Buoyed by my success (judged solely by me) in translating from Italian, I am moving on to a language I have never learnt at all: Spanish. This poem by the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño was sent to me, with a literal translation, by my brother (who is in Chile - it pleases me to think of the poem as freshly sourced). One of the difficulties I find in working from a 'literal' is that sometimes it becomes difficult to move away from it. I read a line of it, think 'yeah, that sounds about right', and the challenge is then to imagine it differently. I try to do this by listening to the original, reading it before and after reading the gloss (I'm yet to attempt a poem where I can't even read the script the language is written in), and constantly going back to it to check the sound and rhythm of the words.
Here is the original:
Autorretrato a los veinte años
Me dejé ir, lo tomé en marcha y no supe nunca
hacia dónde hubiera podido llevarme. Iba lleno de miedo,
se me aflojó el estómago y me zumbaba la cabeza:
yo creo que era el aire frío de los muertos.
No sé. Me dejé ir, pensé que era una pena
acabar tan pronto, pero por otra parte
escuché aquella llamada misteriosa y convincente.
O la escuchas o no la escuchas, y yo la escuché
y casi me eché a llorar: un sonido terrible,
nacido en el aire y en el mar.
Un escudo y una espada. Entonces,
pese al miedo, me dejé ir, puse mi mejilla
junto a la mejilla de la muerte.
Y me fue imposible cerrar los ojos y no ver
aquel espectáculo extraño, lento y extraño,
aunque empotrado en una realidad velocísima:
miles de muchachos como yo, lampiños
o barbudos, pero latinoamericanos todos,
juntando sus mejillas con la muerte.
And my translation:
Self-Portrait at 20
I let myself go, I set it going and I never knew
where it might take me to. Full of fear,
my gut loosened, my head was pounding:
I think it was the chill air of the dead.
I don’t know. I let myself go, it seemed a shame
to finish things so soon, but then again
I heard that mysterious convincing call.
You hear or do not hear. For me, I heard it
and it almost made me weep: a sound so dreadful
born in air and sea.
A shield and a sword. And then,
despite the weight of fear I let myself go, touched my cheek –
junto – to the cheek of death.
With eyes shut, I could not but see
that strange spectacle, slow and strange,
though racked in swift reality:
countless lads like me, smooth-skinned
or bearded, but latinamericans all
together, juntando, cheek to cheek with death.
I have made a few translation choices that I know are those of a non-Spanish speaker. This struck me as an interesting conundrum: is it acceptable to deliberately translate a word or phrase in a certain way when this comes from a lack of knowledge of the source language? With poetry, I think it can be: there is no perfect translation of any text, let alone of a poem, and sometimes the perspective of someone with an imperfect knowledge of the language can shed new light on the sound or origin of a word. As I have said before, I think translation should be playful - this was certainly a fun game.
The instances I'm talking about are:
1) the word junto, which is an extremely common word meaning 'joined', 'together', or 'next to'. Not speaking Spanish means that for me, the primary association this word brings is junta, the rulers of a military dictatorship. Bolaño was 20 years old in 1973, the year of the military coup that ousted the president, Salvador Allende; 'Autorretrato a los veinte años', where the presence of death is so strongly felt, is presumably a reference to this. The word 'junta', then, is not wholly out of context in my translation, even though junto is such an everyday word that in Spanish, I imagine these connotations would not be present.
2) "racked in swift reality" - empotrado means 'embedded', 'built-in', but these English words didn't seem very powerful or appropriate. The dictionary tells me that the root of this word, potro, also means 'rack', as in the instrument of torture. A rack where one stores things being not a million miles away from 'embedded' (well, OK, it's a stretch), I came up with this line and decided I liked it.
3) 'latinamericans' - latinoamericanos is Spanish for 'Latin Americans', so there was no real need to foreignise the word by joining the two English words together. However, doing so seemed to lend more weight to it, and also worked well with the two words that follow, todos ('all') and juntando ('joining').
What do you think? Is this an acceptable way to translate?