March 19, 2020
“Without translation, I would be limited to the borders of my own country. The translator is my most important ally. He introduces me to the world.”
The translation of poetry from one language to another is a daunting, some would say impossible, task. Some words in one language may not exist in another. How is meaning protected in such cases? Rhythm is crucial in many works of poetry — a changed rhythm can destroy intention. Given these challenges, among others, who in their right mind would set themselves to the hard work of translation? Fortunately for us, three individuals — Terry Ehret, John Johnson and Nancy J. Morales — have done just that and, as a result, introduce to us Plagios/Plagiarisms — Volume One (Sixteen Rivers Press, 2020), poems by Ulalume Gonzàlez de Leòn. Graced with an introduction by the great Octavio Paz (written in 1978), the collection wisely presents de Leòn’s poetry bilingually. Personally, I won’t buy a book of translated Spanish poems unless I can read, out loud, the original work first. In this way I can fully appreciate the sounds as they were meant to be heard. How more intimate with a poem can we be than when it is rolling around in our mouths?
Ulalume Gonzàlez de Leòn was born in 1928 in Uruguay; the daughter of two poets, Roberto Ibañez and Sarah de Ibañez. She studied literature and philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris and at the University of Mexico. While living in Mexico in 1948, she became a naturalized Mexican citizen. She published essays, stories, poems, and worked with Mexican poet and Nobel Laureate Octavio Paz as an editor of two literary journals, Plural and Vuelta. She also translated the work of H.D., Elizabeth Bishop, Ted Hughes, Lewis Carroll and e.e. cummings.
In the 1970s in Latin America, Gonzàlez de Leòn was part of a generation of women writers challenging the traditional identities of women, marriage, and relationships. Her poetry earned earned her many awards, including the Xavier Villaurrutia Prize, the Flower of Laura Poetry Prize, and the Alfonso X. Prize. She died in 2009 of respiratory failure and complications of Alzheimer’s.
Why is the book titled Plagios/Plagiarisms? de Leòn says “Everything is creation: I choose to say even what has already been said, which is different now, transformed by that accumulation of convergent data at whose point of intersection I find myself. And everything is plagiarism. Everything has already been said.”
The collection, the first of three bilingual volumes, presents several short collections of her poems produced from 1968 to 1971, exploring the ephemeral nature of identity and its dependence on the ever-shifting ground of language and memory.
Here now, are a few poems from Plagios/Plagiarisms, presented first in Spanish and then in English. I invite your comments.
Carta de Una Suicida
Toda lo perdido
nuestro para siempre
a prueba de vida,
a prueba de muerte.
Hoy soñe que ayer
y me despertè
para no perderte.
Hoy soñe que era
lo mismo mañana:
por tenerte siempre
me morì en la cama.
All that’s lost
is ours forever,
Today I dreamed that yesterday
and I woke up
so I wouldn’t lose you.
Today I dreamed it was
the same tomorrow:
to keep you always,
I died in bed.
sin lunes a la vista
Y el terror de tener que gastarlo
sin prisa que comerlo
sin hambre: terror de estar en blanco
en Babia prisionera
de un vuelo de mosca o de un cardillo
porque no tengo tiemp para inventar el mundo.
Like a Sunday
with no Monday in sight
And the terror of having to spend it
without hurry to eat it
without hunger: the terror of drawing a blank
while daydreaming prisoner of the flight
of a fly or thistledown
because I don’t have time to invent the world.
En las caricias lentas
a altas velocidades me inventas y te invento
Y en seguida perdemos nuestros cuerpos
con todo y fantasma
In slow caresses
at lightning speed you create me and I create you
And all at once we lose our bodies
ghost and all
Nancy J. Morales, a first-generation American of Puerto Rican parents, earned her bachelor’s degree from Rutgers College, a master’s in teaching English as a Second Language from Adelphi University, and a doctorate in education from Teacher’s College at Columbia University. She has taught at Dominican University College of Marin, Sonoma State University, and other schools. Currently she is a board member for the Northern California Chapter of the Fulbright Alumni Association and teaches Spanish to private clients.
John Johnson’s poetry has appeared in many print and online journals, including Boxcar; Poetry Review; Clade Sog; Triggerfish Critical Review; and Web Connections. He is a long-time student of the Spanish language and has studied letter-press printing with Iota Press of Sebastopol, producing chapbooks and bilingual broadsides.
Terry Ehret, one of the founders of Sixteen Rivers Press, has published four collections of poetry, most recently Night Sky Journey from Kelly’s Cove Press. Her literary awards include the National Poetry Series, the California Book Award, the Pablo Neruda Poetry Prize, a nomination for the Northern California Book Reviewer’s Award, and five Pushcart Prize nominations. From 2004 — 2006, she served as the poet laureate of Sonoma County where she lives and teaches writing.