Conversing and Dancing with the Voices of Others: Juan Gelman’s Com/positions translated by Lisa Rose Bradford

Com/positions is an enthralling and engaging collection of poetry written in the 1980s by contemporary Argentinean poet Juan Gelman, and just translated into English by Lisa Rose Bradford. This project can be read as a book about ‘translation’ itself at various levels: as an act of border-crossing and nomadism, and as the most intimate conversation with other poetic voices. It is a re-writing, and re-imagining of poems, songs and psalms written by Jewish poets inhabiting X-XIII-century Spain. These poems are translated and versioned by Gelman, who, by adding to, and reshaping them, begins a process of cross-fertilization of voices, imagery, ideas and ages. The Com/positions also include Gelman’s own poems under a pseudonym, in an act of pseudotranslation, as if the poet’s own writing becomes shaped by the voices and cultures of the past, not purely as an exercise in imitation but rather as the formation of a renewed writing. The poets of the Spanish Andalucian School, the Sephardic poets and verses from ancient religious writing, as well as Gelman’s own poetics, all interrelate in the act of translation, in the act of writing again and again. In the exergue at the beginning of the collection, this notion is expounded by Gelman: ‘… i conversed with them. just as they with me from the dust of their bones and the splendor of their words. i don’t know which to celebrate more: the beauty of their lines or the vigor of their lips, but both become con/fused…’. The Hispanic vocabulary and lyricism of past centuries are interwoven with contemporary Argentinean rhythms, whose cross-fertilization continues into the lyric-enhancing English language translation by Bradford. She lovingly and expertly interacts with Gelman’s particular writing and recontextualization of past and present voices, allowing the rhythms and musicality of the com/positions to reverberate into a new language.  The English language texts become luminous and melodious, complimenting their Spanish source texts in this particular literary journey.  Indeed, the use of typographical slashes both in the source and target texts, besides pointing to the instability of language, reminds us of the composition of a musical score, of the riffs and modulations emerging from the themes of exile, love, death and life:

what is this body of mine / endless

burning / your breasts

cleave the night in two / leaving

flesh to lifedie in your grasp /

to eat the shadowbooks /

 (from ‘To Say’ by Yehuda Halevi)

 Bradford terms all these poems ‘afterpoems’, writerly responses to others’ texts and narratives, which, by means of translation – first by Gelman and then by Bradford – are ‘positioned’ within a textual and poetic continuum. The book itself is also a visible translational project, with a comprehensive, reflective introduction by Bradford expounding on points such as Gelman’s com/positions, the challenges of translating such com/positions with their inherent and playful intertextuality, and her own creative translation practice. There are correspondences, metaphorical and literal, in this bilingual   edition, whereby the source text and the target text share the same time and space, inviting the reader to take part to this poetic continuum.

Gelman, Juan (2013) Com/positions, translation and commentary by Lisa Rose Bradford (San Francisco, CA: Coimbra Editions), pp.123, ISBN: 978-0-9826556-6-5

To read Bradford’s own reflection on translating Gelman, and to ‘taste’ one of these afterpoems click here or go to the Translation and other writings page.

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