The hidden legion


A personal selection of Hispanic poetry by John Howard Reid reveals him to be one of that select, concealed, army of translators who labour for nothing more than glory


A Salute to Spanish Poetry:
100 Masterpieces from Spain and Latin America
Translated by John Howard Reid
2010, Lulu Books
153 pages

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

BEHIND the battleground of commercial publishing labours a hidden legion of cultural warriors selecting and translating great works for little more reward than glory.

Often, certainly in the case of poetry, the lumbering insensitivities of the big beasts stumbling around in the global marketplace forces these invisible individuals to go it alone when it comes to bringing their work into print.

It is rare that the Latin American Review of Books posts a review of a self-published work on its main site, but in the case of John Howard Reid’s A Salute to Spanish Poetry we have no qualms about doing so.

Reid – an Australian publisher and author (aka Tom Howard) – has compiled a collection that, if eclectic, reveals a passion for historical poetry and the apparent links between the Iberian and Latin American literary traditions in the pre-modern period. Of the 105 works by 59 poets, many are Latin American, showing a clear interest in how Hispanic poetic tradition has been influenced by the Americas.

Latin American independence

There is work from the greats – José Martí (pictured above), Antonio Machado, Andrés Bello, Ramón López Velarde, Rubén Darío – as well as anonymous pieces such as the lovelorn “Love is Terminal”. There are also interesting surprises, such as “Bolívar” by the Puerto Rican nationalist Luis Llorens Torres, whose lifelong goal was to secure the independence of his birthplace but whose Spanish (Catalan) roots also grounded him solidly in the island’s Hispanic vocation. Revealingly, for the way this poem reaches out to Latin American independence, Llorens Torres writes in “Bolívar”:

All liberated people were this poet’s coat of arms.
His poems are the most celebrated of the songs of freedom.

It is possible – although this is speculation and is in no way meant to cast aspertion – that what links the poems chosen by Reid for this collection is the expiration of their reproduction rights, for there are no acknowledgements in the book. The editor of any collection of poetry in translation that brings together the work of many poets from across the world will tell you that this is a sensible, and perfectly acceptable, strategy when looked at from a pragmatic point of view.

Most of the poems selected are comfortably short, and although great women writers such as the strident feminist Alfonsina Storni – who referred tellingly to men as el enemigo – are included, they are thin on the ground, although this perhaps says more about the traditional position of women in Hispanic society than about the art itself and is no criticism of Reid. Storni’s “The Lost Caress” reveals a female yearning for emotional love that is clearly unconsummated in the Argentina and Uruguay of the early 20th century – a necessary statement as probably true today as it was then. She writes:

I could love someone tonight with such infinite compassion.
Yes, I could love the very first man I meet.
But no-one comes…

Reid’s translations are honest and straightforward, often avoiding the strains of elitism found in collections published by the big houses. He opts for direct equivalents, leading at times to lines that on first reading appear more literal than literary, but on second do in fact more often than not capture the simple aspirations of the verse. The main point, as Reid himself would be keen to point out, is that his rendering does not miss the point of the Spanish original. We are in the presence here of a translator for whom loyalty is a paramount virtue.

There are two main criticisms of this work: first, it lacks a proper introduction in which the translator explains and justifies his selection. This would seem essential for any poetry collection, especially one with such a broad embrace across continents, eras and styles.

Second, the translator may belong to the hidden legion, but that does not mean translators are invisible and deserving of such humility that the only trace they leave is their name on the title of the book. After years tking a behind-the-scenes role bringing the work of others to fruition, Reid needs to be more assertive – and to include his biography in this collection alongside the greats that he pays such eloquent homage to. The role of translator is much more than that of a humble servant carrying heavy cultural goods between languages; more like that of a diplomat, negotiating the passage of a valuable cargo and thereby introducing exotic spices, flavours and colours to new peoples.

That said, in the case of A Salute to Spanish Poetry these criticisms only enhance the translator’s integrity, for royalties are nowhere to be seen or heard in this exercise. Reid has made a genuine and generous contribution to the fund of global knowledge, and deserves praise for his efforts.

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books

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