Breogan’s Lighthouse

I work on the Camino de Santiago in Galicia- the Camiño.  At the end of every journey I make my way down to Follas Novas, my favourite book shop in Santiago de Compostela, and buy a book or two.  I like to sit with a beer and read a slim volume of poetry from cover to cover, taking it home with me to study the words and phrases I am not sure about at leisure.  This is one of the great pleasures of life: to read after work!

I could not resist this volume when I saw it in the poetry part of the Galician literature section and gave up my usual purchases to buy the whole thing in one basket, as it were.  Breogan’s Tower is a thumping  anthology of Galician literature edited by Raúl de Toro Santos (London: Francis Boutle, 2010) as a part of the Lesser Used Languages of Europe series.  It includes a substantial medieval section as well as ample selections from most of the main names in the nineteenth and twentieth-centuries.  The gamble of including the work of contemporary poets, which can always seem partial until time has established a durable canon, is well-judged here including a healthy variety of different voices.

Although I read Galician there are often times when I am uncertain so I am happy to have the company of the translations in this volume.  They have the considerable merit of remaining close to the original text, sacrificing literary value and style for literal accuracy.  Let me give you a short example from Rosalía, chosen more-or-less at random:

Dóyome de dór ferida                                  I ache with wounded pain
 Que antes tiña vida enteira                        for once I had a whole life
Y hoxe teño media vida                                and now I have a half life.

The translator has wisely not tried to put in rhymes nor to imitate the onomatopoeia of ‘Dóyome de dór’ with its repeating ‘o’ sounds.  The rhyming of ‘dór ferida’ and ‘media vida’ depends on where you put the stress in the second phrase: I would suggest that it should be read with the emphasis on ‘dor’ and ‘media’ to make it rhyme fully and to give the full contrast with ‘enteira’ in the second line, the  ‘ei’ being stretched out in the mouth.  You cannot expect the translator to match the poetry of it so I am happy to be given the literal sense.  Even though ‘wounded pain’ is hardly clear in English- I might even suggest that ‘wounded by pain’ is both more accurate and more poetic- and having ‘a half life’ sounds a little radioactive- we might have preferred ‘half a life’- the translation does the job of guiding us through the literal meaning of the text competently.

I am particularly grateful of the translator’s work when I do not have my dictionary at hand.  I would not have known that un carpazo is a rock rose nor that un esvedro is a strawberry tree (Noriega Varela, p.242) and am not entirely sure what a strawberry tree is even knowing the translation, though I have a suspicion it might be what Carmen calls a madroño.  Having a translation to keep you company also helps with those words that you understand but can’t quite find the right word for.  Only last night I asked Carmen how she would translate belido having read of the ‘Conde belido da barba orvallada’ and today I find in Cunqueiro (p.367) ‘poñereille, belida, un ventiño no mar’- ‘I will give her, that lovely one, a breeze on the sea.’  So there it is again: a handy way around a verse when you don’t know the precise translation.  I can’t really call Count Laiño lovely but he could perhaps be a fine figure of a knight: un belido cabaleiro.

One of the advantages of an anthology is that it gives you just enough of a taste to know whether you want to go back for more.  As I said, I tend to read a poetry collection in one go: individual poems can be good and powerful but they have ten times the resonance in the original volume.   I have been back to Xosé María Díaz Castro’s Nimbos, for example,  many times this winter, always finding something fresh and exciting (selections translated here pp. 389-390).  From this anthology I have decided that I must get a copy of Celso Emilio Ferreiro’s Longa noite de pedra: the title poem is so utterly bleak that I cannot resist it.

I am also keen to read more women poets being a little troubled by the preponderance of male voices in the twentieth century in a language that was used so beautifully by Rosalía de Castro: so will be looking out Luisa Villalta, Ana Romaní, Marta Dacosta and Yolanda Castaño.  You can see on these pages my translation of poems by Pilar Pallarés.

I am grateful for the variety of the book.  It is very useful even if not high quality in terms of what cineastes would call production values.  It is clear that money has been saved on the quality of paper and was never very comprehensively proof-read.  One wonders whether the volume could not have been abbreviated by leaving out the full original text of some prose entries, by issuing two separate volumes for prose and poetry, or by editing back to a more essential collection.  The original and translation are not parallel and there are no critical or biographical notes beyond the introduction by Luciano Rodríguez Gómez, which is badly in need of editing by a competent translator.  This is a shame.  I am an enthusiast for Galician poetry and would have appreciated just a little more information about the poets, of the kind you read on the dust-jacket of a book, for example.  I think this would also have helped newcomers to begin to appreciate the richness of this extraordinarily lyrical literature.

About Jason Preater

Working on Projects
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