ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

 Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


Migrations, by Gloria Gervitz.

Translated from the Spanish by Mark Schafer.

Gloria Gervitz, winner of the 2019 Pablo Neruda Ibero-American Poetry Prize, died April 19th, 2022.  She was born in 1943 in Mexico City, to Jewish parents, three of whose parents had emigrated from Eastern Europe.  In addition to leading poetry workshops throughout Mexico, she was also the translator into Spanish of works by Anna Akhmatova, Marguerite Yourcenar, Samuel Becket, Lorine Niedecker, and Clarice Lispector, among others.

Gervitz was at work on her long poem Migraciones since she was 26, modifying the parts that constituted it, joining them, adding to and subtracting from them, and finally removing section titles and all punctuation, until she published the final version in 2020. The definitive translation, by Mark Schaefer, appeared in a New York Review of Books edition, ISBN 978-1-68137-570-0,  published in 2021.

The translator has done a remarkable job. Gervitz' poetry is packed with the names of Mexican flowers, food, plants, birds, household items, a dense language one would call almost untranslatable.  The poems also use the language of Jewish prayer, especially liturgical Hebrew, the Kaddish, in Aramaic, as well as traces of many other languages. 

The NYRB edition fortunately includes a glossary for words, phrases, and references in Mexican Spanish, as well as for the Hebrew and Aramaic terms, with many entries rich enough that they could qualify as notes, plus a list of sources for the many quotations and hidden allusions. There is also an afterword consisting of a seamless blend of two conversations that Mark Schafer had with Gervitz, one in 2004 and the other in 2021. The apparatus is extremely helpful; it illuminates the author's thinking about her poem, as well as the difficulties and the success of the translator's work. Here is a sample from the last interview:

M.S.: It seems to me that you write against language —that is, language as something singular, pure, static. Your poetry contains Spanish, Hebrew, Aramaic, Yiddish, English, Farsi, and Portuguese, and all without italics, as a single flow of language.
G.G.: Look, it's simply that words have a life of their own; they come as they choose. So, it seeemed to me that to put them in italics would have been to give them a weight they didn't have, to emphasize them rather than allowing them to flow.


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