Gabriela Mistral: Selected Prose and Prose-Poems Translated by Stephen Tapscott University of Texas Press 262 pages, $34.95
This America of Ours: The Letters of Gabriela Mistral and Victoria Ocampo Edited and translated by Elizabeth Horan and Doris Meyer University of Texas Press 389 pages, $29.95
“I’m made that way,” she says, “like the Iliad, covered with hard mail plates, then suddenly opening, sweetly, in lines about Helen of Troy.”— “The Pineapple”
he Chilean writer, Gabriela Mistral (1889-1957) was an educator, poet, diplomat, journalist, champion of the underdog, fervent advocate of pan-Americanism, and in 1945 became the first Latin American recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature.
She was also like the pineapple she wrote about— one thing on the outside and another on the inside. Pablo Neruda, Chile’s best-known poet—and fellow Nobel laureate—once alluded to the myths and contradictions surrounding Mistral’s life with a reference to poets who were subjected to “mindless pomp and rituals” by ‘self-serving officials” and transformed into icons. Is that what happened to Mistral?
For years, she was regarded as sturdy, proud, maternal, and saintly, a domestic creature. To some extent, she fostered an image far removed from her reality. (As a young poet, she changed her name from Lucila Godoy Alcayaga to Gabriela Mistral in honor of two European intellectuals.) But, in fact, she complained of poor health, counseled humility, never married nor gave birth—although she surrounded herself with “family,” a foster child (her nephew Yin Yin), and a series of close women friends. Rootless, she never remained long in one place. She smoked heavily, downed gallons of Coca Cola and coffee, indulged in monologues which could last all night, and could be coarse. “[C]ourtesy is something that I never learned,” she wrote in one of the thousands of letters she produced throughout her lifetime. In sum, there seem to be as many Gabrielas as there are pieces to a jigsaw puzzle.
Mistral would have enjoyed being compared to a jigsaw puzzle—or a toy top, or a pinwheel. (Hers was a playful imagination.) And her life, to some extent, was circumscribed by activities involving children, first as a teacher and later as an administrator, educational consultant, and life-long advocate of universal education. Some of her writing was intended for children; she wrote ingenuously, with the unfettered imagination of the very young. As she once explained, “Poetry lives simply within me as a remnant, as the vestige of a submerged childhood.”
The University of Texas Press has recently published two books that will introduce Mistral to a new generation of readers and help fill in the gaps for scholars, Gabriela Mistral: Selected Prose and Prose-Poems, edited and translated by Stephen Tapscott, and This America of Ours: The Letters of Gabriela Mistral and Victoria Ocampo, edited and translated by Elizabeth Horan and Doris Meyer. (This second is a compilation of Mistral’s correspondence with the brilliant Argentine writer, editor and publisher, Victoria Ocampo.)
Translating poetry or poetic prose can be an onerous and thankless task. (A fair amount of the material included in the bilingual Gabriela Mistral: Selected Prose and Prose-Poems is so lyrical it could easily pass for poetry.) Letters, on the other hand, are generally less difficult to translate. Despite this, as Horan and Meyer point out in their elaborate introduction to This America of Ours, both Mistral and Ocampo often defied convention in their use of language. (Since the Horan/Meyer edition appears only in English, there is no basis for comparison.)
Were she alive, I’m not sure Mistral would completely approve of Stephen Tapscott’s translation of the prose and prose-poems. His results are often redundant and unwieldy: In “To a Sower,” Di tu palabra becomes “Offer the word you have to say.” Literal translations can sound unnecessarily awkward in English as in “Song”: “…the song…cleanses the atmosphere of the ignoble day in which humans despised each other.” At times, Tapscott fails to employ the most specific or accurate word. However, much to his credit, Tapscott, a Professor of Literature at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is willing to take risks. (Good writers do so all the time; good translators only occasionally.) For example, from Poems of the Mothers Me ha besado y yo soy otra becomes “I was kissed, and I am othered.” Departing from a strictly literal translation enables him to convey, even enhance the meaning, without loss of poetic integrity.
Despite minor flaws, Tapscott effectively translates Mistral’s words—sometimes anguished, tender, occasionally embarrassing, but always intense—from Spanish into English. More difficult is the task of translating their meaning, so deeply embedded in Latin American culture. (Mistral remains among the least understood and appreciated of 20th-century Latin American writers.) For non-Latin readers, expressions of strong emotion—powerful at best, saccharine at worst—can be discomforting. (English is less tolerant of strong affect.) In his scholarly Translator’s Notes, Tapscott addresses this issue and provides some valuable insights.
ecause such a wide range of writing is represented here—everything from essays to pedagogic reflections, biographies, fables, elegies, spiritual readings, simple messages, and observations on everyday things—one comes away with a greater understanding of Mistral the writer. (Missing are the great lyric poems which would seal her reputation.) Some of her essays, “On Four Sips of Water,” for example, an introduction to her poem, “To Drink,” are truly memorable”: The lyric poet protects images in flight: an eternal adolescent with vacant eyes that turn the quickly passing image over and over, saturated with the sweet truism that the soul knows better than the body. In others, she is often intent on driving home a lesson. These can be tedious and didactic. (They have not aged well.) But many of the shorter pieces—the fables, elegies, and some of the prose-poems on such subjects as bread, salt, and the giraffe, exhibit her outrageous wit and unharnessed imagination; the results can be delightful: The sunflower is mistaken for the sun by small plants and grasses; the raggedy alpaca reminds children of all the things they’ve lost—“dolls, teddy bears, flying mice, trees that speak with seven voices.” But the Mistral portrayed in more than 20 years of correspondence with Victoria Ocampo differs significantly from the whimsical Gabriela of lost dolls and flying mice. While her collected prose is invaluable in itself, it can be misleading as a revelation of character. (In fact, it’s helped perpetuate a public image much at odds with the woman revealed in the letters.)
In making her letters available to the general public, Elizabeth Horan and Doris Meyer, both eminent scholars in the fields of literature and Hispanic Studies, respectively, bring the poet off the street and into the living room. This America of Ours is a significant and timely contribution to the research. It is also the first time that any of Mistral’s letters have ever been translated into English. As a result, our understanding of feminism, politics, education, and culture in Latin America and elsewhere during a compelling period—1935 through 1956—will be enhanced.
Years of painstaking sleuthing have allowed Horan and Meyer to determine, with some accuracy, when the letters—most were undated—were written. In addition to classifying and translating them, providing footnotes and critical annotations, compiling an exhaustive index, chronology and biographical dictionary, and supplementing all this with related articles and correspondence, they have managed to decipher Mistrala’s pencil scrawled handwriting—no small feat.
This America of Ours should interest a general, as well as a scholarly audience. Ocampo and Mistral were independent and unconventional Latin American women: they were acquainted with the foremost intellectuals of their time and lived their lives in plain public view. But they had to be careful. Both were well aware that their correspondence was often intervened, in particular between 1948 and 1952, when Ocampo was attacked by the Peron government, jailed briefly, and denied a passport for several years.
Mistral—the bulk of the correspondence is hers—still manages to disclose a good deal: “Maybe what I miss in you,” she writes to Victoria, “is nothing but a share of common experience. The experience of poverty, of fighting, in blood and mud, with life. There’s no remedy for it in this life’s journey. In me there’s hardness, fanaticism, ugliness, that you can’t be aware of, being unaware as you are of what it’s like to chew bare stones for thirty years with a woman’s gums, amid a hard people.”
Victoria had been born rich, cultivated and “Europeanized,” and Mistral would never forgive her that. Mistral did not forgive a lot of things. (According to Stephen Tapscott, “she was talented for remembering grudges.”) And she had additional shortcomings, as well: She could be bossy, proprietary, pessimistic, demanding, garrulous and spiteful—in other words, a swift pain in the neck. But she could also be very good company.
Her letters portray an incisive, compassionate, eloquent, politically astute, and well-informed individual, one with a talent for humor and prophesy. Despite economic problems that plagued her throughout her lifetime, she gave selflessly of what little she had. (She requested, for example, that all proceeds from her collection, Tala, (Felling Trees) be used to assist Basque children left homeless by the Spanish Civil War.)
Furthermore, she was generous with both her time and her counsel. “Write what’s yours,” she advised Ocampo, “loosen yourself up, don’t polish too much, dare to be American…. write with total disregard for whatever comes from your brains, rather than from your blood.” And she was liberal with praise. When Ocampo was still unsure of herself as a writer, Mistral wrote, “No woman and few men in America today write as you do. Don’t let your life be infested by what they call the social scene—as if it consisted of those ladies who serve tea with almond dainties.”
A few years before her death in 1957, Mistral wrote Ocampo, “You’re thinking I’m dead, but I’m not dead yet.” Now, thanks to the work she left behind, the high standards she set for both herself and society, and the diligence of scholars like Tapscott, Horan, and Meyer, Gabriela Mistral has been resurrected from the “mindless pomp and rituals” of “self-serving officials.” She’s less of an icon—and far more interesting as a woman, as well as a poet. Gabriela Mistral is not dead. Not yet. Diana Anhalt is a poet and writer in Mexico City. Her essay, “The Inconvenient Heroine: Gabriela Mistral in Mexico,” will appear in Gabriela Mistral: The Audacious Traveler, edited by Marjorie Agosín, forthcoming from the University of Ohio.