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Maybe you remember, Merlin, how we told lies
To make ourselves feel better, it’s impossible
For them to leave us alone, to our music,
To our tears, like a light
In the city centre, a lost dog
At the bus stop, the hand stretched out
Like a light in the centre

Of the city, an impossible light, moonlit
Over the wall spiked up with glass shards
Against the house next door, on its choreography
Of emeralds,

The wind howling in the night rain,
Asking itself about its own condition –
The geometrics of rain.

Manuel Vilanova

Commentary by Jason Preater:

Why does Merlin touch the soul of Galician poetry?  The connection with a Celtic tradition is part of an answer, there is the sense that magic might still be practised in the wooded glades of rural areas : tales of healers and popular healings abound; the herbalist lives; witches are possible.
Manuel Vilanova’s Merlin, however, is displaced from the woods to the city.  The enjambment that leads from the `light in the centre’ to ‘of the city’ is disquieting and disappointing because of the sense of lost contact with nature.  How can Merlin make his way in this environment, where a lost dog wanders at a bus stop?

Not Even In the Sky (Nin siquera no ceo (Santiago de Compostela: Follas Novas, 2011) is an intelligent, cultured and sensitive meditation on themes that arise from Galician literature.  These themes are refracted through the characteristic broken light of modern poetic practice — like the ‘choreography of emeralds’.  Sharply drawn images of alienation and city-life are counterpoised against tradition, culture and a predominantly rural, elegiac past.

At its best the minipoema, as the poet calls the individual visions of his verses, captures a moment of heightened intensity.  And as these moments are brought together in the book they emerge as themes of singular relevance to life in modern Galicia: how to take on the inheritance of the past; how love and sorrow continue to illuminate, like the moonlight, our lives despite all changes; how fantasy and imagination thread through even the most mundane feature s of this world.

Manuel Vilanova was born in Barbantes (Ourense) in 1944.  He is a teacher in Vigo.  Nin siquera no ceo is a new collection from Editorial Follas Novas (

Note: Jason Preater will be presenting Galician Saudade poetry and song at our final meeting this year of the series “The Trace They Wished to Leave” due to take place on November 30th at the Poetry Cafe, Betterton Street — see Events and MeetingsS.H.


In this pleasantly produced book (130 pages)  which is part of the Yale Why X Matters series, Edith Grossman, the acclaimed translator of  Márquez and Cervantes, first discusses translation generally and says why she thinks it is important. She then says something about the problems she encountered when producing a new translation of Don Quixote and concludes by commenting on her translations of Spanish poems, some modern, others written during the  ‘Golden Age’.  There is also a useful Personal List of Important Translations at the end.

Edith Grossman says that, as a translator, she always hopes “that readers of the translation will perceive the text, emotionally and artistically, in a manner that parallels and corresponds to the aesthetic experience of its first readers”. The translator typically does this, not by direct transcription, but rather “by analogy — that is, by finding comparable, not identical, characteristics, vagaries, quiddities, stylistic peculiarities in the second language”.  To become a good translator is challenging because you need to “develop a keen sense of style in both languages, honing and expanding our original creative awareness of the motional impact of words, the social aura that surrounds them, the setting and mood that informs them, the atmosphere they create. (…) It is a commonplace, at least  in translating circles , to assert that the translator is the most penetrating reader and critic a work can have.”

So far, well and good, though I would have liked to see Edith Grossman  tackling in greater depth the literalist/interpretative divide. She claims not to be a literalist and considers Nabokov’s literal translation of Eugene Onegin to be ‘unreadable’ — and so, to judge by the brief excerpt she gives, it is.  However,  I doubt if she would go so far as to endorse Ezra Pound who saw himself as not even an ‘interpreter’ but rather as a ‘broadcaster’ or ‘imitator’, someone whose mission was to communicate the ‘spirit’ of the original without bothering too much about the exact meaning.  And, like him or loathe him, Pound is probably the most successful translator of poetry in the twentieth century : almost single-handed he put Provençal poetry on the map, and remains, apart from Waley, the person most responsible for the West taking an interest in Chinese poetry. Pound’s translation of The Seafarer from the Anglo-Saxon (which was then part of the English course at Oxord) is perhaps  the most effective rendering of a short Angle-Saxon poem I have ever read,  though riddled with questionable interpretations and downright errors.  So at one end we have Nabokov, the literalist, and Pound the ‘interpreter’ par excellence.  Most translators lean towards literalism these days, partly because they are understandably afraid of getting involved in lawsuits, also because the important university market wants cribs rather than imaginative reconstructions.

Edith Grossman started by making a very good impression indeed : here, I thought, we have a seasoned translator who wears her erudition lightly and is above all concerned with the needs of the ‘ordinary reader’. She subsequently disappointed me, however, by falling into the trap of devoting far too much space — the greater part of a whole chapter — to gripes against contemporary American and English publishers, likewise some book critics (without naming them). Worse still, she puts her case so badly that she almost makes one side with the publishers and reviewers : the tone is petulant, reminiscent of Dawkins going on about religion.
Translation is an intellectually demanding and emotionally draining activity — more so than ‘creative’ writing in my experience — while it is not very well remunerated and translators do not rate that highly in the literary pecking order. Translators thus have legitimate causes  for complaint,  especially since publishers and, even worse, presenters of TV cultural programmes often do not bother to even mention the translator’s name. However, translators themselves tend to be unreasonable in their demands. Edith Grossman, like other translators I know,  finds it outrageous that a certain book reviewer declared that he was not capable of assessing the quality of the translation since he did not know the original language.  What was he or she supposed to say? That “the book does not read as a translation” ? Seemingly not, as this phrase was singled out as ‘particularly annoying’ in a sort of manifesto that was put to the Translators Association in a meeting last year.
According to Andre Dubos III  :    “50% of all the books in translation now published worldwide are translated from English, but only 6% are translated into English”.  Edith Grossman, ditto many other translators I have met, naturally thinks this situation is disgraceful (I don’t) and, as only to be expected in these politically correct times,  American publishers  get charged by Grossman with “jingoistic parochialism” and God knows what else. But why should publishers in the current, or any, economic climate risk bringing out books that probably won’t sell and might not be worth reading anyway ?  “For translators,” she writes, “of course, there can never be enough translations”. I couldn’t believe what I was reading! Sorry, there can — there can be too much of anything ! And why can’t Edith Grossman see that the asymmetry of the translation situation (50% as against 6%) is quite as much the fault of the Third World or non-English speaking European publishers and translators who neglect their own cultures  in favour of Anglo/American  literature, thus furthering the cause of American cultural imperialism that Edith Grossman so deplores?

Leaving aside frivolous considerations (“Translators need to earn a living”), there are, I think, only three reasons why an American  publisher should be encouraged to bring out a certain translated novel (let’s keep poetry aside for the moment):

1.     It is superior in quality;
2.     It deals with an experience of life that is ‘different’ ;  BUT
3.    [ It deals with] an experience that a contemporary reader in the UK or America can relate to,  and hopefully learn something from.

Take translations from a language I do not know and am unlikely ever to know, Japanese. The Temple of the Golden Pavilion by Yukio Mishima was definitely worth translating (maybe needs re-translating). Why? Because, in the first place, it is an extremely well-written and intense, though somewhat unhealthy, novel. It is ‘different’ since it deals with a way of life that is both interesting and even now largely virgin territory to the normal westerner : the central character is a novice Zen Buddhist monk. But, when I first read this book years ago, despite the exotic décor, I found many passages in this work to which I, as a hung up young Westerner, could relate : the central character, though a novice monk,  has many of the usual problems  of a young man growing up in the modern world. He has little contact with his parents, has serious difficulties relating to girls, meets another student who dominates and bullies him intellectually and eventually drifts into outright criminality  — he burns to the ground the Temple of the Golden Pavilion of which at one time he hoped to become the Patriarch.  So this book ticks all three boxes.

On the other hand, countless more recent, Japanese novels strike me as being of virtually no interest, since Japan has largely lost its strangeness, is today just another overcrowded urban society and, unless these Japanese novels are streets ahead of contemporary ones set in America or Europe, I’d rather read Roth. If someone wants to translate these books, well and good, but I don’t see why a publisher who doesn’t finance such a venture should be charged with being a xenophobic crypto-Fascist.

Edith Grossman is on firmer ground when she tells us how she goes about her own work, more specifically, how she set about translating  Don Quixote. Her approach is sensible enough  since she says that she early on decided her main concern “was not [to provide] a text for the classroom….but to create a piece of writing in English that could perhaps be called literature too”.  One interesting anecdotal snippet is that a certain Mexican writer known to the translator sent her “a photocopy of a… seventeenth-century Spanish-English  dictionary he had found in Holland” which she found ‘invaluable’. Here is the sort of ‘inside tip’ that could be pure gold — I  would never have thought of looking out for dictionaries of the period but I am sure they could be very illuminating.  Edith Grossman tells us that she decided for the first time in her life to use footnotes and that the function of the footnotes was to be,  principally,  to “clarify possibly obscure references and allusions”. She wants the footnotes above all to deal with  “difficulties not intended by the author”, rightly realizing that the modern reader cannot be expected to know the ballads and folk-tales of the time, likewise recent historical events which Cervantes could assume every reader of his time would be familiar with. This is a good point and one not made often enough.

Grossman concludes with some examples of translating poems  for The Golden Age : Poems of the Spanish Renaissance (Norton, 2006) but I shall put off consideration of her attitude to poetic translation until another post.   All in all, this is a very worthwhile little book despite its occasional shortcomings. I might end by quoting some views about translation from famous authors that she herself quotes in her book.

“Translation it is that openeth the window, to let in the light; that breaketh the shell, that we may eat the kernel, that putteth aside the curtain, that we may look into the most holy place; that removeth the cover of the well, that we may come by the water”   (Translators of the King James Bible).

“A translator that would write with any force or spirit of an original must never dwell on the words of the author. He ought to possess himself entirely and perfectly comprehend the genius and sense of his author, the nature of the subject, and the terms of the art or subject treated of.  And then he will express himself as justly, and with as much life, as if he wrote the original : whereas he who copies word for word loses all the spirit in the tedious translation” (John Dryden).

“Poetry is that which is lost in translation” (Robert Frost).

Sebastian Hayes

At the Jan 27th meeting of the ongoing series Poetry in Translation : The Trace I Wished to Leave at the Poetry Cafe, Covent Garden, Sarah Lawson, introduced us to the Mexican poet, Manuel Ulacia.

She writes :

“Manuel Ulacia (1953-2001) was still building his reputation as one of Mexico’s younger distinguished poets when he died in a drowning accident off the Pacific coast of Mexico. He was a Yale-educated academic, specialising in the poetry of Luis Cernuda. Both his parents were poets, and his maternal grandfather was Manuel Altolaguirre, one of the leading lights in the Spanish “Generation of ‘27”. Ulacia’s best poetry is of a very personal nature and often deals with his homosexuality, both his coming to terms with it as a youth and his frank enjoyment of same-sex relationships in later years.”
She adds,  “I regret that I never knew Manuel Ulacia, but I know people who did know him, including members of his family, and no one has a bad word to say about him. He was charming and charismatic and all the rest of it. As a young man he was really strikingly good looking.”

Biographical note on the translator:  Sarah Lawson translates from French, Spanish, and Dutch. Her translation of Jacques Prévert’s Selected Poems was a Poetry Book Society Recommended Translation in 2002.

As examples of Manuel Ulacia’s work she gives us here a Cavafyesque sketch of the encounter of two men in a hotel, and a poem from a collection he wrote about his father’s death which many critics consider his finest work.

In the Ritz in Meknes

Just one glance was enough,
the silence between two sentences,
the light touch in your hand
when you asked for the key
in the heat of the siesta,
for the young concierge
with the look of a gazelle
to follow you to the room.

Such delight to touch
his olive thighs,
smelling of orange blossoms,
and to kiss his full lips
tasting of cardamom
while the fan revolved
cooling the entwined bodies
in their delirium desiring each other
as the desert desires water.

So much enjoyment in an instant
when the bodies forget reality
letting themselves go,
but where? where?

The city woke up after an hour.
The cars, the motorbikes,
the music from a radio,
the mysterious babble
brought you back to the world.
The concierge hurriedly,
said good-bye and left the room.
You went back to sleep.
You woke up in another dream
when the muezzin began
to pray into the microphone.
From the balcony, the Palace
glittered in the resonant night,
full of stars.

–Manuel Ulacia

translated by Sarah Lawson.

Note : Meknes is in Morocco. That’s why the muezzin is praying into the microphone. This doesn’t happen much in Mexico. Manuel Ulacia wrote this about the same trip in a few other Moroccan poems, like “Express to Marrakesh”.” (Sarah Lawson).

The Stone on the Bottom

While my father’s breathing
little by little fades away,
the probes removed, the needles
and the oxygen mask,
between systole and diastole,
on the stage of memory,
one after another,
a slide-show of past life.
The trip to school at eight in the morning
with his quizzes
about the Yellow River,
the gardens of Mesopotamia,
the Great Wall of China and Newton’s apple,
and later, in the break
in the cool shade of tall ash trees,
in conversations with other boys,
the image of my father transformed
into the hero of an adventure story,
and now back home
the family together again,
my father tells about the thousand and one inventions
of his laboratory,
essences of rose, musk and lavender,
and the adventures of his mother as a girl,
in the trains of the Revolution
from Campeche to Mexico City,
the cockfights
that his father liked so much,
the walks through the fields and along riverbanks,
the forgotten image of his grandfather
who painted fans in Valencia,
his brief childhood in a huge garden,
stories about emigrants of almost a century ago
who left behind the Gothic tower, the olive grove and the herd
and who never returned.

And at the end of the day
I watch how my parents get dressed up
to go to a party,and after the good-night kiss,
absorbed in the movieon the black-and-white television,
I imagine that life is like this,
and that my parents are dancing
on a moon-lit terrace,
to a waltz by Agustín Lara,
and that my father is the leading man of the screen,
the corsair of a sea battle,
Tarzan in the Amazon jungle,
and that someday I too will be grown up
and I will catch on a girl’s neck
the odour of violets
and I will play out my destiny as they explained it to me.

While my father’s breathing
little by little fades away,
and each pulse is slower than the last,
between systole and diastole,
time expands
like the concentric circles that form
when you throw a stone into the mirror of the water.
Each instant is an hour,
and each hour a life.
Brief the passing time.
Those days full of sun in the country,
the rusty walls of the house,
the stable, the corral,
the dam of the watering hole
with its clouds reflected as they pass,
where one day my father taught me
to measure the depth of water
by the time it takesthe thrown stone to reach the bottom.
And the woman who shells ears of maize
as if she were shelling the seeds of time.
In what waters do we fall
when we go if time doesn’t exist?
What is the depth of the sky?
Where do the hours of living germinate?
And now here we are as evening falls,
in a dimly lit room,
among loud steam of red-hot irons
on white sheets,
my father told me
that in the next room
his father had died:
the first image of finite time,
a falling stone,
a vast measurement that we are unaware of,
the sharp outline of his face,
the white sheet that shrouded his father,
the secret glance of the two ironing women,
the hand and the watch that take the pulse.
My father sits up
and asks, “What time is it?”
and without listening says: “Tomorrow at the same time.”
Shaking from cold his body begins
to give birth to another body,
the invisible butterfly with white wings,
that awaits the exact moment
to break free in nuptials with nothingness.

While my father’s breathing fades away,
an anxiety revives,
a sharp-edged stone in the throat.
Those meals in my youth,
in which the only sound was
the contact of the cutlery and the china,
the shy glances
that hid the blush caused by
carnal passion,
and my secret games in the bedroom,
while the piercing light, coming in through the window,
lit up the clouds of the pitcher,
the empty dishes and the crumbs,
because wakeful in my lascivious dreaming
I grasp the strange nature of my desire.

Now I wouldn’t be the picture of the hero after all
who danced with a girl on the screen,
nor the manager of industries,
nor the prudent man with social approval,
nor the man at the mercy of alluring virgins,
nor the father who perpetuates the species.
And later you argue;
doesn’t make men happy,
says my mother, it only makes them men.
My father is silent:
indifference is fragile armour.

My father lives in the ideogram of his world,
he builds other dreams,
without a thought for the finite quality of time,
for the stone and its fall,
in the shadowy bedroom.
Tomorrow, tomorrow, always tomorrow
and the household increases
while my mother’s hair is turning white
and my sister discovers in the mirror
her budding breasts,
and my grandmother becomes a child again.
Tomorrow, tomorrow, always tomorrow.

While my father’s breathing
little by little fades away,
I want to tell him
that the only thing I wanted
was to live the truth of my real love,
but he no longer hears anything,
he no longer says anything,
silence has been taking possession of his body,
of the body of my mother,
of the circle formed around his bed,
of the shadowy room,
of the clear mirror of water
in which the stone keeps falling
in the fragile gravity of the moment.

While my father’s breathing fades away
the transparency of the window reminds me
that outside the world exists.
I contemplate the lighted city,
the cars that circulate,
the teenager in a corner
meeting his girlfriend,
the cyclist who goes past,
the athlete who runs on the grass.
Absorbed in the fragility of time,
I contemplate the world,
the window again,
the gathered family,
and I think that my father no longer speaks,
no longer sees, no longer hears,
that his dead senses
begin to perceive the theatre of the world
through us,
that the only memory of his life
is the fragments of our memory:
vast jigsaw puzzle from which pieces are missing.
What is he thinking about as he is leaving himself?
About my mother’s skin?
About the news bulletins of World War II?
About his first communion and the commandments?
About the tumours that are spreading through his body?
My father, between stammerings,
says that he has a stone in his neck,
that the stone doesn’t fall,
that he will fall with it.
Where to? In what place?

While my father’s breathing fades away,
it seems that he is beginning to forget everything:
the chemotherapies and the executioners,
the waiting rooms and the operating theatres,
the portrait of his grandmother
and the young legs of girls,
the stone from Oaxaca and the canary’s song,
the red rattle and the first cry.

Or perhaps, in his oblivion
—the last dream that time devours—
he may travel by a road
in search of his father.
But the road is already another road,
and the house another house.
His life now is contained in an instant.
All the parts are reconciled.
A single sun burns in his conscience,
frozen fire that consumes the world.
In the mirror of water
the last ripple appears.
The stone, in its fall,
reaches the bottom.

Manuel Ulacia

translated by Sarah Lawson