Yurkievich in Translation: A Review Essay

Roberto González Echevarría

Yale University

Poetic translation is an economy of gains and losses. Fluctuations are for the most part due to the translator's ability and diligence, but sometimes reflect the relative strengths of the languages involved. This is the case in Cola Franzen's excellent translations of the no less admirable poems by Saúl Yurkievich. In a poetry so dependent on the deep music of language, some of the poems improve because of the greater sound range of English vowels and the rhythmic combinations that can be achieved with the savage directness of short, Anglo-Saxon words. The plainness of Spanish vowels and long Latinate words, with their monotonous syllabic cadences, pose a great challenge. For instance, in the first, unnamed poem of Background Noise. Ruido de fondo, the lines:

                   posas tu mano
y su tocar se aleja)
despegue: despliegue (p. 18)

fine in themselves, sound even better in English:

            you place your hand
and its touch moves away)
upcurl: unfurl (p. 19)

The bisyallabic pair "upcurl: unfurl" is a quicker close and smoother transition than the cumbersome "despegue: despliegue," in which Spanish is so close to Latin that the line sounds like a class exercise. The beautiful English adverb, "serenely," with its brief and euphonious "ly" ending compares favorably with the clanking "serenamente." (Adverbs ending in "mente" are the bane of poets who write in Spanish, as Borges has remarked, and a careful prose writer like García Márquez simply avoids them altogether). These are not Yurkievich's shortcomings and most everywhere his original is better than the translation, as it should be. On occasion this too is due to quirks in the languages, instances in which Spanish seems to outdo English. When Yurkievich writes "tu intimidad: tiempo del otro," rendered by Franzen as "your inner self: time of the other" (pp. 18-19) the translation sounds too philosophical, whereas "intimidad" does not. Broken up, the word yields a nice miniature suite of "in," "ti" and "mí," --one's self as a play of pronominal variants.

Such is the music of Yurkievich's poetry: subtle, effective, full of pleasing surprises. It is a music that, as announced in the book's title, aspires to remain in the background, barely above noise in its secret harmonies. The best analogy is jazz, because the lines are often playful in their curls and warps: "no soy lo que soy/soy lo que no soy/no soy lo que no soy: vertigo. (p. 24). Franzen Englishes thus: "I am not what I am/I am what I am not/I am not what I am not: vertigo" (p. 25). The music is sometimes made by recourse to common rhetorical devices, such as this near polyptonton: "lo vacante invoca/portavoz de la convocatoria" (p. 16, "the vacant invokes/carrier of the convoking," p. 17). This figure involves repeating a word in different cases, or a verb in various tenses, like a musical motif played in more than one key, or repeated with minor variations: a complex scale halfway to a musical exercise. Here "invoca," "portavoz," and "convocatoria" share the Latin root vox, voice, and "vacante" adds resonance to what is also an alliteration.

Yurkievich transforms time into space with the poems' layouts on the page. The reader's eye darts up and down instead of linearly following the flow of syntax, language's rigid time-space dyad. Enjambments produce unusual effects as they wrap lines around a longer than expected surface, only to lead to shorter ones, making for uncommon optical rhythms, a grammar whose medium is white space not silence. While unorthodox typographical patterns are as old as Mallarmé, Yurkievich's are unusually linked to the music of the poems, as is everything else in his work.

His conceits are ingenious but not pretentious, mildly philosophical without being pedantic. "Celada" ("Snare") describes a spider web with the spider dead within it. Like a classical animal fable, the poem goes on to tell how the web remains cocked, ready to capture unwary bugs in spite of its maker's demise. There is no pathos in this death of the artist; the spider is already "crumpled/curled up/and dry" (p. 27). Beyond intention and agency, creation survives, as the poem lives beyond the poet's personal reach to ensnare the reader. But was the spider not also caught in its own trap? An allegory? Perhaps, but as delicately conceived as the spider web itself.

In the Image and Likeness is a collection of prose pieces of indeterminate genre. The first half is a version of ecphrasis, painting with words, but with a romantic twist. These are texts about and "by" great painters --Velázquez, Goya, Picasso, Kurt Schwitters-- musing on the making of their masterpieces. In his monologue, Velázquez' muses about creation and self-creation in "Las Meninas,", disclosing the will-to-power that led him to paint himself in the act of painting. Goya tells the lusty story behind the work on his naked and dressed majas. Schwitters, that master of collage and the objet trouvé, appears as a chaplinesque figure collecting garbage and kitsch on the way to his Construction for Noble Ladies, inspired by his love for Ana Bloom. Desire is the motive and motion behind these artists' creative impulse, an oblique reflection by Yurkievich on his own. Schwitters is the one with whom he most obviously identifies. Like him Yurkievich is a collector of the given, of a language already freighted with meanings, figures, idioms, poetic fragments; human speech as the lava of time. Unlike God, who makes the universe out of the void, artists create out of the human, all that has been there since the beginning of time, our time. Self-reflexiveness, as in "Las Meninas," means being caught up in a work of art that is the product of a man's mind and desire, with no outside support or divine construct, a poise at once humble and arrogant.

Yurkievich, an Argentine, was for thirty-five years professor of Latin American literature in Paris, a distinguished critic of modern Latin American poetry and his fellow Argentine and Parisian, the late Julio Cortázar. I am surprised by the quality of his creative work and pleased that it does not read like the kind literature professors produce when they try to become one with their objects of study --the results are usually like paintings done by numbers or pastiches of their literary heros. This is not so with Yurkievich. There are echoes of Octavio Paz in some of his more self-reflexive poems, to be sure. I feel too the presence of the unjustly forgotten Oliverio Girondo when Yurkievich uses portmanteau words, and one can hear a bit of Cortázar here and there. But Yurkievich is not slavish in dealing with these masters. With a much updated musical repertoire, his heaviest debt is to the Nicaraguan Rubén Darío, founder of Spanish language poetry at the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries. Yurkievich would probably be the first to acknowledge it.