“Any translation which intends to perform a transmitting function cannot transmit anything but information—hence, something inessential.” Walter Benjamin, in his usual summary style, disposes of poetry in translation with that one sentence. The information contained in a poem is pretty thin, almost vestigial, compared to the essential thing which drives us to read it. That said, denying the appeal of poetry in translation is as futile as denying the appeal of foreign travel or foreign cuisine: the pleasures of difference. Inconceivable really. 14 of the top 25 best selling poetry books on Amazon.com are translations, which proves little except how seamlessly integrated translation is in the world of poetry. This leaves the translating poet with two options: one, create the best poem possible using the same ‘information’ as the original author; or two, forget the information and try to capture the essential. Most poetry translations fall into the first category, James Wagner’s Trilce falls into the second.
In Trilce, Wagner takes on César Vallejo’s book of the same name. This is no mean task; Vallejo’s text has bedeviled translators with its outright revolt against language. Vallejo’s work is plotless, mixes Spanish with the Quechua of his native Peru, and breaks syntax in ways no one would attempt in this country until the Seventies. Yet it also manages to address social injustices, prison life, and Vallejo’s complex relationship with his mother. Instead of trying to bottle this chaos by translating for ‘meaning,’ Wagner proceeds to ‘translate’ Vallejo homophonically. He picks an English word close in sound to Vallejo’s bastard Spanish and proceeds from there [skillfully avoiding the possibility of real gibberish]. The results are often magnificent, as in this stanza from poem 69:
Count us as a salty donation,
count us high as salt as,
a channel, a channel enlocked since summer,
facially torn and storied lasso us, disputing
the desultory loss key through veins
you died loss recurring, and labia doors plotless
the tongue stem out, contracting ten mills
you ecstatically sell us a questionable loneliness.
Wagner really fits his poetic foot into Vallejo’s instep here: walking the same line between ‘pure language’ and emotional expression. Wagner hits these moments often across the 77 poems which make up the book.
The real test for Wagner is how his ‘translations’ fare as poems, when compared with conventional translation. Take for example the second stanza of poem 36, the fairly well known address to the Venus de Milo. Here is Vallejo’s original:
¿Por ahí estás, Venus de Milo?
Tú manqueas apenas pululando
entrañada en los brazos plenarios
de la existencia,
de esta existencia que todaviíza
Venus de Milo, cuyo cercenado, increado
brazo revuélvese y trata de encodarse
a través de verdeantes guijarros gagos,
ortivos nautilos, aúnes que gatean
recién, vísperas inmortales.
Laceadora de inminencias, laceadora
Here is the same stanza translated by Clayton Eshleman, likely the best translator of Vallejo into English:
Are you that way, Venus of Milo?
You hardly act crippled, pullulating
enwombed in the plenary arms
of this existence that neverthelessez
Venus de Milo, whose cut off, increate
arm swings round and tries to elbow
across greening stuttering pebbles,
ortive nautili, recently crawling
evens, immortal on the eves of.
Lassoer of imminences, lassoer
of the parenthesis.
If you don’t know Spanish you’ll have to take my word for it, but I think Eshleman comes as close to the meaning of Vallejo’s words as is possible in English. He even attempts to recreate some of Vallejo’s verbal miscegenation, translating “todaviíza” as “neverthelessez” in an attempt to render the English adverb into verb form just as Vallejo did with the Spanish. However, that trick along with Eshleman’s other literalisms turn Vallejo’s quiet poem of sympathy into a cacophony. Now here is Wagner’s ‘translation’ of the same stanza:
For how he stares, fences the mellow?
To monkey’s ape-ness pullulates
enters nothing unless braced plenty hear us
the yester existence came today
Venus the Milo, cool your certainty, increase
praise us revoltingly you tried to encode asses
other faces diverted and escaped just such gagging,
our t.v.’s nautical, aunts can gather
recede, whisper us in mortally.
They said a door dying minerally, they said a door
doubles in teeth
Certainly it is far more disjunctive than Eshleman’s translation or even Vallejo’s original. However, a few linguistic jerks aside, I think that Wagner captures the sympathetic nature of Vallejo’s original, its feeling of brokenness and existential poverty.
However, Wagner sometimes seems to land flatfooted. Occasionally the reader must work through a glut of desultory images, as in 38:
Her quantum bread firsts
you you know tiny carried animals.
Must she she leap as ions, as malaria
you two marry the homemade loss sustainingly
case she aged in vain the salty doors.
A serious effort must be made to contain that passage in the mind; but no more than Vallejo’s “verdeantes guijarros gagos. / ortivos nautilus.” An amount of impenetrability is part of the point in both Wagner and Vallejo. Vallejo conceived Trilce while he was imprisoned, and the poems’ difficulties reflect that state. Instead of translating Vallejo out of prison, Wagner creates his own through Vallejo’s words—and invites the reader to join him in it.