Letters of snow on a swallow’s wing

In a speech given at the University of Maryland in 1969, the Spanish poet and translator Augustí Bartra  described poetry as “matar a los inviernos… escribir letras de nieve sobre el ala de la golondrina…”

Although winter will surely put an end to us before we put an end to winter, and in spite of   knowing full well that swallows  fly off to warmer climes long before the first snowfall, poetry is a great comfort to me on dark winter nights.

Bartra’s translation of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” is posted here primarily for my Spanish-speaking husband.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.

Me imagino de quién son estos bosques.

His house is in the village though;

Pero en el pueblo su casa se encuentra;

He will not see me stopping here

no me verá parada en este sitio,

To watch his woods fill up with snow.

ante sus bosques cubiertos de nieve.

My little horse must think it queer

Mi pequeño caballo encuentra insólito

To stop without a farmhouse near

parar aquí, sin ninguna alquería

Between the woods and frozen lake

entre el helado lago y estos bosques,

The darkest evening of the year.

en la noche más lóbrega del año.

He gives his harness bells a shake

Las campanillas del arnés sacude

To ask if there is some mistake.

Como si presintiera que ocurre algo…

The only other sound’s the sweep

Sólo se oye otro son: el sigiloso

Of easy wind and downy flake.

paso del viento entre los copos blandos.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.

¡Qué bellos son los bosques, y sombríos!

But I have promises to keep,

Pero tengo promesas que cumplir,

And miles to go before I sleep,

y andar mucho camino sin dormir,

And miles to go before I sleep.

y andar mucho camino sin dormir.

It is difficult to be completely satisfied with any translation of a poem well-loved since childhood. I have to admit that for me, Bartra doesn’t fully capture the essence of “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening”. Apart from seeking a rhyming word, why would the translator attribute a presentiment that something could occur to a pony that simply was disconcerted by an unexpected stop? I find the exclamation points Bartra places in the last stanza nothing less than irritating.

T.S. Eliot hit it on the head when he said, “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood“. However, in order to transport a verse to another language a translator must not only understand the poem word by word, but also develop a firm conviction as to the author’s intentionality. Transporting  the flash of communication that occurs before the poet’s intentionality is fully understood is a difficult task in translation. Leonard Cohen once said “Poetry is just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash”. How does one translate the fire of a life and the ash it leaves behind? Although I greatly admire A. S. Kline’s translations of Machado, “Traveler there’s no road, the road is your travelling…” doesn’t give me the same rush as “caminante, no hay camino, se hace camino al andar”, just as the English translation of Louis Aragon’s “Au biseau des baisers, Les ans passent trop vite, Évite évite évite, Les souvenirs brisés…” can never replicate the lovely cascade of “trop vite, évite, évite, évite…” contained in the French original.

I am, however, incapable of comparing the vast majority of poems I read in translation with the original and must trust the sensibilities of other translators who have made them available to me. Sometimes there is more than one translation of a foreign verse to choose from. In an interesting review of the New Directions Anthology of Chinese Poetry,A.W. Allworthy ponders three highly respected translator’s renderings of a poem by the 8th Century Chinese poet Li Po. I am most familiar with Ezra Pound’s version, which he titled “The River Merchant’s Wife”. Li Po imagines the thoughts of a woman waiting for her husband to return from a long journey:

If you are coming down through the narrows of the river Kiang,
Please let me know beforehand,
And I will come out to meet you
As far as Cho-fu-sa.

William Carlos Williams and David Hinton each gave the same verse a different twist:

Every day and night I wait for your return,
Expecting to receive your letter in advance,
So that I will come traveling to greet you
As far as Windy Sand. (William Carlos Williams)

Before you start back from out beyond
all those gorges, send a letter home.
I’m not saying I’d go far to meet you,
no further than Ch’ang-feng Sands. (David Hinton)

Pound’s reconstruction of Li Po’s poem remains my favorite. Perhaps it would have been interesting to read in a footnote the meaning of the place-name that rounds out the final stanza of the poem, but “Cho-fu-sa” remains as poetic to me today as it did as a teenager reading the poem for the first time. Allworthy points out Pound’s handicap as a translator of Chinese verse: he was “an American who knew no Chinese, working from the notes of an American [Ernest Fenollosa] who knew no Chinese, who was taking dictation from Japanese simultaneous interpreters who were translating the comments of Japanese professors.” Nevertheless, it is Pound’s translation that lends the brightest spark of life to the ashes Li Po left for posterity more than a thousand years ago.

What was it then that Robert Frost communicated in “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” that a very good translator like Bartra couldn’t capture? What did the poet want to say that Bartra’s version doesn’t transmit to my satisfaction? When my mother introduced me to the poem she told me it was about responsibility. I believe she had the Yankee moral essence of the poem down pat; but she wasn’t a poetic type who would ever stop midway in a long night’s journey through the woods to listen to the silence. The darker tones of the poem were opaque to her. Frost once said “Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words”. I’ve taken many long walks in the woods on dark winter nights and I recognize in Frost’s poem the perfectly expressed sensation of my own experience. The remarkable thing is that this poem, like so many others, has perfectly expressed  a myriad of unique  personal sensations to millions of people who perhaps have never walked through the woods, or never experienced snow.  A good translation (whether it is a translation of a poem, novel, biography  or even a good advertising slogan) invites us to enter not only a new, exotic world, but also a previously undiscovered place deep inside  ourselves. I sent Bartra’s translation to my poetry-reading (and nature-loving) husband and then plied him with questions. From his answers I concluded that Bartra had managed to transport the scenery, but not the intimate sensation, of Robert Frost’s poem. Just as Aragon’s “trop vite, évite. évite. évite” cannot be captured in English, the murmuring flow of “deep, keep, sleep, sleep” that concludes “Stopping by the Woods” has no phonetic equivalent in Spanish.

“Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening”  is loved, re-read and recited by readers around the world. Literally hundreds of people have posted videos in Internet related to the poem. Taking a brief look in cyberspace while writing this post, I found performances of Randall Thompson’s choral work based on the poem, a folk version, a reading that incorporated sound effects and a number of recitations by small children, among them an especially nice one by Sage Lily, a charming young lady who already has quite a repertoire of poetry performances posted online.

At the risk of ruining the poem forever for some readers, I’ll share a tip that Garrison Keillor gave to A Prairie Home Companion audience some years ago: “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” can be sung to the tune of “Hernando’s Hideaway”. Try it at your own risk. It’s devilishly difficult to give it out of one’s head after the initial round of fun.