I translated Alejandra Pizarnik’s poetry collection Diana’s Tree on a Black Friday morning in Los Angeles, at the family dining-room table. My father was cooking breakfast a few feet away. As he scrambled the eggs and cheese, I read him poem No. 28 and asked him how he would say this in English:
te alejas de los nombres
que hilan el silencio de las cosas
(you hide yourself from the names
that thread through the silence of things)
He asked, in our native Spanish, what it meant. He asked why anyone might even say such a thing. I wanted to tell him, Can’t you see that Alejandra is inscribing part of her name into a line about becoming alienated from names—that this idea of distance and solitude is part of her name? My father, like Elías Pizarnik, Alejandra’s father, is a literal thinker, an immigrant and an independent, self-educated businessman. He and Alejandra Pizarnik are exact contemporaries. That morning, he had already participated in the translation process by mending the spine of my copy of Pizarnik’s Poesía completa and reinforcing the torn covers with packing tape and green gift-box cardboard. Now he kept fussing over the phrase, becoming almost agitated. How are you going to achieve that in English? A nervous question, coming from the tenacious man who once spent eight months hunting down a rare edition of Borges for my birthday. Translation is one of the daily responsibilities of life in our family. We swap equivalent expressions in various languages; our conversations are often accompanied by dictionaries; and, if he could have things his way, my highly formal, elegant father, ever in pursuit of le mot juste, would address everyone as “Thou.” After offering some very formal, philosophical suggestions for the poem, however, he ultimately just shook his head in defeat and went back to serving breakfast.
But of all of Pizarnik’s work, Diana’s Tree is probably the collection that seemed easiest to translate. It happened in one burst. Maybe it’s because this is an incredibly luminous, concise and self-contained work. Mostly, though, I think the job came together so quickly because it took place after I had already spent ten years with Pizarnik’s words and thoughts. Not all translation happens like this. Not all reading experiences can be so intense. Not all translators get to choose their author, or live with the text this long. But this project is special, because of all the writers who have shaken up my life, not one of them has worked on me as insistently as Alejandra Pizarnik. I found the Poesía completa in a bookstore (that is another story) when I was a junior in college, and began translating her poems that same afternoon. By the time I had to prepare a manuscript of Diana’s Tree, I had already worked for seven years as an editor and had already mourned her suicide, already created a tough balance of closeness and distance between her language and mine, already resisted and resented her and done my dead reckoning with her meter and syntax and pain. We had already reached a sisterly plane of empathy, Alejandra and I. Her words, my words. Her Spanish and mine; my English and hers. That process is surprisingly visceral and takes a great deal of time.
When I sat down with Diana’s Tree, I was not on deadline. There was no contract in sight for this book and I had no idea if a publisher would ever want to take a gamble on someone who had just entered the translation business. What I did have that day was a sense of urgency about this work of literature, combined with the tactile, juicy intuition that I could do something with this text. For a long time already, Diana’s Tree had been working on my imagination and had become vital to how I understood myself as a writer. It would not be an understatement to say that what I felt that morning was a sense of deep creative yearning.
Diana’s Tree is a collection of thirty-eight independent short pieces. Several appear as prose poems, but the majority tend to be lyric poems, some of which resemble Sapphic fragments. (They have the same speaker(s), but I don’t read the book as a long serial poem.) The title summoned up many connotations right away. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, the Tree of Bodhi, the Tree of Life. Diana, the twin sister of Apollo and the Roman counterpart of Artemis, is the goddess of the hunt, who travels freely through the woodlands with her nymphs and shoots her targets with gentle, silver arrows. In later antiquity, she also became the maiden goddess of fertility and the protector of young women in childbirth, and she is one of the female deities associated with the moon. Worship of Diana took place in groves, and the oak was her sacred tree. Octavio Paz alludes to this cult in his Introduction, which is built brilliantly on the conceit of the encyclopaedia entry, but he transposes her story into a new Latin American mythology. In fact, Paz plays on the fact that Diana is the old alchemical term for silver; the name Argentina, of course, is derived from the root argentum, the Latin word for silver. Pizarnik’s Diana is Argentine. It follows by definition, then, that the Diana’s Tree in front of you must have Argentine roots. To complicate this philological banter, Paz also reminds us (indirectly) that Diana’s tree is an actual term in alchemy, the arbor philosophorum, an amalgam made of silver and mercury in a solution of silver nitrate. Its formation was famously slow and labor-intensive, and the arborescent result led many alchemists to speculate about the existence of mineral life. In Pizarnik and Paz’s hands, Diana’s tree becomes a symbol for the process of creation, but the title does not interfere with the meanings or narratives of the poems themselves.
I knew some of this background when I began translating, but avoided researching it too much, out of a concern that this curiosity would cause me to over-interpret certain words or images. I opened to the text, read Octavio Paz’s Introduction for guidance and began right away with No. 1, not stopping until I had translated all thirty-eight poems. Some translators prefer to do a quick, rough and literal first draft and then go back to tinker with the language. This is not how I went about it. Each poem emerged into English like a photograph developing in a dark room. I remembered that Alejandra was twenty-six years old when she published this book, that she was fiercely single-minded in her sense of purpose as a poet. Late at night, after playing hooky from the part-time job at UNESCO she’d landed with the help of Julio Cortázar, Alejandra would sit on her bed in her tiny, filthy flat above a Chinese restaurant near St. Suplice and chain-smoke and write. Her method was meticulous: she would scribble out single words on index cards then painstakingly rearrange these in front of her on the mattress, until the order and shape of the emerging lines felt right. She did not work in a rush.
I decided not to rush, either, or to take any of the words for granted. Like a beginning language student, I paused to look up even some of the most obvious nouns in my Larousse and Oxford dictionaries, feeling their weight and taste, first in Spanish, then in English. It was essential to understand exactly how each line would parse. I wrote the draft by hand, in pencil, because typed drafts can look suspiciously finished, while handwriting can slow you down and give you a greater sense of intimacy with the words. Spanish poetry has a lyric tradition that is built on syllables. Many translators are scrupulous about adhering to the same number of syllables in their English versions. This correspondence simply didn’t interest me while creating an English for Alejandra’s modernist poetry, because others had done it and it felt too mechanical, as if translation were akin to assembling matching friendship bracelets with exactly the same number of beads. What I was trying to achieve (my father’s word) was a sound and cadence that would be true to the Spanish. What mattered was how the Spanish syllables created a rhythmic effect and how that current of sounds could migrate into a complicit American music and meter. I wanted to create a fine instrument in English through which Alejandra’s own voice, and the music of her Spanish, could emerge and converge.
Mostly, however, I imagined Alejandra writing these poems in 1962. I tried to inhabit her ambition to express paradoxical ideas with spare, limpid words. When this book came out and made the rounds of Latin American literary circles in Paris, Pizarnik had already published three collections in her native Buenos Aires, and she had gained a reputation for being a precocious, driven poet. Diana’s Tree, however, was a pivotal artistic event. It distilled the voices of her juvenilia into the poetic voice that she would be known for, and that she would disrupt before long. In this collection, she was able to articulate all the themes that would drive her later work: the pursuit of the valences of the self, the obsessions with death and childhood and dolls, the ardor of solitude. Octavio Paz’s Introduction gave Diana’s Tree the necessary imprimatur to establish Pizarnik as a key voice in Latin American poetry.
After translating the final poem, I let the manuscript “set.” Taking time away from a text allows me to forget my language. After a while, even a few days, the manuscript’s language will begin to confront me. The choices that seemed so obvious and correct one day can seem laughably flat-footed and wrong the next. In this case, it was also important for the English and Spanish roots of Diana’s tree to take hold around each other, so to speak, in order to see what kind of insights the translation might give me into the meaning of the original text. Instead of trying to force clever correspondences, I’ve learned that it is the unexpected linguistic connections that can allow a translation to delve more deeply into an interpretation.
A good illustration of this idea is my translation of No. 35. The original Spanish text reads:
Vida, mi vida, déjate caer, déjate doler, mi vida, déjate enlazar
de fuego, de silencio ingenuo, de piedras verdes en la casa de
la noche, déjate caer y doler, mi vida.
My first draft read:
Life, my life, let yourself fall down, let yourself hurt, my life, and bind
yourself to the fires, to the credulous silence, to the green stones in
the house of night, let yourself fall and let yourself hurt, my life.
After the book had “set” for a few weeks, I read this poem again and knew it sounded wrong. It read like a translation, but I couldn’t figure out why. I tried to play with the structure of the sentence, but that only made things worse. It was one of the lingering queries that I could not resolve. Finally, one night, I happened to be thinking about a family conversation, and a solution presented itself. What came to mind was my father’s voice addressing me in Spanish. He has a tendency to refer to my mother and me as mi vida, which is equivalent to an English term of endearment like honey. Just as the literal translation of this English endearment would sound awkward in Spanish, however—it would be weird to call someone mi miel—so, too, did it sound stilted to translate mi vida as my life. It occurred to me that the speaker of Pizarnik’s poem was using that repetitive mi vida as a term of endearment, addressing her own vulnerable life with tenderness. This allowed the translation to fall into place. The final version reads:
Life, dear life, let yourself fall down, let yourself hurt, my love, and bind
yourself to the fires, to the credulous silence, to the green stones in the house
of night, let yourself fall and let yourself hurt, my love.
Finding such a solution in the revision process required an interpretive leap. I stand by it. Finding this correspondence between the languages was moving and exhilarating, and it rang true. Some alchemical amalgam, akin to what Paz describes, occurs between an original text and its translations, and the translator must learn to see these invisible connections, interpret them like any reader, then decide how or if to draw them out more. This is how the original and translated texts intersect to challenge you: they can show you your own limitations in your native language or call into question your understanding of what the author is saying. Meeting such challenges is the difficult pleasure of this work—because you know that settling for a “good enough” version will result in an exercise, not a poem, and it will sound wooden, flat or forced. Worse, it will not look indelible; it may continue to sound scholarly and translated, and it will muffle the author’s voice. Sometimes a tweak here or there is enough to highlight a useful nuance between the possibilities of the source language and the language of the translation. And at other times, it is better to resist an explanatory impulse and simply let a surprise association between the languages linger like a delicious secret, one that informs the translation invisibly and elegantly but that can also delight a discerning bilingual reader who goes in search of such correspondences.
Translating Diana’s Tree showed me the extent to which an act of translation must be an act of literary creation. On the one hand, the translation, like an original work of fiction or poetry, can sometimes flow out magically, effortlessly. On the other hand, the long process of making this book also reminded me that once the text exists in a blueprint English, the writing still is (and should be) slow. The poems of the target language hover alongside the other language, honoring the original poems that continue to speak through them. At the same time, the translated poems have to be poems that are filled with the spirit of the author. In the final sentences of the brilliant, tongue-in-cheek Introduction, the critics are duly warned that some literary experts may not be able to see Diana’s tree, this alchemical-mythical-primordial stand-in for poetic creation. Only those who can achieve enough “solitude, concentration, and a generally exquisite sensibility” will be able to see that it is a luminous thing that “lets us see beyond it.” Paz’s qualifications for such an ideal reader can also be applied to the translator. My responsibility, in translation, is to refine that sensibility, to look at the text with openness, creativity and empathy until some approximation to its luminous words can materialize in the form of a translation that not only exists, but also speaks. That is how I tried to approach Diana’s Tree. Paz’s recommendation, which I translated last, and with great pleasure, has served as a teasing, joyful and humbling reminder of what any kind of imaginative writing—translation included—must be.
An earlier, somewhat different version of this paper was presented at St. Anne’s College, University of Oxford, 26 February 2015.
Photo credits: The Paris Review and The Saxon.
Alejandra Pizarnik and Yvette Siegert
Alejandra Pizarnik’s poetry books include La tierra más ajena (1955), La última inocencia (1956), Las aventuras perdidas (1958), Árbol de Diana (1960), Extracción de la piedra de locura (1968), and El infierno musical (1971).
Yvette Siegert’s translations include Alejandra Pizarnik’s Diana’s Tree and The Most Foreign Country (each from Ugly Duckling Presse). Her work has received recognition from the PEN American Center, the New York State Council of the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Arts, and received the Best Translated Book Award for poetry in 2017. Siegert is a D.Phil candidate and Clarendon Scholar in the Sub-Faculty of Spanish, and a David Ure Scholar at Merton College, Oxford. She also has a BA in comparative literature and an MFA in poetry from Columbia University, as well as an MA in English literature from the Université de Genève. She is a Ledbury Critic in the UK, as well as a CantoMundo and Macondo Fellow in the United States.