Stained In Translation

‘La tristeza del mar cabe en un vaso de agua’

Los hombres tristes,
que tienen en sus ojos un café de provincias,
que no saben mentir como quien dice,
que se esconden detrás de los periódicos,
que se quedan sentados en su silla
cuando la fiesta baila,
que gastan por zapatos una tarde de lluvia,
que saludan con miedo,
que de pronto una noche se deshacen,
que cantan perseguidos por la risa,
que abrazan, que importunan hasta quedarse solos,
que retornan después a su tristeza
igual que a su pañuelo y a su vaso de agua,
que ven cómo se alejan las novias y los barcos,
esos hombres manchados por las últimas horas
de la ocasión perdida,
se parecen a mí.

I was reading the poem at the bottom of the interview the other day, thinking about how you go about interpreting a poem in a language that isn’t yours. And then I took a dose of the head staggers and tried translating it in English. I don’t really know what happens when you’re reading a poem in your own language: you encounter the poem through your own experiences with that language, but do you read it back to yourself, or do you read it through yourself? It gets more complicated when you’re reading it in a language that’s not yours: even if you have a good grasp of that language, you are inclined to get to grips with the poem by supplementing your reading of it through experiences with your own language. One of the things you realise when you set about translating a poem -and this is first time I’ve ever translated one, I think- is the amount of stuff from the original that you have to ditch. Another, in my case at least, is how crap you are at poetry.

For instance, LGM’s poem begins with the line ‘Los hombres tristes’, which, once you read through the entire poem, has the feeling of the opening line of a dance hall ballad. Think the old song ‘Aquellos ojos verdes’, where the melody rises throughout the first line. ‘Tristes’ is a higher pitch than ‘hombres’, so there is a sense of the initiation of something. The sadness is bound up with tension, and revealed after you’ve encountered the man. And then when you translate it literally into English as ‘The sad men’, as I’ve done, it’s rendered monotone and monosyllabic, the adjective precedes the noun, and any sense of drama you might wish to carry over is stillborn. But what’s the alternative? ‘The men sad’ isn’t the sort of thing a person is likely to say, and if you try to conserve the metre by using synonyms, for instance, the ‘sorrowed fellows’, it veers away from the unadorned and everyday language of the original into pointless ornamentality.

Then there are things like ‘un café de provincias’, which, if I were translating it in isolation from the rest of the poem, I might call it something like ‘a coffee from down the country’. That doesn’t really make too much sense in English, since whilst it carries over -in the Irish context anyway- a sense of a city vs. country opposition, people would be baffled as to why the speaker of the poem is drawing attention to the fact that the man is drinking coffee in a down the country way. Then there is the problem of literary allusion – Madame Bovary is subtitled ‘moeurs de province‘. I have no idea if this is an intended allusion.

I did allow myself the luxury of an Irish-English colloquialism in the following line: as the man says. ‘Como quien dice’, literally is ‘like he/she who says’. But it is habitually used as a sort of empty intensifier. I used to work with a man who used ‘like the man says’ with unusual relish and regularity. “So I was out last night, and I had fifteen pints, and like the man says, I was blotto.” So I think it conserves a sense of the nervy emptiness of the scene being set.

Then there was the line with -to my mind- very odd syntax ‘que gastan por zapatos una tarde de lluvia’. I have no idea if this is a Spanish colloquialism. ‘Gastar’ means to spend, or to waste. So it scans as ‘they waste for (por can mean as a result of, or in order to, and lots of other things) shoes an afternoon of rain’. Maybe it just means they spend/waste a whole rainy afternoon looking for shoes. I used ‘wear out a rainy afternoon with their shoes’ because it conveys a sort of impotent anorakish doggedness.

The ‘quickly one night come undone’ probably has a more overt connotation of sexual inadequacy than the original ‘deshacerse’ which is a lot more general and multipurpose. It can mean to decompose, dissolve, or to disappear. It probably renders the masturbatory subtext a bit closer to the surface than the original.

Then there is the matter of ‘novia’ – in Spanish this can mean either ‘girlfriend’ or ‘bride’, depending on the context. There is an ambiguity in the original, but English forces one to get off the fence. Also ‘esos hombres manchados’ is likely a pun on the line about the coffee: un café manchado is the same as a caffe macchiato in Italian: an espresso with a little milk foam on top. Unfortunately, what came out in the wash here was a plain old stain.

A final thing is the rather clunky reiteration of the subject in ‘they look like me’. ‘Se parecen a mí’, in the original survives on its own as a syntactic unit, but it flows seamlessly from the litany of actions outlined previously. ‘They’ in my rendering introduces a sort of unwelcome pause for breath, like a woodwind player who hasn’t rehearsed a piece of music properly. But if I had used ‘look like me’ on its own in the last line, it would be a fairly pointless use of enjambement and wonky delineation.

Anyway, here’s my effort.

The sadness of the sea fits in a glass of water

The sad men,
who bear in their eyes a provincial coffee,
who can’t lie like the man says,
who hide behind the newspapers,
who stay seated in their chair
when the party dances,
who wear out a rainy afternoon with their shoes,
who say hello afraid,
who quickly one night come undone,
who sing persecuted by laughter,
who embrace, who pester until they’re left alone,
who turn afterward to their sadness
the way they do to their tissue and their glass of water,
who see how girlfriends and boats drift out,
those men stained by the final hours
of the opportunity lost,
they look like me.


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