I was drawn to translate Benedetti’s work from Spanish into English for much the same reason, I think, as Benedetti was drawn to translate the world from experience into poetry. Which is to say, not because I immediately loved it or found it beautiful, but rather because it confused and overwhelmed me, and I wanted to figure it out. Benedetti’s work is chaotic, wordy, both straightforward and cacophonous. There are too many simultaneous truths, there is too much death for life to hold, there are too many words, and the words can’t hold the death, either. I wanted to translate “El verbo” almost as a coping mechanism, some way to methodically and concretely process a mess that resists detangling.
Benedetti writes in a conversational tone, no flourishes: “This people is overripe for revolution and for innocence.” “The verb will not be god.” The world is a mess and words are failing us. I will throw them at you in a fluid stream and hope that something sticks. Somehow this head-on confrontation of injustices, for all its matter-of-fact-ness, can’t make sense of the mess. To me, understanding Benedetti’s poetic translations of experience means understanding that words can’t make sense of unfathomable horror, be they fragments or sentences or Spanish or English. The world is not right; Benedetti searches frantically within and between and underneath words, grasping at some sense of understanding. Whether he achieves it is another question. Whether I achieve it by puzzling through his puzzling is also another question. Reading and translating Benedetti requires rigorous dialogue between how the world is and how it ought to be. Whether we get to the bottom of this or not, that dialogue is a good place to start.
Mario Benedetti (1920–2009) came of age and died in Montevideo, Uruguay, the country’s coastal capital that serves as a backdrop for much of Benedetti’s poetry. Part of the Generación del ’45, he was and is one of the most widely read poets in Latin America, revered for his seamless interweaving of love and politics and best-known for his short stories. In his youth he worked as a car mechanic, typist, secretary, journalist, and translator of Kafka from German into Spanish. Benedetti was a vocal figure in left-wing political organizing in Uruguay. He was passionate and active in shaping domestic politics, championing revolutions in Puerto Rico and Cuba, and criticizing US political and economic involvement in Latin American dictatorships. The poet also wrote plays and novels and was heavily involved in journalism. He founded and led a leftist magazine called Marcha, which was shut down when Benedetti was forced into exile during the country’s 1973 military coup. He moved first to Buenos Aires, but fled to Cuba, Peru, and finally Spain following threats from Argentina’s right-wing military regime. He returned to Uruguay after twelve years of exile and split his time between Montevideo and Madrid until his death at eighty-eight.
Ella Konefal is a Penn junior studying fine arts and comparative literature. She cares deeply about voice, in all its many varied manifestations. She’s fluent in English, Spanish, and drawing, and getting there with Italian, French, and audiovisual composition. She’s grown up with a frequently shifting sense of home, having lived with her family of five in New York, Pennsylvania, Guatemala, Mexico, Ecuador, and Virginia. She’s happy to add a cozy third-floor apartment in West Philly to the list. The translation of poetry is a new pursuit, and she hopes you enjoy the final products as much as she enjoyed their formation.