The Untranslatables: Curtis Bauer

The following post is from Curtis Bauer whose translations of Jorge Gimeno appeared in the winter issue of M-Dash. Curtis’s translation, Baghdad and Other Poems, a bilingual chapbook of poems by Jorge Gimeno, is forthcoming from Poets@Work Press in 2015.


You most likely haven’t heard of Jorge Gimeno (Madrid, 1964), or that he is one of Spain’s most significant contemporary poets and translators. Although he has published only two books of his own poetry, he is an unavoidable poet of reference in Spanish poetry today. His surreal poems speak out against domestic violence, the wars, conflicts and unrest in the Middle East and Iraq, and they give voice to, and identify the beauty in, those who are often ignored—the homeless, infirm, abused and abandoned, in war or in some country like Spain.

When I first read his work I thought he was a poet of excessiveness, but inside that excess I found restraint. He’s ambitious and impertinent, but not ignorant of tradition. In fact, both of his books include sonnets, haiku and nonce forms, and many poems follow traditional syllable counts; although he seems to relish fracturing line, he does so with the confidence and craft of someone familiar with the terrain of prosody.

In Gimeno’s first book, Spirit In Bits And Pieces, he writes,

“Poetry requires an excess of determination,
too much for the poor human monad…
Because, only when it breaks, is broken, shattered, only then does it show, and
      even then
only through a thought.
It’s the law of the insane,”
indicating that an underlying element of his poetry could be the potential of language and the necessity that it serves as a lesson for the recuperation of life through the amplification of the real. This idea, this thought, which can be said about all great poetry, becomes in Gimeno a distinct signature: the strength of his voice is born in the poet’s capacity to launch the word into the air and let it drop until it’s shattered into a thousand pieces. He likes to listen to that breaking, and he likes to see what new beauty can result from breaking something already beautiful.
I have translated writers I have never met, and some who are dead, but I prefer to work with the living, and when possible, I like to have conversations with the writers I translate about their work. I discovered early on that Gimeno hates chitchat, and chitchat for him is any talk about his poems, their meaning, or whether I have conveyed the complexities of a difficult poem. The last time we met to discuss my translation of his second collection, The Ground Oppresses Us, the book from which the poems on M—Dash and those discussed here were drawn, he answered only two questions about images, and whether I translated a verse correctly before he lost his patience with me, ordered another beer and changed the subject. I had asked him about a line from the poem “Toma La Dignidad, Dame La Vida”:
No se afeita con cuchilla de aljibe.
I had translated it literally in the poem “Take My Dignity, Give Me Life” but I knew, from reading so many of his other poems, that I couldn’t keep it literal:
He doesn’t shave with a knife from the cistern.
He rolled his eyes, and said, “It’s obvious; the ice across the surface of a well, when you break it, it looks like a knife. That’s what I’m talking about there.” I revised my translation to the following:
He doesn’t shave with the ice razored over the cistern.
Gimeno’s poems are filled with little flashes of oddity, jarring images and sounds that jump out of a narrative and leave you wondering what happened, or what you just heard, forcing you to return to the previous verse or stanza, to reread and reread for some clue of what may have been missed.
Instead of chatting with Gimeno, I learned to speak with his poems. Perhaps listen to them speak is a better way of putting it. Like most translators—I assume—I am happy letting others do the speaking, content to observe and listen. The trouble I’ve encountered with these poems, however, is that they often leave me disoriented, with the feeling that I’ve missed a central component of their conversation, point of reference, inside joke, or rhetorical element that has otherwise made the poem crystal clear to everyone else. Anyone who has been disoriented knows we depend on points of reference to move out of our disorientation; the points of reference I tend to return to, especially when translating Gimeno, are sound, sense and structure.
Here’s a fragment from a long poem called “Música Muerta, Música Abierta” which I’ve translated as “Dead Music, Open Music”:
Tú eres la nevera.
Yo el imán.
Tú el agua,
yo piscina vacía en la vieja RDA.
Tanga catinga.
Yuca del Yucatán.
En mí mueren las flores de las Evas de barrio.
En ti muere el sudor de los brazos de barro.
I love this poem because of its wild images, its odd associations, its endless attempts to get at why or how the speaker feels attraction to the other, and that needling sensation that the speaker thinks he’s failing to communicate that attraction.
You are the refrigerator.
I am the magnet.
You the water,
me, the empty swimming pool in the old GDR.
Funky junk.
Yucca in Yucatan.
The flowers of all the community Evas die in me.
The sweat from mucky arms dies in you.
The poem is made up of thirty couplets of varied length and attention. The speaker fixates on objects—a sack, a hand, a refrigerator and magnet—on sensations and feelings—“I like Otis Redding, what phrasing” or “You are better than Gandhi, but you wear Armani.”—and associations—“You sound like plowing/I sound like diving” or “You are the scent of gin on the car’s hood./ I am the scent of gin on the car’s hood.”—in order to construct an ever impressive and complex metaphor about the complexities and intricacies of attraction and attachment. The poem moves in and out of the “you are this, I am that” dynamic with the one exception, which appears in the middle of the poem:
Tanga catinga.
Yuca del Yucatán.
When I first came across this couplet I read each line slowly, looking for some connection in meaning to the previous and following couplets. Nothing. I looked up “catinga” and “tanga”; “catinga” turned up nothing and “tanga” was “G-string,” though I had no idea how that joined with the other images. The couplet didn’t address any subject or refer to the speaker either; therefore it wasn’t following the established structure of the preceding seventeen couplets. Then, reading the section out loud two, three, four times more, I realized that I was hearing a change in the poem, that Gimeno was emphasizing sound here over meaning. The sounds seemed to create meaning, but the individual words that created them held no significance on their own…or so I thought. I tried
Badda bing.
Yucca from the Yucatan.
because of the striking sound, and I kept it that way for a few drafts. Nevertheless, every time I went back to the poem I would trip over the “badda bing”; I couldn’t imagine Gimeno saying it for one, and including something so intrusive and associated with a particular region in the US seemed to do the poem a disservice. And then I thought about the G-string. This was a kind of love poem after all. That G-string probably needed to be referenced, or at least winked at. So, as I mentioned previously, my second question to Gimeno that day I tried his patience, was in reference to his word, “catinga.”
“You know,” he said, eyes narrowing, as if intending to say you don’t know, do you?: “the woman’s scent on her G-string.” He ordered another beer. I didn’t ask any other questions about the book that day or after. But I did think about smell, about sound, about some word that might connect them and reveal the nuance of the couplet and be sonically pleasing, something that could be unpacked a little more easily, perhaps, in English, but wouldn’t necessarily be as obvious and boring as
G-string scent.
After a few more drafts, I arrived at
Funky junk.
Though it might not be a perfect translation—as if there could be one!—it approaches the complexity of the original version better than any other option I have found so far.

“The Untranslatables” is a series on M-Blog about those words or phrases that give us pause as translators, that stump us and then, sometimes, enlighten us. In other words, those fragments of a text that can be so hard to translate but also so utterly satisfying when and if we finally find a way to say in our language close to what they mean in another one. If you would like to contribute an “Untranslatable” story to M-Blog, write to us at