1. Translationships & Open Doors with Elizabeth Bishop & Octavio Paz
by Magdalena Edwards
TRANSLATIONSHIPS is a column by Magdalena Edwards. Magdalena is a writer, actor, and translator born in Santiago, Chile, and based in Los Angeles, California. Magdalena translates from Spanish and Portuguese into English, including the work of Clarice Lispector, Márcia Tiburi, Silviano Santiago, Óscar Contardo, Nicanor Parra, and Raúl Zurita. She is currently translating Julio Cortázar’s Cartas de mamá for Sublunary Press. She is also working on a book-length project titled Translationships. More on Twitter @magda8lena & Instagram @msmagda8lena.
I look back on 2020, as my great-grandmother Ina taught me, and I think about what I lost and what I gained, what was joyful and what was devastating, and what lessons I can bring with me into the new year.
Ina also taught me to go through my address book before December 31st: first, stop at the name of each person I consider a friend, and then reflect on the last twelve months of friendship. Had I invited this person over for dinner or an outing together? Did they return the invitation? Ina developed a kind of formula that would determine whether the friend in question had been a reciprocating participant of the friendship. In some cases, she realized she had been remiss and needed to settle her accounts with an extremely generous friend; in others, the person in question would not be copied into her address book for the new year.
Ina was very matter of fact in a way that I found almost startling as a child: dumping a bad friend should be an expected end-of-the-year exercise, like tidying one’s home and work spaces in preparation for the fresh start January brings. I am far too sentimental to be good at decluttering objects, much less people. And this has been a year when so many of the most basic and taken-for-granted aspects of our lives have been set into disarray, including the freedom to gather with friends. While the constancy and generosity of a good friend is something to be celebrated and nourished, the possible need or loneliness or despair of a more imperfect friend is something not to be disregarded.
I lost a dear friend in October 2020. “Friend” is not an accurate word to describe this unique someone I have known for 20 years and who became not only a beloved confidant, but also the godfather of my three children. What word, then, can I use to describe Adrian Carpusor, who died unexpectedly of a heart attack at 47? I’ve been thinking about this for weeks and nothing is satisfying. The word “friend” feels flimsy, while “confidant” feels over the top for everyday conversation. “Buddy” and “bestie” feel too informal, and “companion” seems stiff. There is a word in Portuguese that I do think works quite well – parceiro – which means “partner” and can refer to partnership within the bounds of friendship, business, or romance, as well as suggesting complicity, kindness, and generosity.
Adi was my parceiro in our conversations, shared family experiences, evening outings, and artistic exchanges, as well as by simply spending time with one another. Adi was – is and will be – my parceiro in silence too. We didn’t tell each other everything, and he would use the phrase silenzio stampa – “news blackout” or “radio silence” – to say that’s that. Because neither of us spoke English as our mother tongue – for me it’s Spanish, and then Portuguese as my adopted mother tongue, and for him Romanian, and then Italian as his adopted mother tongue – the word parceiro to describe our relationship, a non-English word, feels right.
Adi and I met when I was a student at UCLA, where I wrote my dissertation on the poet Elizabeth Bishop and how her work as a translator nourished her original writing. One fifth of the poems Bishop published during her lifetime were translations, including work by the French surrealist Max Jacob, the Brazilian poets Carlos Drummond de Andrade and João Cabral de Melo Neto, and the Mexican poet Octavio Paz. She and Paz translated and published a handful of poems by each other, a reciprocal translation experience that I described with the word “translationship” for the first time in a seminar paper for Stephen Yenser in 2002 or maybe 2003 (I would have to dig through my files to be sure), then in a 2006 graduate student conference presentation on Bishop and Paz, and finally in my dissertation, which I filed in 2007. Why I didn’t call my dissertation TRANSLATIONSHIPS is a question I won’t bother to ask, since I am working on such a manuscript now. Things take time.
What is a “translationship” then? It’s a relationship through translation. And my sense of translation on the cusp of 2021 is much more generous than what it was in 2002 or 2003 or 2006 or 2007. And, thus, my sense of relationship through translation is much more generous and exciting too. The reason Paz’s and Bishop’s translationship interests me here is because it allows me to tell a bit of my story about losing my parceiro Adi – at least losing his presence with me on this earth, because I can tell you with no ounce of shyness that I continue speaking to him in my thoughts and through my writing, as I told our kids when my husband Vlad and I had to break the news. As Bishop wrote, “the art of losing’s not too hard to master / though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.”
Bishop included a translation alongside her own work in one of her poetry volumes, the way a musician might include a cover in their set for a concert; in her final book Geography III (1976), her version of Octavio Paz’s poem “Objects & Apparitions” is nestled between her poems “The End of March” and “Five Flights Up.” “Objects & Apparitions” is an ekphrastic poem dedicated to the artist Joseph Cornell, which also appeared in The New Yorker in the June 24, 1974 issue. Bishop, while she was working on the translation, wrote a letter to Paz where she carefully suggests he make a change to the original poem and Paz writes back effusively: “Yes, you are very right – how did I miss it? – stanza 10 should be 13, the penultimate one.”
Paz says Bishop’s translation of his Cornell poem is “perfect” and adds: “It is not only faithful, but rather at times it is better than the original.” The penultimate stanza of the poem, as re-arranged by Bishop, reads: “The apparitions are manifest, / their bodies weigh less than light, / lasting as long as this phrase lasts.” The stanza refers to the spirits that appear in Cornell’s shadow boxes, found-object ecosystems described by Paz as “monuments to every moment” and “cages for infinity.” The poem highlights Bishop’s and Paz’s shared concern with memory, time, and the limitations of language as a form of memory-making . . . “lasting as long as this phrase lasts.” Write it.
In mid-November 2020 I entered Adi’s apartment for the first time without him inside. I was there to help pack up his belongings so we could send them to his sister Lucila in Romania. His former living space became, suddenly, like a Cornell box filled with apparitions of my parceiro and our many moments of complicity. The spirits appearing before me as I looked at the objects that belonged to Adi – figurines of a dragon and a mechanical knight, two golden pineapple candles, old Italian coins, empty matchboxes with Frida Kahlo’s image, art books and novels and poetry – were inevitably refracted through Paz’s and Bishop’s lines about Cornell’s creations and the many conversations I had had with Adi about poetry and art and translationship as a vehicle for intimate exchange.
As I stood alone in Adi’s living room, the singular -ship of translationship became -ships dotting a vast sea, long uncertain voyages, a multiplicity of exchanges, because none of us has only one relationship to language and her transformative powers. Adi and I knew translationships are about plurality and the simultaneity of our selves in relationship to others. We had spoken often about Fernando Pessoa, and I had recently given him a copy of The Book of Disquiet (Livro do Desassossego), translated from Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa and with an evocative cover by Peter Mendelsund where Pessoa looks both surrealist and bionic, his two very different-seeming eyes seeing whatever they gaze upon in infinite ways.
I wanted to sit at Adi’s desk, in his chair, as he would have sat. I wanted, perhaps, to become him for a moment so I could pretend he was not gone. But I couldn’t. Instead, I took a photograph, from the perspective of his chair, at his desk, facing his front door. And then – weeks later – I noticed that he had put such a photo, taken from his perspective at his desk, on his Instagram account, in November 2015. We had just been in Mexico together, with Vlad and our three kids, for our friend Christina Voros’ wedding on Isla Mujeres. We had had the experience of a lifetime: days of togetherness, dancing into the night as it turns to morning, swimming in the clear blue ocean, learning how to read tarot with the Cuaik brothers, and, most simply, doing what my college friend Marco Garrido would describe as living poetry.
In Adi’s photograph from November 2015, I noticed two things as I looked and as I imagined myself again sitting as him, from his perspective: a painting – by Adi – that would evolve through the years and gain layers and elements – a painting that will now hang in my home and telegraph his spirit to us the way his other paintings will hang in his sister Lucila’s home in Romania – and his front door, open, as it almost always was.
I think about my great-grandmother Ina and her pruning names from her address book, how letting go can mean opening new doors and saying yes to new relationships or experiences. I also think about how I will always keep Adi in my address book – I refuse to erase him even if he is gone – because our exchange on this earth has now been suspended, but if he were here, I would invite him again and again and again. Looking back, when I first began to digest the news of Adi’s passing – and it took me a few days – I took several photos of doors and I think I captured these images in hopes of finding another way to get through to him.
I think about the opening lines of Octavio Paz’s poem “January First” – also translated by Elizabeth Bishop: “The year’s doors open / like those of language, / toward the unknown.” And yet, the unknown – especially in the form of loss – does not mean we lose our agency or complicity: “Last night you told me: / tomorrow / we shall have to think up signs, / sketch a landscape, fabricate a plan” and “tomorrow, we shall have to invent, / once more, / the reality of this world.”
As we invent, once more, the reality of our world in 2021 there is no doubt in my mind that reciprocal relationships that push us to put the words and thoughts of others on our tongues and in our mouths – to transport as faithfully, as boldly, as lovingly as we can from another language to our own and vice versa – will allow us to create, to co-create, a more generous and exciting world. Translationships are everywhere and they nourish us as we make our world a place where we can keep living and remembering those we have lost and, maybe even, those we have let go.
Magdalena Edwards writes the Translationships column for Hopscotch. Her translations include the work of Noemi Jaffe, Clarice Lispector, Silviano Santiago, Márcia Tiburi, Óscar Contardo, Nicanor Parra, and Raúl Zurita. She is currently translating Julio Cortázar’s Cartas de mamá for Sublunary Press. Find her on Twitter @magda8lena & Instagram @msmagda8lena.
Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, February 2, 2021