Tracing through Transparency: Translating Ida Vitale
“Sinking and stillness.” That’s what Ida suspects we need “to grow a bit of root.” Groundward deep in the soil, as translators we move into her poetry: calm, soft, mostly persistent. The thing about Ida is that she’s hard (in every sense of the word) in ways you never expect. Though we touch upon this in our essay included here, it bears repeating. Ida doesn’t play by the rules. No fitting neatly into perfectly square boxes. Expert declarations about how women write, how Latin Americans write, how Uruguayans write, don’t cut it here.
That Ida’s only now getting the kind of literary attention she has long deserved (mainly in Spanish, she’s still quite unknown in English) can be attributed to this one fact. Just certain kinds of readers want hard. And those certain kinds of readers then want a certain kind of hard. This usually means “experimental,” but in ways that can be codified and decoded. You add to the mix the dangerous combination of Ida being a woman poet and a hardcore thinker. Her poetry is a deeply cerebral. The body is absent, much of the time so is emotion. There’s not one obvious love poem in the whole of her oeuvre. This is not how women should write.
This too explains why Ida’s poetry is virtually unknown in English. She’s hard in Spanish and that makes her even harder to translate. What’s more, Latin American poetry has a limited and limiting canon in English translation, along with specific set of expectations in order to be considered “experimental.” But Ida’s poetry, just as it isn’t “pretty,” isn’t ugly either. It’s not an obvious assault on the senses. It’s not overly visual. It doesn’t simplistically shock the reader. It is not otherworldly, ethereal, magical. It is also not blatantly political in the facile way so many English-language readers have come to want from their Latin American poets.
Perhaps more than any other poet we’ve translated, Ida takes on the art of poetry in almost every poem. This is often expressed through the lyrical voice’s intimate relationship to both flora and fauna or in a reflection on the mystery of language itself. In either case, there is much for us to draw from her sage observations. These ultimately guide us in our translation and our quest to get her poetry to a wider audience. Ida works from the edges and goes beyond them, defying rigid notions of how she should write. This is what makes her poetry truly experimental. We follow her words: “But preserve in your blood / like a fish /the sweet clash of distance.”
KMH and VRN
Mount Vernon, October 17, 2019
Katherine M. Hedeen is a translator, literary critic, and essayist. A specialist in Latin American poetry, she has translated some of the most respected voices from the region. Her publications include book-length collections by Jorgenrique Adoum, Juan Bañuelos, Juan Calzadilla, Juan Gelman, Fayad Jamís, Hugo Mujica, José Emilio Pacheco, Víctor Rodríguez Núñez, and Ida Vitale, among many others. She is a recipient of two NEA Translation grants in the US and a PEN Translates award in the UK. She is the Associate Editor for Action Books and the Poetry in Translation Editor at the Kenyon Review. She resides in Ohio, where she is Professor of Spanish at Kenyon College. More information at: www.katherinemhedeen.com
Víctor Rodríguez Núñez (Havana, 1955) is one of Cuba’s most outstanding and celebrated contemporary writers, with over fifty collections of his poetry published throughout the world. He has been the recipient of major awards all over the Spanish-speaking region, including, in 2015, the coveted Loewe Prize. His selected poems have been translated into Arabic, Chinese, English, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Macedonian, Serbian, and Swedish. He has been a riveting presence at the most important international literary festivals, having read in more than forty countries. In the last decade, his work has developed an enthusiastic readership in the US and the UK, where he has published seven book-length translations. He divides his time between Gambier, Ohio, where he is currently Professor of Spanish at Kenyon College, and Havana, Cuba. More information at: www.victorrodrigueznunez.com
In our twelfth issue, we pay homage to two giants of Latin American letters: Ida Vitale of Uruguay, winner of the 2018 Miguel de Cervantes Prize, and Julio Ramón Ribeyro of Peru, whose work we celebrate on the ninetieth anniversary of his birth. We also feature poetry, interviews, and stories that range from the Caribbean to the Andes and from Central American to Brazil, exclusive book previews and reflections from translators, and a special section dedicated to the work of Edwin Lucero Rinza, a young poet who recently published the first ever verse collection in Kañaris Quechua.