NOTE: this post originally appeared in the journal Fireweed
Whenever a writer as powerful as Gabriela Mistral is translated by a writer as distinctive as Ursula Le Guin, the result is likely to be unfortunate or glorious. Le Guin taught herself Spanish, though she doesn’t speak or write the language, but poetic translation requires as much esthetic sense as linguistic facility. She recently issued her own translation of Lao Tzu (she does not read Chinese), and has now brought forth not only the largest collection of Mistral’s work ever available in English, but a translation of great beauty, filled with the sensitivity to subtleties of human experience that we have come to expect in her own novels and poems.
Any translation is the creative work of at least two people. The key to a successful translation is to convey as much of the original writer’s meaning as possible without the translator’s own creative personality burning through. In this review I will attempt to convey a sense of how Le Guin approached her task compared to how others have translated Mistral.
There are four previous selections of Mistral’s work in English: a 1957 selection by Langston Hughes, a sizable block published in 1961 by Mistral’s literary executor Doris Dana, Maria Giachetti’s 1993 “Reader” that also includes some prose, and Christiane Kyle’s large-format illustrated edition of The Mothers’ Poems issued by Eastern Washington University Press in 1996. The latter has relatively few poems but is visually spectacular. These four have significant differences in selection and none is complete. Neither is Le Guin’s; with her characteristic directness she simply says that she was unable to translate some of the poems satisfactorily, so didn’t. Nonetheless, this is the largest collection now available in English.
How should a translator approach a poem? With respect, modesty and trepidation, one hopes. Yet excessive caution can drain the life out of a poem and convert it from inspirational art to a technician’s wordpile. We can be thankful that Le Guin knows how to balance respect with boldness, thereby filling the English words with the same earthy fire for which Mistral is known in Spanish. Consider how she handled The Foreigner, a poem that appears in all three of the previous major collections. Le Guin’s version in its entirety reads as follows:
“She chatters about her barbaric seas,
seaweeds and shores that nobody here knows.
She prays to a bodiless weightless god.
She looks so old she might die any moment.
She’s made our own garden alien to us,
planting cactus and saw-toothed grasses.
She breathes life from the desert wind,
and she has loved with a blanching passion
that she doesn’t talk about, and if she did
it would be like the map of another planet.
She’ll live among us eighty years
always as if she’d just arrived,
speaking her panting, whimpering tongue
that nobody can understand but animals.
And here among us, on some night
of fearful agony, with only her fate
for a pillow, she’ll die
a silent death, a foreign death.”
The word “seaweeds” is a good example of Le Guin’s esthetic sense leading her to the right poetic word, not just the right English word. The Spanish in this line is “algas,” which is a general word for algal plants. In theory the Spanish for seaweed should be “algas marinas,” yet in the context of the lines, “marinas” is clearly not necessary because the first two lines are all about seas and shores, thus “seaweeds and shores” is both accurate and poetically superior in English to what two of the other translators used: Giachetti’s “mystic algae and sands” (a strange combination in English: mystic algae?) and Dana’s “sands and algae unknown to me.” Hughes also had the good sense to use “seaweed,” though his line “God knows what seaweeds and God knows what sands” seems overcooked, since the “God knows” parts are not in the Spanish at all.
The very first line gives an idea of what poets do in translation. The poem begins “Habla con dejo... .” which translated literally, means “speaks in a slight accent” (Hughes version) or perhaps more precisely, speaks with an odd accent. Le Guin starts simply “She chatters,” which does not convey the meaning of “dejo” very accurately, yet in the context of the poem as a whole, fits very well, because this foreign woman is babbling away about all these strange things, and “chatters” also suggests that the sounds are less than understandable, much as an exotic parrot or monkey might sound.
Compare this to the technically purer but boring Hughes version or the Giachetti version “She speaks with abandonment” and Dana’s phantasmic excursion: “She speaks with the moisture of her barbarous seas still on her tongue,” far afield from the words of the original but poetically the most vivid. Le Guin has stopped at the edge of the revisionist abyss, Hughes never got close to it, Giachetti is off on an uninspiring side trail and Dana has leapt the abyss in one stride, in effect presenting her own images filtered through the original. Such is translation.
Le Guin does not always choose the word I would choose-for example, her “saw-toothed grasses” is milder than the “claw-like” grasses of Hughes or the dangerously active “clawing grasses” of Dana, which I like best because it fits with the idea of a strange, foreign, uncomfortable, possibly dangerous garden. Giachetti launches into “herbs that rustle in the wind like sails,” which does not convey the image of harsh difference that the original intends, as well as having a curious notion of herbs. I might have said “clutching grasses.” It is a question of what image the translator sees in the original and wants to retain.
Giachetti does hit exactly the right note with her “elvish animals” where Le Guin uses simply “animals,” Hughes “beasts” and Dana the technically accurate “little beasts.” The Spanish word “bestezuelas” clearly implies a diminutive, and the “elvish” provides both the size and the idea that maybe these little creatures are able to communicate in some way with humans a la Narnia, thus “elvish.”
This collection is not the complete poems of Mistral in English that we still await, but anyone who hungers for a broad selection of poetry from Latin America’s first Nobel laureate will find a consistently readable and poetically crisp array in Le Guin’s new translation.
Finally, one of Le Guin’s best poems, “For Gabriela Mistral,” appears in her own collection Sixty Odd, apparently inspired by her work on this translation. Sixty Odd is a fitting companion to her translation of Mistral.