Clayton Eshleman & the Practice of Translation

Posted by Lidya Endzo Kun iLLa On 7:05 AM
[The following is an essay written last year in the course of judging the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award for the Academy of American Poets. It was originally published by the Academy in American Poet, volume 35, Fall 2008. A new & related poem by Eshleman, currently unpublished, will be the next posting on Poems and Poetics.]

Translation alongside original creation is the great conduit for bringing new language and thought into a culture. It is also, for some of us who practice it but particularly for those who practice it as poets, a way of making poetry not unrelated to our ways of making poetry in any case. It is a testimony as well to the collective nature of the poetry project and to the desire on the part of many poets, contemporary and historical, to form against all odds a kind of visionary company. All of this, for those of us who approach translation in this way, enters into an assessment of any particular translation as an example of the translator’s art and practice.

In judging this year's submissions, I have chosen from a small wealth of poetry books in translation, any number of which could have justifiably been selected for the Landon Translation Award. Yet if the award is to honor the translator alongside the poet being translated, one of the books published last year stands out from the rest in ways that are difficult to emulate. In The Complete Poetry of Cesar Vallejo, the poet and translator Clayton Eshleman marks the end of a nearly fifty-year encounter with the work and life of one of the truly giant figures of twentieth-century poetry. That encounter, however, is far different from the lifetime work of a devoted scholar or even of many a poet who takes to translation as a kind of secondary profession. Such work can be of the utmost importance, and yet with Eshleman something else is going on for which I can find no easy equivalent. More than any poet I know he has pursued a dangerous path for a translator, a path on which the translation itself can be wrecked, diverted at best, by too close an identification with the translated poet. Yet Eshleman evades those pitfalls, while creating a narrative of interactions with his subject that is without precedent and with a deliberate consciousness of what he’s doing and why, and of how he may fail in that effort. Toward this awareness an important feature of The Collected Poems is his Afterword, subtitled A Translation Memoir. This is the account – and not for the first time – of his struggle with Vallejo, not in the usual sense of a translator working on a difficult text but in a way reminiscent of Lorca’s intuition that the greatest poetry results from a struggle with the Duende, the more-than-muse for poetry.

The description in Eshleman’s Memoir goes back over forty years and describes, convincingly enough, “violent and morbid fantasies” and a dreamlike struggle with “a figure who possessed a language the meaning of which I was attempting to wrest away.” Of those early imaginings, he writes later: “I thought Vallejo day and night, dreamed Vallejo,” and in his poem “The Name Encanyoned River” (the title taken from Vallejo): “For fifteen years you have rivered my sleep, / as if I slept under your gun, / as if my dreams took place in the pipe / you flowed through.” Or again and more vividly in the Memoir: “Now I was having dreams in which Vallejo’s corpse, wearing muddy shoes, was laid out in bed between [Eshleman’s first wife] Barbara and me.”

This is hard-core poetry and may currently be unfashionable, but it makes of Eshleman’s Vallejo translations an action story and the work of the translator an adventure in poetry. At the same time, and more than many, Eshleman is scrupulous in his working and goes to great lengths to get Vallejo right. As he tells it, speaking of advice given him by Cid Corman, an older poet/mentor, whatever the relationship might be to Vallejo or other translated poets, the act of translation was not to be an act of “interpretation,” a freewheeling remake of the original poem. Rather: “Corman taught me to respect the original at every point, to check everything (including words I thought I knew), to research arcane and archaic words, and to invent English words for coined words – in other words to aim for a translation that was absolutely accurate and up to the performance level of the original (at times, quite incompatible goals).”

Take Eshleman’s translation of Vallejo’s short early poem, “The Spider,” a figure central to Eshleman’s own imagination, and see how authentic the language is and how close to Vallejo, as if to prove that poet and poet-translator have made a (nearly) perfect fit:

It is an enormous spider that now cannot move:
a colorless spider, whose body,
a head and an abdomen, bleeds.

Today I watched it up close. With what effort
toward every side
it extended its innumerable legs.
And I have thought about its invisible eyes,
the spider’s fatal pilots.

It is a spider that tremored caught
on the edge of a rock;
abdomen on one side,
head on the other.

With so many legs the poor thing, and still unable
to free itself. And on seeing it
confounded by its fix
today I have felt such sorrow for that traveler.

It is an enormous spider, impeded by
its abdomen from following its head.
And I have thought about its eyes
and about its numerous legs . . .
And I have felt such sorrow for that traveler!

The resultant translations are quite remarkable as poetry and, even without the accompanying narrative/memoir, give a chilling sense of Vallejo’s power. Yet Eshleman, who has translated other strong poets such as Césaire, Artaud and Holan (he is by now Césaire’s principal translator) is here at the height of his powers as a poet-translator. If Vallejo truly found him in a dream and led him into poetry, the response as translation more than requites it.

. . . . . . .

A FINAL NOTE

There was some difficulty for me in choosing to award a poet-translator who has already been greatly honored and honored largely and rightfully for other aspects of his ongoing Vallejo translations. It has seemed to me too, in going over the range of translations submitted for the current Landon Award, that 2007 was a banner year for large-scale and highly ambitious translations. These include work from a number of major contemporary poets, some of them (Zanzotto, Darwish, Saenz) long overdue for extensive representation in English. In particular I want to cite I Am a Beautiful Monster, Marc Lowenthal’s translation of the bulk of the poetry and other writings of Francis Picabia, and Peter Cole’s ambitious and largely unprecedented anthology of Hebrew poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, The Dream of the Poem. Markedly different in their subjects, both of these books make visible work that has rarely been seen or rarely in such readable form in English. Cole’s book, impressively and painstakingly presented, opens up a distant poetry through a number of greater and lesser poets writing between 950 and 1492, the golden age of Jewish diasporic poetry in Hebrew. With Picabia the presentation is of an experimental painter-poet, whose work can now stand for us alongside the poetry of Arp, Schwitters, Picasso, and Kandinsky, as a testimony to what Schwitters spoke of as “the erasure of the boundaries between the arts.” Lowenthal’s translation of Picabia’s often elusive writings never get in the way of the original, and the impressive structuring of the book gives a brilliant typographical representation of Picabia’s work as it relates to that of his Dada and Surrealist contemporaries.

And finally, while it’s on a smaller scale than I Am a Beautiful Monster, I would call attention to oceans beyond monotonous space, translated by John Solt, a first booklength selection from Kitasono Katue, a remarkable experimentalist and avant-gardist whose poems in Japanese were early explorations of new forms and modes of expression. That bringing such experimental and often neglected work to light is another major function of translation is a matter of singular importance for many of us writing and translating today.

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