Perhaps the most difficult problem confronting the translator is how to compensate for the violence of translating: the sheer loss of the multiple contexts in which the foreign work emerged and which always inform the foreign reader’s experience of it. These foreign contexts are at once print and electronic, linguistic and literary, cultural and social. They range from the connotations of specific words to literary traditions and contemporary trends to the copy that appears on the book cover to the reviews and blogs that greet the book upon publication —all in the foreign language and culture. Because translating displaces these contexts, a reader of a translation can never appreciate it with the same breadth and depth of reference that enables the foreign reader to appreciate the foreign work. Nevertheless, the reader of the translation automatically fills the vacuum with previous reading experiences in the translating language, creating a set of comparable but markedly different contexts in the receiving culture. The translator must be prepared for this crucial difference, for the drift to what is more familiar to the reader, for the inevitably ethnocentric movement that lies at the heart of translating. In the case of cultures that translate relatively little, like the United Kingdom and the United States, and of literatures that have been relatively neglected, like Catalan, the problem is exacerbated to an impossible degree. Still, it can be anticipated and addressed in the translating, I believe, if not resolved to the satisfaction of every potential readership.
My current project tries to compensate for the virtual lack of any foreign context in which to read the work: I am translating Edward Hopper, a book by the contemporary Catalan poet Ernest Farrés. Each of the fifty poems in this book is based on a painting by the American artist. The few books of Catalan poetry translated into English have been mostly editions with small presses, limited in circulation and ephemeral. It is no exaggeration to say that, for Anglophone readers, Catalan poetry does not exist. These readers are more than likely to bring to my translation a familiarity with Hopper's mythic images, perhaps some acquaintance with the Hopper-inspired poems written by noted American poets like Stephen Dunn, Edward Hirsch, and John Hollander. Against this backdrop, Farrés’s book is remarkable in its ambitiousness, its wit, and its probing interpretations of the visual images. The recurrent gambit among American poets is to offer an evocative description of the image or a narrative suggested by the represented scene or figures. On this basis the poets explore some humanistic or social theme —yet always with a detachment that reflects their different time and place, their different culture or social position. Farrés is ever mindful of these differences, but he resolutely avoids any detachment from Hopper's life and art and rather aims to perform a ventriloquist act. In the opening poem on Hopper’s Self Portrait (1925-1930), Farrés lays out his Borgesian premises: the painting is a mirror, he asserts, since Hopper and he "form one single person."
Although each of Farrés's poems takes its title from one of Hopper’s paintings, the poems are not arranged chronologically according to the dates when the paintings were completed. Instead Farrés’s arrangement sketches a narrative that follows a poetic subject, an "I" in transit from small-town origins to big-city life, from the search for a job to a successful career, from bachelorhood to love and companionship, from youth to age and retirement, along with a cluster of scenes set in a coastal area. The story belongs to Hopper, of course, who always insisted that he was just trying to paint himself. He was raised in Nyack and later settled in New York City, spending summers in Cape Cod. Yet Farrés is also telling his own story insofar as he grew up in the Catalan town of Igualada and later moved to Barcelona to study at the university and to find work as a journalist. Any biographical allusions, however, must be identified by the reader, inferred from titles and dates, settings and themes. For as the book unfolds one gradually becomes aware that the poems are intended to be representative of social situations and historical moments, and the genre is not simply narrative, but a curious mixture of lyric and epic, complete with an invocation of the muses. Farrés uses Hopper's paintings to tell a story of modernity.
The language of the poems is typical of Farrés's work. His Catalan texts mix the current standard dialect with colloquialisms and slang, archaisms, academic and technical jargons, and foreign loan words. They include the idiomatic expressions in which Catalan is abundant, as well as clichés from both elite and popular cultures. In my translations I have sought to match this heterogeneity, both at the precise points where Farrés's texts cultivate it and, whenever I could not create such a correspondence, at other points where his Catalan is in the standard dialect. But my English goes further: I develop an American vernacular that, in line with the biographical dimension of the project, samples the speech and writing of Hopper and his wife, the painter Josephine Nivison Hopper. Although famously laconic, averse to speaking in public, likely to find writing sheer drudgery, Hopper spoke and wrote a particularly rich form of American English. He routinely mixed registers and styles —formal and colloquial, poetical and slangy— which evoke a wide range of cultural discourses. His language can sometimes be linked to certain periods in the twentieth century, even specific decades, establishing a veritable chronology of American culture. I scoured whatever documents survived Hopper and Nivison and assembled a lexicon of representative words and phrases, which I used in the translations where I could create a semantic correspondence with the Catalan texts. Among the poems that follow, "Sea Watchers, 1952" contains two instances of this borrowing: “stack up,” which renders the Catalan "balanç" (stocktaking, the taking of an inventory), and "stinks," which renders "agre" (bitter, disagreeable). In a letter describing his prints to a mentor Hopper wrote: "Hoping they stack up well but feel they are very slight and do not represent me as yet" (27 March 1917). And Nivison noted in her diary that when she asked Hopper, "Isn’t it nice to have a wife who paints?" he replied: "It stinks" (10 September 1941). Even in using the Hoppers’ language, my work is translation, I would insist, not adaptation, even if it edges towards what poets today might call a "version."
Ernest Farrés's Edward Hopper can thus be positioned within another set of frameworks —linguistic and literary, art historical and biographical— to replace the Catalan contexts that are irreparably lost for the Anglophone reader. Although I have stressed the continuities among the various materials that comprise this project, the disjunctions should not be minimized because they are more significant: they reveal that any second-order creation communicates not the prior work, but an interpretation of it. Ekphrasis, the verbal representation of visual art, does not reproduce the art, but rather exposes the difference between the verbal and the visual. Farrés’s poems sometimes present a landscape that is recognizably Spanish, not North American. Nor do they merely rehearse the facts of the painter's life. Hopper's politics, for instance, were extremely conservative. Not only did he oppose Franklin Delano Roosevelt's presidency, but he was critical of the Depression-era Federal Art Project, which employed such realist painters as Thomas Hart Benton and Raphael Soyer. Although, like Hopper, Farrés criticizes modern cultural and social developments, Hopper would not have resorted to the marxist-oriented sociological analysis that recurs in the poems. When the poems are read against the painter's images and biography, the relationships among them seem less imitative than interrogative, with the poet in the minor language and culture questioning the cultural icon of the globally hegemonic nation. My decision to weave Hopper’s own language into the translations invites the reader to foreground the differences between the poems and the paintings, as well as between the Catalan and the English.