Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The lyre went mute for want of content - but there will always be poetry! - abstract and concrete Bécquer

Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer wrote stories as well as poems, the posthumous Leyendas (Legends).  I have read one of them, “Master Pérez the Organist” (1861), again in Great Spanish Stories (tr. Martin Nozick).  An obscure but great organist dies at the organ and then haunts it.  The story is a good knockoff of E. T. A. Hoffmann, and has some particularly good passages describing the music (“The organ exhaled a strange discordant sound, like a sob, and fell silent”) and some excellent Seville local color.  You can, in fact, visit the church – you can see the organ.  Just scroll down a bit past the “cuerpo incorrupto” of the nun who founded the convent.  Now there’s some Andalucian local color.

It is funny how little it matters that the Bécquer story is derivative.  The changes in locale and custom are sufficient to give it some interest, even if it were otherwise a pure copy of a Hoffmann tale.  Just moving from Berlin to Seville is an interesting change in the hands of a skilled writer.

I am less convinced that moving typical Romantic ideas from French or German into Spanish is similarly interesting.  Thus I suggested that the value of Bécquer’s poetry lies more in its intrinsic qualities than in its ideas, however much trouble this causes for a translator.  Bécquer seems to agree:

Do not say, Its treasure exhausted,
the lyre went mute for want of content:
it may be there’ll be no more poets,
but there will always be poetry!  (IV)

Translation can provide the narrative of a poem , if it has one, and can give us a good sense of the concerns of a poet, and poetic translation is usually good with imagery.  Bécquer’s poems are as stuffed with imagery as any poets, little of it especially original or surprising.  I can imagine him sacrificing an original image for an original sound.  He compares himself, his artistic self, in one poem to an “[a]rrow randomly shot,” a “gale-whipped leaf,” a wave and “light in trembling rings,” and in another his “inspiration” is like a hurricane or madness  or “a flying horse \ with no reins to guide it” or

Misshapen silhouettes
of impossible beings,
landscapes that appear
as if through tulle  (III)

which is pretty good, right, but also awfully fuzzy.  Those rings or circles of light, a recurring image, actually do strike me as original, but abstract.  But Bécquer’s aesthetic is abstract.  He is describing his poetry accurately.  I will not get a good look at those “impossible beings” but perhaps the sound and shadow of them will work on my imagination, as it did on a generation of Spanish-language poets who followed Bécquer.

A concrete setting forms at the end of the Rimas sequence* when the beloved woman dies and is entombed.  “The startled owls that pursued me” and “From a clock was heard the pendulum’s rhythmic beat” and

Pick-axe on shoulder
The gravedigger,
Faded into the distance.  (LXXIII)

Still, even these last poems, although set in a church and a crypt, also find the poet in “the silent world of ideas” – “I do not know if that visionary world lies within or outside us” (LXXV), about as succinct a summary of Romanticism as I know.  In the poems of Bécquer, more within than outside, although I wonder what he might have found if he had lived even a few years longer.

*  The  sequence Michael Smith provides, at least.  I am sticking with him and Collected Poems (Rimas) today.


  1. Though I like that the gravedigger was crooning, I don't think Becquer's poetry is going to be for me. I like the snippets of the short story, though.

    Doña Maria reminds me that I'm going to see the King Tut exhibit in August, and I should mark my calendar.

  2. "Crooning" is pure invention by the translator. The Spanish is "cantando entre dientes," "singing through his teenth." Some people blame the translator for changes like this; I credit him. "Crooning" is too good to not use.

  3. Now I've cast Frank Sinatra in the role of gravedigger. Which, you know, ain't bad. If I think too long and hard about translation, nothing becomes more clear. It's an interesting category of literature. I consider better and worse versions of The Iliad, for example, but I almost never think of a version in Ancient Greek. You put a lot more (detective?) work into your reading of poetry than I ever will. For which thanks, because, as I say, I'm lazy.

  4. Will you be writing about Orley Farm?

    Hard to find Trollope-lovers on the Internets.

  5. I do believe that the popularity of Trollope is spreading among book bloggers. Victorian Geek, earlier this year, actually polished off every novel.

    I have two or three or four things I want to say about Orley Farm. Maybe just repeating what I have written before, although that is not the idea.

    On translation, I pretty much agree with Donald Frame:

    "I think it is an art, though a very modest minor one, since it requires constant choice by the translator among the author’s values and devices as he seeks to recapture them in his own language and finds he can rarely if ever recapture them at all. Clearly it belongs far below good literary creation, and below good literary analysis, but I think it demands much of the same sensitivity shared by many booklovers whose gifts for good creation or analysis may be modest or non-existent."

    I would omit "very," but Frame is a first-rate translator himself and wanted extra humility.

  6. I'm fascinated by the problems of translation, having done some of it myself. It's hard. I take solace in a snippet from Diderot: "You need not understand a language to translate it, since you only translate for people who do not know it at all."

  7. Oh, me too. Once I started paying attention to translation, the problems of translation started to become interesting, too. Translated poetry emphasizes the issues and different approaches.

  8. Here's one: does anyone know of any novels about translators?

  9. Huh. I did a search, and found a few, none of which I've read: "The Bad Girl" (Mario Vargas Llosa), "The Mistress" (E. S. Purnell), "Foreign Tongue" (Vanina Marsal).

    The most intriguing book about translation I know is "Le schizo et les langues," by Louis Wolfson: a memoir by a schizophrenic who couldn't tolerate his own language (English), and translated every word he heard into a cognate form in another language.

  10. The Translator (2002), John Crowley - Russian poetry is what the translator translates. Some fine classroom scenes.

    All Souls and the Your Face Tomorrow trilogy by Javier Marías, in which the narrator is a translator and translation is mined for various thematic ideas, especially in the trilogy. Marías himself more or less learned his craft as a translator, English to Spanish, with his version of Tristram Shandy apparently a triumph.

    I feel I am forgetting something completely obvious.

    Thanks for the ideas, Doug.

  11. Thank you both for the titles. There's also an Iris Murdoch but I can't remember which one, and possibly Byatt's The Biographer's Tale involves translated works, but it's been too long so I can't say. I also feel that there's something obvious we're all missing. I am surprised that Nabokov didn't write a novel about a translator, though the end notes to his Lermontov are a metafictional text unto themselves, and quite maddeningly entertaining.

  12. I found another one: "The Flying Camel and the Golden Hump," by the Israeli writer Aharon Megged. It's apparently about a translator whose upstairs neighbor is a critic.

    The Wolfson is worth seeking out, by the way. It's well known in French psychiatric circles; I don't know if it's been translated, though.

  13. I compiled a reading list last year. Though I'm sure it's incomplete. I added some of the suggestions above.

  14. Hmm, maybe your list is the obvious thing I could not remember.