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MLF Chapter & VerseMLF Chapter & Verse

The Manchester Literature Festival Blog

Review: Legna Rodríguez Iglesias, Abigail Parry & Serafina Vick

Centre for New Writing student Charlotte Wetton finds joy in poetry in translation.

‘A Little Body Are Many Parts / Un Cuerpecito Son Muchas Partes’ is one of those rare and lovely things: a poetry book with the original language and the English translation side by side. Poems from Legna Rodríguez Iglesias’ eight collections, written in Spanish, sit beside Abigail Parry and Seraphina Vick’s English translations. During the Q and A, an enthusiastic audience member comments: “I don’t know why this isn’t done more often” and Parry quips back “Because it’s very exposing; translation is the most thankless task”, but she says it with a grin.

Whether or not you speak the original language, it is fascinating to see the two texts side by side and to hear Rodríguez Iglesias and Parry read alternately. Rodríguez Iglesias speaks slowly for an hispanophone, clearly and well-enunciated; perhaps for the benefit of the second language speakers in the room, of which I am not one. During her reading I try to experience Robert Frost’s  concept of poetry still conveying meaning without full understanding, just as a conversation does if heard through a wall. I do appreciate the timbre of her voice and the adaptability of the Spanish language’s character, which can be soft and melodious or harsh and proclamatory.

Unusually, for what is essentially a ‘Selected’, the poems are not arranged chronologically but in relation to a ‘playful’ theme, according to the poet. The poems are good for a performance: straightforward enough to grasp instantly, resonating in the mind when you leave the room. Later in the discussion Rodríguez Iglesias says she likes to turn objects into concepts. Playful is a good descriptor of her poetry: often satirical and absurd, she uses simple language to set up situations, pulling the rug out from under the reader’s feet. She makes use of lists and an easy vernacular scattered with localisms from Camagüey, Cuba (although she now lives in Miami). Seraphina Vick, who acted as the ‘bridge translator’ for Parry, speaks about being as much of a cultural translator as a linguistic one. The poems are scattered with references to Cuban history and politics; one poem is a farewell to the pizza cheese used in the communist era. This throws up an interesting choice in the written translations: Parry often choosing to deviate from strict translation and to include definitions of things that would be obvious to a Cuban reader, such as the naming of years following the revolution.

Another translation dilemma was the use of Spanglish. For example, the English word ‘money’ is actually used as slang by Cubans. To simply translate this back into Spanish in the English poem would make no sense to anglophones. So after long discussion Vick and Parry used ‘money’ in English but italicised it to estrange it. This is the benefit of having the original on the opposite page; the reader is able to judge the original intention themselves. No wonder ‘long discussions’ were commonplace! The book took an ‘intense’ year to produce, with Parry visiting Cuba.

One of the consequences of that time together is the close relationship that grew up between the poet and her two translators. And it’s evident in the easy dynamic between them, even in the artificial format of a Q and A panel. There was ‘a lot of going back and forth’, often due to translating words non-literally to better convey meaning. Rodríguez Iglesias explains that this closeness is not only due to time together but also to the close attention paid to the poet’s words and intention. ‘Really they know me better than my close friends do, than my parents even,’ says Rodríguez Iglesias, ‘you feel loved’. Parry agrees, saying, ‘translating is an intimate act’.

It is always a salutary and humbling experience to attend a translation event as a monolinguist, refreshing to remind yourself about the existence of the rest of the poetry world(s). This book was supported by the Poetry Translation Centre where enthusiasts collaborate in translation workshops. This event sent me to their website, eager to discover more about the rest of the world. Even if you’re not an hispanophone, I heartily recommend ‘A Little Body Are Many Parts / Un Cuerpecito Son Muchas Partes’. Treat yourself to a refreshing mental holiday beyond our shores.