These poems come from María do Cebreiro’s most recent collection of new work, Slowness (A lentitude, 2018), which blends her penchant for esoteric, philosophical musings with an almost aphoristic brevity and incantatory, mystical language. In these poems, and throughout much of the collection, she invokes nature, the elements, alongside human bodies, human notions, or human constructions as a mirror with which to contemplate ourselves. Take the dogs in “Ice,” the forest in “The Ground,” the river in “Fire,” the sky in “The Future,” or the wheat and poppies in “A Hymn.”
There’s something marvelous about the experience of reading these poems; without invoking any deities, they’re rife with a sense of the numinous. Reading them, you’re left with the sense of a poet who can see so much, and so broadly, and one with the skill to weave together myriad concepts and ideas into deceptively simple, profoundly readable, and deeply thoughtful poetry.
These poems were particularly challenging to translate (and all the more fun for it), partly because unadorned language can often be hard to do justice to in a confined space as this, and because Galician has an inherent economy to it, which do Cebreiro expertly wields alongside repetition and rhyme. That trifecta shaped my approach to these translations, concerning myself with an attempt to maintain that economy, as well as shedding repetition and rhyme where they fell flat, or felt forced, and trying to replicate what those qualities bring to the original (a certain forcefulness and wit) by focusing on rhythm where repetition didn’t work, or alliteration and pace where rhyme didn’t quite.
For example, there’s a pair of lines in “A Hymn” (Unha cantiga), that go like this: “o amor é unha ficción, / unha ficción antiga” (love is a fiction, / an ancient fiction). Where the Galician has an almost drumbeat bass and strength to it, that English is just so, so much blander. I toyed with options for a while before landing on something I liked: “love is a fiction, / and an ancient one too,” which, despite the weakness of words like and and too, sounds to my ear much more convincing, much more hymnal and stirring, as it does in the original.
This is a small example, but I think it sheds light on my ethos throughout, trying to have my cake and eat it too, as I love to do: not ceding to the original on every point, while also trying to respect the particularities of its voice. Because I wanted for do Cebreiro’s poems to burn with life, to hum with telluric energy, to ring with vibrato. Above all, I wanted them to evoke the same sense of marvel that I experience reading her work in Galician, and my hope is that’s just what readers will find in these translations.
about the author