Monday, September 19, 2016

Translation, Modeling and Elaboration

In the previous installment of Poem-Pairs, we looked at two differing outcomes when a German poem of Rilke (“Herbsttag”) gets translated into English.

Today we’ll examine how a Spanish poem by the Peruvian poet César Vallejo serves as the basis for a new yet related poem in English by Donald Justice, rather than the latter being merely a translation of the original. Which elements from the Vallejo find their way into the Justice poem, and which do not? What new material appears in the English poem? And what does the English poem, modeled on the Spanish one, tell us about the sensibilities of the American poet Donald Justice?

 Here’s the poem in the original Spanish, followed by an English translation.

     Piedra Negra Sobre una Piedra Blanca   (César Vallejo)

   Me moriré en París con aguacero,
un día del cual tengo ya el recuerdo.
Me moriré en París —yo no me corro—
talvez un jueves, como es hoy, de otoño.

   Jueves sera, porque hoy, jueves, que proso
estos versos, los húmeros me he puesto
a la mala y, jamás como hoy, me he vuelto,
con todo mi camino, a verme solo.

   Jueves sera, porque hoy, jueves, que proso
estos versos, los húmeros me he puesto
a la mala y, jamós como hoy, me he vuelto,
con todo mi camino, a verme solo.

   César Vallejo ha muerto, le pegaban
todos sin que él les haga hada;
le daban duro con un palo y duro

   también con una soga; son testigos
los días jueves y los huesos húmeros,
la soledad, la lluvia, los caminos . . .

     Black Stone on a White Stone   (César Vallejo)

   I will die in Paris in a downpour,
a day which I can already remember.
I will die in Paris—and I don’t budge—
maybe a Thursday, like today, in autumn.

   Thursday it will be, because today, Thursday,
as I prose these lines, I have forced on
my humeri and, never like today, have I turned,
with all my journey, to see myself alone.

   César Vallejo has died, they beat him,
all of them, without him doing anything to them;
they gave it to him hard, with a stick and hard
   likewise with a rope; witnesses are
the Thursdays and the humerus bones,
the loneliness, the rain, the roads . . .

(from César Vallejo, The Complete Poetry: A Bilingual Edition. Edited and translated by Clayton Eshelman. Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2007: University of California Press, pages 380-381)

And now for the Donald Justice poem:

     Variations on a Text by Vallejo   (Donald Justice)

Me moriré en París con aguacero . . .

I will die in Miami in the sun,
On a day when the sun is very bright,
A day like the days I remember, a day like other days,
A day that nobody knows or remembers yet, 
And the sun will be bright then on the dark glasses of strangers
And in the eyes of the few friends from my childhood
And of the surviving cousins by the graveside,
While the diggers, standing apart, in the still shade of the palms,
Rest on their shovels, and smoke,
Speaking in Spanish softly, out of respect.

I think it will be on a Sunday like today,
Except that the sun will be out, the rain will have stopped,
And the wind that today made all the little shrubs kneel down;
And I think it will be a Sunday because today,
When I took out this paper and began to write,
Never before had anything looked so blank,
My life, these words, the paper, the gray Sunday;
And my dog, quivering under a table because of the storm,
Looked up at me, not understanding,
And my son read on without speaking, and my wife slept.

Donald Justice is dead. One Sunday the sun came out,
It shone on the bay, it shone on the white buildings,
The cars moved down the street slowly as always, so many,
Some with their headlights on in spite of the sun,        
And after a while the diggers with their shovels
Walked back to the graveside through the sunlight,
And one of them put his blade into the earth
To lift a few clods of dirt, the black marl of Miami,
And scattered the dirt, and spat,
Turning away abruptly, out of respect.

 (from Donald Justice: Collected Poems. New York, 2005: Alfred A. Knopf, pages 158-159)

In chemistry, an "analog" is a structural derivative of a parent compound. Given the subtle yet noticeable differences between the Vallejo original and Justice’s poem, we could say that the latter is a personalized analog of the Spanish poem. Justice revisits and elaborates upon Vallejo’s model. Indeed, Justice’s title “Variations on a Text of Vallejo” (emphasis mine) reminds us of the theme-and-variation tradition in classical music. This is not surprising, given that Justice was an accomplished musician as well as a poet, and that his poems often explore musical moments and events.

We should first note some similarities between the two poems. The Vallejo is structured as a 14-line sonnet (4-4-3-3-), which is an established poetic form. A detectable form is also operative in Variations: three 10-line stanzas in which the ending words repeat the same short-e vowel and final-t sound (respěcT, slěpT, respěcT). In both poems, the opening stanza declares that the speaker will die on a particular day of the week in a particular city with particular weather. The middle sections talk about the conditions under which the actual lines of the poem get created, and the final section announces the death of the speaker and its circumstances.

More telling than the similarities are the differences between the two poems.

In the first stanza, Vallejo’s speaker will die in the romantic city of rainy Paris, while Justice’s speaker will die on a bright sunny day in Miami (the city where Justice was born and grew up). While Vallejo “can already remember” the type of day on which his death will occur, Justice focuses on the fact that others neither remember nor foresee the (type of) day on which he will die. Then comes Justice’s first instance of elaboration upon the Vallejo model: his death will occur on a day when “the sun will be bright then on the glasses of strangers” as well as in the eyes of a handful of survivors. (This stands in contrast to the speaker’s solitary state in the Vallejo poem.) Justice then offers a tip of the hat to Vallejo by mentioning the gravediggers resting on their shovels in the shade and smoking, “Speaking in Spanish softly, out of respect.”

Justice’s second stanza differs from the Vallejo model by stating that death will occur on a sunny Sunday (not Vallejo’s mid-week Thursday), which, unlike today, will not be a rainy and windy Sunday. Justice then adds a poetic detail: “And the wind today that made all the little shrubs kneel down” as if in prayerful reverence for the dead. Where Vallejo says that his poem’s lines come from a day unlike today on which he sees himself alone, Justice writes his poem from a place where “My life, these words, the paper, the gray Sunday” never looked so blank—and yet
Justice is not alone: his uncomprehending dog, his son busy reading, and his wife asleep are also present though separate from that moment of the speaker’s experience.

Where Vallejo’s final two stanzas recount his loneliness and suffering at the hands of others for no discernible reason, Justice’s final stanza takes the opportunity to once again elaborate on Vallejo’s model: Justice does not die in solitude, but rather in the presence of the sun shining on the bay, plus a procession of cars “Some with their headlights on” (a funeral procession), plus a reappearance of those gravediggers. Unlike Vallejo’s reported rough treatment at the hands of others, one of Justice’s gravediggers “put his blade . . .”  (shades of Vallejo’s sticks and ropes!) “. . .into the earth/ To [merely] lift a few clods of dirt, the black marl of Miami, / And scattered the dirt . . .” . And whereas Vallejo feels humiliated by how others treat him, Justice subverts that impulse by deftly stating that when his gravedigger spat, it was not out of disdain but rather after “turning away abruptly, out of respect”—with the same respect those gravediggers had displayed at the end of the first stanza by “Speaking in Spanish softly . . .”

So, what does the English poem, modeled on Vallejo’s Spanish original, tell us about Justice, whose output has been described as meticulous, careful, exacting? The understated flavor of his diction and his restraint allows Justice to pay homage to Vallejo’s model poem while at the same time allowing for a personal exploration and elaboration of his own sentiments.

I’m thinking here of Beethoven’s many pieces in the Theme&Variations form: the listening pleasure stems from the originality of the variations relative to the opening theme. Taking his 33 Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli for piano, there seems to be no end to Beethoven’s inventiveness and variety. In some sense, we feel we know more about Beethoven than about Diabelli.

So we might ask: “After reading their two poems, who do we feel we know better—Vallejo or Justice?” Whatever the answer, it is clear that Justice is a master of using modeling and variation as a vehicle for his own creativity and expressiveness.


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