The Afterlife of Rubén Darío in English

By Carlos F. Grigsby

Photos by the youth of Solentiname under the guidance of Tiago Genoveze (except photo of Rubén Darío)

Argentine writer Enrique Anderson Imbert (1910–2000)—who, incidentally, in 1965 became the first Victor S. Thomas Professor of Hispanic Literature at Harvard—once wrote that the Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío divides the history of Spanish-language literature in two: there is Spanish before and after Darío.

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Rubén Darío in 1914, Photo by Biblioteca Nacional de Chile

Born in the small town of Metapa (today Ciudad Darío), Rubén Darío (1867–1916) is widely considered one of the most influential writers in the history of the Spanish language. While the value of his work was, for decades, a matter of dispute (often critiqued for being escapist and pretentious), it is now unanimously regarded as a turning point in the history of Hispanic literature. Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel García Márquez, Federico García Lorca, Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, César Vallejo, among others, have all recognized their debt to Darío. And yet, he remains widely unknown in the English-speaking world.

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Photo by Selena del Carmen Baez Hernandez

World Literature, as a rubric conceived in English, is riddled with such small ironies. What we often find in English-language anthologies of literatures from around the world does not always correspond to what those literatures say about themselves in their own languages. Admittedly, the specific irony of Darío’s obscurity in English is what prompted the subject of my Ph.D. thesis, which I’m due to finish in the next couple of months. Over the past three years, I have spent long afternoons poring over 19th- and 20th-century books looking for an answer to the question of why and how a poet of such enormous importance in one language is almost completely unknown in another. My initial hypothesis was simple enough: it’s because of the translations. Darío is extremely difficult to translate. His Spanish is so melodious that his best-known poems have a mnemonic quality to them thanks to their rhythm and rhyme. Most of the translations of his work into English, however, are either scholarly word-for-word renderings or translations into literalist free verse. When that’s not the case, translators have indeed found a way of rendering his poems into rhyme, but usually at the expense of almost everything else in the poems. The aversion I felt upon reading those translations for the first time is what led me to my hypothesis mentioned above, which turned out to be simplistic.

About a year or so into my Ph.D., after having read as much as I could about or by Darío, I moved on to reading about translation. I realized that other Spanish-language poets (such as Neruda or Lorca) had often been poorly translated as well, and yet were relatively well-known to Anglophone readers of poetry. It soon became clear that the translation of literature is only superficially about language; cultural and historical differences between literary cultures bear on it more heavily. To answer the question of Darío’s obscurity one must look at the history of Spanish American literature and its translation to English.

The so-called Boom of Spanish American literature in English came to prominence in the 1960s and found its culmination in Gregory Rabassa’s translation of García Márquez’s Cien años de soledad (1967), rendered in English as One Hundred Years of Solitude (1970). Darío, however, lived long before those auspicious decades. If we were to draw a chronology for the changing landscape of Latin American translations into English before the “Boom,” the picture would be one of dearth. Prior to 1890, the Argentinean writer Domingo Faustino Sarmiento’s Facundo was the only book-length Spanish American work of literary prose translated into English. Before the 1930s, the decade in which the influential Harriet de Onís started translating from the Spanish and the Portuguese, very few Latin American works were translated into English at all. It was not until the outbreak of the Cuban Revolution in 1959 that readers’ attention toward the region resulted in a flurry of translations.

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Photo by Esteven Moises Aguilar Sequeira

Despite these circumstances, Darío did not have to wait until the 1960s to be translated into English. The first book-length translation—albeit more a booklet than a book—was Salomón de la Selva and Thomas Walsh’s Eleven Poems (1916), published by the Hispanic Society of America the year of Darío’s death. Six years later, the translator Charles McMichael published his own renderings as Prosas profanas and other poems (1922), which was also more a booklet than a book (nine poems in total). Despite the title, McMichael included a small selection of poems taken not only from Prosas profanas, one of Darío’s most influential books, but also from Azul… (1888) and El canto errante (1907). These translated poems were metrically uneven and idiomatically gauche, and when read against the backdrop of other works from the period such as Ezra Pound’s Cathay (1915) or T.S. Eliot The Waste Land (1922), at a time when Modernism was bursting onto the scene, they must have come across—to a readership who knew close to nothing about Spanish America—as an antiquated curiosity. Nevertheless, given Darío's celebrity status in the Spanish-speaking world of the time, in addition to the tour he partially carried out around the United States by invitation of the Hispanic Society, the publication of these booklets close to the time of his death should be unsurprising. However, what is surprising is the extent to which they failed to produce any significant interest in his writing, as another book-length translation would not be published until 1965.

That year, translator Lysander Kemp—also the translator of Mexican writers Octavio Paz and Juan Rulfo—published Selected Poems of Rubén Darío (1965) through University of Texas Press. The “Boom” of Spanish American literature in translation had finally found its way to Darío, albeit through its less popular channel: university presses. Free verse had now been consolidated as the conventional poetic idiom and translated works were often read on their own as literature proper. Both these changes in the literary culture of the United States can be seen in Kemp’s edition and should be unsurprising given their context. What is surprising, by contrast, is the extent to which this translation failed to produce any further interest in Darío’s writing, since another book-length translation would not be published until 2001, almost forty years afterwards.

Why was there no significant interest in one of Spanish America’s major poets once a new translation was released fifty years after his death? Without its rhythm and its rhymes, there’s an air of outdatedness to Darío’s late 19th-century style in English, even in Kemp’s more idiomatic translation, which must have been off-putting for readers who viewed Spanish American writers through a modernist lens. Also, the narrow academic audiences to which Kemp’s edition was restricted would have only highlighted the distance between Darío’s writing and the expectations of post-war Anglo-American readers. There was also an expectation of exoticism when it came to works from Latin America—which came about with the success of magical realism and without a doubt continues to this day. If we consider the Parisian setting and the motifs that abound in Darío’s poetry—fountains, swans, Greek myths, to name a few—it is easy to see how the Nicaraguan would not have met those expectations.

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Photo by German Jose Obando

As mentioned above, it would take almost another forty years for the next publication of a book-length translation of Darío in English, when scholars Will Derusha and Alberto Acereda published their renderings of an ample selection of his poems under the title Selected Poems of Rubén Darío: A Bilingual Anthology (2001). Then, during the first decade of the 2000s, we saw a sudden increase in translations: a year later Stanley Appelbaum published Stories and Poems/Cuentos y Poesías: A Dual-Language Book (2002); then Derusha and Acereda published their translation of Darío’s Cantos de vida y esperanza, rendered as Songs of Life and Hope (2004); finally, Penguin Classics published a selection of the Nicaraguan’s writing as Rubén Darío: Selected Writings (2006). Among the reasons for this sudden burst of translations, two in particular seem beyond doubt: the growth of the academic book market as a global market that includes both Spanish American Literature and Translation Studies, as scholarly fields developed in their own right, led to the involvement of more academics as translators of Darío; on the other hand, the growth of the Hispanic community in the United States, as well as the consolidation of Latinx and Chicano literature, means that public figures such as Ilan Stavans—who in his introduction to the Penguin edition comments on the possibility of hearing Darío in English as one of his long-held dreams as a Latino immigrant—are nowadays capable of mustering enough credibility and prestige so that publishers believe in the existence of a readership for authors such as Darío.

Nevertheless, though we now have more translations of Darío, the situation has not improved as much as one would expect. Three out of four of these translations are, like their predecessors, intended mainly for academic readers—namely students of Spanish—for whom translations of Darío, though of questionable quality, already existed. While this is certainly positive for the continued study of Darío’s writing, it means that these translations cannot actually be read as poems in their own right. In other words, Anglophone readers of poetry still do not have a Darío in English that could give them some idea of the literary quality of the Nicaraguan’s poems. On the other hand, the one translation intended for a wider audience, which was published by Penguin, has been heavily criticized since its release. In an article published in The Nation in 2006, the Sterling Professor of Hispanic and Comparative Literature at Yale, Roberto González Echevarría, pointed out several basic errors in the anthology and called one of the translations therein “appalling.” The edition indeed seems to have been rushed; and the co-translators of Darío’s poetry for the edition, Greg Simon and Steven White, often misinterpret Darío, fudge the register and the tone of the poems, and fill the lines with gratuitous padding to complete their rhymes. As I mentioned above, translating Darío is extremely difficult, not only because of the historical distance that separates us from him, but also because his work is based on a renewal and expansion of the expressive possibilities of Spanish through rhythm and rhyme. If a translator into English wants to produce a rendering that has a similar effect on their reader as the Spanish originals, they have to manage to say something similar to what Darío is saying in Spanish, while also creating a translation that can seduce its reader through its rhythm while showcasing original and inventive rhymes.

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Photo by Xochilt America Carbonero Rosales

However, there’s reason to be optimistic. One of the foolhardy outcomes of my Ph.D. is to produce a new translation of Darío, applying what I have gleaned from both the accomplishments and shortcomings of previous translators. Adam Feinstein, a biographer of Pablo Neruda, is also working on rhymed translations of Darío. And the Latinx poet and translator Francisco Aragón’s forthcoming book After Rubén (2020) will include several versions of Rubén Darío. Perhaps the time for Darío to break into English is finally here.

 

Carlos F. Grigsby (Managua, Nicaragua, 1988) is a poet, scholar, and translator. He is currently completing a doctorate in Spanish American literature and Literary Translation at the University of Oxford. He won the Premio Fundación Loewe Creación Joven 2007 for the collection Una oscuridad brillando en la claridad que la claridad no logra comprender (Visor, 2008).