Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Man or name?

Two translations of the last lines of Pablo Neruda's "Ars Poetica," from Residence on Earth:
but the truth is, suddenly, the wind lashing my chest,
the infinitely dense nights dropped into my bedroom,
the noise of a day burning with sacrifice
demand what there is in me of the prophetic, with melancholy
and there's a banging of objects that call without being answered,
and a restless motion, and a muddled name.

(Mark Eisner)

but the truth is that suddenly the wind that lashes my chest,
the nights of infinite substance fallen in my bedroom,
the noise of a day that burns with sacrifice,
ask me mournfully what prophecy there is in me,
and there is a swarm of objects that call without being answered,
and a ceaseless movement, and a bewildered man.

(Donald D. Walsh)
Leaving aside the other differences between the versions (I generally prefer Walsh's, from the New Directions edition, to Eisner's, which is quoted in his new biography of Neruda), there's a significant disagreement that has nothing to do with translation methods or styles; it has to do with the text of the Spanish original. The last words in the Spanish text that Walsh is translating (his edition is bilingual) are un hombre, a man; Eisner is evidently following a text that reads un nombre, a name. Spoken aloud they would be indistinguishable (the h is silent), but which text is correct?

I find hombre a more satisfying conclusion to the poem, with the catalogue of objects and motions ending up producing, wittily, a confused man, but the other reading isn't implausible either, given that Neruda, throughout Residence on Earth, frequently juxtaposes adjectives and nouns in seemingly inscrutable combinations. Eisner seems to be following the text of the 1999 Obras completas I edited by Hernán Loyola. At least one scholar (Tim Bowron) regards Loyola's "un nombre" as "an obvious error," but further research is needed.


Michael Leddy said...

Like you, I prefer the Walsh. The shape of the sentence in the his version seems much clearer: “the truth is that” makes it easier to see the series that follows. And Eisner’s “demand what there is in me of the prophetic, with melancholy” feels like pretty ungainly English.

I know very little of Neruda. I’m guessing you probably know this article about translations of Neruda (found by looking up Walsh). There’s an argument in it about whether the correct word in another poem is “viajo” or “viejo.”

Chris said...

Thanks for that articlew, Michael; I'll read it carefully tonight, as I'm particularly interested in the discussion of the opening lines of "Walking Around." Eisner's opening lines of that poem, quoted in his bio, are very different and I don't like his version at all. In general Eisner is less Latinate than Walsh, and I find his translations a bit pedestrian but occasionally more accurate. Eisner's "with melancholy" is a perfect example; it actually matches the syntax of the original closely, but Walsh's version sounds much better.

Merwin's translation of Twenty Love Poems or Walsh's Residence on Earth are good starting-places. The latter is much more challenging and complex.

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for the recommendations, Chris.