Witness by Mario Benedetti (trans. by Louise Popkin). White Pine Press. $20.00, 384pp.
For the casual reader of Latin American poetry, what a pleasure and privilege it is to be introduced to a major poet so properly. That many of us need introduction to Mario Benedetti is itself worthy of comment, considering the long shadow he casts outside the English-speaking world. The august Uruguayan writer published more than 80 books, was translated into upwards of 20 languages, and is considered among the foremost Spanish-language authors of the 20th century. And yet, perhaps partly due to his leftist politics, combined with many publishers’ self-reinforcing assumption that U.S. audiences have imaginative room only for a few writers from a region or language, Benedetti’s work has been little published or recognized here. This is the grave oversight that translator Louise B. Popkin seeks to correct with Witness.
That Popkin has succeeded in bringing Benedetti to us at all is praiseworthy, but there is much beside that that this translator—and her venerable publisher, White Pine Press—get right. It begins with thoughtful and thorough framing: The edition opens with an introduction in which poet-activist Margaret Randall provides much-needed historical and literary perspective on Benedetti and his place in world letters. This is followed by a translator’snote from Popkin, contextualizing the choices she’s made both in translation and in which poems of Benedetti’s over 2,000 to include in this “selected” edition. Obviously, they will be skipped by some, but together these paratexts avoid the appropriative gesture of simply Englishing Benedetti without the respectful context due a writer of such standing, and furnish readerswith potent tools for a thoughtful engagement not merely with individual poems, but with the shape of Benedetti’s poetic oeuvre and legacy. In addition, White Pine has given Popkin the freedom to include very occasional explanatory notes. While often eschewed for their ability to make a text seem fussy, these can bridge the divide between different sorts of audiences, recognizing that a collection as important as this should certainly find its way onto syllabi and into scholarly consideration, as well as into the hands of poetic pleasure-seekers. They are deftly used to clarify specific local references that would otherwise be lost on the foreign reader, as well as to highlight allusions to major writers such as José Martí and César Vallejo that Benedetti’s Latin American audience could be expected to pick up. And, wisely, this translator and publisher locate the notes at the end of the text where they will not interrupt the more absorptive reader’s sense of flow.
One characteristic of Benedetti’s poems that Popkin prepares her readers for is their great intimacy—Popkin describes them as “complicit” and Benedetti as in “dialogue” with his readers through poems that often feel grounded, immediate, and everyday. This intimacy is palpable throughout the extensive collection, as in his famous meditation on Montevideo’s Botanical Garden, “A la izquierda del roble”/ “To the Left of the Oak Tree,” which begins with and repeatedly returns to ask “I don’t know if this ever happens to you / but . . . ” as he describes the peaceful somnolence, nostalgia, and gravity of watching lovers meet in a natural oasis surrounded by a bustling city.
Another ever-present trait, Benedetti’s uncompromising political activism, is most clearly on display in poems such as “Allende,” which replaces the slain Chilean president’s name again and again with an incantatory epithet, “that man of peace,” as in the lines:
In order to kill that man of peace
strike a blow against his dreams untouched by nightmares
they had to turn themselves into a nightmare
in order to defeat the man of peace
For all its palpable anger, this lament of the U.S.-orchestrated overthrow of Salvador Allende and installation of the dictator Augusto Pinochet is more than an indictment or screed; it is an attempt at making sense of the political and psychological distortion driving such a betrayal. In order to kill that man of peace, Benedetti explains, the U.S. had to “believe he was another army.” On the contrary, the poet sincerely asks us to understand, “the man of peace was simply a people.”
Written with a wider lens than “Allende,” “A Latin American Lord’s Prayer” stands out among the early poems as especially powerful in its politics and its poetics. It is emblematic of Benedetti’s work in its rhythmic syncretism of anti-imperialist critique; graceful lyricism; deeply felt populism; and radically understated, familiar register. His own political exile from Uruguay is prefigured in and displaced onto god’s apparent absence in the cutting lines:
Our father who art in exile
you almost never think of my people
but anyway wherever you are
hallowed be thy name
not the people who hallow in thy name
as they turn a blind eye toward poverty’s
This poem, like many others in the collection, is marked by a wry, sorrowful, gently subversive pessimism, as when the speaker informs “Padre nuestro” that “I’m not so sure I like the style / of your will when it decides to be done.”
Many of Benedetti’s later poems mourn his exile. Among the more poignant are “From What They Tell Me,” “Random Questions I,” and “But Here I Am,” which depicts the speaker wrestling with lifelong confusion over having returned to his country in body, yet feeling he’ll “never again / cease to be an exile.” The later poems also demonstrate that Benedetti lost none of his political fervency, locating the political as intertwined with the personal again and again. This commitment persists even in the haikus he wrote toward the end of his life, and which he described to Randall as “appropriate for my age.” In #32, the poet looks back on a lifetime of idealism, pessimism, and social activism when he proclaims:
I’m willing to die
but I just cannot accept
the death of mankind
To trace the arc of Benedetti’s poetic contribution in Popkin’s translation and alongside her notes is to get a glimpse into the high wire acrobatics of literary translation in general and the poignant trade-offs of translating so influential an author in particular. In her initial note, Popkin discusses the challenges of bringing important work to a largely nonspecialist but educated audience, consciously struggling to balance the foreign and familiar without condescending or making the work something it is not. However, precisely where Popkins locates this balancing point is sometimes puzzling and many times not what this reader would prefer, as in her choices to translate the metric system or to swap December for June in a poem about summer vacation. As mentioned above, important allusions are carefully cited, and Popkins further chooses to retain a few loaded Spanish words like “patria . . . comandante . . . yanqui,” rightly recognizing that to replace these with their ostensible English equivalents would result in emotional flattening and risk “inappropriate associations.” Given the trust shown elsewhere for her readers’ intelligence, why is it too much to expect that we remember—or learn—when summer comes to the Southern hemisphere?
Of course, it is the translator’s job to make judgement calls based on their personal weighing of the infinite conflicting demands of language, culture, audience, and so on. And, to her great credit, Popkin’s reflections point to and take ownership for such choices, at the same time as they do not insist on them as definitive, but rather underline the productive possibilities of divergent approaches—perhaps, one hopes, in the many future English editions to which Witness opens the door.
Anna Rosenwong (formerly Anna Rosen Guercio) is a translator, poet, and higher educator. She holds an MFA from the University of Iowa and a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of California, Irvine. Her first chapbook of poems, By Way of Explanation, is available from Dancing Girl Press. Her work has appeared in Translation Studies, Pool, jacket 2, Anomalous Press, The Kenyon Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, The St. Petersburg Review, Eleven Eleven, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Words Without Borders, and elsewhere. She is the translator of José Eugenio Sánchez’s Suite Prelude a/H1N1 (Toad Press) and Rocío Cerón’s Diorama (McNally Jackson Press and Phoneme Press).
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