Federico Garcia Lorca, Poet in New York
Translators: Pablo Medina and Mark Stratman
Publisher: Grove Press
2008, 183 pages, paperback, $14
federico garcía lorca’s poetry collection Poet in New York (originally Poeta en Nueva York) is focused on his time spent in “the city that never sleeps.” The book is enveloped with sensory poems dealing with everything from racial tension, homosexuality, violence, and economic downturn. Naturally, some lyricism and meaning is lost in the translation from the original Spanish to English.
This new translation, the first in a decade, strives for a more contemporary poetic voice, motivated by the imagery of post-9/11 New York. Pablo Medina and Mark Stratman revisit the 1930 text with a twenty-first century aesthetic, and, to their credit, mostly succeed. A wise and thoughtful decision is that the original Spanish is printed on the left-hand side of each page and the new English translation on the right. Still, there are fundamental flaws in a few of the translations. A simple line in Spanish such as “¡Ay Harlem! ¡Ay Harlem! ¡Ay Harlem!” becomes “Oh Harlem! Harlem!” This type of change in the lyrical repetition is apparent to those readers who can read the original Spanish, but even readers who are not familiar with Spanish can still see the visual repetition that is lost.
The translation does, however, manage to capture wonderful snapshots of New York. García Lorca, like Walt Whitman, utilizes free verse. In a fashion similar to Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” García Lorca uses a keen, observant voice in the poem “Christmas on the Hudson” to give the reader a panoramic view of New York:
The world alone in the lonely sky.
These are the hills of hammers and the triumph of thick grass.
These are the swarming anthills and coins in the mud.
The world alone in the lonely sky
and the air in the outskirts of all the towns.
One of several poetic gems in the book is “Ode to Walt Whitman.” The inclusion of García Lorca’s poem dedicated to the New York poet is nothing short of beautiful. The translation does not detract from the emotion and respect that García Lorca has for Walt Whitman. As seen in the majority of his poems, this passage focuses on minute and concrete details:
Not for one moment, beautiful old Walt Whitman,
have I not seen your beard full of butterflies,
or your corduroy shoulders worn away by the moon,
or your virginal Apollo thighs,
or your voice like a column of ash;
beautiful old man like the mist,
who cried like a bird
with its sex pierced by a needle.
Like Whitman’s epic “Song of Myself,” García Lorca’s newly translated Poet in New York emphasizes the relationship of the poet with the world around him. While some translations in the book are not ideal, the majority of them are done with respect and care to the original text. In the end, it is virtually impossible to translate a text with complete success. The importance of the publication is that the new printing, like the 1998 version, is a bilingual edition, making García Lorca’s mastery easily accessible to another generation of readers across two languages to achieve the ultimate goal: to celebrate the writing of Federico García Lorca.