Fully Empowered (1967)
(Original: Plenos Poderes; 1962)
Pablo Neruda (1973)
Translated from the Spanish by Alastair Reid
Many years have passed since I first discovered the poetry of Pablo Neruda, through a girlfriend from Chile who had a copy of Fully Empowered (Plenos Poderes). The poems in the collection range from impressionistic descriptions of nature, daily activities or common objects to ruminations on the nature of our lives and those of the poor and working class. I picked up my own copy of the book some 20 years ago, and a couple of other collections of his work since then. Over the years, however, I’ve had a bit of a conflicted history with his poetry, and have only now read through all the poems in this particular book.
When I first came to Neruda’s poetry I knew little-to-no Spanish, so, although I had bilingual collections of his works, I was reading them in the English translations. Despite being limited to the versions in English, I found several of his poems deeply affecting. In Fully Empowered, for example, the poem Births (Los nacimientos), with Neruda’s transcendent description of the moment of birth, struck a powerful chord in me, and remains my favorite among Neruda’s poems. (To read the poem in Spanish, or Alastair Reid’s English translation, follow the link here.)
So too the extraordinary image of love Neruda creates out of a simple, everyday act in To Wash a Child (Para lavar a un niño), and the startling conclusion, in the poem’s final lines, with a bittersweet reminder of our loss of innocence as we grow older:
In that way, newly washed, the child leaps into life;
for later it will have time for nothing more
than keeping clean, but lifelessly by then.
(Y así recién lavado salta el niño a vivirAnd also in this same collection, the powerful image of a spoken word coming to life, in the opening lines of The Word (La palabra):
porque más tarde sólo tendrá tiempo
para andar limpio, pero ya sin vida.)
was born in the blood,
grew in the dark body, beating,
and took flight through the lips and the mouth.
la palabra en la sangre,
creció en el cuerpo oscuro, palpitando,
y voló con los labios y la boca.)
But, but … so many of his other poems read flat to me, and I had trouble recognizing in them the inspired beauty many others seem to find in his work. To be clear, I always felt this represented a personal shortcoming, not a valid conclusion on Neruda’s work. (Aside from lacking the background to critically evaluate poetry, I consider what one likes, in literature, music, or art in general, to be a simple preference, not an absolute value; I acknowledge the validity of critical evaluation of art, but not the requirement that critical acclaim implies that any particular person should necessarily find a work appealing.) Over the years I have occasionally returned to the books I own of Neruda’s poems, to give them another go, and see if, from a new vantage point in life, I experience them differently; the result, however, has always been the same --- no particular resonance to much of his work.
Recently, however, I picked up Fully Empowered again, but with a twist: I’ve been learning Spanish over the past years and though my Spanish remains only passable, I know enough to be able to read it, albeit with the support of a dictionary. I randomly opened the book to a few different poems --- intentionally choosing ones I was not already drawn to in their English versions --- and read them now in Spanish, with the help of Alastair Reid’s translations and a dictionary on the side. The result startled me; poems that had seemed so flat in English came almost magically to life for me.
I recognize that literature in general, and poetry in particular, can be extremely difficult to translate in a way that captures both the meaning and the characteristic tone of an author, and not just because words have different nuances of meaning in different languages: each language has too a different, inherent rhythm. Reading Neruda’s poems in Spanish, I was for the first time truly confronted by the chasm that translation can create. The rhythm and the flow of the poems in Spanish combine with their meaning to an extraordinary effect, and the poems now sang out more beautifully than I had experienced them in English.
As a specific example, take the opening lines of Planet (Planeta):
Hay piedras de agua en la luna?Focusing on just the first sentence, there is a natural rhythm to it, built around three groupings that all have emphasis on the second to last syllables, and with the very typical for Spanish ‘a’ sound at the end of each grouping:
Hay aguas de oro?
De qué color es el otoño?
hay PIEdras ... de Agua …en la LUnaReid’s translation of the first three lines is:
Are there stones of water on the moon?Looking again at the first line, one can see how Reid has been able to create a similar rhythm with a direct translation:
Are there waters of gold?
What color is autumn?
are there STONES … of WATER … on the MOONThe pattern is now built around the emphasis being on the single syllable nouns that conclude each grouping, which is a minor difference, but notice that the line loses some of the melody inherent in the Spanish, in which the ‘a’ sounds rounds out each group. Thus, though the enchanting image Neruda creates in this line comes through in the English translation, the lyrical cadence that enlivens the original has been lost.
To be clear, I mean no criticism of Alastair Reid’s translations; if anything I sympathize with the struggles he must have gone through to re-create (a more appropriate term it seems to me, than ‘translate’) these works in English --- with its rhythms and flow so different from Spanish --- while retaining Neruda’s meaning. In a different context, one can understand why some songs, when translated into a different language, retain the popular melody, but are given an entirely different set of lyrics, built to support the melody, not to retain the original meaning. Reid obviously did not have that option with Neruda’s poetry.
So, I recommend, if you are able, reading Neruda’s poems in their original Spanish, even if you need to lean on the translations and a dictionary for support. The effort will be well-rewarded by the beautiful whole of these works in their original language.
Other reviews / information:
I also have a CD of Neruda reading some of his poems. I was surprised, when I first heard it, by the monotone voice he uses to recite his works; there is a modulation to his reading, his voice generally rising during a particular line, but he keeps his voice very flat, leaving the impression of intense melancholy or a lamentation. But, upon listening to his delivery over several poems, his approach gradually comes to feel appropriate. And, one’s inclination when reading his poetry is to adopt this voice oneself, whether reading them aloud or silently.
Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf