Thursday, May 18, 2006

Translations: Mateo Morrison

Mateo Morrison
Mateo MorrisonOne of the books I picked up during my recent trip to the International Book Fair in Santo Domingo was a fascinating slender, double, or flip, volume, which featured Dominican author Mateo Morrison's book of poems Dorothy Dandridge on one side, and on the other a collection of writings about him, edited by Adrián Javier, entitled Del Verso a la Fragua: Mateo Morrison en Persona y Obra (Santo Domingo: Publicacions de la Universidad Autónoma de Santo Domingo, 2006).

Morrison (1947-, pictured above at left with Angela Oisteanu, Director of Public Relations for the Romanian Cultural Institute and Coördinator of the International Gathering of Poets of the Latin World Ars Amandi, Listín Diario) is a major figure in Dominican letters and longtime literary activist. He founded the literary group "La Antorcha" (The Torch), and the noted Taller César Vallejo (Cesar Vallejo Workshop), and for many years was editor of the literary supplement Aquí (Here), which appeared in the La Notícia newspaper. Morrison currently is director of the Arts and Cultural Programs Department at the Autonomous University of Santo Domingo. In addition to several volumes of poems, including the highly regarded collections Aniversario del dolor (1973, Anniversary of Pain) and Visiones del transeúnte (1985, The Transient's Visions), several critical texts, and a novel, Un silencio que camina (2006, A Traveling Silence).

Here are my draft translations of five of Morrison's poems from Dorothy Dandridge. All of the poems in the brief volume are brief, none longer than 10 lines, and their dreamlike flow and concision presents a challenge. Though Morrison's earlier poetry gained acclaim for its formal openness and lyricism, the compression of the Spanish, which I think may mirror the constraints of Dandridge's life itself and its silences, both seemed to push me towards more English words, so to render the idea fully, and yet to restrain myself in order to evoke the poems' terse and charged expressivity.

Cinco poemas de Mateo Morrison
del libro de poesía Dorothy Dandridge

Dorothy escuchaba los ecos del have dream
Mientras los blacks panters
Apuñalaban el cielo
En las calles de Harlem


Aquí la esperan aves
Que saludan la noche
Rostros desconocidos
Profundizan el vacío


Bella con sus aretes enormes
Blusa negra y una flor en las manos
Ojos inquisidores, una leve sonrisa
Dorothy representaba sobre su piel
los dioses tutelares
De toda la africanía


Recorro sonámbulo los caminos
Donde debió pasar
Hago siluetas en las arenas
En que quizás depositó sus pies


Toco las huellas
Que dejó en múltiples aceras
Me inclino en las iglesias
y le dejo oraciones

Copyright © Mateo Morrison, 2006

Dorothy was listening to the echoes
Of "I Have a Dream"
While the Black Panthers stabbed the sky
In the streets of Harlem


Here birds await her
Those that greet the night
Unfamiliar faces
Peer deep into the emptiness


Beautiful with her enormous earrings
Black blouse and a flower in her hands
Eyes inquisitive, a tender smile
Dorothy represented on her skin
The tutelary deities
Of all Africana


I pass like a sleepwalker through the very streets
That she must have passed through
I create silhouettes in the sands
In which, perhaps, she placed her feet


I touch the footprints
That she left on multiple sidewalks
I bend down in churches
And offer her my devotions

Draft translations by John Keene, 2006


  1. The fifth poem makes me want to write an essay, though it would be a largely silent essay on touch and memory.

    Thank you for posting it.

  2. Very beautiful. It's so illuminating and disconcerting to read a poem and its translation when you know both languages. The choices a translator makes: I find myself (internally) beginning to object and then quieting in appreciation of the new resonances and meanings opened up. The poem and its translation is like observing a conversation (or debate!) between people more or less equally well spoken and wise; your head swivels back and forth, always almost convinced.

    Kai in NYC

  3. Keguro and Kai, I really appreciate your responses. Translation for me represents an ongoing conversation, and translating poetry is a fraught one, because I find myself objecting to my choices and always wondering if there's a better word, an apter word or phrase, a way to capture the cognation but also to give the feeling of the other language. I am heartened by all the translators who've gone before me who've rendered some of the most difficult poetry (Shakespeare, Lezama Lima, Césaire), and I realize that the translation is always only partial, that the spaces that exist, the silences between the languages and idioms, is where the real conversation occurs.

  4. A cursory attempt at a first reading. I will return to it, no doubt.

  5. What a rich meditation on translation. I appreciate your sensibility and approach to the "dialogue" of translating. It reminds me of curating, and curtator and scholar Okwui Enwezor has said much the same thing of his own work. In both cases there is a relationship to power that needs to be acknowledged. Your willingness to acknowledge the ambivalence with which you make choices I find to be brave; ultimately eschewing the idea of speaking for the writer in translation but instead engaging her/him in an artistic conversation of ideas and sentimientos, and of course silences, the importance of which most everyone must grasp and struggle (sometimes with just letting them be).

  6. Hey, this is rey andujar, me sorprendio encontrarme en tu blog, yo simpre ando pinchando el computer aqui y alla, y ha sido a very interesting surprise.
    lets get in touch, and im sorry if i boring you with my writing, i will appreciate a critic on the book you picked up at the book fair.
    big hug

    write back