*Introduction of the 2012 publication.
My first attachment to the poetry of Sylvia Plath in the year 2009 instantly arose as I heard the deepness and relentlessness of her voice reciting the first three lines of Daddy:
You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot (Ariel, 2004)
As I imagined it happened not only to me, I found those first three lines irresistible; their diction, splendid rhyme and puzzling images, all generated a need for me to find more of her texts and try to understand the mix of femininity and obscurity that resided in her voice, and was carried through her words. I was interested in the person and the writer; in the life that had soon become a myth between my friends and me and the art that she created from all different sources of experience and imagination.
A year later, Lucrecia Maldonado, an Ecuadorian writer and close friend, mentioned during one of our conversations, the astounding and powerful quality of Alejandra Pizarnik’s poetry. Back then I remember reading La Enamorada and feeling the same shivers I felt while listening to Daddy. Although in that moment I did not make the connection between the writers, their relentless poetry remained stored in my head, and this year, while thinking of what to translate for this project, I came up with the idea of translating them to each other’s languages: Plath to Spanish, and Pizarnik to English.
I did some research and did not find any evidence that they had ever encountered each other’s work or met at any point. However, the similarities between the women and their writing were acknowledged by many of their readers (Plath’s work has been highly recognized in South America, and Pizarnik’s in the U.S, among other countries). Born in Boston in 1932, Sylvia Plath, poet, short story writer, and novelist, was widely known and acclaimed by a variety of readers, not only locally but internationally. The dramatic quality of her life –attempting to kill herself more than two times and finally doing so by placing her head in the oven with the gas turned on when she was thirty— could have heightened the obscurity and mystery that readers often found so compelling from her writing.
Although her work, as David Holbrook, and British academic who studied Plath’s work, and Sylvia’s husband, Ted Hughes, emphasize, is greatly confessional and intimately linked to her own experience, I found that her poems carried feelings that as human beings we are all able to recognize and that through that initial connection to her poetry, one can create one’s own interpretations of them. Thus, translating her voice to Spanish turned into my own exploration of Plath’s intentionality and my own thoughts related to her ideas.
Alejandra Pizarnik was born to a family of Russian Jewish immigrants in Buenos Aires, four years after Plath, in 1936. Her focus was mainly poetry, which was highly influenced by the intellectual movement of surrealism and psychoanalysis; she was a fervent reader of European literary texts and her work alluded to multiple works of literature. Her poems, like Plath’s, contain endless images and explorations of the self, which, as I encountered, take form in her grammatical and syntactical constructions, among other aspects.
In the documentary of her life, Memoria Iluminada, Alejandra’s relatives talk about her inability to connect to the world, and, as in the case of Plath, about how her life evidenced her personal struggle—she was interned in a psychiatric hospital and committed suicide when she was thirty-six, by taking an overdose of pills—. In her poetry, I could hear the desperation, the frustration and self-inquiry through her inexhaustible and beautiful array of metaphors and expressions. For this reason, my interest was finding ways in English through which I could transport her voice and those meaningful lines written originally in Spanish.
In order to create my collection of translated poetry, I firstly went through a selection process which involved reading Plath’s anthologies Colossus and Ariel as well as several poems from Pizarnik, some of which I had already worked with in past years. This stage of my process allowed me to gradually immerse myself in the worlds that both authors had created with their art. I slowly got familiarized with Plath’s unusual line breaks, invented words, and hyphenated constructions of verbs; as well as with Pizarnik’s multiple personae and her habitual contradictions between stanzas. I ended up choosing to translate eight poems from each writer, all of which explored different techniques and brought distinct levels of difficulty for translation.
Although the poems all had their own particular nature and flow, the theme of subjectivity and the question of who the subject was and how it changed or evolved throughout the poem became a common parallel between Plath’s and Pizarnik’s poetry. Throughout the pieces, one finds a fragmented self which manifests itself, in Plath’s case, through direct questionings or images of division:
I am inhabited by a cry.
Nightly it flaps out
Looking, with its hooks, for something to love. (Ariel, 2004)
In Elm, Plath takes us through a dialogue about the complexity of the self, alternating between the use of “her”, “I” and “it”. In these three lines, identifying a part of her as an obscure being that lives within her creates a dual self, which extends throughout her poetry. I aimed to preserve that duality in the Spanish translation as much as possible and to do so I guided myself with the voice I could hear when reading the original, and having that one present while translating, I tried to recreate the same tone and look for the most powerful words and images that would transport that sensation.
In some poems, certain images, also related to the struggle with oneself, could not find an exact correspondence in Spanish, as in the case of “rocked-shut” in Lady Lazarus. To deal with this, I decided to extract the essence of the image and find one in Spanish that, while not being phrased with the same terminology, carried an equal strength, and so in that specific case I opted for “me clausuré”.
Pizarnik, on the other hand, also creates an exploration of a split-self by interchanging “yo”, “tú” and “ella” through her pieces, as Plath, and often including verbs ending in “me”, which in Spanish add a deep level of significance in relation to the subject of the poem. For instance, in a word like “vivirme”, one can have both the words “live” and “myself” together after “I”, reemphasizing the subject. I found that especially hard to translate to English, since by following that structure literally, the sense was lost, as well as the intentionality, and it interrupted the reading of the poem. For this reason, I chose to suppress “myself” from the expressions that contained it in that and other pieces, thus, in that specific case it read:
This mania of knowing I’m an angel,
without a death in which to live,
without piety for my name (Exile)
Grammatical elements also brought difficulties for translation in both cases. Plath’s sudden line-brakes, hyphenated constructions and the ambiguous nature of her apparently unfinished expressions often seemed awkward in Spanish and odd-sounding. I ultimately acknowledged the value of preserving that ambiguity in Spanish, and the same happened with her vast repertory of invented words (e.g. unpetal, unmisted, bystanding, flamily, etc). Sometimes I was able to find the corresponding word in Spanish for the ones she made up, but in one specific case, for the sake of preserving rhythm and form I decided to invent a word that, as “flamily” sounded as if it actually existed: “flameantemente”. There were some other cases in which the terminology she used was geographically specific and thus had to direct translation, (e.g. tor in the poem Ariel)
I was also confronted with some grammatical constructions in Pizarnik’s work that were not entirely transferable to English, as they did not carry the same significance, for instance: “un adiós es tu vida”, from Daughter of the wind, would have been translated to “a farewell is your life” which did not resemble the poetic and rhythmic quality of the original. To translate it I had to play with the syntax and find ways to recreate the rhythm, thus I ended up with: “This is your life, a farewell” which to me seemed to read more fluently. A comparable case can be seen in Origen.
Similarly, in Plath’s poetry, rhythm, achieved to an extent through rhyme, allows for the poem to have its own voice and transmit its energy; hence, being unable to preserve rhyme when translating certain lines seemed detrimental to the strength of the piece as a whole. To compensate for that, I tried adding rhyme in other sections. That situation can be seen especially on the poems I am vertical and Lady Lazarus.
With regard to punctuation, I considered replacing Plath’s em dashes with colons, which are more frequent in Spanish writing, but ultimately decided to keep the em dashes since they are an iconic punctuation mark on Plath’s writing system, besides giving continuation to the ambiguity of the lines that precede them and providing space for silence, which is essential in her poems.
Translating Alejandra Pizarnik and Sylvia Plath has been a satisfying and equally obscure experience, as is their poetry. Extracting and understanding the multiple layers of subjectivity that unfolded within each stanza was challenging and perplexing in every occasion, but entirely worthwhile. It was worthwhile not only because I got to fully become part of their own minds and see through their lenses, acquiring new judgments and reactions to existence while doing so, but because translating them simultaneously and having to go from one world into the other, elucidated the entire process and brought clarity to my own understanding. It is as if Plath helped Pizarnik and viceversa. Moreover, having the support from my translation class, from my dedicated and generous teacher and peers, who always provided valuable and constructive criticism to my work, helped to shape the whole project.
This preface’s first sentences were initially written in Spanish, as my first impulse was to explain myself in my native tongue, but after having written those first lines I realized that the whole idea of translation that I have been constructing throughout this period of time, from in-class discussions and independent work, was rooted to English. Thus, I felt the need to write this preface in my second language and welcome the English as well as the Spanish readers to an excerpt of my collection of sixteen poems.