On Writing in Two Languages and Other Intimacies

Noël Valis
Yale University

My point of departure in this essay is contemporary women poets from both the Spanish- and English-language traditions and my experience in translating them into another language. Translating is a special act of intimacy that goes to the heart of writing itself. Poems can haunt you. They won’t let you go, and when that happens, you feel possessed by them. Sometimes then, you have to wrestle with possession, with the poem that’s taken over in some nameless place of the mind-body continuum. You’ve got to turn it into something else, move it out by reliving it in the language of your own mind and body. That’s where translation comes in.
The Latin trans- expresses a notion of “beyond,” “across,” or “over.” To translate is “to remove from one place to another”; “to turn from one language into another.” It isn’t just translators who translate: writers do as well. Words never express what is, only what is sought. Poets are always driven to say what cannot be said. They are always looking for verbal equivalents, for images and forms of the poem that has not yet emerged from inside, from its intimate life inside the poet. They speak with two tongues: one is the language of the poem we are reading; the other is the language we cannot read, that comes from a place that resists naming. In a word, writing itself is a kind of translation, in which writers try for the perfect translation.
Historically and culturally, however, this matter of poetic intimacy has been complicated for women writers. Until recently, there were limits on the accepted ­and acceptable ­ways of expressing oneself as a woman, of translating interiority into words. The classic nineteenth-century figure of the woman writer was embodied in the poetess or poetisa considered as a victim of suffering and renunciation. By contrast, what we have today ­especially since the 1960s and 70s ­are poets, plain and simple, who do not accept suffering in silence but who take that pain and pulverize it with their anger, deflate it with a razor-sharp irony or transform it into positive images of serenity regained. Intimacy is made public, through writing. 
Almost the only exception to the poetess-victim of the past was Emily Dickinson, who continues to be a major influence on contemporary women poets. In the nineteenth century Dickinson wrote: “I’m Nobody! Who are you?”, referring in part, with delicious irony, to the lack of prestige the woman writer of her time experienced. Contemporary women poets seem to have inverted or turned upside down her words, by suggesting: “I’m Somebody! I’m also Someone else,” thus revealing that the status of the woman writer has changed dramatically and has assumed a fuller and richer personality. Nonetheless, the history of women poets that underlies much of this writing points to a larger truth: that women have always written in two languages, in one that comes ready made and pre-approved and another that must be found and re-made.
One of the most startling and boldest tendencies in this poetry is the re-empowering of the human body. Not only is there a noticeable openness of expression concerning this theme, but it is through the body or body imagery that these poets often communicate the significance of their poetry. This tendency seems to be more pronounced in English-language poets like Sharon Olds and Carolyn Forché than in some of the Spanish-language poets I’ve translated, such as Sara Pujol Russell, Julia Uceda, and Noni Benegas, though Ana Rossetti and Clara Janés also come to mind as “body poets” of note. It is worth considering, in exploring this poetry, why such differences exist and what they may mean. In any case, whether the body is imaged explicitly or not, it is never the body as body that we are reading; it becomes a metaphor that points to something beyond itself, as metaphors do, and gesturing towards its own opaqueness.
The body images of this poetry are intimate translations of nonverbal experience, akin to what Walter Benjamin called “thing languages” found in sculpture and painting: “ . . . in them we find a translation of the language of things into an infinitely higher language, which may still be of the same sphere. We are concerned here with nameless, nonacoustic languages, languages issuing from matter” (330). 
In focusing on the body, writers like Olds and Forché stress a sense of place and emplacement, recalling that language, like translation, must move from one place to another in order to be. In reclaiming the body as a place for poetry, as a place of poetry, they also suggest that no one ends with the same body you start out with. Which is a way of saying no one ends with the same history. Bodies are biographical maps. Some of the countries will get filled in, others remain forever unknown territory, unlived experience. Bodies are living and dead history. Within us, we carry other “bodies,” memories of earlier selves, of other persons. We become a repository of the breath and matter of other people. You could say we become a morgue filled with the bodies of those we’ve loved, of those we’ve hated.
This same capacity for storage ­of memories, of experience, of sensations ­points, however, to something else besides burial: it suggests revelation. Bodies constantly incorporate. Everything becomes food for the body. Everything also becomes transformed. One story is brought inside, undergoes a change of plot, and another story emerges. Bodies are stories. Which brings us back to the thinginess of language as matter.
Consider, for example, two very different poems that rely on the image of cartography to embody poetic intimacy. The first is Sharon Olds’s “Topography,” in which she imagines the act of love as a verbal and fleshly map and two bodies as  different territories uniting:

After we flew across the country we
got in bed, laid our bodies
delicately together, like maps laid
face to face, East to West, my
San Francisco against your New York, your
Fire Island against my Sonoma, my
New Orleans deep in your Texas, your Idaho
bright on my Great Lakes, my Kansas
burning against your Kansas your Kansas
burning against my Kansas, your Eastern
Standard Time pressing into my
Pacific Time, my Mountain Time
beating against your  Central Time, your
sun rising swiftly from the right my
sun rising swiftly from the left your
moon rising slowly from the left my
moon rising slowly from the right until
all four bodies of the sky
burn above us, sealing us together,
all our cities twin cities,
all our states united, one
nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

 Here is the Spanish version:

Después de volar por todo el país,
nos metimos en la cama, juntamos
nuestros cuerpos con delicadeza, como mapas
que yacen cara a cara, Este al Oeste,
mi San Francisco junto a tu Nueva York,
tu Fire Island junto a mi Sonoma,
mi Nueva Orleans envuelta en tu Texas, tu Idaho
brillando sobre mis Lagos Superiores, mi Kansas
ardiendo contra tu Kansas, tu Kansas
ardiendo contra mi Kansas, tu Eastern
Standard Time empujando mi Pacific
Time, mi Mountain Time
batiendo contra tu Central Time,
tu sol levantándose velozmente desde la derecha
mi sol levantándose velozmente desde la izquierda
tu luna levantándose lentamente desde la izquierda
mi luna levantándose lentamente desde la derecha
hasta que los cuatro cuerpos del cielo
arden encima de nosotros, sellándonos juntos,
todas nuestras ciudades son ciudades gemelas,
todos nuestros estados, unidos ya, una
nación, indivisible, con libertad y justicia para todos. (1)

This delicious poem flaunts its eroticism through playfulness, consciously avoiding the dual clichés of romantic love and literal lovemaking by converting body parts into a moving geography of tropes. The poem works imaginatively because readers cannot help retranslating back her map into another language: that of the body itself. The body is and isn’t there. The poem begins with a sweeping sense of movement and ends with an ironic yet amusing gesture to the world beyond, the nation that is anything but united, with liberty and justice for all. Also implied is the notion that two bodies unite, only to disunite afterwards. Indeed, other poems by Olds speak disturbingly of the passions, hatreds, and inhumanity of men towards other men, of how the personal and the historical can fuse in a series of intense body images centering on the mutilation of body and spirit.
My translation had to cope with the immediate problem of proper names. With the exception of the Great Lakes, which I converted to Lagos Superiores, I opted to leave the terms in the original, or lightly Hispanized (as in Nueva Orleans or Nueva York). First, there are no real translations of such words. But more importantly, their foreignness struck me as appropriate to the manner in which Olds herself underlines the alien nature of the two bodies in her poem. These bodies may be twin cities and united states, but they are also separate and distinct. The real bodies remain impermeable to us as readers. Intimacy is there and isn’t there. You may trace our topographies, she seems to be telling us, but you may not enter our cities, time zones, suns or moons.
My second poem is called “Una cartógrafa,” or “Mapmaker,” by Noni Benegas, an Argentinian writer who has resided in Spain since 1977:

Había una vez una cartógrafa que delicadamente incluía a los viajeros en las rutas que trazaba. Así, los vestigios resinosos de un traficante de óleos quedaban dispersos a lo largo del plano;  una dama antigua de miriñaque y sostén de afuera remembraba a María Malibrán  que ebria hubiera girado sobre sí siendo checo lo que pisaba. Alicia en el país de las maravillas visitaba otros lugares, y claro, de su comparación surgían las bellas voces del idioma: “ay” “huy” “qué poco,” etcétera. En general los viajes eran infinitos, y en particular, cobraban un gusto almizclado y dulce de caramelo de los mares griegos. Encajonaba cofres en los ángulos,  pero esos melancólicos jamás sospechaban que dentro de ellos hubiera alguna solución; goznes y sortijas dudosas,  dientes y más calaveras,    abrelatas de la era espacial, y en especial bonetes y muñecas, palillos, aguarrás, liebres, prados, alfombras y dátiles, y hasta Don José sorprendido por tanto acecho majestuoso de la hermosa dama boba.

 Here is the English translation:

There once was a mapmaker who delicately included the travelers themselves in the routes that she traced.  Thus, the resinous vestiges of a trafficker in oils spilled across the charted surface; a much bosomed lady creaking in crinoline brought to mind an inebriate María Malibrán who would have spun on her heels had she stepped on something Czech. Alice in Wonderland was visiting other places, and of course, from this comparison arose the beautiful sounds of language:  “ay” ‘uy”  “so little,” etc. In general the journeys were infinite,  and in particular,  they acquired a musky-sweet caramel taste of the Greek seas. She squeezed coffers into the angles,  but these melancholy things never suspected there might be a solution hidden inside;  hinges and dubious rings, teeth and still more skulls, can openers from the space age,  caps and dolls especially, toothpicks, turpentine, hares, meadows, carpets and dates, and even Don José surprised by so much majestic stalking of the lovely dame nitwit.

As a citizen of two countries, Noni Benegas is familiar with the map of the world. But it is a different map we read in the prose poem cited above. In “Mapmaker” different universes collide, but there is no apocalpyse. The cosmos continues. We simply do not understand it. It is filled with enigmatic objects from the everyday world: with hinges and rings, teeth and skulls, can openers and dolls. In this map everything is included, even the travelers. The poem is also laced with literary and other allusions, reinforcing the notion that maps are artificial constructions. Noni’s poem suggests that people make their own maps, charted surfaces that are both general and particular, that at once contain the collective history of the world and the private stories of individual lives. 
Writing is a kind of map in this wonderful poem. Language, whether on the page or in the air, in coffers or on the Greek seas, makes maps of our lives. Indeed, many of her poems point to a geography of writing. Far more than Olds’s “Topography,” this poem resists interpretation, thus making its translation even more challenging. All the quotidian objects in this text are also alien, other-worldly, made so through incongruous juxtaposition and a sense of cosmic irony communicated here. Although body imagery is not apparent, the idea of embodiment is, the mind made concrete and particular through real objects and cultural allusions that inhabit it, like coffers squeezed into angles.  The poem’s intriguing opacity suggests to me that the poet herself does not know what the “solution hidden inside” might be. This is a good example of how words never express what is, only what is sought. In translating this poem, I found myself not only as much taken by surprise as Don José in the text, but continually off-balance, knowing that my coming closer to the poem signified only that: coming closer, as in a journey that is infinite but tastes musky-sweet like the Greek seas receding before us. I think the poem is meant to keep us  off-balance.
In another poem, the body takes center stage, but only does so through paradox, by the poet deliberately not naming the fleshly object that drives the description.
The text is called “Frida Kahlo”:

¿Era una obra de arte  o su deseo ? una columna
de símil de acero segada   más una alta carena
de colmillos de jade
                           Latía con la prisa impávida
de los templos futuros:    el viento entornado
entre los dientes   las cejas de dosel de búfalo
                 la impronta de esfinge sobre el asfalto
¿Era una obra de arte   o su deseo   ?   una columna
de tiza húmeda   posada día tras día   bajo la
ágil pupila   en floración perenne

And the English version:

Was it a work of art   or her desire?    A column
like harvested steel    then fangs like jade
careening steeply
                            It beat with the bold haste
of temples foretold:    the wind adrift
in teeth   the eyebrows a buffalo bower
              the stamp of the sphinx on asphalt
Was it a work of art   or her desire?   A column
of damp chalk   posed day after day   beneath the
agile pupil   forever flowering

For anyone who has stood transfixed in front of a Frida Kahlo painting, especially her self-portraits, this poem does with words what Kahlo did with paint: it appears to break the barrier between art and life, while suggesting that life, or perhaps some lives like Frida Kahlo’s, are like a work of art. We see references to the terrible accident that pierced Kahlo’s life, that “harvested steel” which brutally split her body but which also traverses the poem that Noni has made, breaking it into two questions: “Was it a work of art   or her desire?” The column of harvested steel has become at the end of the poem a column of damp chalk, the stroke of painted fate. The mystery of this poem, like that of Kahlo’s painting, resides not in the initial question posed, which in any event is never answered, but in the way the portrait continues “forever flowering.” What makes Frida’s agile pupil so alive?
There is no suffering victim in this poem, just as there isn’t in Kahlo’s painting, which makes us feel her pain without exploiting it emotionally. Rather, there is the pride of having created art out of a horrifying experience that cannot possibly be duplicated with words or paint­it can only be sought, reembodied as art, knowing full well that words and paint cannot pierce the enigma of experience or of being. Noni’s tightly condensed imagery, which seems at once neobaroque and surreal, expresses that enigma beautifully, while also challenging the translator’s abilities. Which is to say, Frida’s buffalo bower eyebrows are as dense as ever. They can be translated but never really penetrated. The body is there, but isn’t there.
Here is another example of this same conjuring act, this time from the poetry of Sara Pujol Russell, whose bio, she once told me, is only “the stuff that appears in the inside flap of my books.” The poem is called “Creación de mi nombre” (“Creation of my Name”):

Si la aurora surgió del caos. Si la luz, de la oscuridad.
Si la palabra emergió de la ceguera y las nubes del vino.
Si la belleza brotó de la clara conciencia de la muerte,
y la verdad se alimentó de ella y, así, también el amor,
mi corazón nació una noche de azabache enamorada.
Mi cuerpo, un mediodía de invierno celoso de la noche.
Mi tiempo, en un jardín de rosas donde habitaban los sueños.
Mi aliento, en la baja niebla, en los labios de un bosque encendido.

And the English:

What if dawn streamed from chaos and light from darkness.
What if the word emerged from blindness and clouds from wine.
What if beauty grew from the clear conscience of death,
truth fed off it, and so too love,
my heart was born one jet-black, enamored night.
My body, one midday in winter jealous of the night.
My time, in a garden of roses where dreams lived.
My breath, in the deep-down fog, in the lips of a burning woods.

Sara’s poetry is remarkable for the way she takes something abstract ­beauty, time, or truth ­and turns it into something intimate. The length of the line, its incantatory qualities build towards that final intensity, in which her breath is in the deep-down fog, in the lips of a burning woods. Here again, whatever the body is in poetry, it signals both more and less than itself. Sara expresses the paradox by using the construction “si + the preterite,” rather than the subjunctive. What if this was so means “this was so.” If we can wrap our minds around such a possibility, we can also embrace her exquisite rereading of Saint John of the Cross’s “Dark Night of the Soul” (“Noche oscura del alma”). Space does not permit me to pursue the two poems together, but it is fascinating to contemplate how Saint John’s dark night, his soul inflamed, gives birth to another poem, reminding us in turn how much the earlier text, in dwelling on the mystical union with God, is also about creation, poetic and divine. Sara’s poem is ostensibly about her name, but name, time, body, and breath are synecdoches of creation itself, and creation is made intimate by emphasizing the person, her name and her breath. It is the breath inside, in the deep-down fog and in the lips of a burning woods, which is equally part of the world and creator of the world. The thing I found hardest to translate was this sense of intimate flow, of ever-expanding permeability between inside and outside, body and mind, individual being and the universe. What does it mean to speak of the lips of a burning woods? Here is poetic intimacy at its deepest, as mystery of mysteries.
Finally, as a translator into both languages, I’ve also had occasion to turn my own poems into another language. This dual role poses its own difficulties. Let me give an example, in a poem titled “Women Spread Their Skirts Over the Men” (“Las mujeres tienden sus faldas sobre los hombres”):

When women spread their skirts over the men,
something, maybe the wind, is overcome and loves,
becomes a drifter of dreams through cobbled inland waves,
looks for warm, salty tears nestled between breasts.
Can turn quiet October into a breaker of hearts.

When women spread their skirts over the men,
the sun is ample and unconscious. Sheets dry quickly.
Surprises come with tender garments flapping;
with small buttons that burst and fall and roll;
with sudden air that bangs a window shut and catches the dark.
Women billow and furl their skirts,
as wet, thrashing fish slip through their hands,
one of those fish learning how uncertain
is the passing of a summer cloud that rumbles distance,
that pierces cloud caps, pinked with mackerel edges.
When women spread their skirts over the men,
they cast a net of shadows
over the soft, helpless form that lies there.
Child, this being female, this glistening, this tremor,
is what wind, sun, and cloud made you. You make something else.

Here is the Spanish version:

Cuando las mujeres tienden sus faldas sobre los hombres,
algo, quizá el viento, se siente vencido y ama,
deviene un vagabundo de sueños por olas interiores de guijarros,
busca saladas lágrimas calientes acurrucándose entre dos pechos.
Puede convertir un octubre tranquilo en rompeolas de corazones.
Cuando las mujeres tienden sus faldas sobre los hombres,
el sol es amplio e inconsciente. Las sábanas se secan pronto.
Las sorpresas vienen con tiernas prendas aleteando;
con pequeños botones que se desprenden y caen y ruedan;
con aire repentino que cierra de golpe una ventana y atrapa la oscuridad.
Las mujeres ondulan y recogen sus faldas,
mientras se resbalan de sus manos húmedos peces agitados,
uno de esos peces está aprendiendo cuán incierto
es el paso de una nube de verano retumbando en la distancia,
perforando gorras de nubes, picadas de bordes aborregados.
Cuando las mujeres tienden sus faldas sobre los hombres,
echan una red de sombras
sobre la dulce forma indefensa que allí yace.
Niña, esto de ser hembra, este brillo, este temblor,
es lo que viento, sol y nube han hecho de ti. Haz otra cosa.

In reworking my own poetry, I was made doubly aware of translation as a process of creation. If a poem like “Creation of my Name” already points in this direction, translating a poem you have authored drives home the inseparability of translation and writing, as Carol Maier has observed. In a word, translations are, as she also remarks, “poems in their own right,” while still remaining translations (24). As a translator, I had to make decisions which would inevitably turn the poem towards a particular reading, while eliminating other ones. The last sentence is illustrative of what I mean. In the original the line is ambivalently charged, as declarative and/or imperative: “You make something else.” In the Spanish version, I have opted for the imperative: “Haz otra cosa.” I sacrificed that ambivalence for something more decisive.2 The declarative sounded weak to me in Spanish, in this context, and I was stumped over how to provide the original ambivalence. On the other hand, the familiar form of compensates to some extent because it emphasizes and enriches, more than the English “you,” the intimate.
And this brings me back to poetic intimacy, to tears nestled between breasts, to tender garments flapping, small buttons that burst and fall and roll, skirts that billow and furl, and that glistening, that tremor of being female. All these images hover over, in, and around the body, which is both present and absent in this poem. The body image is, in all these texts, a metaphor for different forms of poetic intimacy and for the difficulty of engaging and penetrating that intimacy, that net of shadows, which is also the lips of a burning woods, the four bodies of the sky, and the eyebrows of a buffalo bower.


(1). I have corrected the Spanish translation for this poem, which inexplicably contains the words “velozmente” in lines 16-17, where it should read “lentamente” in Las conjuradoras.

(2). I rely here upon Carol Maier’s illuminating discussion of this poem (24).


Works Cited

Benegas, Noni. Burning Cartography. Trans. & Introd.
Noël Valis. Austin: Host Publications, 2007.

   ______. “Una cartógrafa.” Argonáutica. Prol. José María Valverde. Barcelona: Laertes, 1984.

    ______. “Frida Kahlo.” La balsa de la Medusa. Prol. José Muñoz Garrigos. Alicante: Caja de Ahorros Provincial de Alicante, 1987.

Benjamin, Walter. “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man. Reflections. Ed. Peter Demetz. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. New York: Schocken Books, 1986. 314-32.

Dickinson, Emily.
“I’m Nobody! Who are you?” The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1960.

Juan de la Cruz, San. Poesías. Alicante: Biblioteca Virtual de Cervantes, 2000.

Maier, Carol. Prologue. Mi casa me recuerda / My House Remembers Me. By N.Valis. 19-24.

Old, Sharon.
“Topography.” The Gold Cell. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987.  

Pujol Russell, Sara. “Creación de mi nombre.” El fuego tiende su aire / El aire tiende a su fuente. Ferrol: Esquío, 1999.

   ______. The Poetry of Sara Pujol Russell. Trans. & Introd. Noël Valis. Selinsgrove: Susquehanna UP, 2005.  

   Valis, Noël.  Mi casa me recuerda / My House Remembers Me. Prol. Carol Maier. Ferrol: Esquío, 2003.

   ______, ed. Las conjuradoras. Antología bilingüe de seis poetas norteamericanas de hoy. Trans. & Introd. N. Valis. Ferrol: Esquío, 1993.