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Anna Crowe on Translation

Posted by Arc, 5th March 2014

Conversations with translators are coming thick and fast and the moment, which makes them all the more interesting to consider the myriad of techniques and thought-process undergone...

This week it's the turn of Anna Crowe who has translated Pedro Serrano's Peatlands.

You've written a fascinating piece on translating that mentions your work with Pedro. He says 'For me, your translations are your immersion in these poems, and in this immersion, while the poems don't cease to be mine, they also belong to you.' I wonder if you can talk about how you perform that immersion?

First of all, I do the 'nuts and bolts' stuff - make sure I have understood each and every word, and how they are being used. In Pedro's poem Los pies/Feet, for example, I found his description of a wasp clinging to a needle very puzzling. I wondered whether the word 'aguja/needle' somehow meant the sting, but no: he is referring to a Mexican wasp that clings to pine-needles. In Pedro's case, it helps immeasurably that he speaks such excellent English. Having done all that sort of groundwork, I then read and re-read the poem aloud, listening to the sound patterns, and I walk about, doing other tasks, but carrying those sounds around, and, as it were, breathing the atmosphere of the poem, 'inhabiting' it, as Anne Stevenson might say. What she says about writing poetry in her poem Making Poetry (The Fiction-Makers, OUP 1985) applies just as much, if not more so, to translating it:

And what's to inhabit?
To be in the habit of, to wear
words, sitting in the plainest light,
in the silk of morning, in the shoe of night;

I go about, walking is best, trying out phrases in English, listening to the sounds to see how close they can come to the Spanish, 'the sound leading the hand', as Anne Stevenson says, making sure an image can live happily in its English shoe as well as it does in its Spanish one. For days I inhabit the world of that poem before sitting down at my computer to type it up and see how it looks on the page.

And what's the difference in this performance between Catalan and Mexican Spanish?

I suspect that, as far as the immersion process goes, the difference may lie more with the poet than with the language. The first poet I translated to any extent is Joan Margarit, and while the Catalan language generally sounds harsher, more trenchant, than Spanish, his style is even more so, his poetry being brutally concise, painfully and movingly truthful and with lyricism held on a tight leash (he is an architect, who specializes in structural calculations). When it came to translating the work of Catalan poets such as Maria Mercé Marçal, Francesc Parcerisas, Carles Torner or Manuel Forcano, suddenly the Catalan I heard was much more fluid and lyrical. Mexican Spanish also sounds a lot softer than peninsular Spanish, and Pedro Serrano is a supreme lyricist, with a strong interest in libretto, and since music is also an important concern of mine (I sang for many years with an a capella early music group), I have found translating his work a very congenial and rewarding task.

Pedro goes on to talk about reclaiming the poems once they've been translated into English. What is the process between you both as you translate his work?

When he talks about 'reclaiming the poems' he goes on to say that 'translation is mysterious, sinister, uncanny', and Anne Stevenson's description of poetry as 'a wordlife running from mind to mind / through the washed rooms of the simple senses' seems even more resonant in the context of translation. Pedro and I bat suggested translations back and forth by email (whatever did translators do before they had email??) until we are both happy with the result. It has to sound natural, while remaining as close to the meaning of the original as it is possible to be. Inevitably, they become my poems, while remaining Pedro's. He also says 'It is the proof that what we call poetry really exists, always transmuting itself, and belongs to nobody, and belongs to us all.' This is an example of typically Serranian generosity and inclusiveness.

You talk, in the preface to Peatlands, about enjoying the task of translating the music of the original poems, what did you find the most difficult thing through the process?

I think perhaps the hardest thing was to make credible translations that reflect the swiftness with which images evolve, one into another, constantly engendering new ones. The sequence of poems called Turba/Peat is a case in point. I had to leave out quite a few but wanted to be sure that the ones I chose would flow one into another, and that we wouldn't lose some important element. This is a sequence of poems that deals with writing and with pain and despair, very centred on the body and how it lets us down, and how we despise and fear it, and the poems are richly allusive. I think every writer will know what Pedro Serrano is saying when he writes

The word does not collide with its meaning.
It is a rage that breathes and shakes,
setting trees swirling, collisions,
again and again in the body's tangles,
in the wretchedness of legs,
in sex's implacable anguish.
I fold my body into this attentive pen,
I look for a line to follow, an expression,
a stammering outrage that takes charge.
I travel along words as though carving muscles on corners.

You also talk about wanting to remain as close to the original poem as possible. How much do you think you achieve this and what could be defined as the difference?

I think that all I can say is that I have done my best to translate what I think is the essence of Pedro's poems, and it will be for readers to decide whether I have succeeded. The difference? A Mexican reader will undoubtedly bring to these poems all his or her understanding of what it means to be Mexican, a more intense sense of the country's history and its landscape or cityscape than I have, but I hope I have succeeded in conveying something of the linguistic bravura of the poet's writing, as well as his humanity and passion.

You've just seen two books of your translations published by Arc within the past year. What's next?

At the moment I am translating the last book to be published by the Catalan poet, Joan Margarit, Es perd el senyal (The signal is fading) which I hope will be published, together with his penultimate volume, No era lluny ni difícil (It wasn't far away or difficult) by his English publisher, Bloodaxe. Two other exciting Catalan poets I want to translate more of are the late Maria Mercé Marçal, and Manuel Forcano. Another project I have been working on for many years is a translation of the extraordinary nineteen-twenties Spanish novel by Ram&243;n del Valle Inclán, Tirano Banderas, about the overthrow of a tyrant in a country not unlike Mexico. I am aware that the book has recently been translated and published, but my translation will be very different and, I hope, closer to the original. Now that there are faculties of translation in many universities, it is advantageous to have more than one translation of a text. Meanwhile, I am working towards completing a third full collection of my own and will be looking for a new publisher now that Harry Chambers has sadly died and that Peterloo Poets is no more. I am not idle!