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This review is taken from PN Review 252, Volume 46 Number 4, March - April 2020.

Cover of A Certain Koslowski – The Director’s Cut
Ross CoganFrom Mexico to Bremen
Pura López Colomé, Speaking in Song (Hearing and Forgetting), (transl.) Dan Bellm (Shearsman) £10.95;
Michael Augustin, A Certain Koslowski – The Director’s Cut, (transls) Sujata Bhatt & Margritt Lehbert (Arc) £9.99
According to Robert Hass, the work of Pura López Colomé, one of Mexico’s leading contemporary poets, is marked by an ‘incandescent inwardness, of the kind that Marina Tsvetaeva said she found in the poems of Rilke’. I’m not convinced by the comparison to Rilke, but the mention of Tsvetaeva is serendipitous. Tsvetaeva is famously hard to translate, with her complex rhyme schemes, compressed syntax and dense metaphors. I wonder if the same isn’t true of López Colomé.

What strikes you most about Speaking in Song is the aptness of the title, since many of these poems have been set to music. And you can see how well they would work as songs. The short lines – often only two or three words – are packed with internal rhymes and assonance, forcing you to slow down and savour every syllable. The English translations can fall flat by comparison.

Not that there’s anything wrong with Dan Bellm’s work, which is invariably competent and occasionally inspired. But the task is a stiff one. Forrest Gander, another translator of López Colomé, has noted that the ‘hermetic quality’ of her poetry makes it tough to translate, particularly when placed alongside the difficulty of deciphering Spanish pronouns, which allow for ambiguities hard to mirror in English. Add to this the complexity of translating a language rich in end-rhymes that allows rhyme-schemes to arise almost organically, into a ‘rhyme-poor’ one like English, and you have a challenge for the best translator. So, for example, a musical passage like:
no ...


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