Friday, May 17, 2013

Adapting the Romancero Viejo in English

For such a large and significant body of work, the obscurity of the romancero viejo is perhaps somewhat surprising. To resolve this, I have undertaken the project of translating the entirety of the 1550 Cancionero. I'm far from done, and it's slow going because I am a very poor poet, but I feel this particular ballad tradition merits greater attention beyond the Spanish-speaking world.

While there are several prior translations of the romance del Conde Arnaldos around, and one or two other romances have been translated, so far as I am aware there has only been one substantial effort to adapt them to English-speaking audiences in significant numbers in the past: JG Lockhart's Ancient Spanish Ballads, Historical and Romantic. (The book is available in its entirety from the Internet Archive.)

Lockhart also doesn't hew to one particular standard version of the texts of the romances (whereas my ultimate goal is to produce a translation of the specific versions that Nucio reprinted in 1550), and as a result the origins of some of the idiosyncracies of his versions are often less than apparent. Some of the results are wildly divergent from the source material as it appears in forms I am familiar with, and in a few instances I have been unable to track down any original at all. By the standards of present-day academia, Lockhart's attempt to present an edition of a body of medieval literature is poorly done, perhaps to the point of intellectual dishonesty. From a nineteenth-century perspective, Lockhart is attempting to popularize the original material, secure in the notion that anyone looking to study the history of Spanish literature in any kind of depth will be reading it untranslated from the primary sources, but it can still be disappointing to a modern student of the era.

Nonetheless, in other ways Lockhart's work is admirably well done. For one, he adapts the romancero using English verse forms, rather than trying to apply Spanish rules of poetics to a language for which they are simply not suitable. The result is that, while the style is blatantly Victorian and less straightforward than most English ballads, the poems are formally similar to English-language folk poetry; a modern listener will quickly realize they are hearing a ballad, much as a Spanish listener in the 16th century would have spotted the romance form instantly.

Furthermore, Lockhart is a talented poet, and no reader accustomed to the norms of poetry in Lockhart's era would find his work anything less than well-composed. (In the corpus of the original works, there are also examples that are clumsily-written, and I consider translating them beautifully as inaccurate; Lockhart dodges this problem by not touching the less euphonious of the romances.) Unfortunately, Lockhart has a tendency to present things in ways that fit the fashions of early Victorian poetry rather than authentically presenting the style of the originals; where the romancero is conversational and straightforward in its diction, Lockhart's style is often florid. But one could argue that even this choice serves to help introduce the audience to the originals; just as a sixteenth-century audience would have expected romances to be conversational in style, a nineteenth-century one would find that style to make the works sound less poetic.

In my own translation efforts, I approach the material from a different direction than Lockhart does. I'm working specifically with the 1550 Cancionero de Romances (and my Conde Arnaldos, translated before I had a copy, will have to be expanded at some point to accurately match the text in that edition) rather than haphazardly adapting whichever poems catch my fancy. My approach to the work of translation is different from Lockhart's as well; where he is a poet, my background is as an interpreter, and so the goal of accurately rendering a text from one language to another (knowing that perfect accuracy is impossible) is a natural one for me.

Since translating a poem into prose loses a great deal of the sense the audience will have of it, my translations are of course all in verse; like Lockhart, I favor the English ballad form as having a similar place in the modern Anglophone audience's experience as the romance does to a Spaniard of the siglo de oro. But verse translation provides immense challenges, as the translator must accurately convey the meaning of the words while also having them fit the target form; one must be both translator and poet, while negotiating challenges arising solely from the combination of the two. (My greatest stumbling block in this effort is a lack of poetic skill.) Furthermore, literary translation has different challenges from the business of interpretation to which I am more accustomed; while a translator has all the time in the world and can break text down into whatever chunks they find most manageable, they must also be certain to convey the literary style of the original. Where a romance is casual, the translation should be casual as well; where it uses forms that were slightly archaic even by 1550 (as some of the earlier romances in the 1550 Cancionero do), I look to use slightly older, more stilted diction where I can. In those cases where the original poet seems to stumble over his words slightly, I forgive myself if my own lack of skill causes me to do likewise. Where the original employs a memorable turn of phrase or a familiar proverb, it is desirable for the translation to do so also. Where the original shows off the beauty of the Spanish language most admirably, only a talented wordsmith is able to match it appropriately in English. And all the while, the meaning of the original verse must be conveyed with the utmost accuracy.

If this makes my goals seem Herculean, you are mistaken - they are impossible. A perfect, ideal translation of a literary work is always worth striving for, but it cannot ever be achieved, and as translators we do the best we can. Anyone wishing to truly study a text in depth must turn to the original, and be armed with a full knowledge of how the original language was used at the time of the composition. In presenting a translated text, I make the content available to an audience that would not have been able to read it otherwise, but I must of necessity acknowledge that something of the original has been lost, something of my own has been added in its place, and the final product falls short of perfectly delivering what the original audience was offered. And yet, it is far closer than most modern audiences could ever come, as the original readers were presented with poetry they understood fully in their native language as it was spoken on the streets in their own time. As a revival is to an old folk tradition, so a translation is to an old poem; to the original readers the romancero viejo was a living tradition, and as I work my way through the 1550 Cancionero, I will continue to post selected translations on this blog in the hopes that it may live again in my readers' experience.

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