Of Sea, Sponge, Ant, and Prayer: On Translating María Baranda
Paul Hoover is the recipient of a 2014 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant for “Nightmare Running on a Meadow of Absolute Light,” by María Baranda. Read an excerpt of the translation here.
Born in 1962, María Baranda is one of the most important poets of her generation in Mexico and a powerful presence in all of Latin American poetry. Her work has received her country’s distinguished Efrain Huerta and Aquascalientes poetry prizes, as well as Spain’s Francisco de Quevedo Prize for Ibero-American Poetry. Her prominence has been further enhanced by her selected poems, El mar insuficiente (poesía 1989-2009), published by Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in 2010.
Encouraged in her youth by the great Colombian poet and writer Álvaro Mutis, Baranda is increasingly known for her sweeping and incisive long poems and book-length projects, such as the sequence “Letters to Robinson.” Of the volume, Ficticia, in which the Robinson poems appear, Forrest Gander writes that María Baranda “keeps honing in on one of the most expressive lyricisms in contemporary Mexican poetry.” He refers also to “her complex prosody—the pitch and tempo rising in plangent cadences that break into sharp, percussive counterpoint.” Despite their epic weight and size, Baranda’s poems do not patiently narrate. Their way of telling is instead a stark announcement of being similar to an invocation; for instance, in Narrar (2001):
A cry that in itself
is the size of the sea
and lives at the center of rapture
and with each step it yields
to the delirium of a sponge
that inflates in sweat and gives glory
to the time of silent prayers
A cry is the caiman’s vigil
the unleashed whip of an ant
For Baranda, narration is not of social relations but of the essential. Her cry is resoundingly of sea, sponge, ant, and prayer, as related in rapture. It’s for her epic sweep and verbal fire that I selected her recent long poem “Yegua nocturna corriendo en un prado de luz absoluta” for translation. The very title of the poem points to the vitality of her style.
In “Nightmare Running on a Meadow of Absolute Light,” Baranda’s historical and mythic perspective draws her toward an essential predecessor, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, whose words she embeds in her text in boldface. Most notable is the recurring phrase, “Pyramidal, terrible, of the land” (Piramidal, funesta, de la tierra), from Sor Juana’s classic work “First Dream.” Because a powerful theme of Baranda’s poem is speech and the naming of things, the figure of a viper (víbora) appears in the concluding pages of the work. All of creation, in a sense, is given voice. One breaks and enters with the tongue: “because I say fire / and it rushes from my mouth / in flames, / because I name you now / as then / and the birds are more fragile and the clouds / no longer exist.” Baranda’s poetry has always been written large in theme and purpose, but “Yegua nocturna” is her fiercest expression yet. As her translator, I have a unique opportunity to present an important poet of the Spanish language to wider recognition in the English-speaking world.
This piece is part of PEN’s 2014 translation series, which features excerpts and essays from the recipients of this year’s PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grants.