Contrasting Environments: Venezuelan Poet Márgara Russotto
My first encounter with Márgara Russotto’s poetry took place at a poetry reading at which most of the other attendees, in addition to satisfying an appetite for Spanish poetry, were anticipating the ordeal of driving home through a New England winter snow storm. A somewhat incongruous setting for the soft, musical sounds of this Venezuelan poet’s voice; a haunting contrast between her poetic world and the snow-driven night that awaited us. Nonetheless, it was just what we needed before hitting the road: a wee draught of artistry to boost our spirits as we set out to brave the wind and cold.
A few years later, translating Russotto’s latest collection of poems, Lavigny Journal: 21 days of poetry, the sense of contrasting environments returned to me. As the title suggests, these are contemplative poems, written as if to oneself: personal, self-revelatory, conveying a sense of the individual’s struggle to come to terms with alien yet often magnificent surroundings. At times the language flows smoothly, only to be interrupted by broken sentences, staccato rhythms, inverted phrases — the distractions of daily life, details that upset inner tranquility. Perhaps this perception of a strange, suddenly-changing world pervades her poetry because it has also pervaded her life. Russotto was born in Italy, grew up in Venezuela, studied in Brazil and has lived for years in the United States. Recently, she spent time in Switzerland on a writer’s retreat with a group of other invited artists. There she wrote this series of poems, from which these four have been selected and in which she produces a kind of impressionistic narrative of her stay in a Swiss chateau among a diverse group of invited foreigners like herself, all ostensibly there to think, commune and create. The poet contemplates the weirdness and charm of what was surely an intense experience, strangers from different walks in life brought together to assume a regime of creativity. As she writes in one poem, “At times we are free from scarcity / and the world’s stage is revealed” (A veces uno pierde lo escaso y la escena del mundo se abre).
These translations are the product of an ongoing collaboration between the poet and translator. That is to say, several winters have passed since that memorable poetry reading — that all but forgotten blizzard night — and more than a few cups of coffee have grown cold as the poet and I have pondered the recreation of her work in the English language. Often the challenge has involved questions of how to preserve the syntactical structures Russotto likes to employ — the hyperbatonic or anastrophic sentence inversions that the Spanish language easily supports, but are sometimes complicated to carry over into English. Translators speak of “freeing the translation from the original text,” but when syntax itself is so much a part of a work’s essence, rephrasing the text more naturally in the manner of a native speaker may not be particularly “faithful” to the text (insofar as translators can aspire to faithfulness). This was the case, for example, in the poem, “Returning with the horses” (Volver con los caballos). Here, I suppose I could have been more literal – more “word for word” – but chose not to be:
Con los caballos ser uno
To be one with the horses
As anyone who has participated in such collaborative translation projects has probably discovered, this is an activity that yields moments both magical and mystifying, as well as issues that need to be negotiated — seemingly ad infinitum — between the poet and translator as they attempt to surmount one obstacle after another. There are trifling issues that suddenly loom large, and huge issues that, in the end, are resolved simply with, perhaps, a single word saving the day. Nonetheless, it is a process that usually succeeds in bridging two seemingly incommensurate worlds — a process that is, surprisingly, like reading a pleasing poem.
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