(r): R, would you like to talk about the Prince of Darkness?
R: Indeed! Did you hear about the time when "[t]hundersturck in the hollow/of an oak, the young man kept and maintained/his eyes fixed on the beauty and his ears/on the metered harmony" (25, li. 267-70)?
(r): I must have heard; I certainly couldn't see a thing. Edith Grossman's translation of Luis de Góngora's The Solitudes is nothing if not sonically inventive.
R: Agreed. I was hoping we could spend a moment today asking where that invention takes place.
(r): I'd be happy to.
R: Reader, we're speaking of Penguin's gorgeous new edition of Góngora's anti-epic (if you will allow me that phrase), a slender volume the cover of which presents the early seventeenth-century poem as if it were written by Roberto Bolaño on a camping trip.
(r): Góngora's wild, baroque poetics (which shocked his contemporaries enough to earn him the title "Prince of Darkness") have been particularly important for poets like Lorca & Mallarmé. What's so fascinating about this translation, for me, is the way Grossman transposes those tortuous syntactical structures into English. It begs a question, I think about Grossman's own poetics of translation.
R: Grossman's translation attends to syntactical twists and turns with such fidelity that one feels as if one is reading for form first and content second.
(r): That's a really good way of putting it. Take, for example, this bit from the first solitude: "If this small map unfolds so much to them,/much more, clouds of mist lifting, lies beyond,/confounded by sun and by distance denies./ Wonder is mute, it speaks by being silent/and, blind, it follows a river that--shining/child of those precipices--/in convoluted discourse, and digressive,/benevolent it tyrannizes the fields" (21, li. 194-201). That "convoluted discourse," is, of course, a statement of poetics as much as it is series of mixed metaphors in which Wonder is first a mute person, then a river. This constant sense of slippage--metamorphosis--seems built into the poem as Grossman renders it. Her fidelity to certain aspects of Góngora's form (the silva, in this case, a Spanish stanzaic pattern that consists of alternating hendecasyllabics & heptasyllabics) creates a sense of both flux & constraint. Does that make sense?
R: Absolutely. It's interesting to me that you mention "metamorphoses," for in reading this translation I was constantly reminded of another--Allen Mandelbaum's translation of Ovid, my very favorite--insofar as language here is used to create a fantastical space, as if the poem is not being translated but rather revealed into another language.
R: The difference is that Ovid's poetry is plot-driven--plot is not Góngora's concern--and so there is the sense of full disclosure in Mandelbaum's translation regardless of its estranging effects. In Grossman's translation, by contrast, what is revealed is an inspired and torturous linguistic topography--"and in vain air/[...]the exhaled powder/of arrows luminous through artifice,/rather than purple comets" (51, li. 646-9).
(r): Yes--The Solitudes is only nominally narrative--a shipwrecked stranger, almost void of what we might recognize as personal qualities, wandering a changeable landscape.
R: But that's the thing, isn't it--the only plot points (and there are very few) involve other people. The poem is in itself a false solitude.
(r): Sure--in fact, & I think what you're saying underscores this--the other, secondary characters in the poem turn out to be much more vividly present to us as readers than does the protagonist.
R: The solitude becomes our own.
(r): A product, perhaps, of being at once shut in with & exiled from the language of the poem. Its richness compels. Its Heraclitan density refuses.
R: Dear (r), tell me about the mechanical tree.
(r): Alright, I will.
R: I'm all (mechanical) ears.
(r): In Bend Sinister, Nabokov outlines a theory of translation. "It was as if," he writes, "someone, having seen a certain oak tree (further called Individual T) growing in a certain land and casting its own unique shadow on the green and brown ground, had proceeded to erect in his garden a prodigiously intricate piece of machinery which in itself was as unlike that or any other tree as the translator's inspiration and language were unlike those of the original author, but which, by means of ingenious combinations of parts, light effects, breeze-engendering engines, would, when completed, cast a shadow exactly similar to that of Individual T--the same outline changing in the same manner, with the same double and single spots of suns rippling in the same position at the same hour of the day" (60).*
Grossman's theory of translation, at least for this work, seems to occupy similar territory. In this case, the shadow cast has to do with shape &--because poetry is what it is--form.
R: Yes, and because Góngora--and Grossman--invent on the level of syntax, the mechanical tree is both a horizontal and a vertical object, which is to say that Grossman attends not only to poetics but also to prosaics. And whether we share Grossman's theory of translation, her fidelity to this theory has a sort of aesthetic value in itself. (Now, why did we learn French when we should have learned Spanish?)
(r): (I ask myself that every day.) I like the idea that fidelity to a theory--within limits--can amount to aesthetic value. That's not to say I don't wonder what translators with different theories might do with Góngora. Indeed, Grossman's translation makes me incredibly curious to have another to lay alongside it--not because it's insufficient (Hard, anyway, to talk about insufficiency or completeness in a poem that's so self-consciously unfinished, fragmentary) but because Góngora's work seems to invite multiplicity. Any translation would be (& maybe translations always are) by some measure incomplete. But the differences between modes of incompletion speak to us. They speak in different voices. Góngora, after all, was an admirer of the chorus: "let the least common/amoretti of nymphs the forest hides/take wing, feathers in the air,/and from their silver quivers/let some bring down a shower of wild roses" (61, li. 789-793 "Chorus I"). I wonder, for instance, what a translation of Góngora would look like if the poem were rendered outside of the approximation of silva that Grossman uses.
R: It's a nineteenth-century approximation, right? It's Silvan-Silva-Via-Keats.
(r): Sounds right--the chroma & the allusions are certainly Keatsian in nature.
R: Barring that, the form of the meandering long poem might read rather differently, I think. That is to say, there's many an Oxford Major Works of many a nineteenth-century British poet into the pages of which one might effectively sneak Grossman's Góngora without detection.
R: This brings us, I think, to another aspect of Grossman's translation, which is the ethics of translation. From the dust jacket to the front matter, here is re-translation as recuperation
(r): Absolutely. The copy pitches Góngora as a little-read poet, now available to an English language audience. Although one might argue about how available one can ever make Góngora. Part of the appeal is, perhaps, in his evasiveness.
R: ...which reflects/inspires a (somewhat marketable) poetics of discovery--"In the sea there lies, if not continuous/with the mainland, an island barely separate/from it, shaped like an indolent tortoise [...]" (95, li. 187-9). "La tierra dividida," indeed (94, l. 191)!
(r): Yes! Rather a vexed position for the text, given Góngora's general hostility to imperial projects. A strange reproduction of the politics of discovery as well as the poetics.
R: Perhaps that gives us a final point to consider. We've addressed the formal and ethical claims of Grossman's Góngora. In closing: Grossman as context for Góngora, and vice versa.
I'm thinking of the large orange copy inside the dust jacket. It reads:
"The crowning achievement of our most celebrated translator from Spanish: a magnificent new translation of an epic masterpiece of world literature."
It is Grossman, then, who comes to us from the Spanish; Góngora is already in the public domain.
(r): That's a lot of superlatives!
R: The translation supervenes upon the text!
(r): So it doth, which is all, perhaps, a translation can ever hope to do.
*We cite the Vintage International edition of Vladimir Nabokov’s Bend Sinister.