hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


Arts and Culture


Rediscovering a Latin American epic

Local press plans new translation of Neruda’s ‘Canto General’


Contributing writer


An independent press in the Berkshires is preparing to publish the first English translation in more than 20 years of Pablo Neruda’s epic “Canto General.”

First published in its current form in 1950, Neruda’s ode to the people and natural history of the Americas is one of the most celebrated books of poetry by one of the most beloved poets of the 20th century. “Canto General” is often called “the Bible of Latin America.”

The new translation is the most ambitious project undertaken so far by Tupelo Press, which is the third-largest independent literary press in the nation. From its home in the historic Eclipse Mill in North Adams, the nonprofit press publishes about 15 books a year -- poetry, novels, anthologies and other works chosen from among thousands of submissions – for a national audience.

This month, to coincide with the observance of National Poetry Month, Tupelo will launch a campaign on Kickstarter, the fund-raising Web site, with the goal of raising $25,000 by May 1 to complete the Neruda project. As with all Kickstarter campaigns, the funds will be available only if the campaign reaches its goal.

The new translation, by the poet and publisher Mariela Griffor, has been authorized by Fundacion Pablo Neruda, the organization set up in the 1980s by Neruda’s widow in Santiago, Chile, to preserve and celebrate the poet’s work. It is the first translation of Neruda by a fellow Chilean, the first by a native Spanish speaker and the first by a woman.

“The presence of a new contemporary translation with all of these firsts attached to Neruda will be a big thing in the poetry community, a big thing in the academic community,” said Jeffrey Levine, Tupelo’s founder and editor in chief.

Griffor’s life experience overlaps with that of Neruda: In addition to being an accomplished poet, she was born in southern Chile and later forced to live in exile. She is now a consul of Chile, as Neruda was in his 20s before he became a major political figure in Latin America.

The Fundacion Pablo Neruda regulates the rights to the poet’s work and would only allow someone whose life experiences were similar to those of the poet himself to translate “Canto General.”


Giving voice to a culture
Neruda completed “Canto General” while in hiding in the late 1940s. He had been charged with contempt and treason after publicly accusing the Chilean president, Gonzalez Videla, whom he had helped to elect, of betraying the country by breaking his promises. It was an experience that many critics say accounts for the book’s underlying theme of betrayal and reparation.

“Canto General,” originally published in two volumes, contains more than 200 poems arranged in 15 sections that deal with successive periods in Latin American history. Its second section or canto, “The Heights of Macchu Picchu,” has sometimes been published as a freestanding work.
Gene Bell-Villada, a professor of Romance languages at Williams College who teaches Neruda’s work in his classes, said that although “Canto General” covers a vast amount of Latin American history, landscape and culture, “the politics is what gives it its greater notoriety.”

“Some of the poems are very critical, for example, of U.S. foreign policy and American imperialism,” he said.

Poems like “The United Fruit Co.,” “The Dictators” and “The Strike” speak for the everyday worker oppressed by economic and political conditions. Those poems “are as relevant now as they were when they were first written,” said Bell-Villada, who isn’t directly involved in the Tupelo Press project.

Some of Neruda’s political views, including his support of communism, may seem outdated, but Bell-Villada said he is still revered throughout Latin America as embodying the voice of the people.

“Kids memorize his poems by heart; they give away his poetry as gifts,” he said. “So he’s part of the culture.”


Big step for a small press
Levine said he’s excited to take on such an ambitious project, in part because it offers Tupelo Press a chance to reach a much wider audience.
Independent presses everywhere face “a constant uphill battle,” he said. They are often outcompeted by large commercial publishers that have more resources and better economies of scale.

But Levine said he hopes that, after an initial push, publicity for the “Canto General” translation will allow it to gain momentum on its own.

“Our job is to make a beautiful book, get the word out, and then let social media and Neruda’s reputation do the lion’s share of the post-production work for us,” he said.
The challenge is getting to that stage, he added.

Tupelo has published a number of poetry translations in the past, but none from Spanish.
Griffor’s manuscript, Levine said, will be edited by an “all-star team of translators,” including Rebecca Seiferle, the poet laureate of Tuscon and a leading translator of Cesar Vallejo; Soledad Fox, a Williams College professor of Spanish; local novelist John Healy; and the poet and translator Nancy Naomi Carlson.

The book itself will be large, about 600 pages, with special attention paid to its design. That will add to the overall cost of publication.

Levine said it will likely have a large run, and, as with all of Tupelo’s releases, it will never go out of print.

“We’re hoping there is a huge demand, although we are hoping the demand doesn’t kill us on day one,” he said. “The worst that could ever happen to us is that we would publish something like ‘Harry Potter,’ because we could never afford to print enough copies to satisfy the world.”
William O’Daly, one of the founders of Copper Canyon Press in Colorado and a leading translator of Neruda, said many mainstream newspapers shy away from reviews of poetry and other genres that are considered “on the fringe” of popular culture. But he expects the new translation of “Canto General” will garner a bit more media attention because of the work’s stature.
“Word of mouth -- in the United States in particular – in terms of spreading the word is extremely important, and that takes time,” O’Daly said.

He added that the book will gain popularity as it stays in print longer.

“Every time critics or publishers feel that the market for Neruda is saturated, they are proven wrong,” he said.


Community effort
The Kickstarter campaign aims to raise funds for the cost of editing, designing, printing and publicizing the book, said Cassandra Cleghorn, an associate editor at Tupelo. The press already has spent about $25,000 since taking up the project in 2012.

“We’re very excited to complete this project, and we’ve put a lot of time and money into it already,” Cleghorn said. “But now we need to take it to the finish line.”

Visitors to Tupelo’s Kickstarter page will be able to see a short film, mainly a portrait of Neruda and his work, by Diana Walczak, a special effects expert known locally for her pre-feature film series at Images Cinema in Williamstown.

The new film includes many people from the Berkshires, including John Strachan, the chairman of the board at Images, as Neruda, and Isabel Thompson, the daughter of Mass MoCA director Joe Thompson, as a young Mariela Griffor.

Cleghorn sees the making of the film as an important step for Tupelo.

“We have this national audience, but we want to have a local presence – more than we have been able to do,” she said. “So this movie, for me, is an entree into the community as well as this outreach to the larger fund-raising audience.”

Levine said the Kickstarter campaign, Tupelo’s first, presents a new model for engaging with the public. He said he hopes it will remind readers that they are an integral part of what the company does.

“They are our constituency,” he said, “and a community that needs to help support the art that makes them thrive.”

“The beauty of doing a book like this is that nobody needs to convince anybody that Neruda is worth reading,” he said. “It’s a monster book in every sense of the word.”


Tupelo Press’s Kickstarter campaign will run through May 1. For more information, visit kickstarter.com or tupelopress.wordpress.com.