6 Questions for Jessica Powell on venture of the infinite man by Pablo Neruda

Pablo Neruda is one of the best-known poets in the Americas—indeed he is a writer who is considered canonical and essential—but his third book, venture of the infinite man, is little-known in the English language. That should change now that City Lights publishes its first-ever English translation in Jessica Powell’s imaginative English, with an introduction by Mark Eisner.

To find out more about this strange and challenging short book, I corresponded with Powell. She very graciously answered my questions in great depth, providing a wealth of insight about this book. In addition to translating Neruda, Powell is the holder of an MA in Latin American Studies from Stanford University and a Ph.D. from UC Santa Barbara. Her translation of Wicked Weeds by Pedro Cabiya (Mandel Vilar Press, 2016), was named a finalist for the 2017 Best Translated Book Award and made the longlist for the 2017 National Translation Award, and she is the translator of (with Suzanne Jill Levine) Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo’s novel Where There’s Love, There’s Hate, as well as Antonio Benítez Rojo’s novel Woman in Battle Dress.

Scott Esposito: venture of the infinite man was Neruda’s third book of poetry, published in 1926 after Twenty Love Poems and A Desperate Song, which had won Neruda great critical acclaim and a strong reputation, and which eventually went on to be among best-selling Spanish-language poetry books of all time. But venture of the infinite man was not well-regarded when it was released, and it is generally considered neglected. Can you tell us some of the aspects of this book that made it so hard to absorb upon first publication?

Jessica Powell: Neruda was only twenty-one years old when he wrote venture of the infinite man and, despite the tremendous success of his previous book, Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, he was struggling emotionally, yearning for new perspectives, a new poetic voice. This inner call toward self-exploration led him to experiment with his style, breaking away from the lyrical realism of the love poems and from more traditional forms of poetry in general. What resulted was venture of the infinite man, in which he discarded rhyme, meter, punctuation and capital letters in order to attempt to capture the voice of the subconscious. The fifteen interrelated cantos that make up the book narrate the dream-like nocturnal voyage of a young, melancholic man on an epic quest through time and space to rediscover and redefine his voice and himself. Readers who were expecting more of what they had adored about the love poems found this experimental, semi-surrealist style disorienting and even incomprehensible. Even critics at the time weren’t sure what to do with it. Today though, readers and critics are in a better position to appreciate what venture does achieve, not the least of which is that it serves as a crucial step in Neruda’s growth as a poet, linking the lyricism of the love poems to the powerful and existential despair of his landmark Residence on Earth (which was Neruda’s next book of poetry after venture). Neruda himself considered venture crucial to his evolution as a poet: “I have always looked upon venture of the infinite man as one of the real nuclei of my poetry,” he said at the age of fifty, “because working on those poems, in those now distant years, I was acquiring a consciousness that I didn’t have before, and if my expressions, their clarity or mystery, are anywhere measured, it is in this extraordinarily personal little book…Within its smallness and minimal expression, more than most of my works…it claimed, it secured, the path that I had to follow.”

SE: Why did you and City Lights feel this was the right time to bring this book to the English-reading public?

JP: This project has been in the works for many years. Mark Eisner, who wrote the beautiful and very useful introduction to the book, began discussing the project with Lawrence Ferlinghetti, of City Lights fame, over five years ago. Ferlinghetti and Elaine Katzenberger, Publisher and Executive Director of City Lights, were both enthusiastic about the project, in part, because it was an opportunity to publish the first-ever English translation of a Pablo Neruda work, and, in part, because our bi-lingual edition would also make the original Spanish available to readers in the form that Neruda intended. Since its publication in 1926, very few editions of the book have been made available, and those that have been published have not respected the original edition, failing to maintain its line and page breaks, and making changes that include “correcting” its lack of punctuation and capital letters as well as the errata that Neruda consciously decided to leave in the manuscript (because he felt it better captured the voice of the subconscious). In our edition, we have taken pains to respect the 1926 edition in every way possible—even our cover echoes the spare avant-garde aesthetic of the original. In short, City Lights, Mark and I all felt that our edition could fill in a gap for Neruda readers and scholars, making Neruda’s third book of poetry available to readers of Spanish in the way that Neruda intended it to be read, and to readers of English by providing the very first English translation of the entire work. While there was no particular reason that we felt this was the “right” time to bring the book out, we are hoping that readers today will be more open to the experimental, surrealist nature of the work than they were at the time of its initial publication. Also, it does seem that new Neruda is having a bit of a “moment,” as Copper Canyon has recently published two books of never-before translated Neruda as well: Book of Twilight, Neruda’s first book of poetry, translated by William O’Daly and Then Come Back: The Lost Neruda, a collection of “lost” poems,” translated by Forrest Gander. Together with venture of the infinite man, readers now have access to three books of Neruda’s work that were previously unavailable in English.

SE: Can you tell us about your first experiences reading Neruda and if you have previously translated any of his poetry?

JP: I first read Neruda many years ago in high school when I was studying Spanish and then came across more of his work in college and graduate school literature courses. His love poems and odes are often used in language and college literature classes because they are considered so accessible, which is funny, given that my first book-length translation of a Neruda text is this one —venture of the infinite man— which is considered perhaps his least accessible text. I have translated several other Neruda poems recently, for Mark Eisner’s forthcoming Neruda biography, but venture of the infinite man is my first foray into a book-length Neruda translation. It has been, without a doubt, one of the most challenging and also rewarding experiences I’ve had as a translator. It is a great honor to get to translate one of the great poets of the twentieth century, and most especially to get to be the first to offer an English translation of this particular work.

SE: In his introduction to this work, Mark Eisner notes that “any attempt to analyze precisely what takes place in the poem will be complicated by the fact that . . . it is likely impossible to understand everything on a purely rational level.” I wonder if the stream of conscious and surrealist qualities of this poem led you to approach this book differently than you might approach other translations you’ve done.

JP: As the translator, when I first began working on venture of the infinite man, I had a few panicked moments when I wondered what I had gotten myself into. Setting aside the issue of the translatability of poetry in general, there was the more personally pressing issue of the translatability of this poem in particular. With its dreamlike, stream of consciousness style, its seemingly disparate and, at times, bizarre combinations of words and images, and with no capital letters or punctuation to guide me, I found myself in what felt like a free fall through another person’s subconscious process. Like I was trying to decipher and ascribe meaning to somebody else’s infinitely personal and exquisitely detailed dream. But the more I worked with the fifteen cantos that, together, make up venture of the infinite man, the more it became clear to me that the work absolutely does have an internal narrative, a cohesiveness, and it’s own logic, but it’s one that must be felt through rather than reasoned with, much like a dream or an intuition, or love. This meant that, at times, I had to sort of half close my eyes and allow words and images and meaning to float to the surface. But at other times it also meant having to be more literal in my translation than I otherwise might have been, because I had to constantly resist the temptation to normalize the text, to try to make it seem more logical, more readily intelligible. I knew that I needed to allow it to be as strange in English as it is in Spanish, even at the risk of disorienting my reader, because the strangeness is an essential part of the work’s aesthetic.

At the onset of this project, Mark, Elaine Katzenberger of City Lights and I had made the decision to respect the original 1926 edition inasmuch as possible, including its lack of punctuation and capi­tal letters, and the errata that Neruda consciously decided to leave in the manuscript (but didn’t mark, so we’re left guessing which things are actual errata and which are just part of the strange, and at times, agrammatical nature of the text). So, in addition to preserving the dream-like ambiguity of the work’s overall aesthetic, I also had to wrestle with myself to not correct what I felt sure must be those errata, to resist an impulse to “tidy it up” a bit to make it easier and more palatable for the reader. Because ease and palatability are not the point of venture of the infinite man. Its aim is something different, something at once tremendously personal to Neruda and yet also somehow universal. In my translation have I been “faithful” in each word, and each line to what Neruda meant? We have no way of knowing. What I hope is that I have been faithful to how he meant the poem to feel. I like to think that Neruda would have enjoyed watching my creative process and I hope he would be happy with the result—his poem, but also a new poem.

SE: Can you delve into a few of the particular aspects of this text that have made it such a difficult translation, and any particular translation questions that you had to resolve for yourself?

JP: In addition to the larger issues I mentioned above with respect to deciphering and adequately rendering the meaning of the original text in my translation, there were countless more “nuts and bolts” issues that vexed me throughout the translation process. As I have mentioned, Neruda discarded all punctuation in the Spanish original. This meant that I tried, whenever possible, to avoid using punctuation in the English translation as well, which was a particular challenge when it came to using (or not using) apostrophes in contractions or to indicate possession (while common in English, apostrophes don’t exist in Spanish). So, where in another translation, I might have translated a line like “el corazón del mundo se repliega y se estira” as “the world’s heart retracts and stretches,” I chose instead to translate it as “the heart of the world retracts and stretches” so as to avoid the possessive apostrophe.

Another challenge is that Neruda’s “infinite man” refers to himself throughout the poem in the first, second and third person—often switching mid-canto, or even mid-line, from one to the other. He also frequently addresses both the night and an unnamed woman in the second person, and, to complicate matters further, he often personifies the woman as “the night,” making it difficult, at times, to know whom he’s addressing when he uses the subject pronoun “tú” (you)—it could be the “infinite man” addressing himself in the second person, or the woman or the night, or the woman as the night. Usually, there are clues that help us to know to whom that “you” refers, such as gendered adjectival endings, but in this work, these sorts of clues are rarely straightforward as, frequently, an adjective in one line could either be describing the noun that precedes it or a noun that appears in the next line (the flexibility of Spanish syntax makes this possible and the lack of punctuation throughout the work makes it especially challenging for the translator to determine which adjective goes with which noun). Adding to the muddle is the presence of the many errata that Neruda decided to leave in the poem, making it difficult to trust an adjectival ending in the first place. At one point, for example, he writes: “al lado de mi fotografía como la palabra está enfermo” (“beside my photograph like the word ailing”). The problem here is that the adjective “enfermo” (ill) is in the masculine, whereas the two nouns it might describe (“fotografía” (photograph) and “palabra” (word)) are both feminine. So, what does “enfermo” describe? Is this one of the errata and it should actually be “enferma”? If so, does it describe “fotografía” or “palabra”? If not, to what or to whom is it referring? In cases like these when it was impossible to know the answer, I worked hard to come up with a solution that maintained the same level of ambiguity as in the Spanish; hence, I chose “ailing” in English, because it leaves it just as uncertain who or what is ailing in the English as it is in the Spanish.

A similar problem arises with the use of the possessive pronouns “su” and “sus” (his/her/their). At one point, for instance, Neruda writes: “era cuando la noche bailaba entre sus redes” (“that was when the night danced among its nets”). I chose to translate “sus redes” as “its nets,” (because I imagined the night’s nets to be the constellations and I liked the image of the night dancing among the stars), but it could just as easily have been “his nets,” because elsewhere in the poem the narrator refers to “my nets” (when referring to himself in the first person) and “his nets” (when referring to himself in the third person). These sorts of small, but crucial decisions came up over and over as I was translating this work, and I agonized over them. Ultimately though, they were gifts of a sort, because they forced me to listen very carefully to the cantos and to think very deeply about each word, each choice.

SE: I’m curious about the decision to publish the English and Spanish versions separately in this edition, instead of the en face / side-by-side presentation that is more typical of bilingual works published in the U.S. Can you tell us a little about why the decision was made to publish it this way?

JP: This was actually an issue we debated about at some length. As you say, the most usual way of presenting bilingual editions of poetry in the U.S. is en face, that is, with the poem in the original language on one page and the translation on the opposite, or facing, page. This allows the bilingual reader to move easily back and forth between the original and the translation, while also affording the English-only reader at least a sense of the original. Initially, this is how City Lights wanted to present venture of the infinite man as well. However, Mark and I both felt strongly that, in this particular case, an en face presentation would actually do a disservice to the work. As I mentioned before, one of the things that makes our book special is that we have gone to some length to replicate the original 1926 edition of the book, respecting page and line breaks as well as the spacing and location of the text of each canto on the page, which also means preserving the blank spaces that Neruda consciously left within the poems. Several of the cantos, for example, begin in the lower part of the left-hand page, with just a few lines at the bottom and a great deal of blank space above, and then continue in the upper part of the right-hand page, sometimes (depending on the length of the canto) with considerable blank space beneath. The opposing pages are bound together by their layout, meant to be seen in juxtaposition to one another, the open spaces perhaps serving to enhance the geography of the poetic dreamscape. So, if we had presented the English and Spanish en face, the reader would miss out completely on the way the lines and the blank spaces and the cantos actually fit together, how Neruda intended his work to look on the page, to feel, to be read.

Also, personally, I sometimes find the en face presentation distracting, like I flit back and forth between the original and the translation rather than immersing myself in the flow of the work, in either language. Because venture of the infinite man has such a dreamlike, stream of consciousness style and because the fifteen cantos are so clearly linked by an internal narrative and, as such, are meant to be read together rather than as individual poems, I really felt that I wanted the reader to experience the flow of the work as a whole (whether reading it in Spanish or in my English translation) without the constant interruption of one language into the other that happens with the en face presentation. I am so happy that the editors at City Lights ultimately agreed to the idea of presenting the entire work first in English and then in Spanish, sequentially, rather than breaking the work up by presenting each page side by side. We did, however, include two pages at the very end of the book with the first lines of each canto paired together in English and Spanish to aid the reader who might be interested in going back and comparing the original and the translation.

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