Translating Jaime Gil de Biedma: Process & Problems

Two guys in a bar in Barcelona- b&w

Image of two patrons in El Born bar in Barcelona, by ewoerlen


Translating most or all of a poet’s work is more like a long love affair than anything else. If we’re poets ourselves, and write our own poetry, our own work is more or less a marriage: “for better or for worse.” And there doesn’t seem to be any court that anybody knows about that can divorce us. So a long term commitment to another poet has to fit somewhere, has to be scheduled at odd hours and on odd days, always a bit clandestine, compared with the primary relationship. And, like so many long love affairs, these relationships often start as flirtations.

I started translating Jaime Gil de Biedma shortly after I arrived in Barcelona (a bit more than ten years ago). I didn’t see the work as a serious literary project. My idea at the time would be that it would be one of the many ways in which I was trying to improve my Spanish. But of course we never really understand why we begin any writing project. Much of the time, as in this case, we don’t even know that we are beginning a project.

I want to talk about the process of translation in this project, but I want to focus more on the problems and difficulties than on the obvious pleasures and satisfactions.

We’re talking about poetry, so everything pretty much has to begin and end in the language. Here, in Catalonia, the language that you write in the first question—or the first problem.

Spanish isn’t the official language of Catalonia; the official language of Catalonia is Catalan, so we might say that I live in a Catalan speaking country, depending on how we define the word “country” (a very important definition in Catalonia, especially now).

In talking about Gil de Biedma, one of the questions that arises immediately is whether he’s a Catalan poet or a Spanish poet. Gil de Biedma writes in Spanish; if Catalan phrases occur, as they do, they occur less frequently than phrases in French or English. Catalans think of him as a Spanish poet, and his work doesn’t generate the enthusiasm and affection that Gabriel Ferrater’s work does. (Ferrater was Gil de Biedma’s contemporary and the two poets were good friends; Gil de Biedma has a very moving elegy for Ferrater.)

One of the questions that I felt I had to come to terms with was some understanding of Gil de Biedma’s reputation. I think reputation has to be taken into account in translating a poet; it’s part of the larger historical gestalt of the poet. In American poetry, a translator has to take the wider cultural appeal of Allen Ginsberg into account, just as a translator needs to think about Lorine Niedecker’s deep obscurity.

Gil de Biedma doesn’t generate a great deal of enthusiasm among Spanish speakers either. When I ask Spanish speakers who their favorite poet is, the answer is invariably García Lorca or Luis Cernuda, with Cernuda probably being the favorite more of the time. (I’m always a little surprised that Antonio Machado is never mentioned.)

When I arrived in Barcelona, I didn’t know Gil de Biedma was. His work has been translated into English, but is not known at all in the US, even among people who are somewhat interested in Spanish poetry, as I was.

In terms of reputation, I found a lack of enthusiasm and affection in Spain and Catalonia, and almost a lack of any reputation at all in the US. Because I admire Gil de Biedma’s work so much, I had to explain the disconnection to myself. His homosexuality is far too easy an explanation, and clearly inadequate, if only because Cernuda was homosexual, and his work is extremely popular.

As I said earlier, for Catalans the fact that Gil de Biedma writes in Spanish is enough to account for his lack of popularity. I don’t perceive the language of Gil de Biedma’s poems as a conscious choice. Like any member of his social class, he would have spoken Spanish at home and at school. Spanish is very much his lengua materna, just as Gabriel Ferrater’s (who was from a different social class and different part of Catalonia) lengua materna was Catalan.

Luis Cernuda, Antonio Machado, and García Lorca write very differently, but each poet’s work—in its very different way—feels very Spanish. Gil de Biedma’s work feels more much international. He has a deep admiration, often expressed, for Machado and especially for Cernuda, but his poems actually sound more Auden than like any Spanish poet. His concerns are Spanish, but his manner at looking at Spanish events and history probably feels distant to Spanish readers.

Gil de Biedma probably does not earn any sympathy for his wealth and social class. His family was one of the pillars of the Catalan bourgeoisie; he worked for several years in the family cigar business in Manila. Wealth and social class tended to protect him from the privations of the postwar and Franco years, and this is also unlikely to endear him to Spanish and Catalan readers.

In the United States we often prefer exoticism in our foreign writers. When we began to read Spanish language poetry in the 50’s and 60’s, we were drawn to the lush passionate poems of García Lorca and especially Pablo Neruda. A poet like Octavio Paz, evidently cerebral, who could easily be French or American, if he weren’t so Mexican, interests us much less. Gil de Biedma may sound too much like “one of ours” to truly excite us.

In translating the poems for American readers, my most important goal was to arrive at good poems in English that remained faithful to the spirit of Gil to Biedma’s work.

I said that I want to focus on the difficulties of translation here, but I have to admit that in Gil de Biedma’s case the Spanish language is not one of them. Gil de Biedma writes a very standard Spanish; he doesn’t invent words, and he doesn’t particularly use words in odd ways. Also, I live in Catalonia; Gil de Biedma’s period is not long ago, and many of his associates are still alive. I have plenty of resources at my disposal—beyond dictionaries—in that I can talk with many people about the local and temporal meaning of a word or phrase.

The problems that I encounter with my translations of Gil de Biedma’s work are all on the English language side, not on the Spanish language side.

Gil de Biedma is an extremely elegant and thoughtful writer, but in a very subtle way. (If we’re looking for writers who like to show off, we don’t have to go any farther than Shakespeare.) His poetry is cerebral and internal—even when he’s writing about historical events—and in his later (and my opinion his best) poems he splits the self into at least two parts. The selves are definitely at war with each other (the two best examples are “Against Jaime Gil de Biedma” and “After the Death of Jaime Gil de Biedma”). Gil de Biedma’s language isn’t aggressively colloquial or aggressively academic or upper class; he’s able to express himself using the middle register of the Spanish of his time.

In American poetry conversational poems tend to locate themselves in very colloquial, ordinary language (often street language, or nearly) or in a kind of academic or abstract language. I can’t accept translations of Gil de Biedma’s poems that sound odd or forced in English, or that sound “street” or aggressively colloquial or aggressively academic or scientific or abstract. I don’t think the poems have to be as good in English as they are in Spanish—that would be impossible—but they have to be genuine poems in English, not just prose cut up into lines that render the literal meaning of Gil de Biedma’s work.

As I’ve worked and reworked the translations over the years—usually starting “from scratch” and not looking at what I’d done before—I find myself departing more and more from the literal meanings of some of Gil de Biedma’s words and lines. When I revise, I almost never discover mistakes in the readings of the Spanish, only words and phrases in English that don’t render the force and/or the subtle emotional shadings of the original language.

A good example would be the opening line of the late poem “De Senectute”: No es el mío, este tiempo. In Spanish tiempo is obviously “time” (in the abstract sense) but also “weather”(hace muy buen tiempo) and also “season.” Clearly the English word here has to be “season,” but we lose the hovering, shadow meanings of “time,” which is a huge loss.

The title is another problem. Since the phrase is Latin, not Spanish, it probably shouldn’t be translated. If Spanish readers have to struggle with Latin, why not American readers? But Spanish is closer to Latin than English, so perhaps it’s less of a struggle for the Spanish reader. A French phrase later in the poem sounds so out of place in the English version that I feel I have to translate it.

I obviously can’t translate No es el mío, este tiempo using the original word order. It would either sound unbearably pretentious and old-fashioned, or like complete Spanglish, or both. There’s a temptation to keep the concept of el mío with “mine,” but I also find that pretentious. At this moment the translation is This isn’t my season. A great deal is lost, but at least it sounds like something a native English speaker might actually say.

I should admit that there are always American readers who will insist that a translator who doesn’t use the exact dictionary definition is ignorant (“can’t really read Spanish”) or is arrogant (“thinks he is a better poet than the poet.”) These are the risks we have to run.

There are some phrases of “De Senectute” that very much trouble me. I probably would have abandoned the translation if it weren’t for the last line. I remember life, but where is it? seems so beautiful to me that the poem has to be translated.

I’ve published a very few translations of Gil de Biedma, and I continue to struggle with those poems, as well as with most of the others. I would like to arrive at enough acceptable translations to give a sense of his work to English readers. I wonder if I’ll ever get there.

Photo: «IMG_3641» taken in Barcelona in July 2012, by ewoerlen, used under CC BY 2.0. Image in b&w of two guys inside a tapas bar called El Born on Paseo del Born n.26.

Edward Smallfield is a member of Philadelphus Editorial Board. His translation of Jaime Gil de Biedma’s poem «A Través del Espejo» has been previously featured under the Translations category.


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