I was introduced to the poetry of Juan Carlos Mestre when a colleague asked me to help her render a difficult line from “Poem to the One in Far-Off Lands” into English for an essay she was writing. I was so enchanted by it that I read the rest of Antífona del otoño en el Valle del Bierzo, or Autumn’s Countersong in Bierzo Valley.
Two years later I assigned this book in a course on translating poetry. Along with reading theory and studying the differences between English and Spanish grammar and prosody, students worked extensively with Neruda and Mestre. Neruda, because the variant translations of his poems allowed us to compare and contrast the choices his translators made. Mestre, because there are none. While students worked on specific poems from the collection, I translated the whole book.
Autumn’s Countersong, which won the 1985 Premio Adonáis, is a love letter to Villafranca del Bierzo, the small town in the Cantabrian Mountains where Mestre was born and raised. The collection celebrates Villafranca’s history, geography, and citizens. This poem is one of several about those who have left. Mestre himself has experienced this leaving. In fact, the collection was published while he resided in Chile.
Mestre’s poetry plays with sentence fragments, syntactic inversion, and surrealist imagery. He privileges musicality of line and the unfolding of image into image over most anything else. As I worked through the poems, I’d email Mestre regarding constructions and images I thought ambiguous. His responses, though always informative, evaded the specific questions unless they were about vocabulary. Through email exchange, he had already approved the translation of this poem and four others. Still, I decided I needed to visit him in person. Maybe in the give and take of conversation we could get into the grammatical nitty-gritty.
Thus, at the end of June 2014, I came to Madrid with a list of questions: grammatical, syntactic, verbal, prosodic. Within five minutes of meeting of him, he turned to me and said, “Look, you’re a poet. You have license to translate these as you, with your poetic sensibility, see fit.”
“Poetry,” as he repeated during our visits, “is, above all, freedom. I have always believed this.”
Paul Theroux in The Old Patagonian Express recounts a conversation he had with Jorge Luis Borges in Borges’s home in Buenos Aires. Ever the anglophile, Borges praised the economy of English, how easily the language allows for the creation of compound adjectives: “world-weary,” for example. But every language, I think, has developed certain eloquent quirks that show up the clumsiness of the language into which they are being translated. The ease with which adjectives become nouns in Spanish is one of these. English adjectival nouns typically are plural (“the old” means old persons, not an old man). Spanish adjectives, on the other hand, can be singular or plural nouns. When preceded by the neuter article “lo,” the adjective is a noun that represents a concept or a category.
In “Poem to the One in Far Off Lands,” “lo lejano,” from “lejos,” means “that which is far-off,” or “far-off lands,” or “the far-off.” “El lejano,” in turn, refers to the person who lives in “lo lejano.” Exile is an obvious choice for “el lejano.” I chose, instead, the bulkier, more literal phrase, “one in far-off lands.” Mestre uses “el lejano” in the title and “lo lejano” in the body of the poem. By translating “lejano” as “in far-off lands,” I was able to keep Mestre’s repetition, rather than use “exile” for the person and “far-off lands” for the place. This avoids exclusively political connotations, something Mestre skirted by choosing “lejano” over “exilio.”
If adjectival nouns are a quirk of Spanish Mestre exploits to good use in this poem, the fragment is one of Mestre’s aesthetic tendencies he uses throughout. The poem is built through an accretion of image fragments. For one thing, this lets the image organize the logic of the poem. As Mestre said in our conversations, “The image calls forth image. The poet follows where these lead.”
In fact, the image is given precedence over syntax and grammar. The first four periods of the poem don’t mark sentences, rather they separate image clusters. They are composed of noun phrases: e.g. “The one who leaves his house defeated.” Each noun phrase, in turn, has attached modifying clauses that further describe the subject: e.g. “and is dragged along by the murmur of people.” Only the first period closes off a sentence with a subject and a predicate: “The one banished by poverty / lives heartless in far-off lands.” And even this sentence has two modifying phrases attached to it: “and cares for nothing as if it were his / and is sullen and tired under the heavens.”
The non-standard punctuation interrupts the expectation of the reader. It creates fragments of thought and image. The subject is fleshed out, even a biography is presented, but it’s disjointed. The sentences are incomplete. The grammatical subjects, until right near the end, are noun phrases: e.g. “The one grieved by reason.” That is to say, the subject, rather than being a singular word, is split up into many. Furthermore, the only true predicate throughout the first half of the poem is “lives,” which appears in the second line. Though the protagonist does things, “wanders streets,” “sits before machines,” these verbs are not predicates. Instead, they are embedded in modifying phrases. The displacement of the person in far-off lands is reinforced by these non-standard sentences composed of image fragments.
In line thirteen I took a liberty I have never taken before when translating. The Spanish reads, “Nadie lo sabrá, su historia es triste . . .” I rendered this as, “No one will know him, his story is sad . . .,” rather than, “No one will know this.” As seen, the poem highlights the protagonist’s alienation. I chose to mark this in the person of the subject.
Mestre is a rewriter. He incorporates rewritten poems in newer volumes and republishes earlier collections adding both new poems and rewritten ones. Rather than a search for perfection, this is another iteration of his belief in poetry as freedom. Poems are not set in stone. He has this same attitude toward translations. He likes multiple versions.
If translation is a poetic act and poetry is freedom, the challenge is knowing how to play within the limits set by the poem. In our conversations about poetry and freedom, Mestre told me of a translation he refused to approve because the choices made by the translator betrayed the deeper meaning of the poem. The translator, against Mestre’s advice, insisted on rendering a surrealistic image in such a way that it reversed the poem’s politics. Of course, translations are always a betrayal of the original poem. My hope is that the liberties I’ve taken are ones in keeping with the spirit of the poem.