Hilary Vaughn Dobel on translating Carlos Pintado's "Mudras"

An excerpt from "Mudras"

...Light strikes:
papers on the table, the unfinished line
of the poem, the dreamy, dripping ink,
and the smell of death—night jasmine
blanketing it all like the oppressive music
of a village festival.
So there was light. So, for an instant,
the face lingered in memory
like campfires reflected in the river.
Such were the briefest islets of memory
for those unsatisfied by men or dreams,
unsatisfied by leafless trees,
warping their abandonment into a strange marriage
of shadow and wind.
Before it, there was nothing. Voiceless
as that imperturbable snowfall
in paintings,
the landscape would tumble down, graceless,
without a fight
and, destiny fulfilled,
return to its snowy state, musical and unforeseen,
before the travelers and their grand forgetting.
Everything would begin
like that walk among the birches,
a game where all things expand
as the hours do: without design, without
that early laxness, never fearing that solitude in fallen leaves,
or the life left adrift, pushed on
by the eyes of snow-sunk deer
as the wind bears aloft the grain
and its little crackling song without fear or banner.
There will be perfection in the fallen leaves.
The sleepless will keep watch over the pact of those bodies.
Consumed by fire, others will seek
night's ending as a necessary transfiguration,
will tuck away their winter clothes, dance
naked before the pyre of time.
Someone will say it is the god of rain, the god of fire,
the god of night, but none demand sacrifice:
a hymn, the unmarked Rig Veda without revelations,
without brewing anxieties.
Impassive caravans will follow,
jugglers and the sound of harps and lutes,
death itself transfigured into other deaths,
moving on from one place to the next,
dealing out death in silence, without love,
offering up its breast, white like a woman's,
offering up a sleepless rose without desire,
offering it like a rite,
a charm for luck against the silence.
We were all in the wastelands of pain.
No doors. No windows. The world
is a blind fish floating in a dream,
a tightrope walker marshaling his fear against itself.

It will be light who tempts us:
light, the light-stone, the mirror-eaten
insomniac silver, the cloud
pouring at the edges of a thunderclap,
the body we throw ourselves against—
these will be but necessary salvations,
lamps to keep us from death at a stranger's doorstep.
We will live until the body says,
fertilized in the tedium, utterly strange,
possessed by shadows of ill-fitting garments.
It will not pain us to know ourselves adrift,
nor to know ourselves.


...Hay un trazo:
los papeles en la mesa, la letra inconclusa
en el poema, la tinta que onírica gotea,
y el olor de la muerte que es un jazmín de noche,
cubriéndolo todo como la música inevitable
de una fiesta de provincia.
Así se hizo la luz. Así fue un instante
el rostro que persiste en la memoria
como el reflejo de las hogueras sobre el río.
Así fueron las islas brevísimas de la memoria
para las que no bastaron hombres, ni sueños,
ni árboles que perviertan la dejación de sus hojas
en el extraño maridaje de sombras
y de vientos.
Nada acabaría ante ella. El paisaje
sin voz como esa nieve que cae
imperturbable en los retratos,
caería igual, sin gracia,
sin obstinación, apenas
cumpliendo su destino, devolviendo
su condición de nieve impensada y musical,
ante el olvido ostentoso de los viajeros.
Todo se iniciaría
como aquel paseo por abedules,
un juego en donde todo se extienda
junto las horas: sin designios, sin previas
laxitudes, sin medir cuánta soledad en la hojarasca,
cuánta vida quedó a la deriva, empujada
por los ojos de los ciervos sumidos en la niebla,
y la cancioncilla de la mies partiéndose
que el viento elevaría sin miedos ni estandartes.
Sobre la hojarasca habrá perfección.
Lo insomne velará el pacto de esos cuerpos.
Consumidos por el fuego, otros buscarán
el fin de la noche como una transfiguración necesaria,
guardarán sus ropajes de inviernos, bailarán
desnudos en la pira de los tiempos.
Alguien dirá es el dios de la lluvia, es el dios del fuego,
es el dios de la noche, pero nadie pedirá el sacrificio:
un himno, el Rig vedá sin revelaciones, sin marcas,
sin angustias posibles.
Detrás vendrán las impasibles caravanas,
los jolgorios, el sonido de las arpas, los laúdes,
la muerte misma transfigurada en otras muertes,
moviéndose de un sitio a otro,
pactando su muerte en silencio, sin amor,
ofreciendo sus pechos de mujer blanca,
ofreciendo una rosa insomne, sin deseo,
ofreciéndola como un rito,
un talismán de buena suerte contra el silencio.
Éramos todos en los páramos del dolor.
No hay puertas. No hay ventanas.
El mundo es un pez ciego que flota en el sueño,
un funámbulo que ejerce su miedo contra el miedo.

Será ella quien nos tiente:
la luz, la piedra de luz, la plata insomne
devorada en los espejos, la nube
que abreva en las márgenes del trueno,
el cuerpo al que nos lanzamos
no serán sino salvaciones necesarias,
lámparas para no morirnos frente a puertas ajenas.
Viviremos hasta que el cuerpo diga,
fecundados en el tedio, extrañísimos,
poseídos por sombras de ropajes apretados.
No dolerá sabernos a la deriva,
ni sabernos.

On "Mudras"

I am a poet; I am a translator. It is something else entirely to be both of those things at once, which is why I initially (and forcefully) resisted translating poetry. When I look at my English-language version of "Mudras" from Carlos Pintado's wonderful book, Nine Coins, it's hard to see past the music of the original and the imperfections of my own. I'm glad to help provide a wider audience for Carlos' poetry, but I also wish my translation could just become the original, magically transformed into some ideal of language.

Since that last is impossible, I treated the first pass of this poem like jumping into a cold swimming pool. I found "Mudras" particularly intimidating because of its length and because of some tricky verbs early in the poem—Spanish can go blithely on without pronouns if it wants to and still make perfect sense, but that tends to make English a little twitchy. I felt like I all but hurled the poem into English—and threw English at it when it resisted. The process was over before I could fret about what mistakes I'd made, and by then the water was fine. I could go back, slowly, carefully, and much, much more gently for many successive passes, to correct and refine what was a mostly-accurate transliteration but far from poetry. The original is beautiful; I couldn't replicate its particular beauty, but I could try to give my version some of its own.

For me, the key to "Mudras" was allowing myself to depart from cognates and exact matches; many of the liberties I took were very small liberties of etymology (unlike in Carlos' sonnets, where I might invert lines or alter syntax more aggressively to catch the echo of a rhyme). I mixed curt, Anglo-Saxon monosyllables in with the Latinate to let the billowing mass of the poem stretch them into shape. "[C]iervos sumidos en la niebla" became "snow-sunk deer," "márgenes" became "edges," and "perviertan" became "warping." And so on.

I continued struggling, though, until I chose to translate the repeated phrase "hay un trazo de luz" (literally, "there's a stroke of light"), to the shorter, more active, "light strikes." As every English teacher I've ever had has insisted to me, the strength of English is in its verbs. I aspired to match Carlos' masterful command of Spanish—its musicality, its flexible word order and tolerant grammar—in my own use of English—its clarity and specificity, its willingness to be condensed—to compensate for English's more restrictive syntax and inherent shortage of rhyme. I am enormously grateful to Carlos for his trust in me as we made these decisions; he was a kind, generous guide to his own work.

It is sometimes a terrible responsibility to be a translator, and I—as anyone who knows me will tell you—am chronically indisposed towards responsibility of even the lightest sort. But I loved "Mudras" immediately, and love can have a way of making you responsible. I wanted to share this poem, to represent it as best I can to others so they can love it too. Ultimately, that's what I felt my responsibility was here. I have done my best to represent the poem, to hold up an English rendering. In this way, a reader might understand the content of "Mudras" through the form of my translation and hopefully see some beauty in it, thereby glimpsing the greater beauty of the Spanish that came before it.   




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