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'River is Wide' deftly translates Mexican poets' works into English

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"The River Is Wide (El rio es ancho): Twenty Mexican Poets; A Bilingual Edition," edited and translated by Marlon L. Fick; University of New Mexico Press ($39.95 hardcover, $21.95 paperback)


In the literary world, there probably is no braver act than translating a poem from one language to another.

Translation is tough enough when dealing with novels or nonfiction or short stories; the task of the translator is to preserve the tone, feel and cultural context of the original prose while also producing a clear and aesthetically pleasing translation. Add the complications of line breaks, rhythm and other elements that make poetry poetry, and the job gets harder.

In general, the work of translators is undervalued. Essentially, they are writers who often do not get credited properly for their writing. So let it be said here: Marlon L. Fick is a fine writer. A poet himself, Fick, who divides his time between Mexico and the United States, teaches at Kansas State University. And he is the editor/translator of "The River Is Wide" (El rio es ancho), a bilingual edition of verse by Mexican poets.

Published by the University of New Mexico Press, "The River Is Wide" is available in paperback or a more expensive hardcover edition. Either way, this book constitutes a superb investment in the translated poetry of Ruben Bonifaz Nuno, Coral Bracho, Elsa Cross, Juan Cu, Jaime Sabines and 15 other writers well worth our time.

I confess my college Spanish is too rusty for me to offer much comment on Fick's specific decisions on how to make a specific poem flow from the original text into English. But I know enough to recognize that he has made every effort to preserve beauty. A good example: Elsa Cross' "Paseo," which is dubbed "A Walk" in the English version.

Fick's rendering of some key lines in the poem: "A flock of wild ducks fly over / and your step raises dozens of insects / in the tall grass."

The Spanish source: "Vuela una bandada de patos silvestres / y tu paso dispersa decenas de insectos /entre las hierbas altas."

Some of the problems Fick faced here are obvious even to me. For one thing, it is folly for any translator of poetry to expect exact syllabic parallels when taking a line of verse from one language to the other. Note how Fick faced the fact here: His translation is somewhat compressed, and to the ear sounds more austere, but the end result pleases. The arrangement may be sparser, but there is still music to be heard.

Also commendable is Fick's choice to feature 20 poets in this volume. The number turns out to be just right; the reader has ample time to discover the voice and personality of each poet, and yet there are enough writers here to give one an idea of the wonderful range of Mexican verse, from Hector Carreto's precise, often minimalist creations to the more expansive explorations of Ali Chumacero.

I almost never quote from press materials that accompany review copies of books, but an exception should be made here. Some of Fick's comments, sent along by the publisher, are instructive - and not only for would-be translators but for writers of any kind and those of us who so enjoy their creations.

"There is hardly a poem in The River Is Wide' whose first attempt to capture the original was not tossed on the trash heap," Fick writes. "The joy and agony of a poet-translator is learning todance in chains.' For 20 blackbirds, like 20 poets, the translator submits to a divine form of multiple personality disorder, much like the method actor making a quick change from Albee to Shakespeare. It is a project made harder when the roles we are playing are those of living poets."

Actually, that excerpt from the press materials was in turn excerpted from Fick's preface to the book. Good for him and his publisher for giving not only reviewers but all readers these insights into the creative process.

And they are insights universal. Even when translation is not involved, it is a rare poem - or at least one of any worth - whose first draft was not tossed onto the trash heap. Prose writers, too, fight the twin dragons of rethinking and revising. Inspiration may be a part of writing, but grueling, hard work often is the greater portion.

Fick worked directly with the poets in this edition; one of them, Jaime Sabines, died before the project was finished; to him this book is dedicated. As for Fick, he has dedicated his time to bringing these poets to our attention. We in turn should dedicate ourselves to examining their superb works and Fick's faithful but vivid renderings.


(c) 2005, The Kansas City Star. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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