Translated by Hardie St. Martin

Dark Times Filled with Light

Reviewed by Jonathan Cohen


Juan Gelman is arguably Argentina's greatest living poet. Now 83, he has published during the course of his career nearly two dozen books of poetry. He won the Cervantes Prize in 2007, the highest honor in Spanish literature, awarded by the Ministry of Culture of Spain. With a profoundly tender and human voice of colloquial speech/tone mixed with great verbal invention, Gelman's poetry celebrates life and also engages in the political struggle of his homeland. That struggle, which played out in Argentina's Dirty War of the 1970s, took a huge toll on his own personal life. Yet, despite the tragedy of this war that he endured—and still suffers—he offers us a remarkable body of poetry. He marries justice to beauty with great courage and artistry.

There could hardly be a better introduction to Gelman than Hardie St. Martin's translations of his poems chosen for Dark Times Filled with Light, starting with work from his first book published in 1956, and moving through subsequent books up to his poetry published in the early 1990s. The translations are very accurate. They are so good, in fact, that the poems here seem to have been originally written in English. It may come as a surprise that Gelman has yet to receive the attention he deserves in the United States, for he is a world-class poet and great innovator of language, whose poetry not only fits quite naturally in our own literature but also expands its bounds, forcing English to do new things. Indeed, Gelman's poetry in translation extends the range and capacity of our own speech, poetic art, and sensibility.

For this treasure of a book we must thank not only Gelman and St. Martin, but the poet Paul Pines, who, following St. Martin's death in 2007 at the age of 83, tirelessly worked at finding the manuscript a good publisher. While St. Martin was still alive, it had been accepted in the 1990s for publication by the now-defunct Curbstone Press, but due to a variety of circumstances called bad luck, that didn't happen. Pines became the book's champion. His introductory essay in the book adds greatly to its value. He prepares the reader in a clear and concise way for Gelman's poems that, as Pines put it at a recent gathering of translators, "embody the ability of the human spirit to transform unspeakable challenges into an affirmation of humanity."

Considered one of the masters of translation from the Spanish, St. Martin translated Pablo Neruda's Memoirs, José Donoso's Obscene Bird of Night, and collections by Miguel Hernández and Blas de Otero. He put together the critically acclaimed anthology, Roots and Wings: Poetry from Spain 1900-1975 (Harper & Row), which won the first Islands and Continents Translation Award (bestowed by Robert Bly, Donald Hall, and Gary Snyder, among others), and the selected poems of Roque Dalton, Small Hours of the Night (Curbstone), the first work in Spanish to win the American Literary Translators Association's Outstanding Translation-of-the-Year Award.

St. Martin began working on Gelman's poetry in the early 1990s, acquiring his books and making translations. According to St. Martin's friend the Guatemalan-born translator and novelist David Unger, the "easy" poems he got down quickly and the more "impossible" poems he would translate off the top of his head "just to see what they might look like on the surface in English and gauge their possibilities." This improvisational approach gave him the freedom to be as outrageous as Gelman himself can be in his poems. Here is a good example of a deceptively simple poem called "commentary I (saint theresa)," along with St. Martin's rendering. This poem is from Gelman's book Commentaries and Citations, which contains poems written when he was in exile in Europe during the late 1970s, and which he dedicated to his homeland:

querido amor que partís como un pájaro
acostado sobre los horizontes
¿estará bien darnos todos al todo/sin
ser parte de nada/ni siquiera del vuelo que

te lleva?/¿piensan hermanas y hermanos
que rodeando se puede llegar/o
partiendo y quedándose a la vez se llega
a la unidad buscada como manjar celeste?

dura es la vida o esta
salud que cavo para encontrarte como luz/
o palabra/ramita donde te poses como
la mano tuya sobre mi corazón

dear love going away like a bird
stretched out over the horizons is it right
to give ourselves to the whole / without
being a part of anything / not even of the flight

that takes you away? / do sisters and brothers think
flying in circles gets you anywhere / or that
going away and at the same time staying you reach
the oneness looked for like manna from heaven?

in other words / life is difficult i mean
the health i undermine to find you like light /
or word / twig where you may rest
like your hand on my heart

Gelman has attracted two other American translators who join the effort to bring him to the attention of poetry readers here; namely, Joan Lindgren and Lisa Rose Bradford. Lindgren published a selection of poems in 1997, titled Unthinkable Tenderness (University of California), and, more recently, Bradford who has lived for years in Argentina published three bilingual books: Commentaries and Citations; Between Words: Juan Gelman's Public Letter; and Compositions—all issued by Coimbra Editions, the scholarly imprint of the California Institute of Arts and Letters. Thus, together with St. Martin's Gelman, we now have a "choral rendering" of the poet's work that underscores the range of possibilities in translating him. Here are their translations of "commentary I (saint theresa)":

dear love departing like a lark
reclining on horizons / is it of any good
to offer ourselves up to everything / without
belonging to anything / not even to the flight

that takes you away? / sisters brothers
do you think it possible to arrive by encircling / or
by leaving and remaining at the same time to seize
the unity sought out like a sky-blue delight?

life is hard or
this health that i pickax to find you like
light / or word / twig where you perch
like your hand upon my heart

—Tr. Lisa Rose Bradford

beloved love you who depart like a bird
lying on the horizons
may we all give ourselves to the whole? / and still
be part of nothing / not even part of the flight

that carries you? / do brothers and sisters think
that by encircling one can arrive / or by
leaving and staying at the same time
one can at last find unity like heavenly manna?

in other words / life is difficult or this health
where I dig to find you like light /
or word / little branch where you rest lightly
as your hand rests on my heart

—Tr. Joan Lindgren

The immediate differences in these versions, compared with St. Martin's Gelman, are in the word choices, cadences, imagery, and tone. In fact, the poet seems to have three different voices in English. Which one is truest to Gelman? That's the big question.

St. Martin approached translating Gelman's poetry with a keen understanding of his voice in Spanish and the task of the translator who must recreate it in English. In a set of notes for a planned introduction to his would-be book, he says: "The flexibility of the Spanish language—inflective—allows Gelman to play with it ... Purists may object to some of his inventions but his words say what he wants to say the way he wants to say it ... Complex under a simple surface that hides much we have to dig out ... The translator has to reshape many words & give them to the English language."

Pines responds: "Suffering burns away excess, and that is why Gelman's affinity with San Juan de la Cruz and their shared experience of the soul's dark night produces in both a minimal, almost skeletal use of language. Gelman, after the mystic, calls it discalced (barefoot). There is in Hardie's translation [of "commentary I (saint theresa)"] no genitive's of possession, intricate syntax, flowery adjectival descriptions, repetitions that are soft or romanticized. The ability to render Gelman, his complex emotional/psychological tensions, in English with the same compression and spareness is the miracle in Dark Times, and why I found it so moving."

The fact of the matter is, every translation of a poem is written twice, first by the poet, then by the translator. Totally bilingual in Spanish and English, and also possessing intimate knowledge of contemporary poetry in both Latin America and the United States, Hardie St. Martin translated Gelman with the highest degree of poetic skill and soulfulness. Consequently, the fusion of two great writers is found in Dark Times Filled with Light, and this book is where to begin reading Gelman in English—for the appreciation of his growth as a poet over the first four decades of his work, and for the translator's recreation of its beauty and vision.