Posts filed under 'Cold War'

Waldeen’s Neruda: Translating the Dance

She understood the essential relationship between poetry and music and their common root in dance. This was her secret.

Yesterday’s Translation Tuesday featured Pablo Neruda’s “Coming of the Rivers” sequence in an astonishing and previously unpublished translation by Waldeen. How did Waldeen capture the voice and tone of Neruda’s poetry so accurately, and why have such elegant translations remained in obscurity for almost seventy years? Poet and translator Jonathan Cohen, a close friend of Waldeen, explains the history—and the secrets—behind her Neruda translations.

Waldeen von Falkenstein (1913–1993)—known as a dancer and writer by her first name alone—has yet to receive the full recognition she deserves for her work as a translator of Pablo Neruda’s poetry. The poetic achievement of her translations and their influence on American poetry merit more attention. Waldeen’s elegant renderings of poems that would form Neruda’s epic masterpiece, Canto General (1950), translations that she published in the late 1940s and early 1950s, introduced Neruda and his image-driven poetics to many readers. Among them were poets like the Beats looking for alternatives to the prevailing formalist mode of verse, who found in him, through her, a model poet.

Waldeen achieved fame in Mexico as the founder of modern dance there. In 1956, Diego Rivera, one of the principal gods of Mexican art, lavished praise on Waldeen for her contribution to Mexican culture (“In each of her dance movements, she offered our country a jewel”). His tribute to her appeared in a major newspaper of Mexico, where he went beyond his accolades of her dance work to also celebrate her as a poet-translator: “I can bear witness to this not only by the intensity of emotion I felt in the verses of this beautiful and admirable woman, but through the testimony, as well, of our Walt Whitman of Indo-America, Pablo Neruda, who wrote to her, deeply moved, after she translated poetry of his into English: ‘Waldeen, thank you, for your poems of my poems, which are better than mine.’ ”

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The Unity of Contradiction: At the Burning Abyss and its Political Poetics

In its embrace of paradox, the poetic word unites what the political word divides.

[He] gave us, the lost and confused, exactly what we needed: the stability of a direction leading out of the past…. The world fell into black and white; it was ‘all perfectly simple’ … This completely dualistic picture of the world … was precisely herein a counterpart to the worldview which had formerly dominated our thinking, but it passed itself off as a complete break with the Old, and the only possible break at that.… [H]e stood behind the lectern, both hands raised adjuringly, exclaiming to the auditorium with the solemnity of one announcing a truth of faith: “Tertium non datur! There is and can be no third way!”

(Franz Fühmann, At the Burning Abyss: Experiencing the Georg Trakl Poem, 1982)

The year was 1946, the scene was an “antifascist school” in the USSR where denazified German POWs were schooled in socialist ideology to prepare for leadership roles in the fledgling East German state. Franz Fühmann (1922-1983) arrived in East Germany in 1949 with the fervor of the born-again and established himself as a cultural apparatchik. His short story cycle The Jew Car (1962) examines his youthful embrace of Nazi ideology and the gradual moral awakening that culminated in his socialist conversion–a “happy ending” which he revisited, sadder and wiser, in his last book, At the Burning Abyss. A firm believer in the socialist idea, Fühmann was bitterly disillusioned by its dictatorial practice: vaunted as the sole humane alternative to fascism, socialism had proved to be cut from the same cloth, “a soiled coat turned inside out.” Fühmann’s painful journey between ideological extremes resonated with unexpected force as I translated At the Burning Abyss amidst escalating political polarization in Europe and the US.

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