The Sea and
The Bells

Pablo Neruda
William O'Daly, Translator

(Copper Canyon Press)
Copper Canyon Press recently invited us to something called "Poems Aloud." What is "Poems Aloud?" they ask, rhetorically.

    Poems Aloud is about gathering friends and family together, reading poems aloud, and listening as others read poems to you.

For the program, they are distributing 500 books by Pablo Neruda "to individuals willing to gather friends or family to read poems to one another."

    We'll begin with "The Sea and the Bells" (presenting Neruda's poems in Spanish and English) --- one of Copper Canyon's bestselling titles. Written as the Nobel laureate approached his death, the collection focuses on the pleasures and healing power of nature.

§     §     §

I am guessing my own particular family would not, in a thousand years, join together for an evening of reading poems to one another, even poems by the august Nobel Prize winner Pablo Neruda. For one thing, we couldn't agree on where. My wife would not be caught dead over at sister Octavia's gaudy spread. Brother Cecil can't stand the sight of Johnnie, so we would have to eliminate one of them. Fred gets sick whenever we try to invite him over for a highball, and his wife --- my sister --- seems after all these years to find me weird, so weird she won't sit down at the same table with me. Barbara is a noisy fist-in-the-face drunk.

And if I told the kids that they were expected to go to a night of poetry recitation --- in Spanish and in English --- there would be hell to pay. Unless we guaranteed a guest appearance by The Hives, singing "Spit 'n' Drool."

Despite this problem with reality, we responded warmly to Copper Canyon's offer of a free book, saying that we would welcome The Sea and the Bells. We told them, however, that we had some trouble with their translations. One, "Here," quoted in their poop-package, goes, in the original Spanish:

Me vine aquí a contar las campanas
que viven en el mar,
que suenan en el mar,
dentro del mar.

Por eso vivo aquí.

Copper Canyon's translation:
I came here to count the bells
that live upon the surface of the sea,
that sound over the sea,
within the sea.

So, here I live.

In correspondence with the publisher, we stated that "it seems an especially insensitive translation of a beautiful poem, especially since the poet is speaking of the sound --- the ringing, if you will --- of the waves."

We enumerated the reasons

  • "Contar" can mean "to count" --- but it also can be translated as "tell" or "tell about" or "relate."
  • "En el mar" most often means "in the sea." It says nothing about "the surface."
  • "Suenan" can mean "sound" or "ring," but if it has a tilde over the "ñ" --- it also can mean "dream of." This is what poets think of as a "word shadow."

Thus we wcould translate the poem,

    I came here to tell of the bells
    that live in the sea
    that dream of the sea ---
    Within the sea.

    Thus I live here.

§     §     §

We found other problems in Translationville. The poem "Esperemos" goes,

    Hay otros días que no han llegado aún,
    que están haciéndose
    como el pan o las sillas o el producto
    de las farmacias o de los talleres:
    hay fábricas de días que vendrán:
    existen artesanos del alma
    que levantan y pesan y preparan
    ciertos días amargos o preciosos
    que de repente llegan a la puerta
    para premiarnos con una naranja
    o para asesinarnos de inmediato.

Their in-house translator renders this as "We Are Waiting:"

    There are days that haven't arrived yet,
    that are being made
    like bread or chairs or a product
    from the pharmacies or the woodshops:
    there are factories of days to come:
    they exist, craftsmen of the soul
    who raise and weigh and prepare
    certain bitter or beautiful days
    that arrive suddenly at the door
    to reward us with an orange
    or to instantly murder us.

We reworked this to read:

    There are other days that have not yet arrived
    That are still being worked on
    like bread, or chairs, or the stuff
    from the drug-stores or the repair shops:
    there are the fabricators of up-coming days:
    too, there are artisans of the soul
    that raise and weigh and prepare
    certain days both bitter and precious
    that suddenly arrive on our doorstep
    to proffer us an orange
    or --- suddenly --- to murder us.

From these two examples, one can see that translator O'Daly is not a total incompetent --- but he still manages to miss measures of the rhythm and subtlety of the original. We suggest that if Copper Canyon plans to print more volumes of Neruda, they might consider adding other translators to their roster, such as W. S. Merwin, Ben Belitt, or Christopher Logue --- all of whose renderings of the poet have won universal popular acclaim.

--- Carlos Amantea

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