Any act of literary translation entails some form of appropriation. Critics love to burn at the stake translators who put too much of themselves into their work. This is nothing new. Think of Nabokov’s complaints of Constance Garnett who made a host of Russian realists sound strikingly similar to one another (and to her).
On the other hand, rather than being overly giving, a translator may also choose to take away certain elements of the translated author’s writing and incorporate them into his or her own projects. This may earn you the nickname A Boca do Inferno, like Gregório de Mattos e Guerra, and a one-way ticket to Angola, or the more honorable “apprentice,” like Clayton Eshleman, and a National Endowment for the Arts, depending on the strategy and outcome of the influenced composition.
When I read Michael Lee Rattigan’s Liminal (Rufus, 2012), I breathe a sigh of relief, assured that neither a stoning nor exile lie in his future. I recognize that this is the work of a poet-translator, not because his poems demonstrate a technical apprenticeship to the poets he’s translated (Fernando Pessoa and César Vallejo), but precisely and perhaps more impressively because, although my first introduction to Rattigan’s work was through his translations, it’s clear that he’s successfully cultivated an authentic voice of his own, created a poetics of beautiful and simple rhythms (beautiful because they’re simple and not the contrived product of unfelt experiments), realized this poetic space as the opportunity to internalize rare observations, and written his way through close readings of several prominent twentieth-century writers.
The author of Liminal is dedicated to the examination of language itself, the way it’s related to human thought and memory and, specifically, to the promise of transformation he sees in the language of poetry. But let me be clear. We’re not talking about the games of a curious child who once read Georges Perec’s La disparition and ever since has boycotted the letter E. Nor are we dealing with a new-media-scavenger who shocked the world by trolling for anomalies and displaying them in a museum of the incompatible. Nada de eso.
Rattigan’s poetry is too sincere to put on a magic show, and yet this sincerity is rarely undermined by the gravity of the poet’s tone. It’s too young to be bitter, yet too mature to be presumptuous. One wants to listen with a stethoscope to that cardiac thumping of an “inexhaustible spring” that the poet has “unsheathed in vital breath.” To read Liminal is to discover languaged thought and feeling as “marginal things wanting to live” and at once to accept that there’s “no ‘final result’ either, / as terms belong to dark vocabulary, / time’s inevitable arrow— / furious measurability / of life and death / blown out.”