Vallejo and The Trials of Translation:
The Erasure of Logopoeia
What would happen if I approached César Vallejo in a way parallel to my treatment of Lorca in my 2009 book Apocryphal Lorca: Translation, Parody, Kitsch—using similar analytical and theoretical tools but adjusting them to the case at hand? That is the question I would like to pose in my talk today. Like Lorca, the Peruvian poet had a strong presence in US poetry in the 1960s and ‘70s, and has continued to be studied and translated by eminent poets and scholars in the years since. The boom for “Latin American surrealism,” often neither Latin American nor surrealist, made both poets famous (at least among readers of poetry) in the English-speaking world, along with a handful of others like Borges, Neruda, Machado, Jiménez, and Aleixandre. This boom in poetry translation begins in the late ‘50s, a few years before the “boom” in the Spanish American novel began to produce abundant translations of García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, Cortázar, and others. The idea of Latin American surrealism, in fact, prefigures later understandings (or misunderstandings) of “magical realism,” which remains a prevalent cultural cliché in the reception of Latin American literature in the Anglosphere.
The most influential mode of verse translation in the United States at the moment when translations of Spanish-language began to proliferate (the 1960s) emphasized visual imagery over both sound and verbal play. The name for the school of American poetry inspired by these translations is the “deep image.” The idea was to link the ordinary language of William Carlos Williams and other imagist poets to the depth of Lorca’s “deep song” and of Neruda’s surrealism, supposedly less cold and superficial than orthodox French surrealism. It was Robert Bly who popularized the idea that both the Anglo-American modernism of imagism and the “Pound-Williams” school, and its immediate offshoot, the Black Mountain school, were excessively concerned with the technique of verse and, as a corollary, somewhat lacking in inwardness or psychological depth.
It is easy to see why translation—or, rather, a certain understanding of translation—is key to the deep image school. Bly’s translations, like his original poetry, did employ free verse and “the American idiom,” but without the obsession with “breath” and “measure” that Creeley and Levertov brought to the table. In fact, the emphasis falls completely on those aspects of poetry that are easiest to translate: visual imagery and semantic meaning. Unless the translator makes a conscious and strenuous effort, at least two main aspects of the original text will be invisible to the reader: sound (prosody), and the actual language of the original, its purely verbal textures.
Bly’s notorious argument that American modernism, along with its successors, lacked the full range of imagination of the European and Latin American avant-gardes would have been a valid one, except for one paradox: the way in which he proposed an alternative tradition was so oversimplified that it resulted in a less, rather than a more complex variety of modernism. Speaking of his own early poetry, Charles Simic, a figure associated with the deep image, says that “the idea was to make poems entirely of images, not caring too much about sound, using the simplest possible vocabulary” (Simic). Indeed, the modernist heritage was reduced to a single movement—surrealism—and a single aspect of poetic technique, the visual image—whether deep or shallow. My thesis here, simply stated, is that it has taken quite a while for the poets who were championed by the deep image school, poets like Lorca and Vallejo, to emerge fully as avant-garde / modernist poets in the American consciousness, and that one of the major stumbling blocks have been translation itself.
Although Vallejo was quickly recognized in the US as a major figure of 20th century Latin American poetry, he did not fit, very well, into the dominant paradigm of Spanish-language “surrealism,” despite being translated by Bly and his confederates. For one thing, he is not a surrealist. Trilce (1922) precedes Breton’s surrealist manifesto by two years, and Vallejo became overtly hostile to surrealism while living in Paris and writing the poetry of his third phase. Secondly, his poetry—I would argue—is pre-eminently verbal, characterized by what Ezra Pound called “logopoeia,” or the “dance of the intellect among words.” Quevedo, too, is a strong influence on Vallejo. The particular kind of verbal wit found in Baroque poetry is strong in Vallejo, long before the rise of the Spanish American neo-baroque, and finds its parallel in T.S. Eliot’s admiration for John Donne, or Pound’s intrest in Laforgue.
Pound himself stated explicity that logopoeia was the hardest kind of poetry to translate, but instead of simply ignoring it he developed modes of translation specifically designed to address its inherent difficulties. To simplify greatly, his translation of Chinese poetry in Cathay is oriented toward phanopoeia, or visual imagery; his work on Troubador poetry is oriented toward melopoeia; an example of his interest in logopeia would be his Homage to Sextus Propertius. Lawrence Venuti argues that Pound’s translation practice is modernist, oriented toward making the translator visible again, unlike what Venuti takes to be the standard practice of translation in the English speaking world: the creation of a new text that reads smoothly and unproblematically in the target language.