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On William Carlos Williams’s Translation of Ernesto Mejía Sánchez’s “Vigils”

By Jonathan Cohen

What influence can Spanish have on us who speak a derivative of English in North America? To shake us free for a reconsideration of the poetic line. . . . It looks as though our salvation may come not from within ourselves but from the outside.
—William Carlos Williams in his talk on poetic form at the Inter-American Writers’ Conference, Puerto Rico, 1941

William Carlos Williams’s translation of “Vigils” from the Spanish of   Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Mejía Sánchez (“Los desvelos”) makes its debut in the July issue of Words Without Borders. This previously unpublished work by Williams is one of the many excitements included in my compilation of his translations of Spanish and Latin American poetry, By Word of Mouth: Poems from the Spanish, 1916–1959, due out from New Directions in September. The book’s title comes from the visionary statement about translation that Williams made in a draft of his 1939 essay on Lorca, which he chose to set aside and not include in the published version: “If more of the Spanish were better translated—more in the spirit of modern American letters, using word of mouth and no literary english—most of the principles which have been so hard won, the directness, the immediacy, the reality of our present day writing in verse and prose would be vitally strengthened. Our efforts away from vaguely derived, nostalgic effects so deleterious to the mind would be replaced by the directness and objectivity we so painfully seek.” How amazing that Williams anticipated one of the main underlying motives of the myriad translations from Spanish published during the 1960s and 1970s that refreshed American poetry!

I started the book project three years ago; that is, gathering Williams’s translations to see if they could actually form a good book. The idea to embark on this venture grew out of a conversation I had with my friend Julio Marzán, at the Americas Society in New York. He is the author of the 1994 landmark study The Spanish American Roots of William Carlos Williams (which is why I asked him to write the foreword to By Word of Mouth). While talking with him about Williams’s keen interest in the translations of Jorge Carrera Andrade made by Muna Lee, he described the poet’s efforts as a translator of Latin American poetry, and told me he had seen unpublished translations at Yale when doing the research for his book. Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library has one of the most extensive collections of Williams’s papers. And so, not long after our conversation, I traveled to Yale myself, to the Beinecke, where I was looking for poems like a gold prospector.

I found Williams’s translation of “Vigils” at the Beinecke. The typescript of this poem is in the same folder with other previously unpublished translations from the same group, which he had made in 1958 for New World Writing, where he published several others. Williams met the task of the translator with determination. He told Galway Kinnell about it in a letter: “I have been handed a job which I let myself in for without suspecting how hard it would be, the translation of about twelve longish poems from Spanish . . . . It has me nailed to the mast. . . . [S]ome difficult passages I can spend the whole day on before I can find a solution.” By “nailed to the mast” he meant, among other possibilities of meaning, that like those captains of sailing ships who fought battles at sea with their colors nailed to the mast to tell their opponent they wouldn’t yield or surrender, he was engaged in a creative struggle with language that he wouldn’t abandon. Indeed, Williams’s colors were those of the poet who, as Pound told Vázquez-Amaral, had “for fifty years been meaning to translate MORE spanish into north-american” (see introduction to “Vigils” for more on Pound and Vázquez-Amaral).

The collection of Williams’s translations at Yale is all the more golden because it includes the literal translations provided by Vázquez-Amaral, which Williams—the poet—used to do his job, along with the Spanish texts. Comparison of the literal with the poem Williams ultimately produced is fascinating. It illuminates his process of translation. It also reveals his own poetic agenda. The question arises, who is being served by his liberties? Here is the poem’s opening stanza by Vázquez-Amaral and Williams:

Translation by Vázquez-Amaral:

Blank days, what would become

of me? While night falls

on the dreamed breast, how many

uncertain steps hit their mark,

(my) enemy. To fall like night

without deceit, on any bed

that chance proposes, in search

of the most modest and white caress.

Tell me, my soul, praised
or favored,
friend of the Lord

in the starlit night, how

to erase the day blinded by its light.

Translation by Williams:

Vacant days, what shall become

of me? At nightfall

already conquered in our dreams,

facing a wall, uncertain we stumble

and go astray. To fall as night falls

without deceit, on any bed

which chance interposes, in search

of the most modest and white caress.

Tell me, my soul, elect

or favored, friend of the Lord

in the star filled night, how

bar the day from that blinding light.

And here is the poem’s closing stanza in both literal and poetic versions by Vázquez-Amaral and Williams:

Translation by Vázquez-Amaral:

Pain does not mean
movement nor pleasure
immobility. So quietly
do and oscillate between the
hurt and joy that
I no longer know if I live
or swoon. Make me
spin or persist.

Translation by Williams:

Pain does not point
either to movement or
movelessness. Thus
sway dancing between
the hurt and the joy
so that I no longer know
whether I live
or swoon. Let me spin
if I would persist.

Further revealing Williams’s process, the typescript of his translation shows he had first used “empty days” for “días en blanco” before choosing to use “vacant days.” Considering his translation as a whole, what is most striking is the beautiful transformation of language that it demonstrates, compared with the literal. When Vázquez-Amaral went to Williams’s house in Rutherford, New Jersey, to pick up the translations he had requested for New World Writing, he read aloud “Vigils” with pleasure, as described by a writer friend with him at the time. Williams responded positively, and said it sounded good, noting he had “sweated blood” to make it.

Williams’s translation of “Vigils” and other poems from Latin America (and from Spain) reflect his long commitment to advancing a poetic form that doesn’t deform the language. Concerning the role of translation for him, he once explained: “I don’t care how I say what I must say. If I do original work all well and good. But if I can say it (the matter of form I mean) by translating the work of others that also is valuable. What difference does it make?” Beyond Williams’s high regard for the art of translation, his “Vigils” demonstrates his embrace of the poetry of Latin America, which, through him and other translators, has had a marked influence on U.S. poets, and also redefined American poetry as transnational literature of the New World.

Published Jul 14, 2011   Copyright 2011 Jonathan Cohen

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