Stephen Kessler, Translator of Written In Water by Luis Cernuda
Can translation ever truly communicate the experience of reading the original?
Probably not, but a skilled and gifted translator can trick the reader into feeling he or she is getting what the original author intended; it is a process akin to forgery, or impersonation, or demonic possession the translator serving as a medium (or ventriloquist's dummy) for the author.
How and why did you get started as a translator?
I wanted to read more closely some of the great Spanish poets, and translation is the closest reading one can do. I also wanted to find a way of practicing my licks as a poet in English, and felt that by apprenticing myself to such masters as García Lorca and Neruda and Alberti and Aleixandre I would learn a lot about how to write a poem.
What's so important about Luis Cernuda?
Cernuda was one of the half-dozen or so most respected writers of his generation. His uncompromising attitude as both poet and critic, his passion, his open homosexuality, his prolific output, his antiprovincial stance toward Spain combined with a longing or nostalgia for the place of his youth, his range of styles, the grace of his lyricism and the severity of his judgments combine to make him a fascinating artist whose influence today is probably greater, among younger Spanish and Latin American poets, than that of most of his contemporaries.
Has he been translated into English before?
There are two different editions of his selected poems, The Poetry of Luis Cernuda, edited by Anthony Edkins & Derek Harris (NYU Press, 1971, now out of print), and Selected Poems, translated by Reginald Gibbons (California, 1977, reissued in paperback in 2000 by Sheep Meadow). Other than these, and perhaps a small-press chapbook or two, and various poems in magazines, very little of his work has appeared in English. My versions of the prose poems are the first.
Why do you think he hasn't been translated more?
The combination of exquisite lyricism, direct philosophical statement, intense emotion and what might be called attitude make Cernuda very difficult to render in English that sounds both faithful to the original and naturally credible in itself. He's one of the most difficult writers I've ever attempted to translate.
How is prose poetry different from poetry in verse?
I think it's mainly a technical difference in terms of the unit of composition. In verse, the line creates the measure of the music and makes it sound like song. In prose, it's the sentence that sets the measure and makes it more like speech but heightened speech, concentrated, intense. The density of Cernuda's prose in this book is unmistakably "poetic," but the form of the paragraph is more relaxed than the stanza, giving the writing a very fluid quality that reflects the title, Written In Water.
How does translation relate to your own original writing?
It's like a workshop or master class concurrent with whatever else I'm working on. Each writer I translate is a model of possibilities and an opportunity to exercise in voices I would never otherwise try to inhabit. It extends my range as a writer, not so much by direct "influence" (though when I was younger I may have been more susceptible to stylistic example) as by forcing me to master alien rhythms and ways of seeing and imagining.
Can a translation ever be definitive?
Not really, because times and audiences change, and even in one contemporary period there may be many different interpretations of a work. The greatest works tend to generate the most translations, which in one sense is testimony to their untranslatability but in another to the depth of their suggestiveness. Each of us who translates tries to be true to the original, but that truth will manifest itself differently in each individual sensibility.
What does it take to be a great translator?
An ear for the original language, great facility in writing English, patience, a certain amount of scholarship, trust in one's intuition, a poetic imagination, nerve, humility, discipline, and luck.
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