Daniel Bencomo (San Luis Potosí, 1980) has published the collections of poetry Apuntes en el baño (2005), De maitines y vísperas (2008), Morder la piedra (2009) and Lugar de residencia (FETA, 2010), which won the Elías Nandino prize.
~ Translating poetry feels, at times, like climbing to a high peak and hearing the echo of a song sung on a different summit. After hearing it, you yourself have to shout, giving rise to another echo, which is created as the sound warps along the length of another, completely different valley – foothills with different patterns of ridges, air, wings, diverse trees – towards someone who is waiting, as the case may be, on a third summit.
~ What ought to be preserved in the second echo?
~ Beyond this image, I could not say what the essence is of the act of translating poetry, despite the fact that I often ask myself about it, despite the fact that I practice it often, despite the fact I read, gratefully, so many translators who make versions of languages I am ignorant of. To what does this act respond?
~ The first piece that I tried to translate was the Hymns to the Night by Novalis. Too bold. It was a moment of reconnaissance, an attempt to maintain a proximity to the language of a country in which I was immersed for more than a year. But I never got to know the language of Novalis when I was in Germany. They no longer speak it in the street. I was able to intuit more about him from the moment I put him into Spanish.
~ That version of Hymns to the Night will forever remain unpublished and suppressed, to the reading public’s good fortune.
~ I’m lying. A few years before, I ‘translated’ two poems by Durs Grünbein for a magazine I was editing with a friend. At the time, I was almost completely ignorant of German, too oblivious to the depth and clockwork precision of a translated text. I have conserved that impudent act as a lacuna. It does not acquire, in memory, the same sense of ceremony, of initiation, as my Novalis does.
~ Independently of the stamp of Romanticism, of the tone that oscillates between fervent delirium and gusts of ice blown down by Sofia from some cosmic tableland, I remember that moment in which, after demarcating the sense that opened up in the original lines of Novalis, exiling the poem from one language and implanting it in my own gave rise to a complex and hardly describable emotion. A drug.
~ The translator of poetry is enveloped in a narcotic fog, which arises from her fascination with the strangeness of another language, condensed in the strangeness that is uncovered, during the process and after it, in her own. This drunkenness that circulates between two languages diminishes the natural egotism of the author, and opens the space of the translator.
~ Paul Celan’s fervid translation of the poetry of Ossip Mandelstam, completed in a very short period, was surely produced in a not dissimilar state.
~ Friedrich Hölderlin undertook his translation of Sophocles in the grips of a deeper and more complex delirium, as Anne Carson tells us in her superlative essay ‘Variations on the right to remain silent’: for her, Hölderlin chose catastrophe as a method extracted from translation. Hölderlin’s versions, animated by a strange fidelity to the vocabulary and syntax of the Greek, lead towards the abyss of all possible meaning, and site the poet at the gates of madness.
~ Translation à la Hölderlin constitutes a limit, an equation which equals the infinite. Walter Benjamin saw it that way too; for him, the translator’s task was to pursue an absolute end, namely, the search for pure language, by intuiting it in two languages that would only attain such purity if historical time were redeemed in a messianic present. Translation seeks to establish a harmonic relation between the two languages, based on the verbal relationships expressed in the original poem. For him, this concurrence was not to be found in what is communicable in a text: ‘The translator’s task consists in this: to find the intention toward the language into which the work is to be translated, on the basis of which an echo of the original can be awakened in it.’ In my reading, this echo is the tension between the music of the poem, all the aspects that give it shape – its register – and the ambiguity that obscures its meaning(s). Here, moreover, reside its violence and its pleasure.
~ For any writer of poetry, it is a valuable exercise to translate a piece from a language which they admire, and with which they have a certain affinity. I believe that it helps one learn a lot about one’s own music. It’s like emulating the melody of a chamber orchestra, but with a different set of musicians: a group of synthesisers, maybe.
~ In the poet who translates poetry, or the translator who writes verse, we do not find Jekyll and Hyde. Much more effective, to me, is the analogy with the twins Violet and Diane Hilton, characters in Tod Browning’s film Freaks. These Siamese twin sisters are in love with a pair of young men, but they have to face up to the dilemma of their two bodies’ being fused at the hip. We do not know how desire arises in and is projected from this corporal convergence, nor how it becomes two vectors which point to different territories. Was the desire of one of them greater than the other’s? Did one of them possess more body – extension, intensity – than the other? Which one, and how to find out? Right there is where the answer hides, right there is where the unknown quantity of writing is born.
~ I return to that pure language Walter Benjamin reflected on. Less than a code to decipher Babel, I interpret this concurrence as residing in the urge to speak which all language embodies. All languages coincide in the desirousness of their nature, in their indecipherable foundations; they are a desiring reflection of man’s desire. The poetic translation has to attend to this, to lay out this relation between languages in verbal intensities, in the permutations of games, in singular solutions for each poem, in echoes of the original register.
~ At first it seems paradoxical, the link between translation and the contemporary world, so suspicious of anything that smells like Truth. A first reflection might lead one to believe that translating implies a vocation for preserving the truthful. To assume this position implies various questions: Where would such a condition of truth be found? In the meaning of the text? In the singularity of its form? The answer is not clear, and cannot be clarified in terms of ‘fidelity’ or ‘infidelity’. Translating poetry is, fortunately, a study in antifidelity.
~ Every translated poem is an animal with a different life to that of the original. The version possesses finitude, it is focused on the becoming of its language. Readers change. A language is as alive as its mutations. A new translation updates a poem – created as a sublime, select and enduring portrait of its language – into an object which evokes the vitality at a given moment of another language. For this reason it is and will continue to be a living practice.
~ I borrow from Mark Dery the notion of ‘escape velocity’ – the dynamic state a particle requires to escape a gravitational system – to describe how it is that a literary translation becomes poetry: when the creative impulse to translate a poem is impregnated with transcreative acceleration, it reaches the speed needed to break free of the planet of meaning, towards broader meanings.
~ Antifidelity is the key to these notes. I do not believe that the translator of poetry, when she undertakes her labour, thinks along lines such as I have sketched here. In general, this labour is resolved in an impulse, a bioluminescent intuition in the penumbra that roils between two languages.
(Translated by John Z. Komurki)