REVIEW by Suzy Ceulan Hughes

NWR Issue r13

The Other Tiger: Recent Poetry from Latin America

by Richard Gwyn’s

Suzy Ceulan Hughes admires Richard Gwyn’s impressive anthology of translations from containing 155 poems by 96 poets from 16 countries of Latin America

The Other Tiger is a magnificent volume, entirely deserving the accolades it has received, some of which are printed on the front and back covers: ‘glittering’ (George Szirtes), ‘delicate and bold, passionate and tender, political and intimate’ (Daniel Hahn), ‘indispensable’ (WN Herbert), ‘big, generous, varied and colourful (Patrick McGuinness), ‘a book that belongs in every library’ (Edith Grossman).

Himself a poet, Richard Gwyn has been translating poetry from Spanish for most of his adult life. In the preface, he talks about his first attempts in his early twenties to translate poems by Antonio Machado, which he describes as ‘much too difficult for a beginner’. Undeterred, he pursued his studies and ‘began to understand something of the complexity of the translator’s craft… the intrinsic “creativity” of the pursuit.’ He went on to become a translation addict, translating the works of new and established poets from Spain and throughout South America. This ‘translation as addiction’ – or perhaps ‘passion’ would be a better, less pathological term – is shared by many practitioners (‘What do you do for work?’ ‘Translate.’ ‘What do you do for fun?’ ‘Translate….’), and The Other Tiger is a perfect example: 360 pages containing 155 poems by 96 poets from 16 countries.

An anthology this size might be daunting for the reader, but to avoid this the poems have been carefully collated in six sections, each with its own introduction. Each of these themed sections, from ‘Where we live’ to ‘What becomes of us?’, contains poems by several authors from various countries. If you find a poem you especially like and want to track its author through the sections, there is a contributor index at the back, together with biographies. The volume is bilingual, with the original Spanish poem and the English translation on opposite pages, so you can easily glide your eye from one to the other if you are a Spanish reader and have an interest in the translation process. There is an acknowledged bias towards Argentina, Chile, Mexico and Colombia (the countries Gwyn has travelled in, and which also have the strongest literary tradition and supporting infrastructure), but the gender balance is excellent throughout, and equal weight is given to new and established poets. What more could a reader wish for?

But we are discontented creatures. What happens, of course, is that you find a poet or poets whose work you particularly like, or you find yourself especially attracted to poems from a specific country, and you want more. Yet this is just one of the joys of this anthology: it serves as a taster, an introduction, so that the reader can follow through (with details of each poet’s publications given in the biographies).

Gwyn is a sensitive translator, using the ‘Poet to Poet’ method to ensure faithfulness to the original and to capture the distinct voice of each of the poets represented here. There were many poems that stood out for me on a first reading, and several poets whose work I should like to know better. And doubtless the list will expand as I dip in again at more leisure. For now, I shall with difficulty pick just one poem from each section: ‘The Dead’ by María Rivera (Mexico), whose lists and repetitions drum, and drum in, the horrifying familiarity of violent death in the poet’s country, serving as a homage to all the lives lost; ‘Cats’ by Darío Jaramillo Agudelo (Colombia), with its striking images and several beautiful two-liners, including, ‘The states of matter are four in number: / liquid, solid, gaseous and cat’; ‘Regent’s Canal’ by Jorge Fondebrider (Argentina), which quietly evokes the disorienting ‘otherness’ felt by a foreigner in a foreign land; ‘Fragment from Tree’ by Jessica Freudenthal Ovando (Bolivia), with its genealogical incantation of family names, relationships, secrets and causes of death; ‘Walking Backwards’ by Humberto Ak’Abal (Guatemala), whose five, brief lines are dense with meaning; and ‘Equatorial Cruise’ by Diana Bellessi (Argentina), whose images haunt both the female narrator and the reader.

If it is hard for me to select six poems from the 155 contained here, how much harder must it have been for Gwyn to select these from the hundreds he must have sifted through? For me, the choice is simply a matter of personal preference in the moment, but Gwyn shouldered the responsibility of choosing poems that would represent not just individual poets, but also literary movements, particular moments in history, entire nations, a whole continent. The Other Tiger serves as a window on what is, to many readers, still another world. It is a great and generous gift, a legacy that will endure.

Suzy Ceulan Hughes is a writer and translator. Her short-fiction translations from the French have been published in previous issues of New Welsh Review/Reader.


previous review: Owen Rhoscomyl
next review: What I Know I Cannot Say


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