Distant Yet Never So Close

by Blanca Varela

distant yet never so close
we walk a sinking earth
lying down on her or simply standing
we feel the bucking of time
 
it's not about fearful flames
nor ungovernable seas
on this earth mind and body
have the same ebb and flow
in the air that lacks weight
since nothing differs in memory
from what we have seen or imagined 

we dream as we live
waiting without certainty or science
the only thing we suspect beyond question
the last chord in this vague music
which envelops us
 
sometimes doubt
explicit as a flower
persuades us with petals and signs
to swirl on our axis
to thirst
stained with ink to drink imagined lips
from the oldest and most mortal wineskin
 
the sky would be a dark place
a space of light
in the eye that looks at itself
in the hand that closes
to clutch hold of itself
out in the immense open
 
when all's said and done like the one who closes the coffin
or a letter
a ray of sunlight
will rise up like a sword to blind us
and gradually open the darkness
like an unexpectedly wounded fruit
like a door which hides nothing
and guards nothing more

The literal translation of this poem was made by Gwen MacKeith

The final translated version of the poem is by The Poetry Translation Workshop

Notes

‘yet never so close’: ‘y’ is used contrastively, ‘yet’ rather than ‘and’. The phrase recalls ‘so near and yet so far’ in English. We resisted the temptation to transpose Varela’s expression into what is now a cliché, keeping the life of her specific words but echoing, with ‘yet’, the familiar form of the English. Why not ‘distant and yet never so close’? Because it’s a mouthful.

‘walk a sinking earth’: we’ve avoided the wordier phrasal verbs, ‘walk upon’, ‘walk across’. They would have restricted the image to a literal meaning when the poet is using ‘the earth’ in the more metaphorical sense of ‘this life’. The use of ‘walk’ without a preposition or adverb in order to enhance suggestion occurs in Shakespeare: ‘I am thy Father’s Spirit Doom’d for a certaine terme to walk the night’; and Milton: ‘The dear might of him, that walk’d the waves.’

‘a sinking earth’: the Spanish expression, ‘una tierra que zozobra’, calques as ‘an earth that sinks’. These expressions with ‘que’ are extremely common in Spanish, yet also inconspicuous. Too many of them read clumsily in an English poem. Here, the adjectival ‘sinking’ saves the line.

‘bucking’: an odd image in the Spanish, and in the English too; an extremely physical realization of conceptual thinking. Varela enlivens a broadly meditative tone with these surprises, which need to be registered in the translation.

‘the air that lacks weight’: as with the ‘sinking earth’ earlier, we’d attempted to hide ‘that’ with ‘weightless air’. But ‘weightless’ describes an air that simply doesn’t have weight rather than one that lacks it (‘carece’), so we reinstated ‘that’. A clash of two principles — natural English versus the specific meaning of the Spanish.

‘the only thing we suspect beyond question’: we contemplated utter defeat with this line. It’s compressed, but to expand it creates ambiguity: ‘the only thing that we suspect is beyond question.’ Does this mean ‘the one thing that we are suspicious of is beyond question’?; or ‘the only thing that we imagine to be beyond question’? The Spanish means the latter; as does the English we’ve settled on, although perhaps the syntax is still unruly: ‘suspect beyond question’ could imply ‘suspect further than question’.

‘envelops’: ‘which closes round us’ would accentuate the sense of being hemmed in that ‘nos encierra’ communicates. ‘Envelops’, while expressing this meaning, also picks up on a more delicate perception which is present in the ‘vague music’ of the previous line.

‘to thirst’ — ‘to be thirsty’ would be a more colloquial alternative, and ‘to thirst’ does have a bit of the poetic (in inverted commas) about it. Nevertheless, ‘to be thirsty’ is confined to the physical experience where ‘to thirst’ expands into the broader meaning of ‘to desire’, the active one in the poem. One tends to shie away from any expression with archaic/poetic associations as hopelessly vague; yet one person’s vague is another person’s suggestion, an aspect of language that poems exploit with their own precision.

‘stained with ink’: a slightly explicatory rendering of ‘entintado’, but it registers the important perception of an experience that occurs through written language.

‘a dark place / a space of light’: the two synonyms of ‘place’ — ‘lugar’ and ‘sitio’ - present a choice. Since English is more tolerant of repetition than Spanish when the same meaning is repeated, one could use ‘place’ twice, creating an incantatory form which would be consistent with the line’s content. Yet ‘space of light’ nicely accentuates the contrast beween light of the air, with its suggestion of freedom, and darkness of the earth, while nevertheless preserving the vivid sense of physical location from the Spanish. An example of the fortuitous enhancement that can occur in translation when it attends to the target as well as the source language.

The transposition in this passage of the Spanish syntax (which is more flexible than English) has forced us to rethink the lineation. As Varela eschews punctuation and capital letters her poems clearly intend to exploit a degree of syntactic ambiguity, although her lineation groups words into sense units that temper this effect. We’ve attempted to preserve both her openness and her use of the pause to notate the movement of a meditative thought process.

‘out in the immense open’: literally ‘in the immensely open’. The immensely open what? The Spanish neuter article ‘lo’ allows the adjective ‘abierto’ to function as a noun. We have no such device in English. We do have the expression ‘out in the open’, in which ‘open’ functions as a noun, so we built the line around it. It’s still not as tidy as the Spanish.

‘when all’s said and done’: with ‘distant yet never so close’ we avoided the set colloquial expression, ‘so near and yet so far’, since it’s a cliché. Here, we wanted to register the full colloquialism of ‘a la postre’ since its conversational tone registers a note of resignation. With different lines, different principles apply.

‘y solo guarda lo mismo’: that neuter article, ‘lo’, again. The same what? We couldn’t end the poem with the limp ‘the same thing’. ‘Nothing more’ seemed to replicate Varela’s combination of assertion and acceptance.

The poem is taken from Blanca Varela’s most recent collection, Concierto animal (1999).

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