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Talking Music & Miracles with NEA Translation Fellow Anna Deeny Morales

Anna Deeny Morales came to literary translation through fortuitous circumstances that would change the course of her career. While studying the relationship between 20th-century U.S. and Latin American poets for her dissertation, she was invited by faculty to translate several poems by Chilean poet Raúl Zurita, who would be in town to give a reading. Deeny Morales, who grew up between Puerto Rico and Washington, DC, and is bilingual, accepted the challenge. Thus began a career in translation to complement her work in academia, where she teaches and researches Latin American literature, poetry, and philosophy.

Deeny Morales was recently awarded an NEA Literature Translation Fellowship to support her translation of Tala, the 1938 poetry collection by Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral. Although Mistral was the first Latin American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1945, she remains the least translated of Latin American Nobel Laureates. Below, in Deeny Morales’s own words, she tells us the reason for Mistral’s underrepresentation in the global literary canon, the importance of translating women, and why she thinks the music of poetry is nothing short of a miracle.

The Importance of Translating Women

I started translating women poets because I realized it was difficult for them to publish their work, and even more difficult for them to be published in translation.

But translating other women writers is part of a literary tradition of doing so. For example, in 1984, Diana Bellessi, an Argentine writer, published Latin America’s first anthology of U.S. women poets in translation. The writers Bellessi translated—Muriel Rukeyser, Denise Levertov, June Jordan, and others—then became part of Bellessi’s local and contemporary soundscape to be disseminated, thought about, and reworked. They also became part of an intellectual project in Argentina and incited genealogies beyond national affiliations of language and thought. Bellessi’s translations made this possible.

I want to participate in this tradition of publishing women writers in translation. Understanding, supporting, and disseminating their work through translation is a dialogue, a “dance,” as Bellessi called it, through time and distance.

The Challenge and Appeal of Gabriela Mistral

I turned to [Gabriela] Mistral for the intellectual challenge of translating her, as a way of reviving her work, and thinking through how we might sound her poetry in the English language.

Currently there are a handful of selected works of Gabriela Mistral’s, but only one entire book in translation. When I began to speak with editors about this surprising scarcity, one explained that it's difficult to publish Mistral’s poetry because in English translations, her language sounds anachronistic. To me this meant that Mistral’s language as it had been translated did not fulfill an idea of Latin American poetry or contemporary poetry that appeals to the appetites of a certain U.S. market.

Additionally, despite the fact that Mistral was an extremely prolific essayist, public intellectual, Pan-Americanist, humanist, and architect of public education systems in Latin American, her poetry was relegated to an idea of maternity and childhood that was depoliticized. The fact is that Mistral wrote many poems about maternity and children. Tala is dedicated to the thousands of children displaced at the end of the Spanish Civil War. However, such a dedication was an extremely political gesture and indeed unprecedented in the sense that Mistral placed our treatment of children at the center of any political and national endeavor. Through my translation I would like to attend to Mistral’s particular understanding of the maternal as political. I would also like to explore how she developed a concept of corporality that she works through her views on maternity, politics, religion, and poetry.

In sum, I want to understand the mechanisms of Mistral’s use of the Spanish language that cause a temporal challenge at the moment of translation. I also want to push back against the tastes of a U.S. literary market. Lastly, I want to honor Mistral by bringing her extraordinary sound landscape to the English language.

Approaching Poetry with the Tools You Have

My mom was a public schoolteacher who taught Spanish. In addition to that, she was a poet who always recited her work. I was a classical pianist. My sister was a guitarist. So I have that background of women who are dedicated to public education, like Mistral herself, in addition to the performance of poetry, and the performance of music. The performance of these forms was something fundamental to our lives; it was part of the bread and butter of our life growing up.

One of the first classes I took [at Berkeley] was Latin American Poetry with Professor Francine Masiello, who then became my dissertation advisor. We had to analyze a poem by Rubén Darío called "Sonatina." What I knew was music because I had been a musician. So I analyzed the poem as I would analyze a musical sonata. I didn't come to the poem using traditional poetic, literary language to speak about it. I talked about theme and variation and motif. My professor was open to the specific tools I had to talk about this form of language.

What was important about my experience at Berkeley was that our professors allowed us to bring all the tools, as humble as they might have been, to our analysis of literature. You never know what a student brings to a conversation that isn't immediately visible. If you expect the student to speak with very technical language about poetry, about philosophy, about literary movements, you're going to block their innate ability to analyze anything that they experience in the world.

The Relationship between Music and Poetry

When you're a pianist or any type of musician, the playing of that instrument involves the reading of a score and the discipline of your body, and then that body culminates in this moment of touch. When you are touching the keyboard, you have to have extreme control, an extreme delicacy or intimacy of touch. You're working with this amazing thing that is the piano with its specific qualities, its specific forms of sound. It's a miracle to experience how the human body can interact with this tremendous thing called an instrument, and how you can work with the expression of sound and emotion. Then you have to keep in mind that others made this instrument. Others invented ways to sound and technologies of action in the instrument that communicate with you through time, that are dynamic with you, even though those others are long gone. Their efforts are still sounding in the instrument. Language is the same.

So I don't think of language as something that just gives us information. I think of it as having similar qualities as an instrument. You're working with these materials that come to us from the past. You plumb sound and meaning, you plumb etymologies, and dialogue with the dead.

But you are also in dialogue with the living. So, the other way in which [music] informs my work is that public readings are very important for me; readings are a culmination of the literary project you're working on. In the same way that you practice the piano in order to give a recital or in order to play for people, you practice poetry for people. That's the tradition my mom established in our family. So when I'm working in that translation, it is always thinking about this language in a space with other people. I think that's how the discipline of music informs my work.

Choosing Translation Techniques

A poem is like a little building. If you change the direction or the pressure of an arch on the right side, you have to compensate for that change on the left side. In other words, each shift in a poem has a series of reactions of shape in the rest of the poem. Then you have to think of that unit within the whole book. How are you bringing those changes or those decisions that you've made into one poem? How can they work consistently within the scope or the arch that is the complete book?

With regard to the particular writer, you have to ask how she or he is thinking about language. Let me give you two contrasting examples. The poet I've most translated is Raúl Zurita. He never tries to be economical in his language. There's never a concern with run-on lines or run-on sentences or being too verbose. To give a really specific example, I freely use the word "that” in my translations of Zurita. "That" is a word that's usually edited out of texts. It sounds verbose. It sounds unedited. It sounds non-economical. 

In contrast, the Argentine poet, Alejandra Pizarnik, wrote poetry that is highly edited and very tightly wound. There's this guarded, pressurized sense behind her work. So you can't freely use “that” or throw in any word. She was also attentive in many of her works to syllabic count. These formal elements inform my translation.

Translation as a Form of Empathy

I think that translation is a form of empathy. It is a way of closely listening to the effort of another human being and sounding that effort as best you can in another language. All of these details of understanding the language, the mechanisms of another person's work, and usually within a specific historical context, are ways of experiencing empathy.

But there's something else that's important about empathy. Empathy is a form that we can think of as intersubjective in the following sense: You have a child; your child will not be able to speak of these early years of his life, but you will, and others will. You, through language, will tell your child of himself until he will tell of himself. That speaking of the self happens in this unevenly patterned circular sense. It's impossible to speak of the self without the other, and it's impossible to speak of the other, in a sense, without the self.

I am sounding or I am voicing or I am writing what I notice about that other person and their artwork. A translation is evidence of that model of empathy. It's not just "This is what this person said." It's "This is what I heard this person say."

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