A Match for Macchu Picchu

Christopher Reid

  • Translating Neruda: The Way to Macchu Picchu by John Felstiner
    Stanford, 284 pp, $18.50, December 1980, ISBN 0 8047 1079 1
  • The Oxford Book of Verse in English Translation edited by Charles Tomlinson
    Oxford, 608 pp, £12.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 19 214103 1

John Felstiner’s Translating Neruda: The Way to Macchu Picchu is an unusual, honest and enterprising book, but ultimately something of a disappointment. Its title suggests a book-lover’s pilgrimage, an intellectual adventure of the order of, say, The Quest for Corvo or The Road to Xanadu. A great deal of the pleasure it offers derives from the openness – rare in the academic field, where positions tend to be held with entrenched fervour – that the author permits in telling of his unique journey. Having said this, I have to declare that it is this very scrupulousness which makes Felstiner’s achievement at best a minor or compromised one.

It seems that the idea for this book came from a passage in George Steiner’s study of language and translation, After Babel – itself an intellectual adventure in the grand old conquistadorial manner. Steiner deplored the fact that, whereas a good many literary creators have left documentation, in the form of notes and rough drafts, to show how they worked, the business of translation remains comparatively mysterious. ‘We know next to nothing,’ Steiner wrote, ‘of the genetic process which has gone into the translator’s practice, of the prescriptive or purely empirical principles, devices, routines which have controlled his choice of this equivalent rather than that, of one stylistic level in preference to another.’ This is certainly true, and Felstiner has set out in his own way to make good that lack.

Alturas de Macchu Picchu is the mature masterpiece of the Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda. Written in 1943, and now probably the most famous poetic work by any Latin American of this century – bar perhaps the same writer’s Veinte Poemas de Amor y una Cancion Desesperada – it is a complex, sonorous, imposing piece, of almost indefinable importance to the modern canon. Neruda has been translated into numerous languages, and into English many times, so that when Felstiner assumed the task of making an English version of Alturas de Macchu Picchu, he was able to (and did) look back on a plethora of precedents. We are accustomed to seeing the lyrics of Horace or Catullus undergo constant revamping, but it is surely extraordinary when a composition not 40 years old receives similar treatment. At any rate, it was in view of the judged inadequacy of his predecessors that Felstiner took on his pious task, hoping to find an English match for the genius of a foreign tongue.

The text of Felstiner’s book is completed by this translation, which stands parallel to the Spanish original. An introduction and five chapters prepare us for the climax: they deal with, roughly speaking, the theoretical problems of translation, Neruda’s life and career prior to writing Alturas de Macchu Picchu, and, in Chapter Five, a canto-by-canto résumé of what was to become Felstiner’s own Heights of Macchu Picchu. We are given, that is, much of the background information and bumf that would normally be missing from the records.

I suppose that when George Steiner lamented the absence of such paraphernalia, he had in mind Pope’s first stabs at the Iliad, or what Pound said to his friends à propos frigidaire patents and ancient, respected Wordsworthians in Sextus Propertius. Sadly, Felstiner’s work is a far cry from what either Pope or Pound achieved. The fifth chapter of his book, ingenuous and revealing as it is, allows one to see why: he comes across as an honourably painstaking plodder who, despite his understanding of, and sympathy for, Neruda’s masterpiece, lacks the gift to make an English poem of his given material. In fact, I think he was faced with intractable problems. There are moments when he himself admits to a distrust of certain of Neruda’s characteristic devices, where plangent rhetoric sometimes dins out intelligible sense. A great deal of Neruda’s poetry, in Alturas de Macchu Picchu and elsewhere, is irredeemably obscure. Certain poetic properties – earth, air, the moon, blood, love, solitude, germination and the like – recur in combinations that begin to look merely kaleidoscopic. It is hard for the empirical English mind not to suspect Neruda of being a trifle slapdash in some of his effects: Felstiner’s earnest and cautious attempts to match him nuance for nuance take on a gravely comic air.

Felstiner has toiled hard to make his Heights of Macchu Picchu both faithful to the Spanish and true to the English idiom. One does not wish to fault him here, and yet, for all that his work is set out in lines and stanzas that correspond to Neruda’s, the finished product does not read like a poem. Here are four lines by Neruda, chosen at random, from the beginning of Canto XI:

A traves del confuso esplendor,
a traves de la noche de piedra, dejame hundir la mano
y deja que en mi palpite, como un ave mil anos prisionera.
el viejo corazon del olvidado!

And this is how Felstiner deals with them:

Through the dazing splendor,
through the night of stone, let me plunge my hand
and let there beat in me, like a bird a thousand years imprisoned,
the old forgotten human heart!

The difference between these passages is not one of literal sense, but of manner. Neruda strives for something that is bardic, liturgical, incantatory. Felstiner, meanwhile, trots along (pun intended) with the rhythm of docile, workaday prose. In other words, he has simply failed to make a poem. I dare not suggest how he might have achieved that prodigious feat. It might have been tempting to seek a poetic equivalent for Neruda’s moony-stony-windy-bloody rhetoric in pastiche Dylan Thomas, or for his vatic tone in Ginsberg’s spaced-out measures, but both of these devices would have risked who knows what comic effects. Something new, something that could not be prescribed, was called for. What a pity we do not find it here.

Oxford’s latest anthology deserves high praise. It is particularly welcome in that it follows a series of volumes with catchpenny titles – books of American light verse, ‘contemporary’ verse, and so on – that have made this publishing house look more and more like an anthology-factory, grown hectic and over-productive on the strength of its reputation for the academic last word. We have yet to see, packaged in sober navy boards with discreet gold tooling, an Oxford Book of Rugger Songs or of Poems about Pets – but just wait: the time may come. Meanwhile, let us be thankful that a volume as serious, innovatory, large in its scope and meticulously edited as Charles Tomlinson’s Oxford Book of Verse in English Translation can still be considered a marketable commodity.

This cannot have been an easy book to compile. With the small exception of George Steiner’s 1966 Penguin Book of Modern Verse Translation, which covered a mere one hundred years of activity, and those not from our most glorious period, precedents were entirely lacking. Imagine the task of assembling an anthology without any of the Coy Mistresses or Grecian Urns that one might normally expect to inherit as part of the family furniture. Tomlinson has had to begin from scratch, and although there are pieces, by Wyatt, Jonson and others, whose omission would have been unthinkable, each of the 600 selected poems, or passages from longer poems, represents fresh exploration and the judgment of a single scrupulous mind.

Translation has always been a debatable activity, though the tenor of the debate has modified over the years. In Dryden’s time, it had mainly to do with definition: the extent to which a paraphrastic translation differed from a metaphrastic one, and so on. More recently, doubts have deepened and the practice has come to be questioned at a radical level. Robert Frost’s ornery dictum, that poetry is ‘what gets lost in translation’, has acquired classic gobbet status, and it is certainly hard to argue against that verdict. We like to think that a poem, if it has any value, possesses a quiddity for which no other arrangement of words, let alone those in a foreign language, can be a sufficient substitute. And yet most of us continue to make use of verse in translation – some of us even to perpetrate it.

What is translation? On a platter
A poet’s pale and glaring head,
A parrot’s screech, a monkey’s chatter,
And profanation of the dead.

It is worth observing that the author of these four denunciatory lines, from a poem entitled ‘On Translating Pushkin’, was the same Vladimir Nabokov who actually did the deed: that is, forced into an odd kind of English the greatest poem by his most beloved Russian poet, thereby combining in one rash act gestures of homage and of blasphemy.

Nabokov’s Eugene Onegin is, significantly, absent from the new Oxford Book. That work was altogether too sentimentally compromised, too doggedly unidiomatic, to earn a place. Inspired, like John Felstiner, by the best of motives – Nabokov hoped to rescue Pushkin from the travesties of previous meddlers – he created an awkward monster that was unlikely ever to be accommodated by the English canon. The most successful of the pieces that Tomlinson has gathered celebrate an ethos that differs from Nabokov’s or Felstiner’s as restoration does from conservation, or free-booting from orderly maritime commerce.

Doubtful practice? Piracy? Well, yes. And can it be justified? I think it can be. In his preface to Fables Ancient and Modern, which contained versions of Homer, Ovid, Boccaccio and Chaucer, Dryden wrote: ‘Troilus and Cressida was also written by a Lombard author; but much amplified by our English Translatour, as well as beautified; the Genius of our Countrymen in general being rather to improve an Invention, than to invent themselves; as is evident not only in our Poetry, but in our Manufactures.’ That was the opinion of one of the greatest of our poet-translators, and, although it may not account for the wealth of verse that is entirely local to the English tradition, it does say something about the zeal with which our poets have ransacked exotic cultures for usable matter.

Quite often these importations have been necessary to the sustenance of the whole tradition. Chaucer with his French, Wyatt with his Italian, Jonson with his Latin, Dryden and Pope with their Classics, Pound with his Chinese and what not, all brought new vigour to English writing. Much has been said about the maverick way in which Pound took to the business of translation, and yet his predecessors can all be accused of free behaviour in this respect, making the schoolmasterly definitions of Dryden’s age look, if not downright misconceived, then at least inadequately accommodating. John Berryman, in an excellent essay, suggested that much of Pound’s concern with adapting foreign texts had to do with his search for personae, or masks that could be picked up and animated at need. This is an acute perception, but does it not apply in some measure to all who have practised the craft – that is, above the level of a Loeb trot?

The new Oxford Book covers approximately five hundred years of appropriation and incorporation, beginning with Gavin Douglas’s Aeneid and concluding with Michael Alexander’s rendering into polite modern English of The Seafarer. I can think of two versions of the latter more zestful than Alexander’s and more likely to excite interest in years to come – one by Ezra Pound, the other by Harold Massingham – but such are the virtues of this anthology that I do not wish to bang on about its occasional defects. Anyone who picks it up will notice immediately both the eerie absence of Chaucer and the banishment of Johnson’s ‘The Vanity of Human Wishes’, and can be left to puzzle out these anomalies on his or her own.

But what are the strengths of the book? To begin with, Wyatt, Marlowe, Chapman, Golding and Ben Jonson are all lavishly represented, as is proper. Many interesting lesser-knowns from the 17th and 18th centuries sport alongside their mightier contemporaries, and here the editor should be applauded for the thoroughness of his research: students of English will now be able to come to the Oxford Book for a just idea of how important Latin and Greek were at this period – a fact which before now may have been apprehended only indirectly.

By comparison, the 19th and 20th centuries look like hotchpotches. The field of activity has widened, with Chinese, Persian, Icelandic and American Indian, amongst other languages, now available, but there would appear to be a growing uncertainty as to what to translate into. Lacking a lingua franca – the currency, say, of an Augustan style – the most successful practitioners turn out to be the energetic egotists, with Rossetti, Morris, Pound and Robert Lowell outstanding.

The present century allows for plenty of unconventional delights, of which I shall mention Marianne Moore’s La Fontaine, and Robert Garioch’s robust Caledonian Belli. The latter gives us:

Sanct Christopher’s a muckle sanct and Strang, faur bigger nor a Glesca stevedore ...

This is surely the truest kind of translation: imaginative, unservile, and risking liberties where poetic intuition tells the writer they are due. John Felstiner showed himself deficient in the necessary spirit. Perhaps only poets can do the job successfully.