Translation is impossible, poet and translator Alastair Reid told us in a small poetry workshop at Antioch in 1970. He said you needed to know this, and then do it anyway. At the time, Alastair was translating Pablo Neruda. When he met Neruda in Chile, they walked on the beach, and Neruda asked Reid if he could talk with him about translating Shakespeare. Alastair readily agreed. I think he said it was Macbeth. Stop for a moment on that beach of stones with me, and imagine Pablo Neruda discussing Macbeth, and the kind of questions he would have for the Scot, Alastair Reid. Would Neruda pour over a specific passage, want to discuss character, or rhythm of line? Could this conversation and its intensities make a play? This would be before the election of Salvador Allende, before Neruda’s role as Chile’s Minister of Culture and before his dear friend Allende would be assassinated in a US-backed coup on September 11, 1973.
Now that you’ve summoned your body and mind to southern Chile and imagined Shakespeare, Neruda and Reid in conversation, you have entered the world of translation and its impossibilities.
Back at Antioch in the Yellow Springs classroom, Alastair shared his Neruda translations and the process of getting as close as possible to the heart of the poems. When he read to us in Spanish, then English, we heard differently, whether we knew both languages or not. The rhythm of the line would feel a certain way in the native language, and we could tell that translating the feel rhythmically might not hold the sense. We began to understand what it was to embody a poem and all its tonalities, never mind sly humor or irony, in translation. Alastair showed us different approaches he was trying out and explained the kind of problems, word by word, within the flow of lines.
After meeting for awhile, as a workshop, we knew each other’s poems, and how Alastair felt about poetry. He welcomed surprise and treasured it; and it was clear he hoped we would learn to recognize music, originality and inspiration, but he was not there to pressure us. He was there to share something more. We had gotten over some of our self-consciousness, fear and simultaneous desire for exposure. I remember an assignment to use metaphor to write about real objects, such as the corn growing in the fields around us, the infamous, fresh-at-2am chocolate cake doughnuts, or the long, low concrete steps of the cafeteria where all life passed. Perhaps a bow to Neruda’s odes, Alastair had made sure we were curious and receptive; therefore, we were ready to write poems.
Alastair brought in the unexpected as the usual, and we never knew what he’d have up his sleeve… In one class, we memorized Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Spring and Fall” together after he had taken apart the stresses and all the kinds of rhyme inside the poem, word by word, beginning with the amazing lines, “Márgarét, áre you grieving/ Over Goldengrove unleaving?” Learning poems by heart and reciting the song that is Hopkins was new for most of us. He helped us untangle an ease, lost since childhood. Alastair was training our ears, or making us realize that we had ears to train to hear the tremendous impact of language. We became more careful and appreciative readers. Alastair gave us a welcoming hand into a world of impossibility and satisfaction. The fact that we could enter another world was a gift, and an ongoing source of mystery. You had to be there. My early teacher, Alastair Reid, poet, prose writer, translator, and traveller, who Neruda called “Mr. Barefoot,” died in the fall of 2014 in New York City.