Wednesday, November 14, 2012

para dar un alivio a estas penas

I give. I've been working all morning on translating these simple lines:

Para dar un alivio a estas penas
que me parten la frente y el alma
me he quedado mirando a la luna
a través de las finas acacias.

... and I have nothing to show for it. I think this is the hardest kind of poetry to translate: simple, obvious, almost childish, resting its weight on the language itself rather than on the cleverness of the poet.

The problem boils down to two words: pena and frente. Pena means grief, pain, punishment. But the “punishment” sense has vanished from English pain, except fossilized in legal phrases – “on pain of death,” for instance – and the “grief” sense, it never had. Both are crucial here. It's not just pain that the poet is undergoing, it's loss of a loved one, and the loss of a loved one is a punishment, a punishment for some unspecified transgression.

The marvelous ambiguity of the next line is perfectly translatable. “que me parten la frente y el alma,” can be rendered exactly with “which divides my forehead and my soul,” preserving the the doubt about exactly what's being divided. Is it his forehead that's being divided from his soul, a standard flesh/soul dichotomy? Maybe. Or is each being split? Maybe the pain he's talking about is a splitting headache? And maybe the soul is being split because some of it is remorseful and some of it is not?

So far, so good: but the real translation problem is the word frente. It is a forehead, and that is probably the strongest literal sense here. But it's also “front,” as in the line of battle; it's also “front,” as in what you present to the world, and it's also “face,” as in what you prepare to meet the faces that you meet. So this:

To gain some relief from this punishment
that divides my face – and my soul –

or this:

To relieve this pain
that splits my forehead and soul...

or even this:

To find some respite from this grief
that tears the front from my soul...

But the more farfetched you get, the farther you wander from the directness of the poem, which is perfectly colloquial and straightforward: Jiménez is saying nothing outré or forced, and you do violence to the poem if you create a translation like the last. It's not a poem that's trying to startle you: it's a very quiet, gentle sing-song.

To relieve this pain
that splits my forehead and soul,
I have lingered, watching the moon
behind the slender acacias.

There is something in the moon that suffers;
something, in the halo of silver
that kisses my eyes,
and dries – weeping – my tears.

I don't know what the moon has
that caresses – lulls – calms –
and silently watches the prisoner
with a saint's immense compassion.

And tonight, as I suffer and think
of freeing this flesh from my soul –
I have lingered, watching the moon
behind the slender acacias.

1 comment:

Zhoen said...

Torment? Brow? No idea where to put them, but they are damn fine words.