Translating Carmen Conde for the Web

Carmen Conde’s Original Poems
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Translations by
[Barbara DeCesare / Jennifer Hill / Bob Offer-Westort / Dan Waber / Jim Warner]

The Dynamic Translations
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Dan Waber writes:

The idea behind this project was to bring technology to bear on the problem of the translation of poetry. I have had a long term relationship with poems that move, poems that shift, poems that leverage technology to help say things that couldn’t otherwise be said. I also have been attracted to the translation of poetry for as long as I can remember. Poetry is such a precise thing, when it’s done well, that it is difficult to imagine the fool who would even attempt it. Many years ago I assembled a collection of different translations into English of Pablo Neruda’s “Ode to My Socks” and was simultaneously impressed and depressed by the significant variation in the translations. I felt certain that if this much variation could exist between translations then it was likely that the original poem was not being well-represented by any of them.

Skip ahead several years and in my inbox arrives a letter asking me if I would be interested in created a piece of web art in honor of Carmen Conde. Of course! I’d be thrilled. Absolutely. Uh oh. Now what? What am I going to do? Start reading and researching and see what idea comes to me. The first thing I go looking for are existing translations of her work, because I don’t read Spanish. There are suprisingly (even shockingly) few that I can locate. I receive some .pdf files of a couple of titles and am immediately interested in the visual aspect of the pages as they appear in the .pdfs because they are the kind of hybrid between typographically perfect substitution and left-as-scanned graphic that results from applying imperfect Optical Character Recognition (OCR) technology. There was something fascinating about the imprecision of the reproduction that kept resurfacing in my thoughts.

All of these factors came together in the final project. Rather than limit the process of translation to the single translator, line, and word that the printed page demands in order to pin a butterfly to a board, we’ve made use of the possibilities allowed by the technology to create a net with which we can run through the field of poetry and attempt to catch a few of Carmen Conde’s creations alive, wings unbroken and still beating.

Bob Offer-Westort writes:

There are joys, puzzles, that it might be hard to appreciate if you don’t translate—What do you do when the same word in Language A appears twice in a line with two different meanings, not covered by any single term in Language B? What would the author do were she a native speaker of Language B? Things like that—word games that you get to play, but which you can never win—which means that you never have to stop playing.

But there were two aspects to this project which made it especially enjoyable, and which provided an interesting contrast with other translations I’ve attempted: The first element was error. A pretty key aspect of what we were doing derived from the fact that we did not have access to ideal copies of Conde’s work. The actual words had been obscured, sometimes multiple times over, which meant that the best we could do, at times, was trust experience and gut. Two kinds of fun, here: First, every poem was one part detective work—What did this probably say? But there were still cases where I, at least, couldn’t be sure. This nigh guaranteed errors—a silly guarantee, I suppose, as a translation’s never going to be perfect anyhow. But once that lofty goal—perfection—became totally attainable, I became, as a parallel-poet, far freer to experiment. I did this in different ways in different poems. In the first, I saw several words that did not exist in Spanish—so, I invented English equivalents, even when other English equivalents already exist. (Though, as an aside, the Conde inventions may just have been the result of errors introduced in the copying process.) In the last, I decided to push meaning a little in order to play with alliteration—translating form into something a little more English, as well as content.

The second unique aspect was the other parallelism—while working in parallel with Conde (forty-three years late), we were also working in blind parallel with one another. Dan’s integration of five+ versions of each poem highlights this in a way that might be harder to appreciate in traditional media. On any given line, I see Conde’s words, which I read over and over while translating, and which I know so well; I see my own words, which I hemmed and hawed over, and usually edited multiple times; and then I see a sudden fresh element—an unfamiliar take on a familiar idea-pattern. Some of these point out my misunderstandings; some reveal exciting ways of coaxing the words to assume foreign shapes, fluidly and natively; some are a fascinating departure, where Conde serves merely as a springboard; and some, of course, drag the words kicking and screaming into English, where they writhe and pout. Watching the individual lines change gives a hint as to just how many things one can do, starting from the same idea.

No translation is ever right, but there’s a damned exciting number of ways to be delightfully wrong.

Barbara DeCesare writes:

I accidentally translated the Prologue poems and did so with a fastidious attention to a word-for-word accuracy. Then Dan told me I was doing the wrong poems, but by then I had fallen into a strange relationship with the language I was mining from the original text.

For example, I’ve never been to Nicaragua, so how could I write about it even as translation? How could I cull a real poem – something borne of feeling – about something that I couldn’t truly understand? Of the poems I translated, I gradually got more loose with the translation, eventually being more impressionistic about how I saw the literal language develop into the poem I would write. I allowed the language to be the experience I was writing about and abandoned my initial obligation or any responsibility to the language I was reading. I came to see the process as a relay race: Carmen used these words and did this; I took the words and did that. It was a cathartic experience to channel her in even the vaguest way – to write poems based on mishearing, misunderstandings and knee-jerk response, outside of my own voice and intuition, but not in hers, either. It was liberating. I’am grateful for the experience.

Jim Warner writes:

When I first read Dan’s email about translating the poetry of Carmen Conde, I really wished I had taken Spanish and respectively declined the invite. As Dan explained the project to me, making my lack of Spanish a non-issue, I was intrigued by the concept. I did take seven years of French between high school and college, so I did have some experience with romance languages. Before I could translate the pieces; however, I had to take the scans of the pages and attempt to make them into actual words. When I couldn’t figure out the image, I attempted to use the closest French-looking word (they’re both romance languages, right?).

My translation process was a three step process. The first step was to use two different online translation programs— and—both were free programs and provided a basic literal word-for-word translation. Problems arose from some of the French-esque words not translating.

In the second step, I would take the words that did not translate and attempt to make contextual sense with them. I wanted to just get everything into English one way or another—either translated or shoe-horned into the language.

In the final step, I took the literal translations and reconstructed the poems. My initial poems were very much attempting to be in-line with what I believed the original poem said. The only thing that this type of translation did for me was generate tons of anxiety. When I went back and re-read Dan’s concept, I began to take more chances. By the time I translated the final poem (#6), I was more concerned about making the poem mine—possessing the experience much in the way that readers relate to a piece of art. I felt confident enough that I could relate to the emotional quality of the poems and provide a translation of the work that was both respectful to Carmen Conde and indicative of my experience with the poems.

Jennifer Hill writes:

I should probably apologize for using Google’s translation tool as part of my process since it is the literary equivalent of citing the Encyclopedia Britannica in your thesis. But I won’t. Why? I feel I allowed it to do what it does best — warp language into the absurd and sublime.

I was honored to be asked to translate these poems since they would be brought to life not just on the page but in a space where the letters and words can flit and flimmer among other visions of themselves. I know only a little bit of Spanish — words taught to me through poems written by students, or phrases that live behind my eyes from reading two of my favorite poets, Pablo Neruda and Frederico Garcia Lorca. I figured that this was enough. I had no idea that translation could be so challenging.

First I approached Carmen’s poems with a respectful but demanding literal word-for-word translation, which, after a few poems, didn’t seem fair to the poetry at all. It felt like I was untangling a stubborn knot out of a necklace. In frustration, I stopped.

Later, in a looser translation combining my very basic knowledge of the language, Google’s translation tool and a Spanish/English dictionary, I became more aware of what her poems were trying to say. I was able to fill in “the blanks” with the surrounding context and dream in swirls of lagoons and mountains.

Is this right? I do not know. This is poetry.