“Spermaceti” comes from Isabel Zapata’s recent collection Una ballena es un país, which I’m currently translating as A Whale Is a Country. All of the poems in this book have something to do with animals and the natural world — and with the mysteries, joys, sorrows, horrors, and privileges of human interaction with them.
Zapata is also a wonderful essayist, and I’ve been lucky enough to translate her prose before. As I translate her poems, including this one, I find myself thinking a lot about what distinguishes her work across genres. “Spermaceti,” like her essays, feels both methodical and spontaneous. It’s clear and confident in its structure, and yet it’s also loose and understated in a way that feels like overhearing someone speak — maybe to a friend, maybe to herself. Sometimes it unfurls its ideas in a more linear, traditionally essayistic way, but sometimes it shifts — with equal quietness and confidence — into open-ended questions, or completely self-contained observations, or assertions so brief they’re almost aphoristic. Every step of the way, Zapata (as the saying goes) makes it look easy. I’ve found this to be the greatest challenge as her translator: faced both with a range as broad as hers and with a language as spare, there’s really nowhere to hide.
Translating “Spermaceti,” I tried to respect the cleanness of her lines while also making sure that the English version conveyed information as clearly as the original does. (There is, after all, a lot of information in Zapata’s poems; they want to tell us things about the world and its wondrous goings-on.) And yet I also tried to honor the soft-spoken surprises that lace her poems: the way her language can guide us into astonishment without raising its voice.
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