Author:Noni Benegas: Translated by:Noёl Valis
Publisher: Host Publications
In focus: a Translator’s Contribution to World Poetry
Poised between some great Spanish poetry, in this case Noni Benegas’ Cartografia ardiente, and its English readers who can now embrace this collection in new ways, stands a gifted translator who faces several impossible tasks at once. A poem is more than a meta-expression of symbol, image, meaning, and artistry. Devoid of prosaic explanation, successful poetry retains a culture’s smell, taste, feel and rhythm. Yet it must transcend place and time to look back and observe. So a poet must be a crafty artisan and a competent cultural interpreter; and these are only some of the prerequisites for an apprenticeship.
A poem’s essential coherence depends on the poet’s invocation of community conventions, but novelty demands infractions of these very same conventions. If the dual feats of balance and elegance, compliance and revolution, seem superhuman, consider the skills required of the translator. A translator of poetry must gracefully navigate two cultural tightropes at once. When the subject is a beloved living writer, there can be no slight-of-hand. Here, a translator has no place to hide. And yet, to disappear behind the poet is just what the job entails.
From the outset, with her choice of the title word “burning” for ardiente, No¸l Valis, the translator--herself an accomplished author and poet--, enhances an English audience’s awareness of the emotional range of this Spanish verse. Action, flame, glowing embers, smoke, the sense of these might all have been wrongfully neglected had the already well composted English adjective “ardent” been allowed to stead. This collection is not ardent; especially in translation, it burns. Other English translations have helped to create an American appetite for Benegas poetry. Some of these achieve brilliance in their efforts to adapt a sophisticated and passionate Spanish voice to an English ear. Of special note must be Herman Asarnow’s 1999 translation of the poem “Passion’s Map” [in Marlboro Review 9 (winter/spring 2000):38-40]. Valis’ version is entitled “Burning Cartography” (41.) Both translations achieve sensitive interpretative accuracy. But the pestering enigma of Benegas’ poetry seems best preserved in Valis’ version. Asarnow’s interpretations pave some of the potholes and bridge many of the chasms. But Valis provides no guide rails, no trail markers. English readers can now experience Benegas in a less processed form.
These poems contain many engaging puzzles. Readers will reencounter Alice in Wonderland. But this time Alice inhabits surprisingly new settings. Instead of a white rabbit, we observe a government official scurrying home from his work at “The Ministry,” or possibly, late to another “important date.” Instead of rabbit holes “that suck you in,” the official disappears around a corner. Here are poems to guide a reader through museums, free them from the tyrannies of childhood, help them empathize with the rudeness of an aging Hollywood starlet, and traverse geographies in search of a love that remains, always, on another trajectory. Through it all, the metaphor of summertime passing into autumn provides a tense reminder of coming obligations that only an academic can fully appreciate.
Hard to settle on a “favorite” poem in this collection, “The Drowned” may be the most honest self portrayal. A poet may await a reader’s judgment here, while stubbornly resisting the implication that she cares about reception at all. The author speaks to the reader in a formal tone. “Que piensa?”, “Aprueba Ud. Mi actitud?” The translator, in turn, retains this formality in the questions, “What do you think?”, “Do you approve of my attitude?” Readers may find what they will in this poem, but any interpretation must involve a face-to-face dialogue with the probing poet speaking formally to someone she does not know. Do readers glimpse a moment of lost confidence here? While re-reading this poem, with its puzzling “triangle upon a square,” its “intense, transparent glaze,” and the “between two pairs of question marks” (a way of demarcating a question in written Spanish), please turn quickly to the photograph of Noni Benegas on the back cover. The allusions there are intense; too many for coincidence.
Noёl Valis's respect for the linguistic challenges at hand, her appreciation for Benegas’ willingness to tolerate enigma and ambiguity, and Valis’ nimble translations that retain the flavor of the Spanish originals all combine to grant English readers a valuable opportunity to enjoy more of this author’s poetry.