Elizabeth McSkeane on translating María Victoria Atencia

María Victoria Atencia: translation from Las iluminaciones: Antología y poemas inéditos, ed. Clara Janés, Madrid: Salto de Página, 2014.

 

This anthology of the eminent Andalusian poet, María Victoria Atencia, was published in May, 2014, just a few days before she became the first Spanish woman ever to be awarded the prestigious Queen Sofía Ibero-American Poetry Prize. Las Iluminaciones includes unpublished poems not found in any of the nineteen collections represented. This is a life’s work that gives voice to a powerful female voice which is deeply personal, without being personalised; revelatory, but not confessional. The pages of Las iluminaciones explore a dynamic femininity lived through myriad experiences: of art, myth, domestic life, places (including Dublin) and a quiet passion for life.

 

When I decided I would like to translate one of María Victoria Atencia’s poems (with her kind permission), I found that I kept returning to the very first in the anthology, which in fact was the first poem she ever published as a young woman, Sazón (In season). It is extraordinarily mature and although only fourteen lines long, is imbued with many of the themes that would permeate her poetry throughout the rest of her life. I was struck by its dynamic quality, the wonderful sense of language pulling in opposite directions, from the heaviness and fecundity of the earth, to the lightness of air and sky. My first translation of Sazón focused on trying to catch these wonderfully diverse elements in the meaning and dynamic of the poem. Here it is.

 

                                                In season

 

All is now in perfect season. I feel completed,

know myself womanly and grounded,

deep-rooted, and I put forth in flight

the bough, sure of its yield in you.

 

How fertile the bough and how straight.

Today, but one sole yearning fills my body:

to live and to live: to reach for the sky,

upright and unbending, like the arrow

 

fired up to the cloud. So upright

that it has taught your voice the art

of opening, smiling and blossoming.

 

Your voice stirs me. Through it, I feel

the twisted bough straighten

and the fruit of my voice swells on the wind.

 

Maria Victoria Atencia

[Translation, Elizabeth McSkeane]

 

 

When I had finished this version, I realised that I was faced with a choice. The original Sazón is a sonnet, which my own English translation had not attempted to replicate, having chosen to concentrate on capturing the alternating impulses propelling the energy of the poem. I was initially uncertain as to whether the translation would be improved, or distorted, by pushing and pulling the language to make it fit the sonnet form.

 

Two things made me decide that I should at least try. The first is my love for the sonnet. It is difficult to explain the alchemy which occurs when an emerging poem chooses its form, or indeed, no form at all, but a lot of my own poems have found themselves evolving into sonnets. Perhaps this is enough of a challenge to create the kind of distance I like to find between the writer and the work. Also, I enjoy the discipline and, especially, the fun of creating a sonnet that is not immediately identifiable as a sonnet and might even appear to be free verse – until you look just a little closer. Don’t ask me why I like to do this – I think it might be something about reclaiming the sonnet from the lofty heights to which it is often assigned, or condemned: a desire to bring it down from the ivory tower and into the street, in everyday language.

 

Also, it seemed to me that María Victoria Atencia’s choice of the sonnet form deserved to be respected. She uses a variation of the Petrarchan rhyme scheme [AbbA AbbA cDc eDe], originally conceived as a declaration of love. Sazón, to me, reads like a love poem – a love poem to life, to fecundity, to all the possibility that the future may hold. A translation should at least attempt to reproduce the echoes of that form.

 

The sonnet in Spanish follows many of the same conventions as in English, except that the line is a little longer, using hendecasyllables (11 syllables) or alexandrines (12 syllables) and sometimes Atencia’s line is as long as 14. In English, the sonnet is somewhat tighter, consisting of five iambic feet (light/heavy) and, therefore, ten syllables. Of course, wherever the sonnet is found, there are variations, both in line length and in the rhyme scheme.

 

Ah yes, rhyme. In Spanish and Italian, this comes quite naturally, partly because so many words end in ‘o ‘and ‘a’ and also, because of the fairly regular grammatical verb forms. All this makes it easy to find many rhymes and, I think, contributes to the musicality of those languages even when spoken in daily life. The music of English is quite different. People’s response to rhyme is very individual, but I find a lot of very obvious full rhymes quite irritating. To my ear, too many regular ‘cat’/’sat’/’mat’ rhyme schemes (true, I exaggerate, but only a little!) put us in serious danger of sounding like a jingle for selling soap-powder. As well as this, it is simply not so easy in English to find enough rhymes – enough meaningful rhyming words – which intertwine with and complement the meaning, for an AbbA AbbA octet. I find this difficult enough writing my own poems, in my own language, without reference to any external constraint. Therefore, in creating an English sonnet from a Spanish one, making sure that the poetical tail does not wag the dog, it is not surprising if the challenges are multiplied. Still, armed with assonance and half-rhymes, I decided to try.

 

To my surprise, this was not as difficult as I had expected. Partly this was because my original translation already had quite a few internal rhymes that a small transposition could make to accommodate the form.  Where that was not so easy, I considered revisiting my original choices of vocabulary. Both Spanish and English dictionaries allowed me to reflect on finer refinements of meaning I had missed first time around. This is the result.

 

                                                In season

 

All is now in perfect season. I feel mellow,

know myself grounded and womanly,

deep-rooted, and I reach out,  let fly

the bough, sure of its yield in you.

 

How fertile and how straight the bough.

Today, but one sole yearning fills my body:

to live and to live: to reach for the sky,

upright and unbending, like the arrow

 

fired up to the cloud. So upright

your voice has learned the art for you

to open it, smiling and blooming bright.

 

Your voice stirs me. Through it, I feel

the twisted bough become true

and the fruit of my voice swells on the breeze.

 

Maria Victoria Atencia

[Translation,  Elizabeth McSkeane]

 

Have I succeeded in capturing the dynamic of the meaning, within the constraints of the form? I am not quite sure yet. I do know that rethinking this second version with the form in my thoughts opened my mind to other shades of meaning, like ‘let fly the bough’ in stanza 1. I also like ‘the twisted bough becomes true’ in the final stanza. Certainly, my first choice of ‘straighten’ for ‘se endereza’ is grammatically correct and even quite good poetically. But the idea of ‘straight’ in the sense of ‘true’ seems to me to be brimming with so much more meaning, while remaining faithful to the Spanish. Have my other changes worked as well? Or have I unhelpfully ‘seasoned’ the free version to accommodate the form? I have not quite made up my own mind yet. Let the reader decide!

 

Elizabeth McSkeane

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