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Exploring the Backlist: Francisca Aguirre's Ithaca

Hello readers! Join our team of interns as they explore over 40 years of our publication history and share their passion for some of their favorite titles from BOA Editions. In this post, Emily F. explores how poet Francisca Aguirre and translator Ana Valverde Osan construct a multi-layered translation of the Odyssey.

Mythic Parallels and the Art of Translation: Francisca Aguirre's Ithaca

Hi all! I’m Emily, a summer intern here at BOA Editions and a rising senior at University of Rochester, pursuing a degree in English Literature, with minors in Economics and Creative Writing. I don’t quite know what I’ll be doing with that degree, but I love getting to work so intensely with books and language at BOA. 

As a kid, my favorite book was Antoine St. Exupery’s The Little Prince, a sweet, complex little story about a prince, a pilot, and a rose. When I reached high school, I got the chance to read this book in its original French, and I was immediately fascinated by the work that went into translating such an intricate novel and by how the translation managed to preserve the unique style of the prose in a different language. Since then, I’ve loved reading and analyzing translations. I’ve been thrilled to work with some the translated works here at BOA, and I’d love to shine the spotlight on one from our backlist here today.

From a young age, Francisca Aguirre planned on becoming an author. Self-taught and determined, she found her plans and her childhood interrupted by the brutal Spanish Civil War. This war resulted in the death of her father and her family’s repeated displacement from Spain to France and then back again. The impact of this turbulent political climate is rarely explicitly mentioned in Aguirre’s first book, the long poem Ithaca, which she finally published at the age of 42. When Aguirre does discuss her life or her childhood directly, she does so with a blunt, matter-of-fact tone, emphasizing the bleakness of childhood in fascist Spain. The opening lines of “Paper Landscapes”, particularly grabbed my attention:

“That childhood was mostly sad. / To be a child in forty-two seemed impossible”

“Aquella infancia fue más bien triste. / Ser niño en el cuarenta y dos parecía imposible”

These lines stood out to me because they locate the speaker, in this case Aguirre herself, in a specific time. Because this poem starts the second canto of Ithaca, while few of the poems are explicitly located in the same time or place (or, indeed, any particular time or place), they’re still rooted in Aguirre’s childhood.  Ithaca is full of these subtle suggestions, regarding where or even who the speakers are. The inclusion of these subtleties makes Ana Valverde Osan’s translation all the more impressive for how seamlessly they appear in both the English and Spanish versions of the work.

Ithaca is a continuation of the Odyssey, told from the perspectives of both Aguirre and Penelope, the wife Odysseus left behind.  It’s written in the form of a long poem, similar to an epic, but fragmented into smaller poems that work together to create a larger narrative.  The lives of both these speakers are dominated by the action of waiting, in this case waiting for the return of the men in their lives. Aguirre married another poet, Felix Grande. Osan, in discussing Auirre’s life and her frequent absences from the writing world, suggests that, “...marriage among artists usually translates to effacement for the woman”. This gradual dissolution of identity, while waiting or caring for another, is present in both Penelope and Aguirre’s perspectives. Aguirre watches the man she loves fade and change into another, colder version of himself in “The Stranger”, while Penelope finds herself alienated from Odysseus after his return in “The Welcome”. The ending lines of this poem, though delivered by Penelope, aptly fit both women:

“I am for him something worse than treason: / I am as inexplicable as he is.”

“Soy para él peor que una traición: / soy tan inexplicable como él mismo.”

These women have failed their husbands because they have remained as strange, as complicated, and ultimately as human as the men in their lives. Both speakers act as foils to the image of the triumphant soldier, returning to his homeland to the arms of a faithful wife. These speakers are the women who were left behind, who fell into boredom and despair in the face of wars which killed their loved ones and left vicious suitors at their doorsteps. Aguirre begins Ithaca with this sense of desperation, of a world in which something has gone horribly wrong and cannot be fixed. In the beginning poem, “Sad Beast” Penelope narrates the story of how:

“At night I went to the sea to ask for help, / and the sea replied: help.”

“En la noche fui hasta el mar para pedir socorro, / y el mar me respondió: socorro”

 In the world in which Aguirre has set “Sad Beast”, even the sea, the physical force which separates Penelope and Odysseus for much of the Odyssey, which appears in the epic as an almost insurmountable obstacle, is in need of help. The land itself, Aguirre suggests, is broken in some way, and no one is coming to save her speakers. This setting, on the shores of ancient Ithaca, resembles the later-described world of Aguirre’s childhood, in terms of the pervasive sense of isolation and hopelessness.

This work of translation is impressive on multiple fronts.  Osan translates Aguirre’s words into English while preserving the cadence and syntax of the original Spanish, resulting in a translation that stands on its own as a work of art.  On top of this, the poem itself, in English or in Spanish, works to translate the story of the Odyssey both into a new perspective within the original epic and into the context of the poet’s life. 

These two perspectives are not always clearly distinct within the narrative of the long poem, but instead weave together to create a single voice.  Aguirre accomplishes this melding of identity in part through writing her long poem in alternating first and second person. She forces the reader to constantly look for clues as to who is speaking or being addressed. “The Orderliness” in particular accomplishes this ambiguity well, keeping the reader unsure of the perspective until the final two lines:

“...telling myself: Penelope, / we should do something other than dying.”

“...dociéndome: Penélope, / deberíamos hacer algo que no fuera morir”

Here, Penelope addresses herself in the first person plural, alternating between the use of “we” and “I” throughout the poem, which draws into question who exactly “we” encompasses: is she simply talking to herself? Is she talking to the audience, whoever they may be? Is she talking, in some way, to Aguirre?  Additionally, the poem would have worked just as well and made just as much sense if Aguirre had used her own name instead of Penelope’s. At this point in the narrative, their voices and their experiences have become so similar that there is little noticeable difference in tone or content between the two of them.

Ithaca is a narrative built both inside and on top of the Odyssey. It asserts that the stories of those left behind are just as compelling, just as vital, as the stories of those who have left them.  Furthermore, Aguirre refuses to be isolated in her grief and her loneliness. Both she and Penelope are trapped by their circumstances, by their marriages, and by their grief. They are connected however, through these shared situations, and through their shared role as narrator in Ithaca. Though they are separated by eons and by oceans, in telling their collective story, they form a bond. As the poet reminds herself in the ending piece “Loom”:

“Those you call others are your story: / divide yourself and you will lose”

“Esos que llamas otros son tu historia: / divídete a ti misma y perderás.”

 

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