Duel in translation

Because of blogging on geek feminism, BlogHer, and Hack Ability, and doing a bunch of things at work, I haven’t said much here. It’s been weeks of verbal, verbal verbal, blogging and coding and talking. The feeling of too much looking at code is a lot like the feeling of having my head in poetry. It’s hard to come out of it and be articulate like a conversational human being again. It’s divine madness hanging out with the muses.

Have some poems with my translations!

From Cortejo y Epinicio
David Rosenmann-Taub (b. 1927)

El Combate

"¿Hacer?", me retorcía el Poderosos:
"autodefé de trámites lacayos,
amolando cilicios,
acuso la nostalgia del bozal."

"¡Hacer!", blandí, de pie. Larvas... Rivales
nieblas — andamios — en los yermos: una
luz rededora decisivamente
nutría y desmigaba.

Rosenman-Taub compacts these poems with precision – but with precise attention to ambiguities and broad meanings. I interpret this poem as an internal and external battle, a response to power, a battle about action. To make, to act, to do. Action? or Action! All came to mind to translate “Hacer!” In one mood, the poem comes out like this:


“To do?” Power wrung from me:
“Auto de fé of bootlicking bureacracy,
itching prickle of hair shirts;
I blame nostalgia for the leash.”

“To do!” I blare, standing tall.
Mists – scaffoldings – in the wastelands, one
encompassing light critically
nurtured and eroded.

If you grant that is a possible interpretation of the poem, what would you say it means? What is its feeling? What is opposed to what? What relationship do those two verses, those two stances, have to each other? Are they either/or? Are they one in response to another?

Rosenman-Taub’s poems are puzzles, cryptograms, circular ruins. They itch at me. The language sticks into itself, words interfacing uncomfortably with each other, like burrs. The language of a mad philosopher-poet. It’s a How to Think manual, but not for Dummies. As some difficult novels function to teach the reader how to read (suspiciously, and circularly) these difficult short poems teach the poet all that difficulty in an alchemical crucible. Playfully – but dead serious.

Here are two more translations of a single poem by him, “Jerarquía”. They’re fun!

It is a mistake when translators translate an obscure word in one language to make it easier to understand in a new. I try to go with my judgement of how awkward, hard, stuck up, dusty, a word is. caliginous for example. I let it stand in this bullfight poem.


En el poniente de pardos vallados,
de sobaquillo y verónica de oro,
juegan el hombre y la parca: embrocados,
derivan: cuadran faena. El tesoro,

caliginoso cabestre, se oculta
de la destreza de tules solares:
risco de fauces de jade: sepulta
los quioscos gilvos. La parca ¡No pares!

hace ondular sobre los inmolados
novillos. Cómplice de acantilados
cuernos, ¡No pares! se trasvina, sigue

y sigue… El hombre a las landas del cielo
ha escudriñado con garfio gemelo.
Ya no se sabe quién es quien persigue.

Like I said, a metaphysical bullfight. What a poem, interrupting itself!


In the west wind of corralled dun bulls,
of cape-sweep and stylish lance-stab, golden,
man and fate are playing: horn-tangled,
they shift meaning: dance formal faena. The best,

caliginous maverick, half-hidden
from the dexterity of sunlight lace:
rock-crag jade jaws: he entombs
the gilted grandstands. Fate – Don’t stop! –

ripples waving over the sacrificial
yearling bulls. Conspirator of cliff-edge
horns – Don’t stop! – transcending, on

and on… The man come to heaven’s prairies
has skewered all with twinned horn;
Now who knows who’s chasing who?

It’s impossible to translate a poem like this literally and not screw it up. You have to know that it means something, settle on a meaning, on meanings battling, and hover over those meanings. “Don’t stop!” set off from the action and repeated I think here is perfectly timed, an abruption of what the poem means and who is speaking or thinking. Who is saying don’t stop? to who? We feel the audience – we are the audience of the bullfight and the dance, the fight is between the poet and the text, or the poet and the poem. Or the author exhorts us, familiarly – go on! Don’t stop! Or any number of any other beautiful air-castles of meaning. The poem turns midway through from a poem about a bullfight to a poem about ways of thinking and reasoning.

Translation: Magda Portal

I have not looked further for poems by Magda Portal but she seems well worth a look. If you read the little biography I wrote up below, you will see part of why I get very annoyed at the ways the vanguard, ultraism, modernismo, etc. are described as being somehow essentially masculine!

Note here too that Portal’s early work was published under a pseudonym; this is very common for the women poets I was researching. Because of their gender and the pressures of family, they had to fracture their identity, which fractures their body of work as writers. With time and distance it becomes increasingly more difficult to piece together a picture of their work as a whole and its importance. Despite Portal’s stature as a writer in Latin America for most of the 20th century I have not seen her poetry in recent anthologies in Spanish or English.

Portal’s history of activism and leftist politics is very interesting!

Magda Portal (1901-1989)

Magda Portal, a Peruvian novelist, poet, essayist, and magazine editor, tended to write about feminist themes and activist struggle. She was in socialist literary circles and published in Amauta, along with María Wiesse, Angela Ramos, Alicia del Prado, Catalina Recavarren, and José Carlos Mariátegui, She was forced into exile from Peru in the late 1920s, living in Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Venezuela, and Bolivia. The Peruvian government imprisoned her mother, teenage sister, and her infant daughter. She wrote extensively about Flora Tristan, the French feminist and writer who wrote about her visit to Peru during the wars of independence (Bustamente Moscosos). Her early poetry was published under the name Tula Sovaina (Reedy 490).

María Monvel describes Portal’s poetry with suspicion, mentioning “unánimismo,” a vanguardist and surrealist literary movement which arose from the French and Latin American Symbolists. Unánimismo is also the title of a book by early 20th century Cuban writer María Buceta Villar. Monvel’s acerbic judgement on Portal is as follows:

Del mismo tipo que Blanca Luz Brum, estas dos poetisas ofrecen pocas diferencias. Abanderas al ultraismo desde su nacimiento, se han hecho notables allí por sus versos buenos o malos. Respetuosos del juego unánime a que se ha entregado la gente de letras, temeríamos caer en error al juzgarlas sin comprenderlas. Preferimos, luego de atacarlas y darles aquí sitio, entregarlas al juicio de sus semejantes. (175)

Of the same brand as Blanca Luz Brum, these two poets offer few differences. Standard-bearers for Ultraism since their birth, they have gained fame through their verses, good or bad. Highly respectable as it is–this “unánime” game which people of letters have taken up–we fear falling in error to judge them without understanding them. We prefer, after contradicting them and giving them space, to deliver them to the judgement of the like-minded.

Magda Portal’s early works include Ánima absorta (1923), El desfile de miradas (1923), Vidrios de amor (1926), El derecho de matar (1926), Varios poemas a la misma distancia (1927), Constancia del Ser (1928), Una esperanza y el mar (1927), América Latina contra el Imperialismo (1931), and Hacia la mujer nueva (1933).

“Liberación” could be written in response to (or could be an inspiration for) José Carlos Mariátegui’s assertion that women poets are held back from true greatness by sexual and poetic inhibition. Vicky Unruh describes Portal as an important vanguardist critic who helped define the movement with her position papers in Amauta, and points out the irony that her reactions against male-dominated modernismo’s “rendition of women as static embodiments of aesthetic creeds” was then metamorphosed by Mariátegui into the new muse of Peruvian literary culture, as a natural and biological force of womanhood who wrote without artifice (Unruh, Performing 177).

Liberación  (from “Los poemas torturados”)

Un día seré libre, aún más libre que el viento,
será claro mi canto de audaz liberación
y hasta me habré librado de este remordimiento
secreto que me hunde su astilla al corazón.
Un día seré libre con los brazos abiertos,
con los ojos abiertos y limpios frente al sol,
el Miedo y el Recuerdo no estarán encubiertos
y agazapados para desgarrarme mejor.
Un día seré libre . . . Seré libre presiento,
con una gran sonrisa a flor de corazón,
con una gran sonrisa como no tengo hoy.
Y ya no habrá la sombra de mi remordimiento,
el cobarde silencio que merma mi Emoción.
Un día habré logrado la verdad de mi Yo!


One day I'll be free, even freer than the wind;
my verse will be bright with daredevil liberation
after I've freed myself from this secret shame
that plunges its sharp splinter into my heart.
One day I'll be free with my arms open wide,
with my eyes open and unshielded before the sun,
Fear and Memory won't be hiding
crouched in ambush, the better to rip me apart.
One day I'll be free . . . I'll be free, I know it,
with a huge smile that flowers from the heart,
with a huge smile that I don't have today.
And then I won't have the ghost of my shame,
the coward silence that tamps down my Emotion.
Someday I'll have achieved the truth of my Self!

Translation: Nydia Lamarque

I have not had any luck in finding many more poems by Lamarque. Maybe I could do it through inter-library loan, or paying someone to xerox or photograph a book in another library for me. I like this poem a lot. Again, am left as a translator knowing that in some places I nail it, or think of an especially graceful & evocative phrase, but in other lines, my elbows are sticking out.

I recommend The Sappho Companion for an excellent description of the history of the idea of “Sappho” & what she meant at different times throughout history, in different countries & languages.

It would be nice to know more about Lamarque’s life, too. There isn’t enough time in the world!

Nydia Lamarque (1906-1982)

Argentine writer Nydia Lamarque’s first book of poems, Telarañas, was published in 1925, and her second, Elegía del gran amor, in 1927. She was a lawyer and a socialist associated with the vanguardist writers’ group “Boedo.” An officer of the Ateneo Femenino Buenos Aires, Lamarque wrote social and political criticism as well as poetry for newspapers and magazines such as Nosotros and La Nación. Juan Pinto, in Literatura Argentina Contemporanea, calls her “la poetisa de acento más varonil de nuestra literatura” ‘the poetess with the most masculine voice of our literature’ and praises her further for her social conscience and lack of inhibitions (214). She translated Baudelaire, Racine, Rimbaud, Henri De Man, Adolfo Boschot, and Héctor Berlioz. (Maube 287)

“Invocación” summons the ghost of Sappho for an intimate conversation with the poem’s speaker. The myth of Sappho’s frustrated love for Phaon, and Sappho’s leap into the sea from his rejection, dates from the 3rd century BC (Reynolds 71). This legend is also used by Mercedes Matamoros in her poem-cycle “El último amor de Safo”, published in 1902. Lamarque’s rolling cadences invite Sappho to confess her deepest secrets and to describe any part of her love that she found unspeakable. The implication is that only Lamarque can understand and give voice to Sappho’s complaints–because she feels them so deeply herself, perhaps for Sappho’s ghost or for some other person.

(A la sombra de Safo)

Ahora hermana lejanísima, ven a mí, háblame con tu boca de siglos.
Ven ahora hermana, que es de noche y vive el silencio.
Nadie a mi lado, nadie oirá nuestro coloquio.
Sólo estará junto a mí el buho fiel del recuerdo.
Mira, las estrellas se dejan caer en el lecho obscuro de la noche,
y para nosotros va a dar marcha atrás el Tiempo.
Me dejarás que llegue hasta tus brazos acogedores;
me dejarás que acerque mi cuerpo tibio a tu marmóreo cuerpo,
y que apoye también la frente calenturienta
para mejor escucharte, sobre tu seno.
Todo me lo dirás entonces al oído, muy bajo,
aunque nadie más que yo habrá de escuchar la voz de tu duelo.
Y me dirás el dolor de la pasión que te ensombreció los instantes,
y la angustia del desamor, flagelante como látigo recio,
y me dirás del hombre aquel en quien concentraste la vida,
por el que tu frente se sumergió en el misterio.
Me dirás si eran sus dos pupilas de ámbar anochecido,
me dirás si era su boca, en la caricia, sabia hasta el tormento;
y si podía en su frente albergarse un pueblo de ideas,
y si toda la sombra nocturna dormía entre su cabello . . .
Y me dirás también qué emoción te agitó la noche aquella,
sobre el desolado promontorio griego,
y si en el momento de la muerte más que nunca lo ansiaste,
y si más que nunca te castigó implacable el recuerdo,
y si más que nunca te agobió la desesperación impotente,
entonces, entre el cielo y el mar, sola en el instante supremo . . .
Y si la salsedumbre de tus lágrimas,
venció en amargor a la balsámica salsedumbre marina,
y si en espíritu lo besaste aun con un beso resumen de besos . . .

Todo me lo dirías ¡oh hermana! aquí en la noche,
muy bajo, mientras nos envuelve el silencio,
ahora, que estoy ya entre tus brazos acogedores;
ahora que está ya mi cuerpo tibio junto a tu marmóreo cuerpo,
ahora que apoyo la frente calenturienta sobre tu seno,
frío como las helénicas ondas que te dieron el reposo eterno.

(To the ghost of Sappho)

Come to me, now far distant sister, speak to me with your voice of centuries.
Come now, sister, made of night, alive in silence.
No one at my side, no one will hear our talk.
Only memory, that faithful owl, will be with me.
Look, the stars let their bodies fall into the hidden nest of night,
and for us alone, Time will turn, running backward.
You'll let me come into your welcoming arms,
you'll let me press my warm flesh to your marble body,
so I can rest, too, my fevered brow
to hear you better on your breast.
You'll tell me everything aloud, very low,
though I hear nothing more than the voice of your lament.
And you'll tell me the pain of passion that darkened every second,
and the anguish of being unloved, like the sting of a brutal whip,
and you'll tell me how you focused your life on that man,
the one for whom you drowned your brow in mystery.
You'll tell me if it was his two eyes of dusky amber,
you'll tell me if it was his mouth which you kissed till torment,
and if it was true that his mind harbored a city of ideas,
and if all nocturnal shadow slept in his hair . . .
And you'll tell me also what emotion that shook you, that night,
atop the desolate Greek cliffs,
and if in that moment of death, more than ever, you longed and desired,
and if, more than ever, you were punished by implacable memory,
and if, more than ever, impotent desperation oppressed you,
then, between heaven and sea, alone in that supreme instant . . .
And if the acid salt of your tears
defeated in bitterness the vinegar salt of the sea,
and if in spirit you kissed him with one kiss that summed up all kisses . . .

You'll tell me everything–oh sister!–here in the night,
very low, while silence wraps us round,
now, while I am yet in your welcoming arms;
now, while my warm flesh is pressed to your marble body,
now while I rest my fevered head between your breasts,
cold as the hellenic waves that gave you eternal rest.

A list not to forget to say

purple flowers, red fuzzy buds
Originally uploaded by Liz Henry.

I have a backup of posts I want to write here:

– the Main Gallery reading in Redwood City

– the benefit at Varnish; Shauna Rogan’s excellent Babylon book; rambling about such cut-up projects and what makes them good or bad in my eyes; playfulness and seriousness (good) pretentious and meaningless-for-experimentalness’ sake (bad)

– César Vallejo “Marcha Nupcial / Wedding March” broadside/booklet from Backwoods Broadsides, which looks like a wonderful series. I want them all!

– my own reading coming up at the Overpass Gallery.

– the fun of being on the radio the other day

– Poetry I’ve been reading: Bullets & Butterflies book. Imaginary Poets from Tupelo Press. Nightingale’s Burden. Gabriela Mistral. Another wildly sexist anthology.

– That airplane poem by Maria Sabas Aloma and why it charms me; airplanes in women’s poetry in the 19-teens and 1920s; vehicles; unmapped space; do women write poetry to their cars? (I have – to my truck & sort of in general)