Distinguished local poet, writer and translator Richard Kessler takes on some of the greats in poetry
The great American poet Robert Frost once said, “Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought, and the thought has found words.” Throughout the centuries, poets have churned emotions into flowing words of love, passion, hate, regret and every other human emotion one can name. One of the most famous yet elusive poets of the 20th century, Jorges Luis Borges from Argentina, preferred to explore the dark world of blindness, visions and dreams. But until now, many of Borges intriguing poems have remained unexplored by English speakers. Local translator (and poet and writer) Stephen Kessler has undertaken the monumental task of translating Borges’ works from Spanish into English and has therefore created two new masterpieces where poetry books are concerned—“The Sonnets” and “Poems of the Night.” GT recently caught up with Kessler prior to his poetry reading at Bookshop Santa Cruz to find out more about his compelling translations.
GT: How did the project of editing and translating Borges poems begin?
Stephen Kessler: I was recruited by Suzanne Jill Levine, a very distinguished translator of Latin American literature who teaches at UC Santa Barbara, and who is the general editor of a series of Borges’ books coming out over the next few months … I think she asked me to take this on because she knew my previous Borges translations … and had confidence in my ability as a translator. I’m certainly not, or was not when this began, a Borges scholar, but I think she considered that a positive attribute because I didn’t come to Borges with a sense of personal ownership.
What draws you to Borges work and why do you want to share it with others?
Borges is one of the greatest writers of the 20th century—in the same league with Joyce, Proust, Kafka and Beckett—so … it’s a great honor and privilege to work with his writing. There’s also not only a deep intelligence but a wonderful sweetness of spirit in his sensibility, a combination of mystical awe and tough-minded irony that I find very appealing. Also, as a translator, it’s a terrific challenge to take on these poems and try to turn them into comparable poems in English so people unable to read the original Spanish can gain some idea of what the originals are like.
I understand you write poetry and prose? What are your favorite aspects of each?
For me the primary difference between poetry and prose is technical, in that the poem is based on the line (at least if you write in verse) and prose on the sentence—though some would say the paragraph. Beyond that, for me the poem is usually a more intimate document in its exploration of interior states, feelings and perceptions. In prose, at least in the essay, which is probably my most practiced genre, I tend to try to think through ideas, sort out an argument, explore a specific subject or theme. With the poems it is often more a matter of discovering what you are writing about as you write, allowing the unconscious or language itself to lead you to where you are going. I’ve also recently published a novel, my first attempt in that form, and in that case prose is a more natural means of telling a long story. But all these forms, for me, are part of a continuum and a way of working through creative problems of various kinds.
In 2009, Kessler’s translations of “Desolation of the Chimera” by Spanish poet Luis Cernuda was published, thus earning him the honor of the The Academy of American Poets 2010 Harold Morton Landon Translation Award—one of poetry’s most prestigious awards.
The poetry reading by Stephen Kessler and other local poet Atsuro Riley will take place at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 13 at Bookshop Santa Cruz, 1520 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. For more information, call 423-0900 or visit stephenkessler.com. Photo by: Dina Scoppettone