Rhina P. Espaillat, The Per Contra Interview by Miriam N. Kotzin
PC: You’ve been composing poems even before you could write them down. Do you remember how you started to write?
RPE: My poet grandmother wrote down my first poems verbatim, and then she and my aunt Rhina taught me to write them down for myself. It was something I knew my grandmother did, and I loved hearing her recite, and loved to be read to from books of poetry and stories. It seemed like a form of play at first, and it's never wholly lost that quality of play for me, even after I learned, years later, that this particular "game" was sometimes a way to deal with sorrow, and it became a more "serious" pursuit. Those first poems were in Spanish, of course. The first poems I wrote in cursive, and with greater awareness of what poetry was, were written in English, in elementary school.
PC: Your family moved from the Dominican Republic to New York under political pressure from Rafael Trujillo (when you were seven). What happened to force the move?
RPE: My father's uncle--a brother of the poet grandmother who "hooked" me on poetry--was a diplomat, and on a diplomatic mission in Washington DC representing the Dominican Republic in 1937. While he was there, the Dominican dictator, Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, sent troops to massacre several thousand defenseless Haitians on the border between the two countries, which share the island of Hispaniola, in the Caribbean. My great-uncle wrote a strong letter to Trujillo condemning the massacre as a "criminal act," and was immediately exiled, along with several members of the legation, including my father, who was secretary of the legation. My mother made a very brief, potentially dangerous return to the island to see her family for what she suspected would be the last time--she was right--and left me with my paternal grandmother, where she knew I would be relatively safe and certainly well cared for. She returned to the U. S. almost at once, to join my father in New York City, where they had to begin a new life with little more than her sewing machine and his slight command of English. They sent for me in 1939, when they had found jobs and a small apartment, and had saved enough to feel somewhat secure.
PC: Has that political background influenced the poetry you write?
RPE: I don't write much explicitly political poetry, but my family's experience and my country's history have certainly sharpened my sense of the importance of the rule of law, civil and human rights, justice and the transparency of any government. The experience of life under a brutal dictatorship that began in 1930 and ended only with the assassination of the self-styled "Benefactor of the Fatherland" in 1960 made me wary of personalist, autocratic rule, whether of the right or left, and of the concentration of power in too few hands, as well as power exercised behind the closed doors of censorship and police-state tactics.
PC: Would you tell our readers about the house rules about language that were in force as you grew up?
RPE: The "house rules" were precisely that: it was understood that I would grow up speaking English, the language of our new country--except "in the house," which was seen as part of the old country, and where I would speak only Spanish. My father's hope was that eventually, after the overthrow of the dictatorship, we would return "home." What happened, of course--as it usually does with immigrants, whatever their reason for living elsewhere--is that this became "home," and I have two countries and two languages. In fact, I have smatterings of others too, as a result of growing up among immigrants and World War II refugees in New York's West Side, in what is now the Lincoln Center area. My husband is a first generation American, the son of Romanian Jews; we have family in Jerusalem and north of Haifa, and I can eavesdrop on Yiddish conversations without being entirely in the dark. But in my house family conversation took place entirely in Spanish, and my parents gave me books in Spanish to read, and encouraged me to write letters home to the family, all of which preserved my language for me. How grateful I am to them for that!
PC: You started writing in English soon after you were here. Do you remember what you read?
RPE: In the city's public schools, there were no bilingual programs in those days, so that wherever we came from, whatever language was spoken at home, we were all simply tossed into children's books in English, and we sank or swam. That system may have been difficult at first, but it had the distinct advantage of teaching us that we were "all in this together," and of blurring--or erasing entirely--the ethnic, national and religious differences among us, at least for learning purposes. The books we read--mythology, folk tales, stories of the early experiences of explorers and settlers, tall tales, poems popular in the nineteenth century, accounts of historical events--seemed like something all of us could share, both those born here and we new arrivals. I still have my sixth grade Treasure Chest of Literature, and note with pleasure that it contains work by Browning, Whittier, Emerson, Wordsworth, Bryant, Dickens, Kipling, Shakespeare, Holmes and others I'm glad to have encountered early. There was a public library on the same block as P.S.94, and I borrowed books regularly, and spent precious hours browsing there, even in the adult reading room, where I discovered Louis Untermeyer's big fat blue 1942 Treasury of Great Poems, English and American. That became a kind of Holy Grail: much desired, but too expensive to buy, and impossible to take home for leisurely reading, as the library had only one copy. Luckily word of my hankering was leaked to generous relatives--the same great-uncle and great-aunt with whom my parents had been exiled--and they gave me a copy for Christmas, which I still have.
PC: You had an unusual start as a professional writer when you were in high school. How did that come about?
RPE: Of my many beloved teachers, one was "Miss Jones," whose real name was Catherine Haydon Jacobs. She was a poet who taught us English at Julia Richmann High School, and she encouraged me to send poem out to magazines, but I was too timid to do that, so she did it for me, without telling me. Unbelievably, three poems were accepted by Elizabeth Mc Farland, then editor of The Ladies' Home Journal, when I was sixteen and in my junior year. The magazine continued to publish poems of mine for years, until it stopped featuring poetry altogether. That amazing early acceptance was so encouraging that I sent work out to other venues, and had quite a few poems published in the U. S. and England, in the process learning to accept--and even expect--the inevitable rejections. I developed a tough hide early, by fully expecting rejection every time. The experience also left me with a desire to give back to other young people what had been given to me, by becoming a teacher.
PC: You write your poems sometimes in English, sometimes in Spanish, sometimes translating from one to the other. How do you work when you are "translating" your own poetry? Is there something you can articulate about when you choose to write some poems in English first and then Spanish--and vice versa. Or does a poem present itself to you in one language rather than another.
RPE: Poems occur to me in one language or the other for no reason I can fathom. But they do arrive most often in English, which is, after all, the language in which most of my life has been lived. I began translating them back and forth some years ago, in order to share them with friends and family on both sides of the language divide. I enjoy doing it; it allows the two sides of my mind to converse.
PC: What drew you to Frost’s work? Do you have anything you want to say about the translations of the poems that appear in this issue of Per Contra:
After Apple Picking (Despues de la consecha de manzanas)
Death of the Hired Man (La Muerte del Jornalero)
The Silken Tent (La tienda de campaña)
Mending Wall (Reparar el muro)
RPE: I've loved Frost's poems since my first encounters with them in school, and find that they deepen with repeated reading, and become, if anything, even dearer. The language--deceptively conversational but more artful and genuinely musical than much that strains to appear so; the imagery--common things looked at with uncommon imagination; the tone--a blend of rueful humor, playfulness, contained passion and almost cruel honesty; all of it is appealing and memorable, and stubbornly strange behind the surface appearance of familiarity. The poems posted here are all examples of those qualities. I'm drawn to translate them because I love them and want Spanish-speaking readers who can't enjoy the unique originals to have at least a sense of those originals, a view of them through the smoked glass of another language. The essay that accompanies the poems touches upon the challenges and exhilarations of translating Frost.
Every original is a different experience, a new challenge. "The Death of the Hired Man," for instance, presents two characters whose names--"Warren" and "Harold"--are unusual enough in Spanish to seem what my students call "weird." The first, "Guarrien," turns up only in foreign or ancient literature; the second, "Haroldo," does appear occasionally, but so seldom as to provoke surprise and commentary. My own name does that; my father's name was "Homero," and my youngest son is a "Warren," so I know about the potential for distraction--and even unwanted humor--that attends the use of exotic names. I dislike altering any substantive element in an original I am translating, but after much soul-searching, I renamed those characters respectively "Reuben" and "Arthur" ("Ruben" and "Arturo"), which have the same traditional, serious, nineteenth-century associations as the originals, without the possibly comic strangeness of their Spanish versions.
In "Birches," I faced a somewhat similar problem, having never seen a birch in my Caribbean homeland. Would it, I wondered, make sense to substitute some familiar tree that a reader in the tropics could conceivably imagine "swinging"? But only for a second: I left the authentic birch tree, wearing its miraculous sheath of ice--hard to imagine in the tropics!--on the grounds that visiting other landscapes, complete with their flora and fauna, is one of the mind-stretching pleasures of reading. The challenge of "Mending Wall" is its almost aggressive opening, followed by an expository passage that flirts dangerously--and purposefully--with prosiness, and then by a narrative that becomes increasingly artful, even fanciful, and argumentative without ever actually taking sides. The reader is left feeling that there is something to be said for both sides of that ideological fence, whatever the emotional attractions presented by the speaker and his neighbor. I wanted the Spanish to be equally forceful and yet finally noncommittal, which required careful diction.
On the other hand, "The Silken Tent," a sonically lush, sinuous sonnet wrought in one syntactically intricate sentence, should have been the most difficult of the lot to translate, but it surprised me by unspooling itself quickly and with a kind of exhilarating ease. I don't know why, but I suspect that the sonnet form--my favorite of all verse forms--somehow took over, like a mold into which the matter poured disposes itself as if it knew how. The rhyming words appeared and found their places, the phrases that would hold them there composed themselves, and the marvelous enjambments of the original translated themselves almost without me. I've seldom enjoyed anything so much as watching all of that happen.
PC: What other writers (besides Frost) have you translated, and what draws you to them?
RPE: I've translated into Spanish poems by George Herbert, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and several excellent poet friends who are members of a workshop I belong to, the Powow River Poets. The bulk of my translations are into English, and include the best-known works of the great Spanish mystic, Saint John of the Cross, and individual poems by Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, Juan Boscan, Juan del Encina, Jose de Espronceda, Gabriel Garcia de Tassara, Luis de Gongora, Miguel Hernandez, Lope de Vega, Juan de Tasis, Jorge Luis Borges and Fray Miguel de Guevara, among other Spanish and Latin American poets, as well as--with some liquid courage and a dictionary firmly in hand--several poems by Camoes and other Portuguese sonneteers. What draws me to the work I translate is always the same: delight in the original, and a desire to share poems with others.
© 2005-2008 Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas
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