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Rebecca Levi on ‘The stars of Chile for you (Las estrellas de Chile para ti)’: Transreading 5 Chilean Women Poets

December, 2018. Santiago, Chile. My friend’s kitchen. It was an old house with an inner courtyard, home to three, sometimes five women, plus a cat (female, obviously). A soft house, as if the wood had relented slightly to the life lived within it. The rooms flowed into each other, and the bathroom had three doors, making it the most central room from which you could hear everything – the piano or accordion being played, books being stacked and shuffled, bottles being opened and poured. The kitchen was the best part. You could sit with your face out the window into the little courtyard while you smoked a cigarette or ate a piece of bread. I was probably doing both when my friend passed me a book. Cecilia Casanova. My favorite, she said. Out of print. I flipped it open:

Esta mañana se concentraron los pájaros
en mi ventana.
Cantaban todos a la vez
sin ponerse de acuerdo.
Los oía apenas,
cubierta con las sábanas
y esa tristeza que me quedó de anoche.
Indefensa, en posición de nacer,
añoro esa amplitud
que me hincha a veces
como a las palomas.

I had that feeling like when you get to the heart of a novel, or when you see a former love in the street. It was the best of poems—not only good, but true. I tried my hand at translating it:

This morning the birds assembled
in my window.
They all sang together
without planning to.
I only just heard them,
covered by my sheets
and that sadness left over from last night.
Exposed, curled up like a newborn,
I yearn for that spaciousness
that swells me sometimes
as it does pigeons.

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Such a little poem, but such a big thing to translate, like describing the texture of my friend’s house, or the feeling of that little kitchen window. Casanova wrote poetry like the stillest, clearest water— seemingly simple, but through it you can see the lake bottom, the fishes’ eyes, your own reflection, and the mountains behind you.

The last four lines gave me extra heartache. Elegant indefensa becomes defenseless (ruled out because of spaciousness) or the horrific vulnerable, so I strayed to exposed. En posición de nacer is rhythmic and brief, but in the position of being born is out of a textbook. How unjust that we, in English, don’t have a single intransitive verb to describe our birth! Fetal position was out of the question, so I went with curled up like a newborn, which I don’t particularly like, even now. Curled up is too crispy for this poem, and newborn too cheesy or literal when compared to the lovely nacer.

Then there’s the fantastic a in the last line. If Casanova had left it como las palomas, it would have meant like the pigeons, implying that the speaker swells up like a pigeon. But that a changes everything—the pigeons are swollen by the same spaciousness that sometimes inhabits the speaker.

These little obsessions are what makes me a translator, but as readers, and as poets, the questions are similar: how can we inhabit another body? How can we speak from another voice? How can we bring the reader to that little kitchen window, or how can we possibly imagine the little kitchen window of that favorite poet, who lived so far away?

To explore these and other questions, let me take you to Chile for a while, into the verse of five poets: Cecilia Casanova, Stella Diaz Varín, Carmen Berenguer, Malú Urriola, and Alejandra del Río. These women span more than 50 years of Chilean history, and their voices are 5 distinct portals for entering their country, and their political, romantic, and artistic worlds.

For each session, we’ll read a poem or two, and we’ll find a way in. Sometimes, we’ll be looking at real translation issues (most of this work is untranslated into English), digging into the impossibilities and unexpected possibilities of language. Sometimes, we’ll examine how the poet herself inhabits another’s voice, as in the case of Carmen Berenguer’s Bobby Sands Faints at the Wall. But no matter what, each poet’s portal will bring us into our own work.

Hope to see you there.

Rebecca Levi is teaching our online course,‘The stars of Chile for you (Las estrellas de Chile para ti)’: Transreading 5 Chilean Women Poets‘, which consists of 5 fortnightly sessions over 10 weeks and is suitable for UK & International students. This course begins 23 January 2024.

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