Pablo Neruda is a notoriously difficult poet to translate into English (in fact, entire books have been written about this difficulty) – not least because he is a great master of rhyme in Spanish, and Romance languages have in general far more rhyming words than English does. But Neruda also presents difficulties of tone and theme for translators that stem from the difficulties they pose in the originals. Of 1933’s Residencia en la tierra (Residence on Earth), the Chilean Nobel Laureate’s second book of poems, Neruda later said that he would have it banned if given the power to do so. It’s a shocking statement from an author about their own work, possibly unique in the annals of world literature, but he was referring not to the kinds of content that we associate with banned books, but to the sense of utter despair conveyed by the poems. Take, for instance, “System of Gloom,” here translated by Stephen Kessler.
From every one of these days black as old iron,
and opened up by the sun like big red oxen,
and barely kept alive by air and by dreams,
and suddenly and irremediably vanished,
nothing has taken the place of my troubled beginnings,
and the unequal measures pumping through my heart
are forged there day and night, all by themselves
adding up to messy and miserable sums.
So that’s how, like a lookout gone blind and senseless,
incredulous and condemned to a painful watch,
facing the wall where each day’s time congeals,
my different faces gather and are bound in chains
like large, heavy, faded flowers
stubbornly temporary, dead already.
One would be hard pressed to imagine something so drab and so beautiful at once as this poem is. Banning it would surely be extreme. Nevertheless, it is understandable that Neruda may have frightened himself with this poem, or retroactively felt the weight of the burden piled up by its string of “and” upon “and”: its messy and miserable sum. The third volume of Residence on Earth wasn’t published until 1947, and by this time not only had World War II and the Spanish Civil War intervened, but Neruda had discovered the boost he needed to raise his poems from despair: communism (yet another stumbling block for translating Neruda for American readers). Time spent as Chile’s consul to Spain during the rise of the Franco regime cemented Neruda’s faith in the historical-materialist view that humanity’s ills are rooted in problems of politics and economics. Note the dramatic change of heart from Residence on Earth to the rapture of “I Explain Some Things,” here translated by Mark Eisner
You will ask: And where are the lilacs?
And the metaphysics laced with poppies?
And the rain that often beat
his words filling them
with holes and birds?
I’ll tell you everything that’s happening with me.
It goes on another 70-odd lines, and it is difficult not to quote the entire poem. Gone is the opiate-drowsed philosophy, the words like puddles of rain, replaced by the fecundity of the natural world and human life: exploding geraniums, throbbing bread, and tomatoes rhyming all the way to the horizon. Here is the poet who kept a framed portrait of Walt Whitman on his writing desk for decades.
These translations, along with many more that track Neruda’s career from his first book, Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, to the epic sequence on brotherhood and man’s place in the landscape, “Heights of Macchu Picchu,” and his posthumous collection The Sea and the Bells, are all gathered together in The Essential Neruda: Selected Poems, first published by City Lights 2004 and continuously one of our best-selling poetry volumes since then. The editor, Mark Eisner, assembled a group of top Neruda scholars, poets, and translators working in the U.S. and included translations from each of them: John Felstiner, Forrest Gander, Robert Hass, Jack Hirschman, and Stephen Mitchell are among the contributors. It’s a testament to their deep knowledge of Neruda’s work and their collective fidelity to his temperament and style that the contours of the poet’s entire life and poetic development are visible in this work of many hands.
Eisner is currently crowdfunding a documentary on Neruda, so if you’re as big a fan of the poet as we are, take the time to donate and end up with some Neruda-centric swag. Follow the project on Facebook. Find below a rough clip narrated by Isabel Allende.
For more about Neruda, go here. We’re celebrating 60 years of publishing City Lights books through all of 2015, so keep it here each Thursday for more as we recount our favorites.