by Selma Ancira, Spanish Translator

 As published in In Focus Vol. 10, No. 1, March 2013

Selma AnciraWhen my friend, Niki Marangou, invited me to Cyprus to talk about my work as translator of Russian and Greek literature, I became really nervous. This would be the first time I would actually speak about my profession, the art of translating, in Greek. I was just about ready to say “Thank you, but no, I will be otherwise engaged”, when I heard myself giving this delightful reply: “Marvelous, yes! Thank you very much!”

You see, the love I feel for your country easily conquered my fear…

And so today I am here in order to share with you a few moments from my journey along the wide road of literary translation.

I began translating Marina Tsvetaeva thirty years ago when, genuinely enchanted and replete with images and emotions after reading some of her letters which accidentally found their way to my hands, I had no choice but to immerse myself in the adventure of translation.

I had just discovered a wondrous universe! With this universe I engaged in dialogue. And this universe went on to conquer me. Because the ocean that together with Tsvetaeva read those letters, the wind which lingered respectfully at the doorstep before returning her to the sea, the black girl who instead of studying French ate violets… everything conquered me. I surrendered to the allure of her prose rhythm, the power of the images, her special way of perceiving poetry: “Poetry is life itself: it’s being unable to help it”. And so, even before knowing how she had lived, before learning that Brodsky considered her the greatest poet of the 20th century, I fell in love with her.

And then the campaign was launched. Reading her, trying to understand her; translating her, trying to get her published; share her, make her known, capture on her behalf a place in my own culture. Proving that behind this cluster of words scarcely uttered by a Spanish speaker – Ma ri na Tsve ta eva – a giant hid.

It was my first translation project. I felt that translation was the quest of the right words, those that would have the capacity to carry the meaning, the concern, and the intention of the writer. I ignored at the time that every writer asks to be translated in a different way. That each and every one of them determines the way you should work with him or her. That each writer whispers to your ear what his or her style requires. It would be madness, for instance, to translate Yiannis Ritsos based on the parameters I use in translating Tsvetaeva or vice versa! But this was something I would find out over time, whilst practicing translation. At the beginning, even though I could hear the music embedded in Tsvetaeva’s poetry, I was inexperienced enough to compromise with the generalized view that this was untranslatable. So, convinced of this impossibility, I translated a large part of her work: short stories, diaries, letters and memoirs.

One simple example: in “The devil”, a short story written in 1935, there is a particular tongue-twister which in Russian sounds like this: На горе Арарат, три барана орали. Гора signifies mountain. Арарат is Ararat. Три барана орали, ‘three goats’ or perhaps ‘three rams’ which has a better ring to it – ‘cried out’. The first time I translated this short-story into Spanish the rendition I suggested was literal: “En el monte Ararat, tres carneros gritaban” or “On Mount Ararat three rams cried out”. In other words, I kept the meaning of the original, and despite the word for word translation I also managed to maintain its rhythm. But something was missing. Let’s say the wings.

“They say that Pushkin is untranslatable. Why? Each poem is the translation of something immaterial to something material, it is to render feelings and thoughts in words. If this was indeed achieved whilst translating the internal world with external symbols (which is almost akin to a miracle) why wouldn’t the same apply when replacing one system of symbols with another? In fact, it is much simpler: in the transfer, the translation from one language to another, the material is expressed with something material and the word with a word, which is always possible”.

You see, Tsvetaeva was bit by bit showing me the way.

The profession helps greatly. So does symbiosis, readings: of her work, books on her work, the books she used to read. The journeys that were meant to trace her steps.

(In the span of many years I have visited almost every location that was closely linked to Tsvetaeva, the places that are mentioned over and over again in her work: Tarousa, the lair of The Flagellants, and the Oka river with its evocative sandy tongues; Prague where, according to Tsvetaeva herself, only the soul mattered – and its environs where she always longed to return. Paris, where she studied at the Sorbonne in 1909, and its quarters, where she would later live not in splendor anymore but in exile, amidst desolation and ignominy. Yelabuga, a remote village in Tatarstan where, in August 1941, she took her own life; Koktebel, a bay on barren land where unfolds one of her finest books, Vivid voice of life. Russian Berlin in the 1920s, the coast of Liguria… The list goes on and on.

Tsvetaeva’s work is autobiographical from beginning to end. Not just her prose but also her poetry. This is why it was so important to me that I approach her by means of geography too. It is for me magnificent to be able to translate words not only with the help of an encyclopedia or a dictionary but also leaning against everything that may be offered to me through the fact that I have walked on the wake of these words, I have traversed and breathed them in… Only then are sounds replete with meanings and, in my case, the translation gains in value, becomes richer.)

I have mentioned that the profession helps, symbiosis too, as well as the author’s book and books about the author, but perhaps the most useful indication for the translator are the translations the author herself has made…

When Tsvetaeva was living in France, she wrote many pieces originally in French: Letter to an Amazon, three of the four short-stories that make up My father and his museum… She also translated a few of her works from Russian into French, such as the long poem Молодец (which she rendered in French as Le gars) and finally she translated Pushkin on the occasion of the centennial of his death.

When it came to translating Pushkin, she had this to say:

“My intention was above everything else to follow Pushkin from as closest as I could without becoming his slave, which would in no doubt have left me lagging behind the poet’s text. Because each time I felt the urge to become subdued – the poem was lessened”.

Of great value to me as I translate Tsvetaeva into a sister language are not only her translations of Pushkin but the entire body of her French work even if this applies only to the way she selects specific key words and repeated turnings in her work.

Through the years my hearing became accustomed to Tsvetaeva’s music. Today I feel more susceptible to her sounds, her rhythm, the movement of her phrases, the pulse of her pauses. Sometimes I can hear her even before I finish reading. Now I believe I know how she would have liked her work to be translated since I have become acquainted with the way she herself perceived literary translation. This makes me feel obliged to retranslate, through this new prism, her works which I first translated twenty or thirty years ago.

To give you and idea of what I mean, let us go back to the tongue-twister I mentioned at the beginning, those rams that cried out.

In the new version, with an eye to preserving the tongue-twister’s musicality, I had to turn the rams into plows, arados in Spanish: En el monte Ararat, tres arados araban. That’s what Tsvetaeva herself chose to do when while translating a poem by Pushkin she turned an olive tree into an orange tree….

It was as if trying in Greek to maintain the alliteration of «αρ» and thus say: στο όρος Αραράτ τρία μοσχάρια σπάραζαν (On Mount Ararat three calves shrieked) or something more daring but at the same time with a biblical edge to it: στο όρος Αραράτ τρία καράβια άραζαν. (On Mount Ararat three ships moored).

“The creation of new words just as every creation is not but a journey on the traces of popular, indigenous things heard. It is the path of things heard. Et tout le reste n’est que littérature”. That too was something Tsvetaeva taught me: the art of the path of things heard, in other words the way to create new words in the Spanish language, which systematically drives my computer insane as it insists on underlying each entry it doesn’t recognize, suggesting other options which would however rob my translation of Tsvetaeva’s spirit.

This long symbiosis with the writer allows the translator not only to gain better insight into him or her but also make books that the writer hadn’t. For instance, for quite a few years now I have been translating Seferis, first his essays and of late his poetry. And in that way, all of a sudden a book was born dedicated to Cyprus, a book which in this particular form does not make part of Seferis’ work but will from now on enrich the libraries of Spanish speakers.

This book I would have loved to show you because it recently came out in Mexico, but unfortunately the strikes in Greece, in particular the strike by customs officers in Athens, prevented me from receiving it before coming here.

Besides the poems in Deck Diaries C, which are dedicated to the people of Cyprus, my friend and poet Francisco Segovia with whom I have been working for several years now, translated with me those passages from Seferis’ diary that are related to Cyprus, his beloved island, as well as some excerpts from his Cypriot letters.

I will tell you nothing more of it ; more apt it seems to me it would be to invite you to the book’s presentation here, in November, if all goes well, and then we will get into more details.

Before I wrap this short speech, I would like to share with you Tsvetaeva’s train of thought as recorded in one of the most revealing essays ever composed about literary translation. In 1933 she writes “The two kings of the elves”, dedicated to the poem “Der Erlkönig” written by Goethe in 1782 and translated by Russian poet Vasily Zhukovsky in 1818.

After a thorough analysis of the translator’s work, Tsvetaeva reaches the following conclusion:

“Both are equal. One hundred years later, the translation has stopped being a translation and has become an original in its own right. It is simply a different king of the elves. They are equal in grandeur. But they are very different. They are two kings of the elves”.

“Two variations on the same topic, two sides of the same thing, two witnesses of the same form.

They each saw it through their own eyes”.

Isn’t this the ambition of every translator? And, after all, is there praise greater than this?

Translated from Greek by Despina Pirketti

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