A couple of weeks ago I learned in an email from Jared Demick that he has begun an English translation of Argentine poet Oliverio Girondo’s late avant-garde collection En la masmédula. When I read those lines, a shudder ran up my spine & concentrated at my cerebral cortex.
I had long since locked that book up, knowing in the back of my mind that, were I to open it, the temptation to translate it would be tremendous, & that a translation of En la masmédula could easily turn into a decade- or life-long project. While many believe it is “untranslatable”, Demick appears to think otherwise…
In order to get a feel for how he was approaching such a daring translation project, I asked him what impact he thought that the experimental tradition has had on our appreciation of modern poetry as well as on the current creation of it. The following comments & translations are taken from our ongoing dialogue.
PLEXILIO / PLEXILE – OLIVERIO GIRONDO
A TRANSLATION DIALOGUE
between Jared Demick & Joseph Mulligan
JD: My own take is this: the modernist / postmodernist experimental tradition’s impact has been in understanding that language itself is a material that needs to be critically investigated. From Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons to Kurt Schwitter’s sound-poems to the mathematical restrictions of OuLiPo to Jackson Mac Low’s systematic chance operations to Haroldo de Campos’s concrete poems to Kenneth Goldsmith’s transcriptions of everything he said in one week… language has been probed & appreciated in wonderfully baffling & bafflingly wonderful ways… I’m curious, what impact do you think the experimental tradition has had on contemporary poetry?
JM: I would tsay that, from the experimental tradition contemporary poetry has learned to make language itself its subject matter (i.e. a performative study of & in language). Critical investigations of language, as you say, will produce “wonderfully baffling” results. Sure, agreed. But, I would add to this that contemporary poetry has inherited a bifurcation between those who wish to write poetry in spite of society and those who wish to write poetry as an integral component of it. I think poets today perceive themselves on one side or the other. Crosscutting both camps, however, is the idea of the literary cannon as a sort of flea-market market where anything could appear, especially marginal poets who do not fit neatly into predefined traditions. The State-run museum that only exhibits cultural patrimony has been replaced by a traveling carnival of rarities.
We then turned out attention to the poem “Plexilio” by Oliverio Girondo, a prime example of the ‘wonderfully baffling’ and a poem that presents the opportunity for a study of strategy––how & why it does what it does, the force it imparts on & in language––through the translation process. Demick suggested that a poem like “Plexilio”, from En la masmédula, may not in fact be “untranslatable”, but rather is in need of multiple translations to reveal its different aspects. The idea developed into a dialogue between him & I––an exchange that allowed us to read the poem “Plexilio” by translating it multiple times, to interpret the meaning(s) of the poem through their relational meaning & try to grasp the inheritance of the experimental tradition at large. Here is the poem in Spanish:
en el plespacio
sin nexo anexo al éxodo
en el coespacio
parialapsus de exilio
en el no espacio
JD: Girondo’s “Plexilio” is for me one of the more fascinating poems in En la masmédula. Most of the volume’s poems are lists of shifting metaphors on a particular topic. As a result, some of the wordplay hides within a shrubbery of ordinary words (a technique effective in its own right). In “Plexilio” though, syntax is snapped. The mutated words collect energies from the page’s surrounding white space.
JM: Muich of the difficulty in “Plexilio” is due to the seeming lack of syntactical relationship between the words, thus allowing / obliging the translator to base an interpretation on word formation (morphology) & melody (phonetics). The disappearance of syntax frees the words from the strictures of grammatical logic, but leaves them as emblems whose ties radiate in the void. A reader who attempts to find meaning in them by applying grammatical logic will likely feel that this poem is untranslatable.
JD: Shattering syntax is a shrewd move on Girondo’s part since the poem suggests a multiplicity of meanings. En la masmédula’s poems make Now-You-See-It-Now-You-Don’t traces of abstract states of mind. They try to make images of things with no image. Or nonimages. Some readers might find this tauntingly frustrating. I love a poem that constantly changes meanings, mimicking an organism.
VERSION 1: Jared Demick
in the plespace
without nexus joined to the exodus
in the cospace
pariahlapsus of the exile
in the no space
JM: In re the translation of the above, one might start by distinguishing the instances in which Ole Oliver uses a given prefix or suffix to mimic the formation of a word within the system (as I believe he does in “nebífago”, where –ífago appears to mimic the structures of mamífero &/or sarcáfago), from those other instances in which he seems to let his fancy be tickled & play with sound for the sake of playing, as I think he does in “plespacio”––or in the title “plexilio”––where we may be dealing with a psychological intuition (the melopoeia) that fuses “espacio” and “exilio” with “plexo” (plexus) or “pleno” (full). I may be wrong & if I were you I would speak with others, namely perverse Argentine linguists.
JD: Not long ago, you briefly mentioned how many folks would call Girondo’s late poems untranslatable. I’ve always been attracted to poetry that is deemed “untranslatable”…I wonder if a text isn’t untranslatable so much as it just needs multiple translations to reveal its different aspects. Also, “poetry is untranslatable” arguments rest on the mistaken notion that a poem is an autonomous realm rather than a collection of words that tickle readers’ brains with contextual associations.
JM: I was surprised by the extent to which your translation tried to maintain loyalty to the to Spanish poem. Maybe that’s not it. I was surprised to see such a literal translation. In my revision here, which should be taken as demonstrated suggestions, I’ve tried to show some places where you might find some give in the language (i.e. a “pariahlapsus” could also be an impstint/impstance, or a rascalapse, etc.). I would recommend reading this poem aloud. The word order as well can be tweaked.
VERSION 2: Joseph Mulligan
in the splace
I don’t breath
no nexus connected to exodus
impstints of the exile
in the spaceless
JM: The changes I made in in this regard tried to build some kind of melody and perhaps find some meaning in the relationships between this opaque linguistic matter. Do you find any semantic meaning in this poem? Or is it just word play?
JD: The reason I stuck so close to the Spanish was not faithfulness so much as finding that Girondo pulls from the same technical Latinate vocabulary that English has been using since the Elizabethan era. Also, much of Girondo’s wordplay comprises of compound words, a phenomena characteristic of Germanic languages. So I tried to show the close correlations between the Spanish and English in the poem. However, I was so focused on the figuring out how Girondo was playing with each word that I didn’t address, as you say, “the relationships between this opaque linguistic matter.” You’re right: despite their opaque meanings, the words sonically cohere. I’ll work on trying to establish a relationship and will send you a rewrite next week.
VERSION 3: Jared Demick
in the splace
no nexus annexes the exodus
in the cospace
in the no space
What can we take from this dialogue? Anything? Are you baffled yet? It would seem to show that, when we look closely at the transformation of a text in the translation process, the need for multiple translations become apparent––this is especially the case with the most complex texts. This dialogue would also seem to be a response to the reader who is satisfied by claiming a text like “Plexilio” untranslatable: The precariousness of that reader’s feeling of fidelity toward an “original source” shines through the abstract-poetry-is-untranslatable argument as a euphemism for unintelligible. But this ignores the relational meaning of the poem’s language. As the past century has shown, things don’t stand by themselves & meaning in much of modern & postmodern poetry is not found through traditional grammatical logic, but through innovative relationships.