‘grave’ in the sense of ‘serious’ as well as ‘tomb’. This is essentially what Vallejo’s poetry is all about, and by echoing this aspect of his work, Gianuzzi and Smith’s translations produce creative translations which are finely poised between naturalness and accuracy, and, as a result, read as fine poems in their own right.