Translating Latin America Part 1: John Felstiner and Pablo Neruda

Martin Boyd

In Translating Neruda: The Way to Macchu Picchu (1980), John Felstiner’s self-reflective study of his approach to translating Pablo Neruda’s classic work Alturas de Macchu Picchu, the translator describes verse translation as “an essential act and art of literary criticism” (Felstiner 2). Since Felstiner wrote these words, the concept of translator as literary critic has become something of a recurring theme in translation theory, although few have developed the concept as fully as B. Folkart Di Stefano did in his article “Translation as Literary Criticism”, published in 1982. Just as Di Stefano argues that a translator must “bring the full apparatus of literary criticism to bear on the text before and while rendering it” (Di Stefano 254), Felstiner presents a solid argument that the process of translating a poem requires the translator “to find, by scholarly and analytic means, how the poet came to write this work” (37). Felstiner presents this task, as daunting as it sounds, as a journey deep into the world of the source text and its author, driven by a desire to truly understand them both: “I wanted some hold on what Pablo Neruda stood for. I could get that by taking his poem on its own terms and then translating it into my own” (10).

Taken on its own, the above statements might be read as evocative of Gayatri Spivak’s definition of translation as “the most intimate act of reading” (Spivak 191). However, as Felstiner further develops his explanation of this journey into Neruda’s world, one begins to glean something vaguely intrusive, even imperialistic in the approach he describes; indeed, it is perhaps no surprise that Felstiner is an admirer of the work of translation scholar George Steiner (Felstiner 2), as the process he goes on to describe resembles Steiner’s description of translation as “hermeneutic motion”, whereby a translator “invades, extracts and brings home” (Steiner 193) – a metaphor that brings to my mind the image of the pillaging of the Conquistadores that so fascinated Felstiner as a youth (Felstiner 8).

As an Anglo-American, Felstiner is quite frank about the atmosphere of haughty contempt towards Latin America in which he grew up, remarking that as a child he “sensed that life ‘south of the border’ was seedy, somnolent, and in some way below the belt” (8). The insular racism bound up in facile dichotomies of “North/South” or “Us/Them” is a severe intellectual and spiritual affliction that constitutes America’s biggest barrier to intercultural understanding. Yet even as an adult, and a translator of one of Latin America’s greatest 20th century poets, Felstiner doesn’t appear to have completely shaken off this cumbersome perspective. He rightly notes that the “lateral current” of civilization that has shaped US culture (from Jerusalem to Athens, Rome, Paris, London and New York) has left many US writers feeling that “striking south” is akin to “falling into the dark” (8), and then describes his own journey into the world of Hispanic literature as a “descent”, recruiting Neruda’s own words to construct a metaphor for his downward voyage: “deeper yet… I plunged my turbulent and gentle hand… dropped down through sulphurous calm…” (9). In the mind of the Anglophone, the “South” is by definition “below” the “North”; it is worth reflecting on the fact that the English phrase “down south” is essentially untranslatable into Spanish, as the fanciful notion that one somehow descends by travelling southward is a perspective peculiar to the English language. Felstiner’s fascination for Neruda’s poetry thus takes on the quality of a fall into the Underworld (“was this how the imagination worked below the equator?” he muses) that seduces the young man of ‘civilization’ with the ‘sensuality’ and ‘alien influences’ for which T.S. Eliot, in his few allusions to South America, showed such disgust. The fact that Felstiner describes Neruda’s “sensuousness” as the greatest challenge for the translator (29), for which it may be difficult to find an equivalent in English (a language presumably lacking in such sensuality), tends to reinforce the sense that he is still influenced by a perspective that romantically exoticizes and implicitly denigrates the world “south of the border”, representing it as a world of hot passion in contrast to the supposed cool rationalism of the ‘civilized’ North.

Perhaps most ironically of all, Felstiner ultimately turns to T.S. Eliot to inform his translation of Neruda, in spite of the poet’s contempt for anything outside the European tradition, repeatedly employing Eliot’s Four Quartets as a prism through which to read and interpret Alturas de Macchu Picchu (18). Although I share Felstiner’s view that “verse translation at its best generates a wholly new utterance in the second language” (29), I have my concerns about how, given the route Felstiner takes on his so-called “descent” into Latin America, his new utterance may represent Neruda’s intentions.

Felstiner describes translation as a “twofold activity, at once critical and creative” (2), a view that brings together two distinct but interrelated dimensions of the translation process: translation as reading, and translation as (re-)writing. The fact that in Translating Neruda he appears to underplay or even altogether overlook the significance of cultural perspective as a refracting lens in translation perhaps should not surprise us; prior to the so-called “cultural turn” in translation studies in the late 1980s, there was a tendency to view translation as if it occurred in a cultural vacuum. Since then, however, many translation scholars have expanded the focus beyond the translated text itself to consider “the whole language and culture in which that text was constituted” (Trivedi 254). In this respect, Felstiner’s self-reflective study raises the question of what kind of effects the insular ethnocentrism and narratives of ‘North’ and ‘South’ that colour North American views of Latin America may have on the translation of Latin American literature into English. This is a question I hope to explore in future articles in this forum.

Works Cited

Felstiner, John. Translating Neruda: The Way to Macchu Picchu. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1980. Print.
Folkart Di Stefano, B. “Translation as Literary Criticism.” Meta: Translator’s Journal. 27.3 (1982): 241-256. Print.
Spivak, G. “The Politics of Translation.” Outside in the Teaching Machine. London: Routledge, 1993. 179-200. Print.
Steiner, G. “The Hermeneutic Motion.” The Translation Studies Reader. Ed. L Venuti. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2004. 193-198. Print.
Trivedi, H. “Translating Culture vs. Cultural Translation.” Translation: Reflections, Refractions, Transformations. Eds. P. St.-Pierre et al. New Delhi: Pencraft International, 2005. 251-261.

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