The Master of Modernismo
Darío's circulation and reputation in English will not be helped by the publication of this carelessly conceived and executed anthology of his prose and verse. The selection of the poetry is particularly poor, leaving out some of Darío's most important poems. Edited and introduced by Ilan Stavans, a professor of Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, Rubén Darío: Selected Writings includes few of his long poems in their entirety and organizes the collection in a manner that is more confusing than enlightening. The arrangement of the poems, which tries to follow a thematic division made by Darío toward the end of his life, is not chronological. Hence there is no sense of Darío's poetic evolution, as if his work were created in a timeless void. The subdivisions draw their headings from the lines of a poem whose translation is particularly appalling. Greg Simon and Steven White's poetry translations are not only awkward; they make basic errors that are beyond the usual disputes about word choice. For instance, where Darío describes himself in his former poetic state as "muy siglo diez y ocho" (meaning that he was very "eighteenth century" in taste), the translation inexplicably reads "and those that come from the eighteenth century." A different kind of error is found in the translation of the line from "Coloquio de los centauros" (a major long poem from which only a stanza is excerpted here) that reads "cada hoja de cada árbol canta un propio cantar," rendered as "Each leaf on the trees sings with its own goal." Leaves with goals? This terrible assemblage of words not only completely misses the rhythm created by the repetition of sounds; worse, it hardly conveys what the Spanish says, which is more like "On every tree each leaf sings its own song." It would be embarrassing and painful to compile such mistranslations.
The English renditions are simply not poetic, which is the worst thing a translator can do to a Darío poem. And contrary to Stavans's assertion in the introduction that this anthology is "the most ambitious attempt ever to make the Nicaraguan poet comfortable in English," there are others that are better, one as recent as 2004. In 1965 Lysander Kemp, a truly accomplished translator, brought out Selected Poems of Rubén Darío, with Paz's powerful essay as prologue (the book came out in paperback in 1988). For the poetry, the reader would be much better served by going to those books. Andrew Hurley's translation of the prose is better, but not brilliant (as Darío nearly always is), and it may be the only valuable contribution this book makes. Hurley is no Gregory Rabassa, Edith Grossman, Margaret Sayers Peden, Esther Allen or Sarah Arvio, the leading translators of Spanish into English, but he is reliable and workmanlike.
Stavans's introduction lacks scholarly credibility or academic reliability. It is riddled with clichés (Darío is a "man for all seasons"), lacks a single new idea worth considering and does no justice to the considerable body of Darío criticism. Like the translations, it contains elementary mistakes, some laughable. For instance, Stavans attributes the famous line encouraging poets to reject Darío by twisting the swan's neck to the Mexican Modernista Manuel Gutiérrez Nájera, when it was written by his compatriot Enrique González Martínez. He also blithely declares that "Latin America never had a Romantic movement per se," an elementary error that he could have avoided by reading any history of Latin American literature or one of those academic critics Stavans derides with unearned, comic self-assurance. Stavans even writes that Darío's "health deteriorated rapidly in the years following World War I," when the poet had been dead for two years at war's end in 1918. His health could hardly have gotten worse.
There are poets condemned to remain within their own language. Because of its many failings, this anthology cannot possibly help Darío overcome this fate.