A new volume of Lorca translations brings with it several questions. Does it offer a new angle on what is already a loved and oft-translated poet? Are the translator’s various decisions and concessions justified? And most importantly, do the poems stand on their own as poems in English, divorced from the historical intrigue of Lorca’s life? In the case of Sarah Arvio's Poet in Spain, the answer to these questions is yes.
In Arvio’s generous introduction to her translations, she explains this book’s unique focus and approach. In Lorca’s oeuvre, Arvio claims to “hear two voices and see two landscapes”: one is Lorca’s popular New York poems, full of alienation, surreality and political vigor; the other voice, and the one this volume focuses on, constitutes his “moonlit earthbound Spanish poems.” By shifting the focus to Lorca’s more overlooked works, Poet in Spain starts charting new territory right out of the gate.
Arvio's method of translation is also worthy of remark. She “wrote quickly, by ear,” and she entirely forgoes punctuation because it “hindered the flow of the language.” Sometimes this absence is keenly missed, but Arvio’s felicity with Lorca’s pliable rhythmic patterns masks the omission of commas and periods, and apart from a few blips of syntactic confusion, the decision is sound.
The effect throughout all of Arvio’s translations is swooning, romantic beauty punctuated by darker passions. Arvio captures the essence and energy of Lorca’s voice, steeped in dreamy imagery and moony sentiment. “A flock / of caught birds / swinging their long long / tails in the dark” ends the poem “Landscape,” and it’s the repetition of the word “long” that reveals the translator’s hand working the syllabically shorter English language against Lorca’s Spanish rhythms. The effect is often sublime.
Poet in Spain is a triumphant addition to the corpus of Lorca translations, due in part to its specific focus, but also to the consistency of the translations. Arvio’s mix of careful, thoughtful research and respect for the spontaneous energy of poetry makes this volume invaluable to any English-speaker smitten by Lorca’s work.