Music, emotion and group translation: an interview with Terry Ehret, John Johnson and Nancy J. Morales

Poet, essayist, and translator Ulalume González de León believed that “Everything has already been said,” and, thus, that each act of creation is a rewriting, reshuffling, and reconstructing of one great work. For this reason, she chose the title Plagios (Plagiarisms) for her book of collected poems. Nobel Laureate Octavio Paz called Ulalume González de León “the best Mexicana poet since Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz,” recognizing the visionary quality of her work.

Plagios/Plagiarisms (Volume One) is the first of three bilingual volumes presenting several short collections of poems González de León produced from 1968 to 1971, each of which explores the ephemeral nature of identity and its dependence on the ever-shifting ground of language and memory.

I had the pleasure of discussing this first major English-language translation of her work with the book’s translators, Terry Ehret, John Johnson, and Nancy J. Morales.

John Sibley Williams: Nancy, John, and Terry, thank you so much for joining me. Plagios/Plagiarisms is a remarkable collection filled with many moments of unexpected beauty couched within significant cultural themes. I’m shocked to say this is my first encounter with Ulalume González de León’s poetry. I’m wondering, what is it about León’s work that inspired you to translate her for American and other English-language audiences?

Terry Ehret: I’m not surprised that this is the first time you’ve read Ulalume’s poetry. Very little has ever been translated into English. I first encountered it when I was in grad school in 1982. I was reading Michael Benedikt’s The Prose Poem, which featured an English translation of her fifteen-part poem, “Anatomy of Love.” I was instantly enthralled by the language: richly erotic imagery blending anatomical and scientific vocabulary in an unconventional syntax. To discover how this poem worked, I experimented with the seventh part, “The Search for the Lost Body.” I dismantled the language, organizing the words by parts of speech, then reassembling them in new patterns to create what became the title poem of my first collection. Over the next thirty years, I often used “Anatomy of Love” in my creative writing classes. But in 2013, when I turned to the Internet to find more examples of her work, the only reference in English was the epigraph to my poem. This seemed so wrong to me, and I immediately set to work translating her bio and a few poems, which I posted on my website. Coincidentally, this was the same time Nancy and John had begun working on their translations.

John Johnson: I first heard the name Ulalume González de León when I was a student in Terry’s creative writing class in 2003. Ten years later, I was studying Spanish with Nancy, and when we began examining poetry, I thought of Ulalume again. I had written a few poems myself, and now I wanted to try translation, as a way of improving my Spanish and of getting to know the work of another poet. I remembered how important Ulalume had been to Terry, and how Terry had been able to find only a few of her poems in English. And after a bit of research, I learned that Ulalume was highly regarded in Mexico and Latin America, that she had won prestigious literary prizes, and that she had contributed as a writer and editor to such influential journals as Plural and Vuelta, both founded and edited by Octavio Paz. Yet none of her books had been translated into English. 

Nancy J. Morales: I was inspired to translate Ulalume’s work out of curiosity, interest, and as a creative challenge. John first introduced me to her work when he asked me to review a poem he was translating and wondered how I would approach it. As John’s Spanish teacher at the time, I was immediately intrigued by the poetry and to John’s dedication to it. Personally, I find her work complex, intimate, intense, ephemeral, profound, and remarkable on a variety of levels. I find her to be post-modern and contemporary and filling a niche that resonates with American and other English-language audiences.

John Sibley Williams: It’s astounding how many incredible poets Western readers never get the chance to encounter simply due to the language barrier. I remember 10 or so years ago, while pulling random titles off the shelf at my local bookstore, I discovered Brazilian poet Paulo Henriques Britto’s The Clean Shirt of It. The earth moved beneath me. I asked myself, “How have I lived this long without experiencing him?” It sounds like your first experiences with Ulalume were similar. What draws you to literature from other cultures? What might they say and do to us, as Americans, that more local poetry cannot?

John Johnson: Yes, you’re right. Very little world literature ever gets translated into English. In the article “Where Are the Women in Translation,” writer and translator Alison Anderson says, “three percent is the rough estimation of the number of translations from other languages into English published in an average year.” And of that three percent only a fraction is poetry. According to Edith Grossman, the “Glenn Gould of translators,” this statistic represents “a new kind of iron curtain that we have constructed around ourselves, to our detriment and to the detriment of literature in general.” When I think of how world literature has enriched my life, works I could never have read in their original languages, it does seem incomprehensible that so little of it has been translated into English. Ulalume said there should be “no borders for books.” I agree with her. Every translation helps chip away at this iron curtain, this border wall.    

Terry Ehret: When I began writing, I read an essay by poet and translator Robert Bly called “Looking for Dragon Smoke.” This image, drawn from ancient Chinese texts, refers to the writer’s capacity to move quickly back and forth between the conscious and the unconscious. Bly writes, “In a great ancient or modern work, the considerable distance between the associations, the distance the spark has to leap, gives the world a bottomless feeling, a space, and the speed of the association increases the excitement the work creates.” Bly called this “leaping poetry,” and it’s something I’ve found more readily in non-English language poets like Adelia Prado, Adam Zagajewski, Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, and Tomas Transtrӧmer, or in the work of poets from indigenous cultures, such as Joy Harjo and Natalie Diaz. It may be that American culture and its language is more fact-oriented, more left-hemisphere generated, or that English’s vestigial subjunctive keeps us in a more indicative mode. Whatever the reason, it can be harder to communicate in English the experience of simultaneous realities, yet many writers from outside our traditions accomplish this seamlessly. It’s what I find so thrilling in their work, and I’m grateful to the translators who have brought these authors into my world. When we have a language to imagine what isn’t, but could be, new perceptions of reality are possible.

Nancy J. Morales: I love other cultures for a variety of reasons. They allow for diverse perspectives, voices, language, and the opportunity to experience the “other.” They reveal just how similar or connected all cultures are regardless of their differences, which means that many life experiences, feelings, and even languages are connected and universal. Culture’s profound impact on language in how it’s expressed, embodied, and communicated cannot be denied. Similarly, we cannot neglect language’s impact on culture. In short, together, culture and language foster growth and a more open, rich, and interesting way of perceiving and experiencing life.

I believe as people living in the United States, a country with a diverse and international population operating under a monolinguistic and monocultural paradigm, it is necessary and vital that we experience poetry from other countries if not simply for the reason that it allows us to sensitize and humanize “the other “, an “other” we often perceive as foreign and dangerous. However, before zealously proceeding it is important that as we consider the poetry of other cultures, we consider our lens and intentions as well. In this way, we avoid the trap of accessorizing or exoticizing “the other” and so trivializing it; but instead offer the necessary respect, value, and consideration that is already implicit in the language and culture.

John Sibley Williams: Speaking of simultaneous realities and the interdependence of culture and language, that must be an accurate way of describing the translation process too. Nancy, as a native Spanish speaker, how do you carry the cultural weight of Ulalume’s reality into the English language? Terry and John, as native English speakers, how is your process similar or different from Nancy’s?

Nancy J. Morales: As per carrying the weight, I really feel that my partners are very sensitive and aware, so communicating my particular concerns and needs around this is something they are amenable to. Culture and language are informed by many factors, including proximity to the language, as in being in a country outside of the target language, as well as by the particular needs of the speaker. Sometimes, this creates a disconnect because the best way to express this in English is not easily accessible to me. Often, potential translations feel incomplete. This creates frustration and even anguish as I feel trapped by the fact that I may be experiencing something that is a direct result of my proximity to the language and the culture or my “nativeness”. That’s the downside to my cultural sensitivity. However, I do feel that our collaborative process and commitment to move this project forward helps us mitigate these uncertain situations. 

Terry Ehret: Interpreting a poem is always affected by the subtle nuances of images, diction, and word placement, and our responses to these elements can be quite individual. In addition, I’ve found that the emotional content of a poem is often embedded in the internal sounds, rhythms, and music of a line, aspects that often lie just below the level of our conscious awareness. Naturally, in translating from a rhyme-rich and sonorous language like Spanish, we want to maintain the music, to the extent that’s possible. But inevitably some of the sound-meaning gets lost. John and I both appreciate how Nancy can guide us when the English version is veering off-track musically or emotionally, perhaps missing something playful, wistful, or elegiac implied in the original Spanish. She has a remarkable sensitivity to this important part of the translation work. If we miss the tone and mood, however grammatically or idiomatically accurate the English might be, the translation will be “unfaithful.” 

John Johnson: We had an interesting discussion just recently about the word carcoma in one of Ulalume’s poems. Terry and I had been satisfied with translating it as woodworm. But Nancy, being more proximal to the language, said, “You know, carcoma also means worry.” Well, this brought a new and important dimension to the poem. Being a native speaker, not to mention a sensitive reader, Nancy is, I think, much better prepared than either Terry or me to experience the poem immediately, all at once, to feel its texture, its music, its shadings. For me, experiencing the poem takes time. 

John Sibley Williams: These delicate balancing acts you describe between sound and meaning, untranslatable ambiguity and real-world context, must have been a (perhaps wonderful but nearly impossible) challenge.  Were there any poems that you simply couldn’t translate or couldn’t agree on in terms of translation, poems that didn’t make it into the book? If not, what was the most demanding poem from the book for you personally? And why?

Terry Ehret: Our contract with the Mexican publisher is to translate the poems collected in Plagios—essentially all the poet’s published work from 1968-1979. We are bringing this out in three volumes. Of course, it would have been much, much easier if we had planned a Selected Poems, which is common in translation publishing. We could have then chosen those poems that were less obscure or more readily accessible. For better or worse, our translation will be pretty comprehensive in scope. We won’t be leaving out or changing any of the original Spanish. 

Collaborative translation is inherently slow-going. My husband has commented that sometimes he would head off to run errands, leaving John, Nancy, and me at the kitchen table, debating one line of a poem. Two or three hours later, he’d return home to find us still on that single line. 

We certainly have had occasions when, even after hours of intense discussion, we couldn’t agree on a single interpretation or the wording of a translation. It took us months to translate the four-line poem “Voces/Voices,” and more than a year to translate “Las palabras descansan de sus significados/ Words Take a Break from Their Meaning,” which is a sound-poem with many invented words, for which there is no English equivalent. When we have hit an impasse, we’ve agreed to think about the poem or the specific line, and then we come back to it later. We can each get very attached to our own version. Sometimes stepping away from the poem has helped us to appreciate the others’ points of view. 

John Johnson: One poem that was especially challenging was “Litología” (“Lithology”). Part of the difficulty was the multitude of meanings in its many different “stones.” For example, “piedra de escándalo,” which we translated as “stone-of-shame,” also means the “event or person that is the origin of rumors or scandal,” which appears to refer to St. John telling a crowd, bent on stoning a woman accused of adultery, that whoever was without sin could cast the first stone. This stone of scandal, however, is only death: “sola piedra de escándalo la muerte.” We tried to capture some of these meanings by translating the line as “the only stone-of-shame is death.” 

A little farther on in the poem, we stumbled on another stone, “piedra franca.” Octavio Paz, in his poem, “Con los ojos cerrados” (“With Eyes Closed”), mentions “piedra franca,” which Eliot Weinberger translated as “frank stone.” John Felstiner translated these same two words, in the same Paz poem, as “clear stone.” It wasn’t until Terry discovered that piedra franca also meant French stone, which was the name of a special limestone or sandstone quarried only in France and used in cathedrals in Europe, that we hit upon our translation. We chose “sandstone” as a way to emphasize the impermanence of the “body” that “time chips away.”

One more stone: “piedra infernal.” Infernal refers to Hell or the underworld. But piedra infernal actually means silver nitrate, a caustic substance that was used in medicine to cauterize wounds. We tried to include these meanings in our translation but gave up, hoping that the line that followed, “the thought burns,” would generate enough heat.

Nancy J. Morales: I agree with what Terry and John have said in that there was no poem which we could not translate. However, there were many poems that were very challenging and required a lot of flexibility, creativity, poetic license, and compromise to move it forward. I found most challenging a poem we translated as “Words take a break from their meaning.” This was particularly tough because we had trouble simply understanding the poem, partly because there were words that are not actually Spanish but in fact made up. In order to create the translation required a lot of back-and-forth and creative concessions. In the end, luckily, we’re all satisfied with how the poem turned out.

John Sibley Williams: This incredible challenge you’ve faced both individually and as a translation team reminds me of Octavio Paz’s introduction to the book, in which he claims Ulalume’s language is “not an ocean but an architecture of lines and transparencies” while also a series of “objects made of sound.” Paz seems to see Ulalume as both a material and transcendental poet, one of the body and of the soul, of things and the foundations behind those things. If you could sum up the “big picture” behind Ulalume’s poetry in only three lines, what would they be?

Nancy J. Morales: Ulalume’s work is at once provocative, enigmatic, and illuminating. It is remarkable that a Latin American woman boldly, bravely, and deftly uses the power of her words, position, and privilege to comment on the particular in the form of science, art, religion, human relations, and philosophy in order to reframe the universal through satire, scandal, and raw emotion. Her work reveals a complex yet simple beauty; it’s a mystery at its best. 

John Johnson: I can imagine Ulalume’s poetry as a wardrobe: confession, philosophy, fairy tale, math, science. Reading a poem, I begin to see through the garment, toward the body beneath. But the body remains elusive—which is at least part of “the big picture.” Each poem is a foray out from a special solitude, into the world of others. 

Terry Ehret: Beyond the immediate subject of each poem, there is something else, both essential and ephemeral. It has to do with the indeterminacy of reality and how dependent it is on the ever-shifting ground of language and memory. I always get the feeling that what Ulalume is gesturing towards in her poetry remains just beyond her reach, and ours. 

John Sibley Williams: Nancy, given your knowledge of Ulalume’s personal circumstances and the culture in which she wrote, can you speak more on how remarkable it is that “a Latin American woman boldly, bravely, and deftly uses the power of her words, position, and privilege.” The same could certainly be said for pioneering women writers and artists in the United States and, I’d guess, every country. Are there specific obstacles Ulalume had to face in order to achieve success?

Nancy J. Morales: Ulalume was recognized in Mexico as being part of a group of women poets from the second half of the 20th century who confronted new problems women were facing, namely that of their expected roles within marriage and the family. In the case of Ulalume, the challenge was how to use her voice and her privilege to speak out on love and passion, reflecting on social roles, those predetermined and those reclaimed, exploring the body, and reflecting on the self.  

Gloria Vergara, author of a volume “Identidad y memoria en las poetas mexicanas del siglo XX” says that, ‘”Ulalume es la poeta más sugerente de esta generación en cuanto a su propuesta poética. Su creación parte de la idea de que todo está dicho, lo que hace la poesía es un reacomodo, un plagio. En su poética, el verdadero sujeto es la memoria. Los cuerpos son sólo células del cuerpo de la memoria. La memoria es el cuerpo lleno y vacío de sí. Todo se revierte en ella, todo se contrae. Los cuerpos van y vienen: el cuerpo de la escritura, el cuerpo del tiempo, su cuerpo. En esa temporalidad el encuentro se vuelve un sujeto evocador; aparece como nostalgia y presiente las secuelas de la fragmentación. El cuerpo es visto entonces como un plagio, una identidad definida por la escisión y la itinerancia.”

John Sibley Williams: Finally, tell me about your future work together. Are you currently translating the second volume? And, unless it’s too personal a question, has the pandemic affected your progress?

Terry Ehret: We are currently working on the poems for volume two, which is due out in 2022. In this section, we are seeing more of Ulalume’s collage, found, and “ready-made” poems, which I find especially challenging to translate. It’s not just a matter of finding the English equivalent, but of grasping her intention in each act of “plagiarism,” and making sure the new meaning springing from her verbal collage carries across in the English. Some of the poems I first encountered in “Anatomy of Love” thirty years ago are also in this part of the book, so I’m looking forward to rediscovering what first made me fall in love with them.

Because of the current coronavirus pandemic, the necessary prohibitions against gatherings and directives to stay home, we have had to cancel our book launches and readings, including the debut we’d planned at the AWP Conference in San Antonio in March. Of course, this has been disappointing, but we hope to reschedule these when it’s safe to gather again.

On the other hand, with the suspension of classes at the college where I teach, and so many events canceled, I’ve had more time to translate. I’m currently working on an eight-page collage poem in which Ulalume intercuts passages from a natural science book with journal entries. It’s hard to see where she’s going with this, but I’m taking the luxury of time to let the poem unfold, stanza by stanza. Looking ahead, it’s likely that John, Nancy, and I will learn to Zoom and Skype instead of meeting face-to-face, and that may be to our benefit. 

These are frightening, strange, unprecedented times. In the face of this grave crisis, the fate of one book means little. But it is my hope that translations like this can help to open borders, literally and figuratively, and provide an antidote to social isolation.

John Johnson: About the collage and “ready-made” poems we’re working on right now, I’d like to share something Ulalume said about one of them. She “rescued” the text for this poem from a footnote to a photo in The Insects, one of the Nature Library books published by Time/Life. The footnote says matter-of-factly that a monarch butterfly chrysalis hangs (pende) from a branch for twelve days. But Ulalume asked, where is “the wonder – news – and suspense – the pende – of the metamorphosis?” So she took the footnote, changed it a bit, and arranged it into lines, leaving pende on a line by itself. Then she gave the poem a title, “Noticia” (“News”), by which she also meant “¡ojo!” (“look out!”). With these small changes Ulalume hoped to open her readers’ eyes to what they might have missed while glancing at a text under a photo. 

I got an email from a friend today, saying “social distancing” is a poor expression. It should be called “physical distancing,” since we can continue to be “social” in other ways. Chatting with us about Ulalume González de León has been one of those opportunities.

About the translators:

Terry Ehret is a co-translator, with John Johnson and Nancy J. Morales, of Ulalume González de León’s PLAGIOS/PLAGIARISMS, VOLUME ONE (Sixteen Rivers Press, 2020). She has published four collections of poetry, including LUCKY BREAK (Sixteen Rivers Press, 2008), TRANSLATIONS OF THE HUMAN LANGUAGE (Sixteen Rivers Press, 2001), LOST BODY (Copper Canyon Press, 1993), and Night Sky Journey (Kelly’s Cove Press). Literary awards include the National Poetry Series, California Book Award, Pablo Neruda Poetry Prize, Northern California Book Reviewer’s Award nomination, and an NEA Translation Fellowship. From 2004-2006, she served as the poet laureate of Sonoma County, where she lives and teaches writing.

John Johnson is a co-translator, with Terry Ehret and Nancy J. Morales, of Ulalume González de León’s PLAGIOS/PLAGIARISMS, VOLUME ONE (Sixteen Rivers Press, 2020). John Johnson’s poetry has appeared in Boxcar Poetry Review, Clade Song, Triggerfish Critical Review, and Web Conjunctions. He is a long-time student of the Spanish language and has studied letterpress printing with Iota Press of Sebastopol, producing chapbooks and bilingual broadsides.

Nancy J. Morales is a co-translator, with John Johnson and Terry Ehret, of Ulalume González de León’s PLAGIOS/PLAGIARISMS, VOLUME ONE (Sixteen Rivers Press, 2020). Nancy J. Morales earned her bachelor’s degree from Rutgers College, a Master’s in Teaching English as a Second Language from Adelphi University, and a doctorate in education from Teachers College at Columbia University. She has taught at Dominican University, College of Marin, and Sonoma State University. Currently, she is a board member for the Northern California Chapter of the Fulbright Alumni Association and teaches Spanish to private clients.

Read more translations, interviews and reviews on our website here.

About the author

John Sibley Williams is the author of As One Fire Consumes Another (Orison Poetry Prize, 2019), Skin Memory (Backwaters Prize, University of Nebraska Press, 2019), Summon (JuxtaProse Chapbook Prize, 2019), Disinheritance, and Controlled Hallucinations. A nineteen-time Pushcart nominee, John is the winner of numerous awards, including the Wabash Prize for Poetry, Philip Booth Award, Phyllis Smart-Young Prize, and Laux/Millar Prize. He serves as editor of The Inflectionist Review and works as a freelance poetry editor and literary agent. Previous publishing credits include: Yale Review, Midwest Quarterly, Southern Review, Sycamore Review, Prairie Schooner, Saranac Review, Atlanta Review, TriQuarterly, and various anthologies.

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