Translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean
You were a grape. In the beginning, Leo, during my wakeful nights, you were a grape. That’s how I imagined you because that’s how the first doctor described you at the first clinic we went to in Nebraska. At that moment, she told us, you would be more or less the size of a grape. We’d arrived at the clinic somewhat sleep-deprived. We’d barely closed our eyes the night before, anxious about the next day’s appointment, and as soon as we went in, the security guard told us that Tuesday was the most dangerous day. Then we walked through a metal detector. We emptied our pockets and opened our backpacks. The security guard, checking the contents of our bags, told us that one Tuesday, a few years ago, someone had thrown a Molotov cocktail at the clinic. Outside, on the street, we could still hear the shouts of the eight or ten people who had tried to prevent us from going in. Some held up signs. Others prayed with rosaries. The security guard told us that Tuesday was the only day of the week that the doctor who performed abortions flew in to Nebraska. I had recently translated a poem by William Carlos Williams in which a pregnant woman—already the mother of seven children—asks her doctor for some pills to induce a miscarriage, and the doctor knows that, in cases like this, quick action is the most important thing. And I began to think of you, Leo, and to think of that poem and that pregnant woman who doesn’t want any more children or any more pregnancies, while the security guard returned our bags and told us that an old man phoned every Tuesday, without fail, and threatened to kill everyone there by crashing his truck through the front door. Your mother and I looked back at the door, as if checking to see if it would withstand the impact. Then we went in and saw the doctor, and she told us you were a grape.
I became your father, Leo, the way I’ve done everything else important in my life: by accident. You’re still growing in your mother’s womb while I’m translating William Carlos Williams, but I feel the need to tell you some things I fear will later be forgotten in time or in silence. Tell you, for example, that every night I sleep with my right hand on top of you, perhaps trying to feel your slight movements, or perhaps wanting to protect you at night, or perhaps thinking that you, too, while sleeping and growing in there, might feel my hand nearby, just on the other side of your dark and internal world. Tell you, for example, that I pray you won’t inherit my allergies or my premature baldness or my neurotic disposition or my tendency to get seasick and carsick and airsick, to faint at the sight of blood or even at the thought of it; but tell you at the same time that if you do inherit all these things, if you turn out to be just as allergy-ridden and unbalanced and bald and neurotic as your father, it doesn’t matter, life goes on, you just have to wipe your nose. Tell you, for example, that in the early hours I am overcome by a profound sensation of anxiety, or rather of fear: fear of failing as your father. Will I know how to be a father, Leo? Will I know how to be your father? Tell you, for example, that I had never wanted to have children. Or at least that’s what I told everybody, and that’s what I told myself, probably to mitigate the fear I felt, that I still feel. I no longer expected to be a father. I became your father by accident, Leo. Even now, while you’re growing in your mother’s womb, it’s hard for me to imagine myself as a father, imagine you in my arms, looking up, the entire future in your eyes. Maybe because being a father is something unimaginable.
Williams used to say, Leo, that it all began with a heart attack. He was sixteen or seventeen. It happened during a race. He had already run eight laps when someone shouted that he had to run one more. He ran it. Then he got sick. He threw up. His head started to hurt. When he got home they called the doctor, who diagnosed a heart murmur. No more sports. No more baseball. No more running (which Williams didn’t mind too much, since there was a boy in the neighbourhood he could never beat). No more games with his friends after school. Just rest. He was forced back on himself, to think about himself, look into himself. And then, said Williams, he began to read.
Williams didn’t speak English, but the American idiom. That’s what he said himself, Leo, emphatically. He didn’t like talking about language, but about the idiom. He wasn’t interested in writing correct or academic English, but the English of the street, the English of experience, the English of his patients.
Williams used to write poems or little stories on his prescription forms. As if literature were the medicine he wanted to prescribe for his patients. Patients he would later turn into literature. The little girl stubbornly refusing to have her throat examined. The teenager with her face covered in pimples. The young man who has an accident in the factory where he works and later, more than medical help, needs help with his labour rights. The tiny, unforgettable eleven-month-old baby who dies because her illness is not diagnosed in time. An old Italian man who has no money to pay for his wife’s appointment and then, as a sort of communion, offers a pinch of snuff to the doctor. Another poor old man, a fisherman called Thaddeus Marshall, who keeps a red wheelbarrow beside some white chickens in his yard. Williams said that his poem about the red wheelbarrow (one of the most famous in last-century North American poetry) had arisen from that image and from the affection he felt for that African American fisherman, a patient and neighbour of his in Rutherford, New Jersey: an old man so poor that when he died he had to be buried in an unmarked grave, without his name, without a headstone. Although his true headstone, Leo, will always be that poem of just sixteen words.
In the summer of 2015, more than fifty years after Williams’s death, a Rutherford museum organized a commemorative ceremony in his honour, inviting some three thousand people to participate. Perhaps none of them was a reader of his poetry. But all of them, Leo, as babies, had come into the world helped by the hands of that poet.
You keep growing inside your mother’s womb, and I keep translating Williams. I think about you as I work on some of his doctor stories or poems, perhaps because you are there, in the stories I’m translating, in each one of these stories and poems of pregnant women, women giving birth, abandoned children, sick or dying or already-dead babies. Your tiny hands are there, in the words, as if holding them, as if moving the words with me from one language to another. The Birth. El nacimiento. That’s the title of one of these poems, which begins like this: “A 40 odd year old Para 10 / Navarra / or Navatta she didn’t know.” I spent weeks lost in those first three lines, reading them and rereading them, investigating them, trying to understand or decipher their meaning. But it was you, Leo, from within the womb, who finally deciphered them for me. A few days ago a medical report arrived in the mail with the results of some tests, and on the top of the page we discovered the words Gravida and Para. They are two medical terms. Gravida: number of times a woman has been pregnant. Para: number of times a woman has given birth. Para 10, then, is the medical term designating a woman who has given birth ten times. You helped me understand that the opening of Williams’s poem describes a woman about forty years old who had given birth ten times previously, and whose surname was Navarra or Navatta, she didn’t know—a poem, like almost all of his poems and stories, about poor immigrants, people who no longer have anything, not even a name. Williams, in his autobiography, confesses that as a writer he’d been a doctor, and as a doctor he’d been a writer. And I see you in the words, Leo. I feel you in the words. You don’t exist yet, but in the words you are my son.
Williams wrote that his father was his literary confidante, the one he always turned to when he had a literary difficulty. The two of them translated together, Leo. Together they translated poems by the Colombian José Asunción Silva, the Peruvian José Santos Chocano, the Honduran Alfonso Guillén Zelaya, and when his father was already very ill with cancer, nearing death, a short story called “The Man Who Resembled a Horse” by the Guatemalan writer Rafael Arévalo Martínez. Williams saw no difference between the writer and the translator. Translation, for him, was also an act of poetry. For him, both jobs arose from the same creative impulse. In a letter to the poet and critic Nicolas Calas, Williams wrote: “I don’t care how I say what I must say. If I do original work all well and good. But if I can say it (the matter of form I mean) by translating the work of others that also is valuable. What difference does it make?”
A dark Spanish beauty. That’s how Williams is described in the 1906 University of Pennsylvania Medical School yearbook. And in between those two bland Williams—both inherited from his father—his second name stands out, as dark as it is exotic, so Latin, with the indissoluble echo of his mother’s Puerto Rican family. It was as if his name itself represented the two poles of his life, of his personality: paternal/maternal, doctor/poet, science/art, order/chaos, Apollonian/Dionysian. (Several of his poems are even narrated by voices of two conflicting personae, named Bill and Carlos.) In some cultures, Leo, it is believed that by telling our name to a person, we are entrusting that person with a piece of ourselves. As if our name were a physical thing or another limb. You told us your name yourself, in a way. There was no discussion or debate. There were no other options or any great moments of inspiration. If I believed in inspiration, I’d tell you that according to the ancient rabbis and kabbalists, parents receive a spark of inspiration at the moment of naming their child. But inspiration does not exist. Your mother and I were at the hospital in Nebraska, sitting in the waiting room right after having seen you for the first time in the ultrasound. Ninety-nine percent, the nurse had replied when I asked her how certain she was that you were a boy. Those are his little boy parts there, she added, sounding almost embarrassed, pointing to the black screen. I hadn’t imagined you as a boy or a girl (in my mind, you were still a grape), and I hadn’t even wanted to think of names. After the appointment, sitting in the hospital waiting room, your mother suddenly said it was a shame that my Polish grandfather was called León because she liked that name, and neither of us wanted to name you after anyone else in the family. I, without a thought, answered that I liked it too, but not León, rather Leo. And that was all. We saw you for the first time that afternoon in the hospital, so small and blurred on the black screen, and then we both pronounced your name.
Some neighbours in Nebraska, about to move, gave us an old piano today that they couldn’t or didn’t want to take with them. An enormous relic, a beautiful and battered Tryber. It must be almost a hundred years old (according to a yellowed piece of paper stuck inside, it was tuned for the first time in 1924), and it’s not hard for me to imagine it in a saloon in the Nebraska Old West, slightly out of tune and covered in dust and surrounded by cowboys and prostitutes. I like how it sounds. I like how it looks up against the wall in the house, so imposing and out of place. Williams grew up hearing his mother play a very similar piano, an old Lindeman & Sons Melodigrand, and that music of his childhood would later emerge in his poetry, in his literature. Perhaps you, Leo, will grow up hearing the slightly out of tune and dusty music of this old cowboy piano. (You’ve been hearing my favourite Bach cantata for almost nine months now.) The first thing I did, then, was sit down and play for you the same exercise I had to practise so often as a boy beneath the inquisitive and always furious gaze of Mrs. Sapperstein, my piano teacher: a single piece, played in different keys. According to Schopenhauer, a translation relates to its original in the same way a musical piece relates to its transposition into another key. It’s the same piece, but it isn’t.
In the maternity department of the hospital there is a long wooden wall, maybe two metres high and five metres long, with small gaps or slots. This morning, after an appointment—one of your last, I hope—I stared at it, trying to figure out what it was for, until a nurse came along and told me it was a prayer wall. Then she showed me a box made of the same wood, full of little red printed slips of paper, and explained that any visitor could take a red slip of paper from the box, place it in one of the little slots in the wall, and leave a prewritten prayer there on behalf of a mother or a baby. I thought of asking her what happened to those slips of red paper afterwards, if some priest or janitor arrived at night to take them out of the slots and put them back in the box for the next day’s batch of visitors. I thought of asking her if all those prayers were the same prayer, or if each slip of red paper was different. I thought of asking her if a person could write their own prayer on a slip of red paper. I thought of what prayer I’d write for you, Leo, of what prayer I’d pray for you, if the nurse gave me a blank slip of red paper.
Today, the Feast Day of St. Jerome, patron saint of translators, is your due date. In one of Williams’s short stories that I translated, there is a baby who at the beginning is a girl and then suddenly, four or five pages later, is a boy. In the middle of the story, for no apparent reason, a five-month-old girl turns into a five-month-old boy. An author’s carelessness, probably. But how to translate it? Correcting something the writer himself never corrected? Or being faithful to that lapse, even if later it’ll seem like an editor’s or translator’s carelessness? Should we translate the slip-ups as well, the errors, the incongruities? Should we be faithful to authors’ words or to their ideas? The original text is like a projectile, said Foucault, and the language into which one is translating the target. A translator, then, according to Foucault and his school, should launch the original text toward that target with the precise aim of a sniper. Without missing. Without interpretation. Without any modification whatsoever. Absolutely straight and absolutely faithful to each of the words of the original text they are translating. Word for word. The possible problems—such as unnatural sounds, or cacophony, or incomprehension on the part of new readers—can be considered collateral damage. Total and absolute fidelity to a literary text, then, even if this has echoes of sanctity, of ethics. A free translation, according to Nabokov, should be considered a crime against the original author. “The clumsiest literal translation,” he wrote, “is a thousand times more useful than the prettiest paraphrase.” But is literature a useful thing? Is utility the aim of literature, or is beauty? In his analysis of different European translations of The Thousand and One Nights, Borges celebrates translators’ creativity and originality. He praises the French translator, who “adds Art Nouveau passages, fine obscenities, brief comical interludes, circumstantial details, symmetries, vast quantities of visual Orientalism,” and whose “happy and creative infidelity” turns ten words of original Arabic into a beautiful seven-line French paragraph. In contrast, Borges criticizes the literally faithful translations into German—which are, he says, entirely frank—for not bringing anything new to the literary exchange. Borges didn’t see translation as an instrument to launch a literary projectile toward the target of the new language but as a means of exchange, through which both languages, and both cultures, are mutually enriched. Not a word-for-word translation but sense for sense, as St. Jerome wrote. So then, Leo, niña, niño, or both?
I’m now finishing my translation of Williams, and you are approaching. Your birth is approaching. And my anxiety grows, especially at night, in my dreams. You are the first thing I think about when I open my eyes in the darkness, and still in darkness I feel as if the night is swallowing me. I try to embrace your mother beside me, to feel your movements and your little feet pushing and perhaps assuage my fears somehow, but the position is uncomfortable and I almost can’t reach anymore. I wonder if every incipient father wakes up with this dread at night. Sometimes, face up in the darkness, I blame myself for having brought you into this cruel and senseless world. Sometimes I envy your youth. Sometimes I find it hard to talk to you in the womb. I can’t. I don’t know why. I feel a bit absurd speaking to a belly, although I know you are floating in there and can hear and perhaps understand my words. But then here, while I’m writing, I feel you even closer. As I write, Leo, I feel you even closer. Perhaps because I know it’s these words that will finally remain, these words the only ones that matter.
While his own son was growing in his wife’s womb, Williams was also translating: Nuevo Mundo (The New World) by Lope de Vega. I wonder, Leo, if there might not be a connection between the process of becoming a father and that of becoming a translator, between imagining how our child is gradually becoming our child and imagining how someone else’s words gradually become our own. Williams’s first child was born in the early morning of January 7, 1914, during the winter’s first snowfall. “It’s a bear, it’s a boy, it’s a bear!” Williams wrote in a note and immediately sat back down to continue translating Lope de Vega.
You were also born in the early hours, a few days ago, after an entire night of natural labour. I’m still sleepless, exhausted, as if floating, yet it’s not me I want to write to you about now, or you, but your mother. About her strength. About her absolute and unconditional dedication. She wouldn’t accept any palliative measures whatsoever, facing down the pain for twelve hours with nothing more than heroic screams that seemed to surge from an ancestral epoch, and with a strength and nobility I had never witnessed before. In contrast, I felt like I was going to faint when I heard the midwife say you were too big and she was going to have to make an incision. Immediately, at the mere thought of it, I broke out in a cold sweat. I had to lie down on a sofa. But a very kind nurse brought me a little glass of orange juice and I recovered in time to return to your mother’s side and whisper in her ear to push one last time. She told me she couldn’t, that she couldn’t endure it anymore, that she had no strength left, but I insisted that she wait for the next contraction and push one last time, that you were almost out now. A surgeon had arrived and had an obstetric suction pad prepared, in case your mother could not manage to get you out on her own. But there was no need. I saw you for the first time, son, at 5:38 in the morning. A nurse had put a bracelet on your left wrist that read “Halfon, boy,” and I felt superhuman and nothing more than human.
Eduardo Halfon was born in Guatemala in 1971. He has written fourteen books of fiction in Spanish. The Polish Boxer, his first book to appear in English, was a New York Times Editors’ Choice. He currently lives in Nebraska.
Anne McLean translates Latin American and Spanish novels, short stories, memoirs, and other writings by authors including Julio Cortázar, Ignacio Martínez de Pisón, Javier Cercas, and Evelio Rosero. Her translations of Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s The Shape of the Ruins and Héctor Abad’s The Farm will be published in 2018.