Why I Translate, Why Neruda

Why I Translate, Why Neruda

“Every act of communication is, in some way, an act of translation.”
Gregory Rabassa

Living within a poem or book of poems in another language and of another culture, composed of another sensibility and worldview—to say nothing of another voice—involves an iterative process of perpetual mystery, close questioning, and sudden awakening, one that reveals what it means to be human. In nature, no two organisms are absolutely identical, and this is also true of the poem and the poem in translation. Translating poetry is a difficult but rewarding practice because the original poem must be transformed in such a way that the translation exists in close fidelity with the original. Therein lies much of the beauty: a new creation is brought into the world, one that lives and breathes in highly intimate relation to the poem of origin.

Kenneth Rexroth encouraged fledgling poets in his “World Poetry” seminar at University of California, Santa Barbara, to translate. A prolific translator, he believed that we learn our own language more holistically, if you will, by working within another. I was studying Spanish at the time; the language was a part of my heritage. So, I began by translating the poets of Spain’s Generation of ’27 and then several Central and South American poets, including Chilean Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda. Among all these poets, Neruda captured my imagination as no other, yet translation remained a practice meant to strengthen my inner eye and ear and achieve greater scope and range.

Several years later, while studying with Philip Levine at California State University, Fresno, I fulfilled a workshop assignment by discovering a slim volume of Neruda’s, Aún (1969), in the Spanish-language section of the Stanislaus County Library in Modesto and translating the first poem for the workshop. Captivated by the crystalline quality and the sad intensity of this late-career work, I translated the remaining twenty-seven poems and worked for a number of years to refine the translation for publication.

Copper Canyon Press published the book, titled Still Another Day, in a bilingual format in 1984. Between 1985 and 1991, Copper Canyon issued five more late-career and posthumous Neruda volumes in my translation. After a hiatus of fifteen years, during which I wrote my own poems and co-authored a historical novel with the Chinese writer Han-ping Chin, I received a National Endowment for the Arts grant to complete the Neruda series. I then translated The Hands of Day (Las manos del día, 1968) and World’s End (Fin de mundo, 1969). Copper Canyon published these two volumes in 2008 and 2009, respectively, and I resolved to publish no additional Neruda. It was beyond time to focus solely on my own work.

In 2015, Michael Wiegers, Copper Canyon’s executive editor, asked me if I’d be interested in translating Crepusculario (1927), Neruda’s first book. I quickly realized I couldn’t resist cycling around from having lived within the master poet’s final books to returning to his first volume. I’d spent a little time with Crepusculario decades earlier, while I was refining the translation of Still Another Day, and the intriguing difficulties posed by the influence of modernismo on young Neruda convinced me his beautiful first book was beyond my abilities. It took translating eight later books of Neruda before I felt ready to translate Book of Twilight.

William O’Daly