This essay first appeared in Rosebud with Gustavo Solórzano-Alfaro’s translation of Dana Gioia’s poem “Insomnia.”
This fall Colección La Cruz del Sur, an imprint of the global Editorial Pre-Textos, will publish a volume of my selected poems in Spanish. This large edition was the brainchild of the Costa Rican poet, Gustavo Solórzano-Alfaro. When Gustavo first approached me about the idea, I asked if he might endeavor to try something impossible—to bring over the music of the original poems as well as their meaning. I felt that in Spanish it might be possible to create parallel versions of my poems, fully alive in their new language.
Gustavo embraced the challenge. For two years, he worked and reworked his versions often using meters similar to my originals, sometimes finding his own creative solutions. I gave him free license to make whatever changes he needed. The resulting volume, La oscuridad intacta, presents my work in his vivid, lyrical Spanish.
Spanish and English are two capacious global languages spoken across continents with the accents of different races and nations. I was born in one of the junctures between the two languages, in an American city with a Spanish name—Los Angeles. Although English was the official language, Los Angeles was already one of the largest Spanish speaking cities in the world. My mother was of Mexican descent, but she had married a Sicilian, so we spoke English at home. Next door we used an Italian dialect with my father’s family. Spanish was spoken in the homes of my childhood friends. At school, we spoke English, though we also attended daily Mass in Latin. This polyglot world was the working-class California of my childhood—mundane and magical in equal parts.
I am an American poet who writes in English, but I am a Latin by race and early formation. I studied the classics in Latin before I read their equivalents in English. Most of my family spoke English as a second language; some of the elders didn’t speak it at all. But I didn’t come from somewhere else. Although raised among immigrants, I was native to this new place. English is my mother tongue. I take as much pride in its possession as does any writer of London, Belfast, or Boston.
Being a Californian, however, I speak and hear English differently from a Briton or New Yorker. Here on the western rim of North America, I grew up in cities founded by Spaniards, not the British. The first cities were named after saints—San Diego, Santa Barbara, San Gabriel. Later towns commemorated geographical attributes—Salinas, Palo Alto, El Monte. The landscape was full of features not found in England or New England for which Westerners had adopted the Spanish names—arroyo, rancho, mesa, rodeo. In Los Angeles, the two languages had already, like my own family, intermixed. On the playground, we used both Mexican and American slang. The local movie theater was called the Plaza. As teenagers, we drove through a bilingual, indeed macaronic landscape—El Segundo Boulevard, Palos Verdes Hills, Hermosa Beach, Santa Monica Pier. The ghost of Spanish-haunted English in the City of the Angels.
I offer these childhood reminiscences to give some idea of the pleasure I feel seeing my poems in Spanish. Any poet delights to have work translated into another language, but for me Spanish is not just another language. It is the other language—the parlance of my ancestors, the human music of my childhood. It is the tongue I hoped my poems one day would speak. Perhaps even sing.
For me, poetry is an art closely related to song. Poetry shapes speech so that it rises to the level of music. It uses the sound and rhythm of words to create a physical connection with the listener to evoke meanings that lie beyond words. I don’t mean that poetic language should be artificial or formally elaborate. The poems I most admire begin as living speech but shape it to create a musical spell.
Poetry must be an enchantment or it is nothing. The language must captivate the conscious mind to allow repressed emotion, memory, and intuition to come to the surface. This sorcery affects the poet, too. In weaving a spell of words, the poet becomes—by inspiration or self-hypnosis—a vessel for language. A true poem achieves an existence independent from its author. It carries meanings the poet never intended. (A poem that means only what the poet says is a small poem.) Much of what it means, it says indirectly. Hearing or reading a poem allows a stranger to collaborate in its creation. A mystery of literature is that each reader experiences the same text differently, and yet the poem is enlarged rather than diminished.
The most difficult form of re-creation for any poem is translation. Unless the translator aims for a literal and prosaic paraphrase, he or she must face the challenge of creating an equivalent poem in the new language. Something is always lost in translation—music, nuance, tempo. The list is long. But we should also celebrate how much is gained. The poem is reborn in a new world where it speaks to people it might not otherwise have encountered. Translation is the conversation between languages and cultures. How little of the world’s literature we would know if it were not for translation. I have been fortunate in having Gustavo Solorzano-Alfaro undertake this book of translations. He has not only been meticulous in bringing across the meaning of the poems but also attentive to their sounds and rhythms. The result has been a startling metamorphosis. Reading my poems in his Spanish, I hear my own voice in his lines.