Writers' Corner

Michael Leong

2016 Translation Projects

Translator's Statement

After translating the contemporary Chilean poet Estela Lamat for several years, it is a pleasure to be turning now to Vicente Huidobro, one of Lamat's favorite poets and significant influences and one the most celebrated writers in the Chilean tradition. It is also a pleasure to be co-translating Huidobro's Sky-Quake with Ignacio Infante, who has written about this complex text in his monograph After Translation (2013). The NEA's generous grant makes the completion of this collaborative project possible.

Published as Temblor de cielo in Madrid in 1931 and as Tremblement de ciel in Paris in 1932, Sky-Quake is an intense, operatic long poem in prose. It presents a wildly imaginative version of the legend of Tristan and Iseult. Representative of Huidobro's most mature and ambitious phase, Sky-Quake is a kind of sequel to his masterpiece Altazor as it dilates upon the cosmic and apocalyptic eroticism of Altazor's Canto II.

The French composer Edgard Varèse, who is often called the "father of electronic music," drew on phrases from Huidobro's Sky-Quake for his experimental composition Etude pour Espace (1947), a vocal piece containing what he called "syllables of intensity." Varèse chose three resounding questions from Sky-Quake's final canto: "Do you hear the nailing of the nocturnal coffin?" "Do you hear the nailing of the coffin of the sea?" "Do you hear the nailing of the coffin of the sky?" It is a privilege to translate Huidobro's linguistic intensity into English so that the sublime hammering that he heard l'entre-deux-guerres can continue to resound.

Excerpt from Sky-Quake by Vicente Huidobro

[Translated from the Spanish]

Forty days and forty nights clambering from branch to branch as in the time of the Flood. Forty days and forty nights of mystery among crags and peaks.

I could fall traveling from destination to destination, but I'll always keep the sky's memory.

Have you experienced visions of height? Have you ever seen the heart of light? Sometimes I become a sprawling jungle and rove around the worlds like an army.

Behold the mouth of the rivers.

On certain afternoons the sea can barely suffice as my theater.

The street of dreams has neither trees, nor a woman crucified to a flower, nor a boat flipping through the pages of the sea.

The street of dreams has an immense navel from which a bottle peeps. Inside, there's a dead bishop who changes color every time you shake the bottle.

There are four candles that go on and off in successive turns. Sometimes a flash of lightning reveals a dismembered woman in heaven who has been plummeting for a hundred and forty years.

The sky hides its mystery.

At all stopovers one imagines a hidden assassin. The meek singers die of heart attacks from the mere thought of it.

Thus, the sickly butterflies will devolve to their larval condition which they should never have left. The ear will relapse into infancy and fill itself with marine echoes and those algae which float in the eyes of certain birds.

Original in Spanish

About Vicente Huidobro

Vicente Huidobro (1893–1948) was a lively and controversial figure: he (in no particular order) had a scandalous affair with a teenager and abandoned his family, edited the leftist Chilean newspaper Acción, survived an assassination attempt, ran for president, called for the creation of the "Republic of Andesia," claimed he was kidnapped by British secret agents, and participated in the Spanish Civil War and World War II. But aside from his colorful political and personal life, Huidobro was a bilingual and interdisciplinary writer who made lasting contributions to the culture of international modernism and beyond. He authored nearly forty books and influenced vanguard communities in Paris, Madrid, and Latin America.

Michael Leong

Michael Leong is the author of the poetry books e.s.p. (Silenced Press, 2009) and Cutting Time with a Knife (Black Square Editions, 2012) as well as several award-winning chapbooks, including Fruits and Flowers and Animals and Lands and Seas Do Open (Burnside Review, 2015), Words on Edge (Plan B Press, 2012), and The Philosophy of Decomposition/Re-composition as Explanation (Delete Press, 2011). He has also published I, the Worst of All (BlazeVOX, 2009), a translation of the Chilean poet Estela Lamat. More recent translations of Lamat can be found in Action, Yes and Mandorla. Leong's critical writing on poetry and poetics has appeared in Contemporary Literature, Modern Language Studies, and Reconstruction, and his numerous review-essays have been published in the Boston Review, the Brooklyn Rail, Hyperallergic, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and The Volta. He is Assistant Professor of English at the University at Albany, SUNY, where he teaches literature and creative writing.

Photo by Carolina A. Diaz