1. How did you start translating Gabriela Mistral’s Tala? What drew you to it?
I’m drawn to Gabriela Mistral’s radical simplicity, her coarse beauty, how she grounds her poetics in the Elqui Valley’s landscape, her local landscape, despite the fact that she lived much of her life outside of Chile. I’m drawn to Mistral’s anachronistic temporality, how she slows down lines through tightly wrought internal tensions, rhymes, and rhythms. For Mistral, such techniques constituted a homecoming. That is, poetry as a mother country that will always receive you. And these techniques in Tala (1939) undergird Mistral’s consistent desire to define humanity in terms of our treatment of children, a category before citizenship or nation. So, I’m interested in how to sound in translation this range of qualities that intersect with ethical concepts.
2. What are some of the main challenges you’ve encountered in translating this work?
There’s the time you spend understanding the craft of a work—syllabic count, rhyme schemes, shifts in line accentuation. Mistral is a master builder, and it takes time to learn and understand the intricate physicality and architecture of her work. Then there’s the relationship between that craft, that physicality, and whatever meanings emerge that may or may not have been intended by Mistral. So, the first challenge is how to sound the poetry’s particular craft intersected with meaning in the translation. That’s where the integrity of the work lies.
But translation is a genre in and of itself, which means that the translation is a work of art. And it’s a genre that for me works in distance. Its problem is distance, which is a painful thing. So translation approaches that interface of distance, the suffering of that distance embedded in two languages when they face one another. The point is that as a work of art in and of itself, after you get past all that stuff of craft and meaning, that pain is the threshold of what is out of our reach and control. Your language isn’t yours; you participate in it. Your life isn’t yours; you participate in it. Let me give an example. When you listen to Nina Simone, she commands the instrument with such bravura. She was a virtuoso pianist. And that voice. But what is so extraordinary is that in all that bravura what she ultimately expresses is her, that is, our, utter lack of control, something that is devastating and wondrous at the same time. That’s the stunning limit her bravura and control of her instruments manages to approach. That is the painful edge others experience with wonder when they hear her because that moment, that edge, marks an interface with others. It is a reaching as well as a folding into, a letting go. The translation as a work of art also goes there. To get so close to the material, to know your instruments, get so close, you let go, get so close you have no control; all your tools, all your knowledge undermined because you reach someone else. That is a moment of tenderness, of freedom, of participating in something greater than you. I think that this is painful because that distance between us or limit is also a metaphor for death. But the wonder has to do with the fact that it is also a metaphor for love because you’re reaching toward the other in spite of an ultimate limit, knowing you risk everything. I know this sounds dramatic as an answer to what is the challenge of translation, but this is how I feel. I don’t see any point in doing anything if you are not using all you have, all your faculties, to reach toward someone else, wresting your own control, knowing that this will all end. Life is too hurtful otherwise.
Maybe in this sense translation is a form of hope.
3. What are you reading right now?
I’m always reading and listening, and what I read informs my translations and writing just as much as what I hear. Since we’re talking about Mistral, I will mention that Langston Hughes spoke of her “word-music “in his foreword to a selection of her poetry he translated in the 1950s. Today I was reading and listening to composer George Benjamin and playwright Martin Crimp’s Into the Little Hill, a slicing one act opera about an oppressive government and the death of a child. The score is piercing and the libretto makes use of only a handful of words that are more than a few syllables. All daggers. Then I listened to and read George Crumb’s Ancient Voices of Children: A Cycle of Songs on Texts by Federico García Lorca. In this piece, Crumb sets to music selections of Lorca’s poetry about children. So that’s what I’m reading and listening to right now.
This week’s Poesía en acción feature also includes:
Anna Deeny Morales is a translator of poetry, dramatist, and literary critic. An NEA fellow for the translation of Tala by Gabriela Mistral, she has translated works by Raúl Zurita, Alejandra Pizarnik, and Mercedes Roffé, among others. Her new work in opera, ¡ZAVALA-ZAVALA!, commissioned by UNC-Charlotte composer Brian Arreola, will debut in 2022; and La Paloma at the Wall, commissioned by the In Series, debuted at Gala Hispanic Theater in 2019. She received a PhD from UC-Berkeley and teaches at Georgetown University. Her book, Other Solitudes: Essays on Consciousness and Poetry, is forthcoming in 2022.
Poesía en acción is an Action Books blog feature for Latin American and Spanish poetry in translation and the translator micro-interview series. It was created by Katherine M. Hedeen and is currently curated and edited by Olivia Lott with web editing by Paul Cunningham.