Nitpicking at Langston

So, I keep vaguely talking about Hughes’ editorial choices – what, of Mistral, he chose to translate and present to a U.S. English-speaking audience. Selecting poems to represent a poet’s work is a hard job! I respect what he did, and yet have many critiques of it. And how it was read – as critics and other poets and editors praised him for capturing the essence of Mistral’s womanliness. Leaving aside the problem of Mistral’s mystical womanliness – for someone so complexly genderfucked – I want to look at some of Hughes’ choices as a translator. Specifically, I want to nitpick a translation and in fact, I would go so far as to call it a complete misreading. A gendered misreading. (I have more to say about Mistral and race, and Hughes’ biography, and how here, Hughes wanted to see and believe in that nurturing mixed-race populist world-mother that in fact, Mistral represented herself as, and bought into. But this poem in particular struck me as Hughes’ mistaking of Mistral’s coolness and her radical position as a woman writing women.

Here is the poem in Spanish:


Esta era una rosa
que abaja el rociò:
este era mi pecho
con el hijo mío.

Junta sus hojitas
para sostenerlo
y esquiva los vientos
por no desprenderlo.

Porque él ha bajado
desde el cielo inmenso
será que ella tiene
su aliento suspenso.

De dicha se queda
callada, callada:
no hay rosa entre rosas
tan maravillada.

Esta era una rosa
que abaja el rocío:
este era mi pecho
con el hijo mío.

What is this poem *about*? Dew… But Hughes makes it about a son. He sees a Virgin Mary worshipping her son. Sentimentally and rather tritely. In my opinion, he misses something crucial in the poem’s voice and italics; it is written in two different voices! The mother (older) contemplating her own breasts and what they have done – in the bracketing stanzas in italics. And the middle 3 stanzas where her marvel at the act of nursing is described.

Here is Hughes’ translation:


This was a rose
kissed by the dew:
This was the breast
my son knew.

Little leaves meet,
soft not to harm him,
and the wind makes a detour
not to alarm him.

he came down one night
from the great sky;
for him she holds her breath
so he won’t cry.

Happily quiet,
not a sound ever;
rose among roses
more marvellous never.

This was a rose
kissed by the dew;
this was my breast
my son knew.

To nitpick further. The winds are not making a detour; if they were, they’d be “esquivan” not “esquiva”. So the winds are not the subject. I’m just saying. Rather: the rose and her petals avoid the wind, to protect *the dew*.

Here is my translation:


This was a rose
covered in dew
This was my breast
and my nursing baby.

She pulls in her petals
to hold the dewdrops,
and shies away from the wind
lest they loosen and fall.

Since the dew has descended
from infinite heaven,
she’ll have to
hold her breath.

At her great luck, she remains
hushed, hushed:
out of all roses, this rose
is so amazing.

This was a rose
covered in dew
this was my breast
and my nursing baby.

(disclaimer… I could improve on this if I fiddled with it for a while longer. That’s actually a first pass effort.)

Yes, she is marvelling at her baby. But first of all she is marvelling at her breastmilk! That’s the point! She’s stunned, quiet, amazed, holding her breath at the amazingness of the milk – not only at the fact of the baby itself! It’s way more like Inanna applauding her wondrous vulva than it is like a Hallmark card about a mom cooing over her babe that came down from heaven.

Yes, I do think I can grok a poem about breastfeeding better than some dude, no matter how cool he is. (And he is cool – I totally love him. But I do not really love his translations of Mistral! Oh, Langston! )

Just a little translatory rant to liven things up. I could pick apart quite a lot of that little Hughes book, in totally insane detail.

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Biographies for children

The Crisis
Originally uploaded by Liz Henry.

I’m reading up on Langston Hughes, his biographies and poetry. The more I read about him the more I love him.

I read all the juvenile non-fiction biographies of him today, and noticed fascinating differences over time. Early biographies from the 50s and 60s simplified his early life. Later ones complicate it more and more. It’s not made complicated according to the intended age of the reader. In fact the most recent biographies outline all sorts of complexities; his mom’s poverty, his mom and dad’s breakup and attempt to get back together, his living with his grandmother; his stepdad and stepbrother, the failure of his mom’s second marriage, etc. etc. Even how later in life his mom reproached him for not sending her enough money… but he still loved her and sent her as much as he could.

In the Alice Walker bio from the 1970s – aimed at elementary school kids – the n word is used liberally and there are detailed descriptions of racism… and a description of his dad’s racism against Mexican native americans… While later bios from the 90s mention racism, but gloss over it, and leave out n***** and avoid mention of Hughes’ poems that use the word, like Mulatto – unlike the earlier more hard-hitting bios and anthologies.

You don’t get that kind of overview of the changing ways that history sees and frames a person, or their writing, and their political meanings, from reading one (the most recent) biography. I thought this “junior biography journey” was pretty interesting! Especially for Hughes, who wrote so many books for children himself, including biographies.

And I should have taken better notes – in fact I’ll try to go back to the library and write up the 5 or 6 biographies that I read, with citations.

the instability of audience

This bit about Langston Hughes recuperating from illness and under bad financial pressure in Carmel made me laugh on many levels:

Perhaps the best poem is “Big Sur,” the most modest in size: “Great lonely hills,/ Great mountains, / Mighty touchstones of song.” He appears to have gauged his audience in Carmel — genteel, overwhelmingly white, synthetically rustic — and, like a threadbare professional wooing a monied clientele, elastically adjusted his standards. Perhaps the best that might be said about such work is that it reflects the peculiar pressures facing him as a democratic black poet seeking, paradoxically, the widest audience. In dividing his poems into groups and sending them in various directions, he showed himself aware of the instability of his audience. Rather than lapse into silence, Hughes had committed himself to adapting his voice so that its message might be heard everywhere.

– I like “mighty touchstones of song” but it also makes me snicker.

– “synthetically rustic” is so exactly right! That describes about 75% of the white upper class poets I know (including myself). I remember being about 19 and waking up to the fact that most of my daily experience did not involve “Nature” and that I had to wrench my mind out of looking around me with a poet’s eye that was narrowed to a tunnel vision which made most of the world fall off the map. I see other poets overcorrect this by writing about cigarette butts in the gutter on purpose for a good long while before they figure out how to mix it up and control their own gaze.

– power dynamics, money, Hughes’ intense idealism and social consciousness in tension with needing to make a living. The bio’s author has a point here. And yet, there he was, a poet, sick as can be, depressed from sulfa drugs, hanging out for months in Big Sur. Duh he’s going to write some mild and quiet nature poetry. It seems a little unfair to expect anything else out of him – maybe a few poems about gonorrhea and mortality.

– Dividing your “self” as a writer and having different writerly personalities in different circumstances or for different audiences. The bio is trying to get out of the binary trap of either defending Hughes or hissing, “Sellout!” I like the phrasing of this sentence and the idea that it’s not about markets, it’s about audience instability. If you write one kind of book, for a definite demographic and you know who you’re writing for, or to. If you write a lot of different things — not as stabs in the dark to see what catches on and makes you a living, but because that’s how you think and what you want to do — then your identity as a writer depends on reflections from so many different sources, an unstable mirror, a fluid mirror. Rampersand is correct in describing this as a problem that in many cases functions to silence authors like Hughes, “Rather than lapse into silence….” In other words, not hitting a stable, large audience is not failure, and yet think of the pressure on Hughes to focus or shut up.

I’m thinking of last year when, after the BlogHer conference, I split up my blogging into different areas. That has allowed me to push my thoughts further and reach different people. I thought of it as an attempt to impose structure and discipline and be aware of who I was writing to/for. That has only partially worked and I keep mixing things up. I got my computers in my poetry blog and my restaurant reviews in my mommyblog, and then the core “Me” blog which feels like the most unstable and uncertain, and which I don’t want to treat as a dumping ground for everything else. Possibly I took the wrong approach, and should instead have been doing better tagging and categorizing on my main blog?

People complain to me they can’t keep up with what I’m writing. I’m hugely flattered that anyone would care to try. The problem for me is that I can’t keep up with it myself. Instead of feeling organized, I sometimes feel over-fragmented. And yet I found that separating out into different blogs made me *write different stuff*, and I’m cool with that – it was interesting to explore. Did it make my writing better or worse? I don’t know! (And I don’t mean “sloppier or more or less conventionally literary – I think I mean “interesting as a blog”.)

Perhaps I should have kept everything together. But then it crosses my mind, “No, what I *should* do is separate the computers from the poetry so that poets don’t have to read about Bloggercon…” Then I dismiss that thought! No way! The whole point is to mix up some ideas and get other people a little bit jolted out of their boxes. That is where I really identify with Hughes, a very cool border-crosser and introducer. It’s beautiful how he had his feet in different worlds and didn’t make himself choose one place to speak from.

Accusations of selling out, inauthenticity, not working hard enough, imperfection, incomplete vision, Hughes faced all that and found it very hard. It’s not like I don’t have criticisms of his translations of Mistral or his positioning of her, but I would never ignore the wonderfully hard work and Hughes’ intent of introducing a great Latin American poet to English speakers. When his critics called him lazy and said he should have tried harder on the translations, or gotten help, or left out Mistral’s most important poems, and that he didn’t know enough about her work or Latin American poetry in general or translation in general and so should not have attempted the project, he responded by saying that his effort was meant to get other people interested – and that more and better and more comprehensive translations of Mistral were his goal! In other words, you have to start somewhere. “So fine a poet as she was deserves many translations.”

It’s inherently fucking evil to insist that before you are permitted to speak, you have to know everything and be an expert. It assumes that it’s possible to know everything about a subject, claiming objectivity for a privileged few, and it silences the majority of the human race.