An Appreciation: The Translator in Eight Movements — and a Coda

David Unger

An Appreciation: The Translator in Eight Movements and a Coda

I.  Hardie St. Martin was a remarkably inventive translator, who knew what writers he wanted to translate.  He wasn’t interested in artifice unless it functioned, much as a scaffolding, to support a wild linguistic storm, as in the poetry of Vallejo or José Donoso’s novels.  He found language poets boring; he wasn’t amused by fortuitous word play unless it could be peeled back to deepen the expressive vortex in a poem.  He had no problem with poetry that had contradictory images as long as the images consorted with real feelings.  He hated imagery that was gratuitous, forced or seemed to be written for effect or self-gratification.  This is why he was most attracted to the work of Roque Dalton (El Salvador), Blas de Otero (Spain) and Juan Gelman (Argentina) — the poetry of great feeling.

II.  He was generous to young poets and translators.  When he was working on Pablo Neruda’s Memoirs, he asked me to look over his translation — he was in his fifties, an established

translator with many awards under his belt, and I was a 24 year old pup just beginning to flex his translator’s muscles.  Translation requires apprenticeship, and I was blown away that Hardie had not only asked me to help him, but that he actually incorporated some of my suggestions.  Hardie was a master — what mattered was the final product, not the ownership of it.  He helped create a new generation of translators — Jonathan Cohen, James Graham and Pamela Carmell, among others — who sought his counsel in New York and Barcelona, the two poles of his existence.

III.  Hardie didn’t mind working in the shadow of other translators and poets like Robert Bly, Robert Mezey, Jean Stafford, Ralph Nelson, W.S. Merwin and James Wright.  He formed tight bonds with them in the ’60s, when he was preparing his obra maestra, Roots & Wings: Poetry from Spain, 1900-1975, (Harper & Row, 1976, and White Pine Press, 2004).  Appearing a year after Franco’s death, this groundbreaking anthology presented the Generation of 1927 poets — Federico García Lorca, Miguel Hernández, Luis Cernuda, and Rafael Alberti — alongside the work of younger writers (many of them friends) such as Gloria Fuertes, Manuel Vásquez Montalbán, and Francisco Brines.

IV.  Hardie and Robert Bly were good friends.  He admired Robert’s theory of the importance of the deep image in poetry, which seemed to capture perfectly what the Spaniards were all about.  Countless times when Hardie was dead broke, Bly answered the call for support — he did so both anonymously and generously.  In his The Winged Energy of Delight: Selected Translations (HarperCollins, 2004), Bly wrote that Hardie’s “care and love lie behind all our translations from the Spanish.”

V.  Hardie was funny and mischievous.  In 1976 we attended a reading at the then Center for Inter-American Relations; the poetry read was horrible.  When I asked him later why he was happy listening to the muck, he said he had turned off his hearing aid and was remembering swinging from the vines of the ceibas in his youth in Monkey River, Belize.

VI.  In his long and distinguished career, Hardie translated eight novels, including two by Chilean José Donoso, five poetry collections and Pablo Neruda’s Memoirs.  In 1974 he shared the PEN International Translation Award for Donoso’s The Obscene Bird of Night.  His Roots & Wings received the Islands and Continents Translation Award in 1977.  For Roque Dalton’s Small Hours of the Night (Curbstone Press, 1996), Hardie received the American Literary Translators Association award in 1997 as the “Outstanding Translation of the Year.”  He admired Roque for his seamless mixing of love, politics, humor and stretches of the imagination all in the same poem.

VII.  Hardie was born in 1924 in Belize (formerly, British Honduras) of a French-American father and a Guatemalan mother.  He was offered a scholarship to Cambridge, but he turned it down to attend Regis College in Colorado, from which he graduated in 1944.  After serving in the military (providing ammunition to turret gunners resulted in the loss of most of his hearing), he did graduate work at Columbia University.  He lived a bohemian life in New York: books, wine, art and friendship are what mattered.  He hated Reagan and the U.S. policies which kept — and continue to keep — Central American countries client states.  He might have lived into his 90s if he hadn’t been butchered by the VA doctors in New York and Buffalo.  He had prostate cancer and later developed Parkinson’s which eventually killed him at the age of 83 in 2007.

VIII.  Hardie began working on Juan Gelman’s poetry in the early ’90s.  The easy poems, he got down quickly and the more “impossible” poems he would translate off the top of his head “just to see what they might look like on the surface in English and gauge their possibilities.”  This improvisational approach gave him the freedom to be as outrageous as Gelman himself could be in his poems.  To paraphrase Wordsworth, Hardie would then revise in tranquility “the spontaneous outburst of emotion.”  By 1994, he had completed a broad selection of Gelman’s poetry.  Curbstone Press’s Sandy Taylor wanted to publish the anthology, but a series of blunders kept the book from coming into print.

Coda:  Editor Paul Pines is singularly prepared to bring this special Juan Gelman issue of The Café Review to light.  He has a nose for what’s exceptional in art, but as importantly, what is authentic.  When he first read Hardie’s Gelman translations, he knew he had stumbled upon a master poet being interpreted by a master translator.  Against great odds, Paul unsuccessfully knocked on many doors championing “Gelman-in-Hardie’s- Voice.”  Finally The Café Review opened the door.  Without Paul’s intervention, these translations would have been lost forever — for this rescue and resuscitation, we have much to thank him for.