One poet, six translators

23 May 2012

He is famed in Chile, yet rather unknown in Germany. Either way, Raúl Zurita is one of the most important figures in Latin American literature. Six women – three students and three instructors – from the Faculty of Translation Studies, Linguistics, and Cultural Studies (FTSK) at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) have now opened a gateway to his writing for German readers: They translated selected works by the poet.

Raúl Zurita holds the volume of poems in his hands. "Beautiful," he says with a laugh and flips through the pages of the thin blue book with the title Las ciudades de agua – Die Wasserstädte. It contains one of the very few translations of his work into German.

The grand Chilean author has come to the small city of Germersheim to speak at the Faculty of Translation Studies, Linguistics, and Cultural Studies at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz about various aspects of his creative work and his research. He has just given a presentation forging a bridge between Dante's Divine Comedy and contemporary Latin American literature.

Place for an important poet

Now he's sitting at a desk in a Faculty office. The new book is on the table in front of him. "Beautiful," he repeats and looks over to the two students Caroline Adam and Leona Heinrich, who are members of the translation team. The three have known one another for some time now; since 2010 when Zurita came to Germersheim as a guest. The idea for the book was born back then.

"It should open a gateway," Liliana Bizama, initiator of the translation project, says of their intentions. "My goal was to bring this important poet to Germany and to establish a place for him here." To open that door, the associate lecturer brought together a team from the Faculty: The two students sitting at the desk, their fellow student Pia Teresa Ilg, lecturer Eva Katrin Müller, and research associate Stephanie Fleischmann all spent two years working on Zurita's texts. "It was a project conducted under the umbrella of the University," Bizama explains, "but we all worked on a voluntary basis, without financial support."

The trauma of dictatorship

The entire process started with an examination of the life and work of the poet – and of Chile's former dictator. As a student, Zurita was imprisoned during Pinochet's military coup in 1973. It was a traumatic experience for the 22-year-old. He survived under abominable conditions; they were experiences that would impact all of his work. It didn't take long before his daring art projects for the C.A.D.A. (Colectivo de Acciones de Arte), a movement he helped found, drew attention to the climate of violence under the regime. Zurita did not shy away from demonstrative "campaigns of survival": He went so far as to burn his own eyes with ammonia.

"We first had to work our way into his oeuvre; we had to wrap our minds around his biography, his country," Adam says. In Zurita's work, it is all inseparably interwoven with other topics. His prose poems involve the dictatorship in Chile, as well as Hiroshima and the bombing of Dresden. "Great events flow together with personal ones," the student notes. Everything is also linked to the fate of the poet himself: Zurita recounts his affliction with Parkinson's disease, the self-injury, the internment.

Finding a distinct language

His texts are not easy to read. "He switches between persons and perspectives; you really need to pay attention," Adam says. The poems live from strong images. "We wanted to preserve those," Heinrich claims. "To do so, we had to move away from a literal translation at times. We had to find our own distinct language."

The students and faculty members continued hammering away at every detail. "The word 'amanecer' is repeated numerous times," Adam says by way of example. "It has several different meanings: dawn, the break of dawn..." – "We ultimately agreed to call it daybreak," Heinrich explains. "There were heated discussions at times."

Each lecturer worked together with one student. "Each one also had a poem of their own to translate," Adam revealed. Bizama was ready to assist with especially difficult spots. She was born in Chile and once rang at Zurita's door looking for an interview. They developed into friends, which was also a boon to the translation work.

The sound of Zurita

"We asked ourselves: What could be translated?," Zurita explains. "It should be poems that you can see as images. They don't necessarily take their strength from sound, but rather content." This is an understatement at its finest. Even his scientific lectures have more than a hint of the cadences of a poetry reading. And so the texts he selected are also remarkable for their sounds. Anyone fluent in Spanish can hear this for themselves: The volume of poetry contains the original text alongside the translation.

But the six translators also succeeded in preserving the tone. "I like the sound of the German language," Zurita says. He sees its reputation for harshness as unfounded. Zurita is well aware of the challenges of translation, since his works are already available in twelve languages. "The English versions always strike me as somewhat oversimplified," he says. "In German we have a greater degree of finesse to work with," Adam feels. That fits with the poet's complex content and interweaving of sentences.

Adopted poems

Zurita has long been considered one of the grand poets of Latin American literature. Among the prizes he has received are the Pablo Neruda Prize and the Chilean Primo Nacional de Literatur. Since 2001, he has been a professor at Diego Portales University in Santiago de Chile, the city of his birth. He came to Germersheim for a three-week guest professorship financed by the Center for Intercultural Studies (ZIS). This is how he came to be holding a copy of the poetry book in the office of the faculty. "Look, the original and the German version are exactly the same length," he says, taking pleasure in the small details. Other translators wouldn't have given that much attention.

"Tomorrow we're driving to Baden-Baden," says Bizama, detailing the remainder of the poet's stay in Germany. "Zurita and a professional actor will be reading the poems out loud." – "Really, our poems?", Carolina Adam asks with glee. Then it's her turn to look to Zurita with a slight blush. "After all, they are a little bit ours now," she says. "We've adopted them."