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Poetry is a grand art form that has been around for centuries. This unique writing style can force readers to emerge themselves into a world that is not like their own and question the intangible qualities of life. Unfortunately, there are many wonderful poems that readers can not access do to a language barrier, this is when translators are used so that people from all languages and cultures can enjoy one’s work. However, translating poetry can be very tricky, only those with prestige credentials and knowledge of both languages should be trusted with such a task.
Translating a poem can be very difficult, as there are words from one language that may not have a literal translation to another. Translators also want to keep in mind the poets’ purpose and mood they are trying to convey. One of the poems that has come to be translated by many is “I’m Explaining a Few Things” by Pablo Neruda. Neruda was a “poet, diplomat, and politician” who was born in Chile (“I’m Explaining a Few Things”).
His poetic themes range from love to political and he received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1971. The poem in analysis was written during the Spanish Civil War and sympathized with the Republican. Nathaniel Tarn and Galway Kinnell took it upon themselves to translate this poem. While both Tarn’s and Kinnell’s translation are very similar, the word choice differs greatly and results two separate takes on Neruda’s poem.
Before diving into the translations, themselves, both translator’s backgrounds should be evaluated.
Nathaniel Tarn was an “American Poet, essayist, anthropologist, and translator” that was born in Paris (“Nathaniel Tarn”). He attended King’s College, Yale, and the London School of Economics. He has lectured all over the world and translated Neruda’s work The Heights of Macchu Picchu. Galway Kinnell was born in Rhode Island and attended Princeton and Rochester (Gray). He has issued many poetry collections over his years of work. Along with his lengthy collections of work, he published many translations.
When looking at the two translations, it is clear that Tarn uses a much more elevated vocabulary compared to Kinnell’s translation. For example, Tarn uses words such as “apertures,” “merchandises,” “baying,” “swelled,” and “falters” compared to Kinnell’s choice of “holes,” “goods,” “throbbing,” “filled,” and “grew tired” (Tarn lines 5, 25, 30, 31, 36 and Kinnell lines 5, 26, 31, 32, 37). This different word choice makes a huge different in the connotations that the poems give off. In Tarn’s more elevated translation, the average reader is succumbed to language that he/she may not know. The use of elevated language gives off the connotation of a much more prestigious message and understanding. The common reader may not be able to connect to the poem on a level that those of a much higher intellectual capacity may. Kinnell’s translation, however, uses much more common language that every reader can understand. This is much more suited when trying to understand Neruda’s stance and place in conjunction with the war that was occurring.
Along with the elevated language that Tarn uses, he uses much more poetic language and phrases that bring the poem to life. For example, “poppy-petalled metaphysics,” “repeatedly splattering,” “every cranny,” “spattering blessings” compared to Kinnell’s “metaphysics covered with poppies,” “that often struck,” “from everywhere,” “signing the cross” (Tarn lines 2, 3, 14, 48 and Kinnell lines 2, 3, 14, 49). The phrases and words Tarn use provides a much more dramatic imagery that readers are able to experience the poem, rather than just read it through. For instance, Tarn uses “splattering” and “spattering” rather than “that often struck” and “signing the cross” (Tarn lines 3, 48 and Kinnell lines 3, 49). The word choices Tarn uses makes for a much more dramatic effect so that reader can feel effect through the poem. Kinnell, on the other hand, seems to just describe what is happening with no consideration to the mood or affect that Neruda was trying to portray.
Tarn also uses poetic devices that help bring the poem to life. For instance, towards the end of the poem, Neruda describes the abruptness of chaos that overtook Spain. Tarn translates that “one morning the bonfires / leapt out of the earth / devouring human beings” (lines 40-42). The use of the word “leapt” personifies the bonfires, making them seem like a living monster that has come to kill the citizens and anyone who gets in his way. Kinnell uses “sprung” instead, which certainly does not give off the same menacing and life-like effect that “leapt” does (line 42). Tarn continues the use of personification when he writes “look at broken Spain” (line 62). This phrasing gives off the impression that Spain, as a living being, is broken hearted and sorrowful because of the turmoil that has occurred. Compared to Kinnell’s translation when he writes “look at Spain broken”, it just does not give off the same effect that Tarn is able to create (line 63). Kinnell’s translation makes the reader envision Spain broken as a physical landscape, but Tarn personifies Spain as being emotionally torn and broken. Tarn also describes that the children’s blood “ran through the streets” rather than Kinnell’s translation of “ran simply” (Tarn line 50 and Kinnell line 52). The phrase “ran through” gives off the interpretation that the blood flooded the street without any challenge to obstacles, like a living flash flood. The phrasing of “ran simply” gives off a slower connotation, as if the blood was a gentle stream of molasses.
Tarn continues to use other poetic devices that are more effective than Kinnell’s. For example, Tarn writes “pile ups of palpitating bread” compared to Kinnell’s “crowds of pulsating bread” (Tarn line 26 and Kinnell line 27). Tarn’s use of consonance allows for a much more dramatic effect. Tarn also implements metaphors where Kinnell decides to use similes; Tarn writes “a leather ocean” where Kinnell translates the same line “like an ocean of leather” (Tarn line 12 and Kinnell line 12). Once again, this seems like such a miniscule detail, but it contributes to the larger effect that translating can have on a poem. Tarn’s use of the metaphor simply feels more poetic and smooth flowing, like the poem is emerging the reader into the scene. Kinnell’s use of the simile down play’s the poems potential.
Looking at both the translators use of word choice and poetic devices, it seems that Tarn has chosen to translate the poem while keeping with same mood and tone that Neruda would have originally tried to portray. Kinnell seems to have given a translation as if it was written to explain the poem rather than immerse the reader into the world that Neruda tried to depict. The reader can see this at the very beginning of the poem when Tarn translates “I’ll tell you all the news” (line 6). This line introduces the rest of the poem as more of a conversation between the reader and the poet. Kinnell translates this line as “I am going to tell you what’s happening to me” (line 6). Kinnell’s choice of words explain what Neruda is saying in a literal sense, separating Neruda’s voice from the poem. Another example of this is when Tarn translates “Remember, Raúl? / Eh, Rafael?” (lines 18-19). This translation brings Neruda’s voice to life and has a conversation with the reader. Whereas Kinnell’s translates the lines as “Raul, do you remember? / Do you remember, Rafael?” (lines 18-19). This translation is much more formal and separates the Neruda’s voice from the poem. It feels as though Tarn’s translation is conversing with the reader, where Kinnell’s is explaining to the reader.
Looking at the two translations of the poem, it is clear to see that even though the same message is translated, the way it is conveyed is very different. Tarn approaches this translation with a better understanding of the mood and use of poetic devices. He emerges the reader into the world that Neruda is trying to portray. Kinnell, on the other hand, seems to provide a much more literal translation. One where he is approaching readers in a way that describes what the poem is about. His translation does not allow the reader to immerse into the chaotic world that Spain was going through during that time. The word choice and phrasing that translators use when translating has a major impact on the reader and results in two separate poems in themselves.
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