In an exclusive interview, Juan Gelman’s translator Lisa Rose Bradford reveals the pleasures and the problems of bringing the Argentine poet’s words to the english-speaking world
Lisa Rose Bradford is not your typical book translator. She fell in love with Juan Gelman’s poetry and has been working on translating it to English for years. As part of her endeavour, she met and got to know Gelman over the years and they forged a connection that went beyond the usual author-translator relationship.
Born in Dayton, Ohio, Bradford currently teaches Comparative Literature at the University of Mar del Plata and raises horses and cattle in Madariaga. Her doctoral work was completed at the University of California at Berkeley, and since then she has edited two compendiums on translation and cultural studies, Traducción como cultura, La cultura de los géneros, and two US poetry anthologies in Spanish: Los pájaros, por la nieve (RIL, Chile) and Usos de la imaginación: poetas latin@s en EEUU (EUDEM, Argentina). Her poems and translations have appeared in various magazines and journals.
Bradford recently received the Herald at home, in Mar del Plata, to speak about her passion for poetry, her appreciation of Gelman’s work, as well as to draw a warm portrait of the man she got to know over the years.
How did your journey into the literary translation world begin?
My fascination with translation began while I was studying at the University of Ohio. I was doing a sort of junior year abroad and then, in 1975, when Gelman’s Obra poética came out, my friend Eduardo Galeano, who knew I was translating Argentine poets, gave me this book and said,”See what you can do with it, he’s a good friend of mine, he’s a good poet.” I did a couple of poems at the time but then I kind left them because I wasn’t too happy with them and the pages got lost too, because in those days everything was handwritten or typed...
It wasn’t really until about six years ago that I took up the project again because I was reading his Interrupciones, which had come out, and I was reading Carta abierta and I just started translating it. I sat down and did one poem and then another and then another... and then I sent the translations to a friend of mine who is a translator and he said: “They’re fabulous; you know you should write to Gelman.” Unfortunately, I had lost track completely and I ended up writing and talking to different people in Buenos Aires and they wouldn’t give me his address or his email, even the people who knew him. They would tell me, “Well, you know, he’s getting on in his years and he’s become a little difficult to work with,” which scared me when I started.
Did you see that as an attempt to discourage you?
Well, I guess some people had found that working with him, they couldn’t manage the projects like they wanted to. There was a man in Buenos Aires who was collecting his essays and he said Juan had wanted other essays in the book as well, so the book never came out. I have no idea why people find it difficult to work with Gelman, because the person I met was not uncooperative at all.
So how did you get a hold of Gelman in the end?
As this whole thing went on, I finally got in touch with Juan thanks to José Luis Mangieri. I called him right before he died, in fact, I didn’t know he was ill, and he gave me a phone number. A week later, I was exchanging emails with Juan and everything went smoothly, he told me to go ahead and translate.
When did you meet him for the first time?
Oh, in the beginning I was just sending him the translations and then he said he was coming to Buenos Aires for a book presentation. It was in 2009. And we met for an interview and I was panicked because I know what it’s like in a café, with the noise. And he had suggested Café Opera and I remember standing there in that place that has three doors, looking around to catch a glimpse of him because, of course, he had no idea what I looked like.
How much had you translated by then?
Oh, I had finished the book, it’s quite a short book. But the idea was, if I could, to also include the interview in the book and I already had an introduction because someone had asked me for an essay about what I was doing at the time. So the book was going to be this three-part thing. And when Juan came in; (he was) extremely embarrassed about arriving late and apologized profusely. All this time, I was anxious and worried, wondering how I could get a microphone on him to get a decent recording in all that chaos. But Juan just looked around and said, “Oh, let’s just go somewhere else, please.” And we went to La Paz, where there’s an outside smokers’ part — Juan smoked a lot — and it was actually very quiet. It was just perfect.
So how did the interview go?
Well, Juan was so generous and answered every question. Actually, he started interviewing me as well, “Where do you come from?,” “What do you do?” “What are your interests?” And when I told him that I raised horses, among other things, he was captivated. He clicked right there and then because he had a horse when he was in the military and he started talking about him. It was a beautiful interview, an intimate interview actually, it wasn’t all about literature — you can tell how charismatic and personable he was.
So you had no problems getting the rights to publish your translation?
None whatsoever, the book got published and that year it actually won a National Translation Award in the US. It was beginner’s luck in a way. Of course, I’ve translated other things, I did my dissertation, I translated Argentine poets and then I had published other poets, including Guillermo Boido — another poet that died last year — Ricardo Herrera...
How did you come to live in Argentina?
Oh, I got married here (laughs). You know, when I was at Ohio University, I became fascinated with compared literature. As for Argentina, the first time I came here it was as an exchange student in high school. My mother was German so I had a rich bicultural legacy of my own...
Did you speak Spanish the first time you were here?
No, I had a year of high school Spanish which is nothing. But then I became immersed in it. I was very frustrated I couldn’t communicate. You know, I heard an interesting comment once, when I was focusing on language acquisition. Henry Kissinger had a brother and I think they moved to the States when they were in their teens or early 20s. Kissinger had a very heavy accent in English and his brother had none. When asked about this, the brother allegedly said: “Henry never listens, he tends to talk.” And so I think that languages often are for people who are musically inclined and tend to listen and are eager to imitate what they’re hearing.
You let a long time pass between your first discovery of Gelman and the moment you actually started translating him. Why was that?
Well, on one hand, I needed to read a lot more. By that time, I had read a lot but not that much poetry. Poetry came to me through music, basically. And even though some songwriters are very sophisticated, I appreciated the imagery and their analogies but I didn’t take the time to stop and analyze literature until I went to a workshop by Rainer Schulte, who is one of the fathers of literary translation in the United States. And, during that workshop, I started reading and imagining, while I was reading poems, how that would be translated afterwards. But I wasn’t working with Gelman at the time and when I began my dissertation I wanted poets that I had access to, Argentine poets who were alive. I wanted them to be here so I could use some collaborative theory. I wanted to work with them and ask them questions.
So who did you set your sights on?
Ah, it so happens that when I was here, in the early 80s, the group that was here was, obviously, the group that had decided against going into exile. I used that as a basis for my dissertation to talk about these poets, what they were portraying or representing, what kind of language they using, considering that they had wrote most of their work during the military dictatorship. I started with them but, of course, I needed a first chapter on the history of Argentine poetry. Because of that, I got into Gelman again. Let’s not forget that, while I was doing my dissertation, I was also having children, keeping a job and doing so many things that I wasn’t focused on working on one poet. It wasn’t until the year 2000 that I felt I could get serious about my work again.Why then? Did you find yourself with a lot more time on your hands all of a sudden?
Oh, no, no, no, I’ve never felt I had enough time on my hands (laughs). But I knew I wanted to translate and I got Gelman’s books and started reading his newer work — because I had only read what he had written before going into exile. So I discovered Interrupciones which collects everything else. After doing this, I stopped and went back to Oxen Rage and I just finished that. I have a National Endowment for the Arts grant from the US for this book but I haven’t been able to find a publisher for it as a whole book.
But you’re keen on seeing it published as a whole book?
Yes, I’ve maintained this philosophy, that maybe it will be picked up some other time. I’m doing his last book right now, as a matter of fact, I’ve got about half of it done and some of it has appeared in different publications. If that one comes out, then fine, but in the future I’m going to try to do a selections book for Gelman. There are some publishers who have done selected poems by Gelman, but they’re not bilingual and I like bilingual text. On the other hand, they don’t treat any of Gelman’s last five books. So my idea is to start from the very beginning, include the best poems from these three collections that I’ve done and then go on with the newer material. The last two books, in my opinion, are his best books.
Do you have favourites?
Actually, there are a couple of books in between that I wasn’t all that enthusiastic about. As a matter of fact, I’ve translated another book by Gelman, which came out in a second edition — Bajo la lluvia ajena, with Carlos Alonso who did the illustrations. It’s a beautiful book and I thought I could get a publisher for it, thinking with the practical side in mind. Because I knew Cólera buey was going to be hard to publish but I want to do it as a complete book.
What went wrong?
I always say, sometimes you read a book or a poem and you think, “Oh, that’s a wonderful poem” and you translate it and it just doesn’t say what you want it to say. And then there are other poems that you read and they’re nice poems but when you start translating, you just nail it. It suddenly turns into a lovely poem in English. And it wasn’t happening with any of these poems, I had about 25 poems, I did the whole collection — they’re not polished, just typed and corrected once. And I usually go through... a year of corrections with all these books, they don’t come out so fast.
Did you discuss this with Gelman?
I did! I was with Juan last time in August when he presented Hoy, I told him I wasn’t happy with the translation. And he said: “Well, you have to be happy with it.” And so I told him I had decided to go on with his new book and wanted his permission to publish the translations, I had five already requested by a magazine. He was very ill and it made me feel awful to ask him for anything because it sounded like I was trying to get things at the last minute.
You kept in touch with Gelman after he returned to Mexico?
I knew he was really ill, he wrote to me after he had been back and had a couple more blood transfusions... I explained I didn’t want to bother him but just wanted to know how he was and what diagnosis he finally had. So he told me about the whole thing and thanked me for not writing at first, when everybody was asking and writing and inquiring about his health, which I had assumed and that’s why I’d decided to write later. He was very weak when he left here and he told me that his granddaughter had actually typed some of the letters he wrote to me in December. I guess he was bedridden or he was just too exhausted that wasn’t able to answer his own letters.
But what did he say about the book?
Well, a couple of weeks later I told him: I want to do the whole book. And I recorded him reading himself. I don’t know what I’m going to do with that recording, but I just wanted to have Juan reading his own poems aloud. And so right now I’m looking for a publisher.
Didn’t it help to receive a translation award for Carta abierta?
It did count. That’s how I got the National Endowment grant, which is the most you can get as a translator. I sent the book to Yale and New Directions, and what both publishers said was true: three books by Gelman had just come out and they thought the market was a little saturated. They didn’t say it in those words, but that was the idea.
Why didn’t you publish the new book with the same publisher as before?
Oh, that’s because they don’t promote their books. At all. I’ve had people trying to get these books and having a hard time finding them. Juan was upset with it, too, and I promised him I wouldn’t deal with this publisher any more.
Was it a matter of marketing?
Well, you know, it’s not easy to sell poetry — and translations even less. There’s a poem of Boido that I always quote which says: “La poesía no se vende porque no se vende.” (“Poetry doesn’t sell because it doesn’t sell itself.”) And that’s really the thing, you either have the passion to do it or not. And this guy had the passion but no editorial experience, I was in charge of all the corrections. He gave me free reign with the covers, which I was happy with.
Did you have any momentous experiences while translating Gelman?
Well, if you count words coming to you at strange times... I run every day and all of a sudden there’s a word dropping on my head, and I go, “There it is, that’s what I needed.” I wouldn’t call this a momentous experience, but it has you hyperventilating, that’s for sure (laughs).
Did you struggle a lot with Gelman’s poetry?
He uses very simple words, his vocabulary is not over the head of most people. And sometimes, for musicality if nothing else, you want to use something not necessarily highfalutin, but perhaps a little bit outside of spoken English. And I have to control myself. I’m an insomniac and I’m always dialoguing, either on a translation or on my own writing. Actually, when I finish the final draft, I read it all aloud and that’s when I know if it’s either a hit or miss.
You did say you like to go through a long process of editing.
Ah, well, I do know my craft a bit, I know what I’m doing, it’s not like I’m just letting words fall into place on the page... but I prefer to thoroughly edit everything anyway.
Did you ever meet Gelman outside of Argentina?
I saw him in Mexico, I was in his apartment which was a thrill because that was his natural habitat, his paintings. You know, Mara (Mara Lamadrid, Gelman’s second wife) is a psychologist, and her daughter, who died a few years ago, was a painter. There was this Gorriarena painting that I found so fascinating I actually asked Juan to get a picture in front of it. I put it on Facebook later and I doubt anyone realized it was actually Gorriarena but to me it was an epiphany of an image. And Juan also loved that picture. Anyway, we were together, physically, only three times, when we first met in Argentina, during my visit to Mexico a few years ago and then when he was already ill.
What were you working on when you went to Mexico?
I was doing Cólera buey and he was finishing Hoy. He showed me the manuscript, although he had been sending me the poems. He always insisted that I don’t just send him my translations but also some of my own poems. And once I did, he began sending me his new things, I would send him mine and so forth. It was part of our exchange: it was either poems or horses. I always sent him pictures of my new foals and he loved them.
Did you write to him with questions about his poems while you were translating?
Yes, he was generous. I didn’t want to tax him too much because I’ve always thought that if a reader doesn’t understand a reference — and I was doing a lot of work to understand those references — perhaps it just has to stay like that. So I didn’t ask him a lot.One time I did, though, and I regretted it afterwards, because he replied and said, “No, it’s not that.” And I think I wrote back in English: “You can never be too sure.” And he replied: “To be sure is a sickness of our times.”
His poems seem to reflect that in so many ways.
Indeed. At the time he was working on Hoy, which has a lot to do with decisions regarding what happened in the 70s, how to continue the struggle for justice, what can happen and how many lives can be lost... lots of references to the dictatorship. It was very emotional to translate Gelman’s poems sometimes. When I got the prize, I did my speech and, at the end, I read of one his poems. My voice cracked while I was finishing.
What would he do when he saw the English translations?
From Hoy, for instance, I sent him the first five poems that I was going to send out and he had some comments, “Why did you include the article here?” and “Take this out from there.”
By the same token, I sent him a poem one time and told him it fell flat in English because it was made of monosyllabic words and I just needed to pad that line. I asked him: “Can you give me an adjective that you might have used, in Spanish, so that I won’t be expanding in my own direction?” And he gave me a word, he understood completely. On the other hand, when I sent him the Compositions manuscript, the whole thing, he wouldn’t comment on it, he just said: “Oh, I love the work you’re doing.”
What surprised you most about him over the years?
I would have to say… his memory. As old as he was, his memory was impressive. And his eloquence. Just beautiful. I know that he wasn’t taking hours to elaborate an email for me because sometimes there were typos in them but they were so wonderfully written.
In an email he actually wrote a few lines of verse about one of my horses, that was priceless. He was also very generous, he wasn’t the type of poet who wouldn’t want to correspond with fellow authors or help them out. Actually, when I saw him last in August 2013, I was explaining how many editors I had sent the manuscript of Oxen Rage to. And he stopped me in mid-sentence and said: “When are you going to publish your own stuff? Stop worrying about my translations and start worrying about your own work.”
How do you like to remember him?
He used to smile and crack jokes all the time. He was a very funny man with quite a wit.