“The translator invades, extracts, and brings home.” —George Steiner, After Babel
“Nothing takes us faster to the heart of matters linguistic and metaphysical than translation.” —Nikolai Popov, “The Literal and the Literary”
Translators of poetry, like poets, often agonize over single words. One word might convey the meaning of the original more accurately, while another might be less precise but seems more faithful to the music of the original or more sonically effective in the target language. Sometimes ambiguity in the original can push a translator to attempt to clarify. Even with a long poem (such as Pablo Neruda’s Alturas de Macchu Picchu), a single word choice can cast the work into a new, perhaps problematic light.
The themes of Alturas de Macchu Picchu, with its blending of indigenous and Christian values, make the poem particularly difficult to render in English because this mixture of heritages points to the paradox of identity in Latin America. The language transfer is only part of the challenge. An entire value system must be absorbed in Spanish and delivered in English for the poem to work in English. In his book Translating Neruda: The Way to Macchu Picchu, John Felstiner walks the reader through his decision-making processes in translating Neruda’s poem. He also provides a history of Neruda translation, relevant biographical information, and his own theories of translation. Felstiner sees translation as “a process as well as a finished version,” with “that process, with its origin in a strange language and culture, remaining active in the finished version.”
In the first five cantos of Alturas de Macchu Picchu, Neruda expresses the isolation, anguish, and lack of identity in urban life. He wanders through a kind of deathscape in which people die daily (“cada día una muerte pequeña,” “su corta muerte diaria”). The horizontal movement of city life allows for no spiritual elevation. Mankind coasts on a flat spiritual plane.
But in the sixth and seventh cantos, after he has recognized the dire spiritual state of mankind, the poet ascends to Macchu Picchu on a kind of pilgrimage to his past. The dual motion—upward and downward—is necessary because as Neruda climbs to the city, he descends in time to a city buried by time. The city died “una sola muerte,” “la verdadera, la más abrasadora / muerte” because its people disappeared completely. This collective, decisive death serves as a contrast to the individual, gradual deaths of people in the contemporary city. Neruda uses this physically and spiritually elevated vantage point to connect past to present, Macchu Picchu to modern polis.
With the Spanish Civil War behind him and World War II concurrent with his visit to Macchu Picchu, Neruda initially gives way to the temptation to look at the Peru before European conquest as a sort of paradise, a world without subjugation. But he’s aware of the dangers of idealizing a pre-Columbian, pre-Christian society; and in the tenth canto he implicates the Christian conquistadors in the oppression of the Latin American people.
In that canto, Neruda links the Incas to contemporary Latin Americans because, like all cities, Macchu Picchu was built on human suffering: “Macchu Picchu, pusiste / piedras en la piedra, y en la base, harapo? / Carbón sobre carbón, y en el fondo la lágrima?” His recognition of the oppressed/oppressor relationship in the time of Macchu Picchu illuminates the existence of class struggle, which is hardly limited to the twentieth century, even if the terminology has changed. Coming to terms with the death of an entire people allows Neruda, in the eleventh and twelfth cantos, to speak for all people in a gesture of renewal and redemption: “Yo vengo a hablar por vuestra boca muerta.” He joins the workers of Macchu Picchu, the workers of his day, and the reader in this spiritual transcendence through political awareness. What begins as a spiritual quest ends as a political act.
But the scope of that spirituality is debatable. As Felstiner notes in Translating Neruda, Nathaniel Tarn (whose translation is published by FSG and is thus the most widely available and widely read version of The Heights of Macchu Picchu) gives the poem “a more specific Christian coloring” through his translation of only three words. Tarn translates “panes” as “loaves” instead of the more common “bread,” “relámpago” as “light” (which Felstiner thinks conjures “biblical genesis”) instead of “lightning,” and “vaso” as “chalice” (which Felstiner sees as Eucharistic) instead of “vase” or “glass.” The Christian connotation of loaves, light, and chalice (at least when compared to bread, lightning, and glass, vase, or jar) changes how the poem functions in English. Although Neruda does not avoid Christianity in the poem, he does not appear to accentuate either the Christian or the indigenous. Neruda is trying to hold together a syncretic Latin American identity that acknowledges both strains. In its attempt to marry the two strains, Tarn’s translation overemphasizes the Catholic component, understates the indigenous, and seems to contradict Neruda’s atheism.
Felstiner notes Tarn’s dilemma here while summarizing some of the criticisms Neruda himself faced: “Neruda has been faulted for making use of his Spanish Catholic heritage while at the same time lamenting the Conquest, and no doubt that is a real split in him as in many Latin Americans. In Alturas de Macchu Picchu, I think he deliberately highlights neither Christian nor indigenous imagery because he is addressing a general audience, both Latin and American. … He calls up slaves from the Inca past without a word for modern Quechua speakers, but … I believe he does so to be heard by modern workers in general, for whose plight he finds a deep basis at Macchu Picchu.”
The language of Alturas de Macchu Picchu is multitudinous: verb tenses shift, manners of address change, certain nouns contain multiple meanings, other nouns recur throughout the poem. The work is difficult to translate. As Robert Pring-Mill notes in his preface to the Tarn edition, “Neruda works with ambiguities, not stating but suggesting, and usually suggesting a number of different lines of thought and feeling at any given time. It is this feature of his approach which makes his poetry so extraordinarily hard to translate.”
Further on, Pring-Mill writes, “Ambiguous syntax is one of the most fascinating aspects of Neruda’s manner of proceeding in all his complex poems, yet it is a feature which is peculiarly tantalizing to translators. They can rarely hope to establish a corresponding ambiguity, and therefore have either to opt between layers of meaning, or else to give the grammatical sense of a single layer while trying to suggest the others by words which carry heightened and conflicting associations, as Tarn does.”
An English translation has to account for the many layers of Spanish without adding any new layers (such as Christian lexicon). In his own translation, Felstiner works closer to Neruda’s perspective, looking beyond what the words mean to what they imply, embody, and possess. But Felstiner himself has acknowledged the interpretative aspect of translation: “translation is the utmost case of engaged literary intepretation” (quoted in Nikolai Popov’s, “The Literal and the Literary,” in which Popov himself writes, “translation enacts a total interpretation”). Tarn’s choices, then, could be a misinterpretation of Neruda’s poem, or, channeling Octavio Paz (“translation implies a transformation of the original”), an attempt to move the poem more firmly in one direction.
Pring-Mill, however, sees “the religious overtones” in Neruda as “quite deliberate” since they’re “part of the general Catholic heritage of South America.” And the Argentinian poet Juan Larrea criticized Neruda for simultaneously Christianizing and ignoring Macchu Picchu, so it’s possible that Tarn and Pring-Mill agree with Larrea’s general point. Even if Neruda purposely introduced Christian overtones into the work, Tarn’s three word choices place the poem squarely in a Christian tradition by infusing a non-Christian (or at least ambiguous) poem with Christian imagery. Those three words affect how English readers view the poem.
George Steiner’s otherwise arguable statement in After Babel—“A translation is, more than figuratively, an act of double-entry; both formally and morally the books must balance”—seems apt here. Oddly enough, Steiner’s comment recalls John Dryden, who placed a premium on “maintaining the character of an author” above meaning and technical matters. But of course, the author’s character is as open to interpretation (and as subject to translation) as meaning and technical matters are.