Sombra de Paraíso by Claudia Sierich

Sombra de Paraíso. Claudia Sierich. Caracas: Oscar Todtmann Editores. 2015. 97 pages

When considering the subject of translating poetry, it is common, if not inevitable, to fall back on the commonly shared assertion that, in order to be a good translator of poetry, one must be a poet, since this task obviously cannot be boiled down to the mere literal decanting of words and the carriage of their possible meanings from one language to another; to translate poetry is to create a poem in the target language, as loyal as possible to its source in the original language, but with the inescapable commitment to retain in the new text, if they are present, the attributes that allow us to read it as a poem. Paul Valery summarized this notion of the ideal poetic translation as the task of producing analogous effects through different means.

This is certainly the case of Claudia Sierich, who, as well as possessing an absolute consciousness of the inherent difficulties of poetic translation—being the excellent translator she is—has also produced a considerable body of poetic work of her own, with very uncommon traits, precisely due to her obsessive attraction toward “giving her word” between languages. Both qualities, that of the poet and that of the translator, converge admirably in her book Sombra de Paraíso: Astillas en tres cuerpos de lenta lectura [Shadow of paradise: splinters in three bodies of slow reading].

The book’s fragmentary nature is insinuated in the subtitle itself, which announces the reading of a series of “splinters” distributed between “three bodies”; three sections that invite us to read lazily, haltingly, gradually: to read while savoring, unrushed and with passion, the facts and flavors of the ancient and indispensable task of poetic translation. And we must specify here that, in part, this is also the basis of the book’s singularity: it is not about translation in general or about literary translation specifically; its only lodestar is set by poetry. Sierich speaks from and of poetry, in her double condition of translator and poet. For this reason, the reader will not find a text of technical or academic instruction about translation, but rather a mature, fragmentary, and reflexive testimony of a translator-poet absorbed in the creative process of giving birth to poems conceived from the contact between multiple bodies: between multiple languages. Nothing else can be gathered from an affirmation like the following: “The word contains the semen of growth. Its passage to another language makes it germinate again” (79).

The three sections that make up the book are titled: “Serie del tiempo. Ensayar soberanía” [Time series. Exercising sovereignty], “Serie del adentro. Sobre el regocijo” [Inside series. On delight], and “Serie de las relaciones. Intento de una lógica del incremento” [Relationship series. Attempt at a logic of growth]. In each one, the voice that speaks to us delves into different aspects of the task of poetic translation, in an eminently free and creative manner, without holding back or limiting itself to any type of genre-based predisposition. Here we will find, among many other things: simple essayistic notes; poems by the author or others; testimonial notes that allude to circumstances apparently unrelated to translation, but from which the reader can extract virtual analogies with said work; aphorisms; citations of other authors; comments on the processes of creating, interpreting, and staging works of various artistic disciplines such as music and dance; reflections on the visuality of words and paintings; notes on the meanings of phrases and games and the invention of terms in different languages; and much more.

In the first section, “Serie del tiempo. Ensayar soberanía,” Sierich introduces the term “sovereign time” to refer, more than to the time that will allow her to concentrate on the work of translating the poem, to the process of translation itself, understood as a means to reach a certain temporal wholeness, inaccessible by any other path. In this state, in this slow transition, she will produce the trance that will allow for discovery and revelation, the emergence of the new poem. The conjunction of an absolute concentration and a sensoriality completely attentive and open to the world: this is the path by which Sierich exercises this “sovereign time,” rebelling against the clocks that surround her and the temporal restrictions imposed by daily life, weighed down with social and work obligations. The sought-after time will rather be the time of leisure, disregard, and distance, the time that, following the advice of Meister Eckhart, allows her to encounter the Other, with no sense of utility, out of “love of the gratuitous.” All of this is spelled out in all-enveloping prose, able to generate an evocative atmosphere of the discoveries of an intimate experiences, revealed in the moment of contact with the creative and transfigurative memory of the instant.

In the second section, “Serie del adentro. Sobre el regocijo,” not ceasing to allude to several of the issues discussed in the first, the whole seems to concentrate on concerns inherent to the process of translation: its steps, the doubts and uncertainties that inhabit the border zones between languages, the importance of acoustics and rhythm, as well as attention to the need to hear silence. A process, in any case, conceived as creation from a “state of servitude”; that is, “of delight” under the enchantment of the creative impulse (Gebbant schöpfen). For Sierich, translating poetry is an impassioned, passionate action, a sort of erotic rite between languages, an evolution of distancings and approaches, of inhalations and exhalations, of unprejudiced forgetting and reunion, a loving act that engenders life: the poem in the other language. This process also generates the bodily and sensory effects that will even lead to the affectation of interiority and the modification of the I. So much so that this interiorization of the poem, if it has already been translated, will have to act as an interior stimulant; the poem will have been incarnated in the translator as a consequence of this process of passionate immersion. This is how Sierich understands her task, only in this way, without theories, from the individual experience, as in poetry. She succeeds in leading words “to say what they don’t know how to say” (60).

In the third section, “Serie de las relaciones. Intento de una lógica del incremento,” the poet-translator delves into difficulties, different forms of impossibility, and therefore of infidelity, of betrayals that surround the task of the translator, but that simultaneously make up its substance. Conscious of this, she has no choice but to suggest to the translator (who is herself): “to be unfaithful so as to be loyal” (76) or “To distance yourself (unable not to do so), to lie in order to say how it is” (78). Recommendations that, on the other hand, suggest the guidance of one of her most admired poets, as we can discern from a glance at her poetry as well as from the various allusions present in this book. We are referring to José Lezama Lima. If he affirmed at the start of La expresión americana [The American expression], “Only what’s difficult is stimulating,” Sierich seems to endorse his opinion, proclaiming: “In difficulty—not in the mere reproduction of reference—the real work begins” (69).

“In the shadow of this paradise I linger, I live out my sovereign time” (33) Sierich tells us, in the book’s first section, to point out the place from which she attempts the new poem, the poem that, once born, will take shape within her, as inevitably other and the same as the poem from which it arose. Sierich knows that, in this shadow, in the shadow of an undetermined Paradise, this is the most we can expect after our expulsion from Babel.

Arturo Gutiérrez Plaza

Translated by Arthur Dixon

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Number 8

The eighth issue of Latin American Literature pays homage to Nicaraguan writer and politician Sergio Ramírez, winner of the 2017 Cervantes Prize and an important voice in a country currently gripped by crisis. We also feature poetry from Octavio Armand, as well as special sections dedicated to four indigenous writers of Mexico and Guatemala, bilingual sci-fi from Worldcon 76, and the poetry of Marosa di Giorgio, Olga Orozco, and Elena Garro. 

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