Visual poetry in translation

One of the surprises about coming to Severo Sarduy’s poetry for the first time is how much of the early work is graphical. This maybe shouldn’t be such a surprise – there were a lot of poets in the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking worlds who were experimenting visually in the 1960s – but historically visual poets have tended to end up in their own little corner of the library, stuck in some intermedia deadzone, where they’re not quite verbal enough to be shelved with the regular poets and not quite visual enough to go in the graphic design stacks. There are technological reasons for this disregard: getting poetry into book-shape is already harder than getting prose into a book, and visual poetry, where words can go anywhere, is still more work. Often there’s pushback about how much more complicated this will make a manuscript; an editor gives in, and visual poetry falls out of the anthology.

Visual poetry in translation adds another layer of complexity. But translation is also a useful way in to thinking about visual poetry and how words exist on the page: just as a translator brings a text from one language into another, there is someone – usually a chain or network of people – who bring a poem from a poet’s head to its printed form on the page. Ideally, these people hide somewhere in the margins: we want to think that the poem that we see on the page is exactly what appeared in the poet’s mind. But generally it is more complicated. A poet writes something; it might go to an editor; the editor might make adjustments; the editor passes a manuscript to a designer, who decides what the poem should look like in print; and a typesetter takes that design and applies it to the poem. In an ideal world, the finished work is shown to the poet and comes into the world with their stamp of approval.

But this world is complicated! Poets change their minds – try assembling a definitive edition of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass – or they die, and then technology intrudes in ways you might not expect. Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson is a useful text to think with (if you haven’t read that you should close this tab and go read that instead). Dickinson, of course, died before almost any of her work was actually put into print; her poems existed in her handwriting. What can be done visually with handwriting is very different from what could be done with the typesetting technology of the nineteenth century, or the early twentieth century, or even the late twentieth century. Writing by hand, you can make a line that’s any length you want; in traditional typesetting, a line can be a hyphen (-), an en-dash (–), or an em-dash (—), with maybe a minus sign (a little longer than a hyphen, shorter than an en-dash) if you have type for setting math. If you’re using a typewriter, you just have a hyphen, which could be doubled to make a dash. Dickinson did not care at all about any of this – she was not making a copy for printing – and her dashes are of wildly varying lengths. In translating her poems into print, editors who were not consulting Dickinson made decisions about whether there should be dashes and how long those dashes should be. Because Dickinson’s not alive, we can’t ask her whether those editorial decisions convey her intent. A version of a Dickinson poem floating around the internet (where the ease of copying and pasting may compound problems) is at best an approximation. (Compare the feeling of this to this to this to this; then look at this, a scan of the original.)

Which brings me back to Sarduy, who is also inconveniently dead, though he did get to see his work in print in several languages, even in facing-page translation, so we can have more of a sense of what would be acceptable to him. And here is where I need to lay my cards on the table: I am by no means an expert on Sarduy, just someone who wants to bring him into print, in English and Spanish, as accurately and attractively as possible. In this, I’m following in the steps of plenty of other people whose connection to Sarduy is stronger than mine, if only chronologically.

Perhaps the most accurate way to get Sarduy’s graphic poems into our book would be to use their work directly: we could just scan an old printing and use that as the Spanish side of our book. The first problem with that, which I will step over gently, is that of copyright. The second problem is aesthetic: if we just copied the poems directly, they’d look very different from the non-visual poems which we’d typeset. And the third problem, of course, is that we’re not just reprinting Sarduy’s Spanish poems; we’re also printing translations of them, which is why you’re buying our book and not a Spanish edition. A persistent problem for would-be setters of works in facing-page translation is that versions of the same text in different languages steadfastly refuse to take up the same amount of space. And so while we could attempt to duplicate the layout of the original, slotting English into that layout is generally going to look off.

We do have, in this case, some leeway. Sarduy’s an important enough writer that he’s been published many times and will continue to stay in print. If you’re in the U.S., it’s easy to go online and buy a copy of Sarduy’s poetry in Spanish. We’re not, by any means, the only one keeping his flame lit. And so our Sarduy can be one edition of Sarduy, among many others. There have been many editions of some of these poems, some corrected by Sarduy himself, some corrected by his associates; and there’s already some variation.

Here’s an example; this is from an edition of Big Bang published by Fata Morgana in 1973. This edition is bilingual in Spanish and French; if the text in the back is to be believed, it’s the first printing in both Spanish and French. No translator is given, and it’s possible the translator is Sarduy himself. Here’s how the third section of “Big Bang” looks:

First spread of section 3 of “Big Bang” in Fata Morgana edition (1973).

Second spread of section 3 of “Big Bang” in Fata Morgana edition (1973).

The first thing one notices here is how all the niceties of making a translation match the original have gone out the window. What’s in roman in the original is italic in the translation (and vice versa). The French doesn’t duplicate the Spanish; it complements it. And this approach exacerbates the problem of design in translation: italic is generally much narrower than Roman, so you can see that the first paragraph of the French is a line shorter than the Spanish (even though they’d take up very similar amounts of space).

A textual scholar could look at this spread and say a lot more. With a little more scrutiny, you notice that the Spanish has probably been typeset by a French speaker: the spacing before punctuation is French-style rather than what’s normal in Spanish. Does that mean that Sarduy wanted his Spanish to look like French? Or does it mean that a typesetter decided that his Spanish should be cleaned up to look more respectable? Authorial intent can be very hard to suss out from printed work.

Here’s another spread of the same poem. This is from the current Spanish edition, published by Fondo de Cultura Económica in Mexico in 2007:

Section 3 of “Big Bang” in 2007 edition.

This is not as beautiful an edition as the Fata Morgana edition, but it does include all of Sarduy’s poetry, which is something. Economic concerns, which can never entirely be escaped, are visible here: they’re trying to cram as much poetry as possible into as little paper as possible. The line breaks are all different; indentation is different; punctuation is different. The text has less space to breathe and it feels different. The text is different as well: the attribution at the end is not “Tiznit Barbès-Rochechouart” rather than “Tiznit / Barbès-Rochechouart.” “Quasar 3C 446” has become “Quasar 3C-446”. (This is, of course, a real quasar; the earlier editions seem to have been more correct here.)

And here’s another one. This edition is from Tusquets Editor in Barcelona; it’s a collected poems up to 1974.

First page of section 3 of “Big Bang” in 1974 edition.

I’m not including the second page, but you can see that this version of the poem presents another graphical variation. While the line breaks of the first paragraph are exactly the same as the Spanish/French edition – suggesting that might be Sarduy’s preferred way of presenting the poem – the punctuation is more Spanish. But this version includes several lines of space between the first paragraph and the lines after it.

Let me state again that I’m not a Sarduy scholar! I am just trying to figure out how the poem should look on the page of our book. How do we decide what this should look like? There are several countervailing forces. The editions of 1973 and 1974 were published while Sarduy was alive, and he may well have had input into how they appeared. The 2007 edition was published after he was dead. However: I don’t know what Sarduy thought of the 1973 and 1974 editions; he may have hated one or both of them, or he might have been indifferent. The 2007 edition is the critical edition that’s used most often today; because it’s later in time, it may have corrected mistakes in earlier ones (though it may also have introduced new ones, this being the nature of print). The 1973 edition looks like the one where the most graphic care was put into the book: it’s a beautiful book, and it was clearly put together by someone who was thinking about things.

How did we solve the problem of layout of this? Here’s the spread from Footwork:

The Circumference section 3 of "Big Bang"

Constraints are visible here. Because we wanted to make it facing-page and to work as a unit, we’ve tried to get the whole thing to fit on one page, which is a tighter squeeze than I would like. (The alternative would have been to have a couple of lines on the next spread, maybe abandoning starting each section on its own page. This wouldn’t be quite as nice on the whole.) We also have a Circumference house style: we’re using different families of type for the original and translation (Meta and Century Supra, respectively) and that impacts the layout as well – Century Supra’s wider than Meta. Prose we generally set with a ragged right rather than fully justified. So there’s some variation here, but it’s within the realm of what’s been done before, and I think this is defensible.

A further complication comes into this, of course: the technology that was used to put these books together, and the way that impacted them. If you look at the French text of the 1973 edition, for example, you’ll see that the numbers in the italic section are roman. There’s a decent chance this book – as a fine press edition – was set by hand with actual metal type; they didn’t have italic numbers, so they used Roman ones. I would guess that the 1974 edition wasn’t set by hand from metal type; rather, this is probably film typesetting. And the 2007 book was almost certainly done on a computer – probably using Adobe InDesign (which is how we’re doing our books at the moment). I won’t go on about the technical differences between these systems, but I will note that different processes allow for different amounts of authorial intervention. Even if the author’s actually at the press, changes in metal type are complicated and expensive. They’re more possible with film typesetting, but still expensive. With digital typesetting, authorial corrections can go on forever. They also require different levels of expertise: anyone, with a few hours of training, can typeset a digitally printed book, while a professional is required for film or metal typesetting.

These effects are exacerbated with graphic poetry. What can be done with metal type is different from what can be done with film typography, which is different from what you can do with digital typography. With metal type, for example, you’re limited to the characters, typefaces, and sizes that you have in metal. It’s much harder to set type that’s out of alignment with everything else on the page. Here’s a good example of that: two of the poems initially published as part of Mood Indigo. First, the edition from 1974:

“Moon Mist” and “Echoes of Harlem” from 1974

And here are the same two poems in the 2007 edition:

“Moon Mist” and “Echoes of Harlem” from 2007

The first thing you notice is that the 1974 edition doesn’t actually give the poems titles: there’s a table of contents for the book, but it just lists “Mood Indigo”. In the 2007 edition, you might be forgiven for thinking that the title is a part of the poem.

One thing that’s very interesting in the 1974 edition is an indication of technological constraints: in the middle of the left page, you see a line that says “[jo de cobres SOL”. This usage of the square bracket isn’t seen very much any more – it’s hard to make InDesign do this – but before computer typesetting, if a line of poetry was wider than the measure of the text column, the overflow would be put on the right side of the page with a “[” in front of it to signal that it was an overflow line. This is a continuation of the previous line, which should read, in total, “barcos de rueda—la orquesta a bordo—: reflejo de cobres SOL”. This kind of overflow ruins a graphic poem; the “[” is an indication that you’re not seeing what the author wanted you to see. Why not? Probably because to make that line fit correctly, they would have had to use much smaller type, which might have made the poem hard to read if the book was small. Maybe they didn’t have type that size. Maybe they wanted to keep things consistent.

The other thing that’s different between the two is the way that words are emphasized. In 1974, “rumor de orquídeas pudriéndose” is italicized; in 2007, that phrase is made slightly bigger than the text around it. A number of words and phrases in both poems get this treatment in 2007 rather than the just two phrases in 1974.

How do we decide what to make of this? The different type sizes would have been harder to pull off in print when Sarduy was writing this, and I can imagine that he was talked into just accepting some italics for emphasis because it would be less of a headache. I’m not sure I love the effect of the 2007 version: the distinction in sizes isn’t very great, and the eye has trouble telling the two sizes apart. (The overly quirky choice of font isn’t helping things.) That said: if these poems were initially composed by hand, making words bigger seems very natural? Graphically, the 2007 edition does work better than the 1974 version, aside from the randomly placed titles. This works as a spread as well: you can almost see a white diamond in the negative space between the two poems, with SOL in the middle. That looks intentional.

Our version is a compromise. Because we’re doing this facing page, we’ve split up the spread, so we have “Moon Mist”/“Moon Mist" and “Echoes of Harlem”/“Echoes of Harlem” rather than "Moon Mist”/“Echoes of Harlem”. The negative diamond between the two poems is lost:

Circumference version of “Moon Mist”

Though it’s surprising to see something similar comes back in “Echoes of Harlem”:

Circumference version of “Echoes of Harlem”

Because we have a standard position and styling for titles, they can’t be as easily confused for part of the poem. (One does wonder a little if they should be there at all.) We’ve broken our standard grid a bit to fit the long lines – on the right, you’ll notice that “SUN” and “everything must be destroyed” end up going further into the right margin than is usually allowed. I ended up following the variable sizing of the 2007 edition, though I increased the contrast a bit.

Some changes are forced by translation: in “Moon Mist," the space before “SOL” and “SUN” in the long line is unequal because the English text is longer than the Spanish. (Things get more out of whack in the lower right of the poem, where choices have to be made about the relationships between the relative spacing of the words.) In the upper right, “panteras negras” becomes “black panthers,” though the emphasis stays on the noun.

I think this is acceptable because we’re facing-page; it’s obvious just looking at it that the English is a version of the Spanish. (By contrast, it’s not obvious, if you pick up the 2007 Spanish edition, that what you’re seeing might not be what Sarduy actually envisioned.) Our book is the end result of a long process where different versions – and scans of previous editions as reference points – were sent back and forth: a dialogue trying to get to the bottom of what the best edition we could make would look like. Our book is, ultimately, a translation, and one of the ways that it is a translation is graphical. Like any translation, it’s going to be an interpretation.

Dan ViselMay 31, 2021