On Translating Electra Garrigó

by Margaret Carson
translator's notes

When Diana Taylor asked me several years ago to translate Virgilio Piñera's Electra Garrigó for the Stages of Conflict anthology, I accepted gladly, even before reading the play: I knew that Piñera was one of Cuba's most interest-ing and quirkiest authors, and with little of his poetry, fiction or theater available in English, I was eager to be one of his first translators. Of course, my excitement was mixed with trepidation. How could a play combining popular poetic forms, classical tragedy, slapstick comedy, culturally specific allusions and colloquial dialogue be successfully brought over into English? What unique challenges and problems would I face in translating this work?

For this Translator's Note, I thought I would shed light on part of the trans-lation process by looking at one of the more difficult problems in translating Electra Garrigó: how to handle its poetic parts? Poetry is often seen as setting the highest bar for translators. We're faced by a quandary: if you attempts to keep the poetry, the meaning can be distorted; if you ignore the poetry, then an essential feature of the original is erased.

The Chorus, which makes intermittent but crucial appearances throughout the play, sings or chants in the Spanish metrical form of the décima, a rhyming poem made up of ten-line stanzas, with each line containing eight syllables. Pi-ñera's use of the décima connects very directly to the popular elements of cu-banidad that permeate Electra Garrigó. As Sarah Townsend points out in her in-troduction to the play, "In Cuba décimas telling tales of passionate romance and true crimes were common fare on the radio during the era when Electra Garrigó was first performed" (176). For the Cuban audience, the rhythms of these opening lines must have brought surprisingly contemporary associations to mind.

How then to simulate these rhyming décimas in English? Could an equiva-lent be found? Like many translators, I believe there are no hard and fast rules about translating poetry. Instead, many diverse approaches can be followed in reimagining a poem in another language, all valid. Some translators would choose to translate within the constraints of an equivalent poetic form in English. In the case of the décima, that might be the ballad, for example, a popular, versa-tile rhyme form in English. Other translators, myself included, prefer to recreate the effect of the rhyme through cadence and beat and if possible, slant rhymes and assonance. The sound of the poem, so intrinsic to the original, is thereby radically recast, but a poetic effect can still be achieved.

In the opening lines of the play, for example, the Chorus sets the stage for the tragedy about to unfold. Here are the three stanzas of the original Spanish, along with my early, more literal translation:


En la ciudad de La Habana,
la perla más refulgente
de Cuba patria fulgente
la desgracia se cebó
en Electra Garrigó,
mujer hermosa y bravía,
que en su casa día a día
con un problema profundo
tan grande como este mundo
la suerte le deparó.


Electra era inteligente,
sensitiva y pudorosa,
luciente botón de rosa
del jardín de sus mayores;
merecedora de honores,
de tacto fino y humano,
mas la suerte mano a mano
como un sol que se derrumba
abrió en su casa dos tumbas
con esfuerzo sobrehumano.


Ella salió a la palestra
con frialdad de diamante,
y a su hermano Orestes amante
en quien también la tormenta
con sordo ruido revienta,
le anima a que no permita
un sacrificio banal
por una madre fatal,
que en su casa provocó
lo que Electra Garrigó
con voz dolorosa cuenta.

Early Draft:

In the city of Havana
the brightest pearl
of Cuba resplendent patria
disgrace vented its anger
on Electra Garrigó,
beautiful and indomitable woman
who in her home day by day
with a deep problem
as big as this world
[that] fate befell/bestowed on her.


Electra was intelligent,
sensitive and chaste.
A bright/shining rosebud
from the garden of her elders;
deserving of honors,
she had fine and human taste/tact,
but fate went one on one
like a sun that collapses
she opened in her house two tombs
with superhuman effort.


She strode into the cockpit
with the coldness of a diamond
and her brother Orestes lover/beloved
in whom also the storm
with a deaf noise burst/split
inspires/urges him not to allow
a foolish sacrifice
for a fatal/fateful/awful mother.
who in her house provoked
what Electra Garrigó
with a mournful voice tells.

In this early version I tried to follow the original as closely as I could, be-fore deciding on how to shape the new poem in subsequent revisions. Once this rough and uneven draft was done, my first concern was how to smooth out the lines without losing the message the Chorus has been charged with delivering to the audience. I hoped to create a pleasing cadence or stress pattern in English, to offset the loss of end-rhyme, and also wanted to create a poem that was speak-able, even singable (in the original Spanish, the well-known tune of Guantanam-era accompanied the Chorus).

Much of translation involves simply trying out a new words which in turn open up new possibilities and solutions. Critical feedback from friends, especially the poet Lisa Jarnot, also helped to hone the language of the translation, elimi-nating choppiness and suggesting more felicitous combinations of words. Read-ing the poem out loud and listening to its sounds and rhythms was also essential to arriving at an English version, especially important since Electra Garrigó was written to be performed (and I hope that this translation will one day be staged for an English-speaking audience).

The early drafts, tentative and prosaic, with much eventually turned into this final version:

In the city of Havana,
Cuba's shining pearl,
disgrace descended on
the brave and beautiful
Electra Garrigó –
day by day at home she stayed
until fate came her way
with troubles as big
as the world.

Electra was intelligent
and sensitive and chaste,
a bright bud
from her elders' garden,
a woman of many honors,
she had the finest taste.
But like a sun's implosion
fate went one on one –
with strength beyond the human realm
two tombs were opened in her home.

Electra strode into the ring
hardened as a diamond
to tell Orestes whom she loved –
her brother in this sordid storm –
to halt a useless sacrifice
to appease a wicked mother.
Electra, now in mournful tones,
tells this house's tale of woe.

To what degree is this version an "equivalent" of Piñera's original? Despite the tremendous changes, I believe the translation achieves poetic effects that are analogous to those of the original: alliteration ("disgrace descended on" "the brave and beautiful") and assonance (two tombs were opened in her home" "day by day at home she stayed / until fate came her way"). The tempo of the English is evenly cadenced, with enough variation to avoid a sing-song regularity.

Does the translation of these décimas here and at other moments in the play work? Did I stay true to Piñera's words and convey a sense of the poetry of the original? It's up to the reader to judge, but my hope is that the intent of the poet/playwright has been successfully brought over, and that the translation also resonates as a poem.