How the Library of Congress Helped Get Pablo Neruda’s Poetry Translated into English

Chilean poet Pablo Neruda in the Library of Congress Recording Laboratory during the recording of his poem "Alturas de Macchu Picchu" for the Archive of Hispanic Literature on Tape. June 20, 1966. Prints and Photographs Division.

Pablo Neruda in the Library of Congress Recording Laboratory reciting┬áhis poem “Alturas de Macchu Picchu” for the Archive of Hispanic Literature on Tape. June 20, 1966. Prints and Photographs Division.

The poems of Pablo Neruda are among the most frequently translated works in the English language. While the Chilean poet has for many years enjoyed a huge readership in the United States, thanks to the widespread availability of English-language editions of his poetry, few people are aware of the integral role played by the Library of Congress in first introducing his poetry to a U.S. audience.

The contributions of the Library to the dissemination of Neruda’s poetry in the United States was brought to life by Bill Fisher in a July 9th illustrated lecture, “Pablo Neruda in the Heart of the Library of Congress,” sponsored by the Library’s Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Bill Fisher discusses Pablo Neruda in the Lessing J. Rosenwald Room, Jefferson Building, Library of Congerss. July 9, 2015. Photo by Peter Armenti.

Bill Fisher discusses Pablo Neruda in the Lessing J. Rosenwald Room, Jefferson Building, Library of Congress. July 9, 2015. Photo by Peter Armenti.

Pablo Neruda visited the U.S. three times during his life. The first two times he came, in 1943 and 1966, he went out of his way to make a special trip to the Library of Congress. Fisher, a book collector with a special focus on the work on Pablo Neruda, centered his talk around Neruda’s 1943 Library visit and his interactions with two Library staff: Librarian of Congress (and fellow poet) Archibald Macleish and Francisco Aguilera, then assistant chief of the Hispanic Division.

Francisco Aguilera (1899-1979)

Francisco Aguilera (1899-1979)

While I enjoyed hearing Fisher detail the friendship that developed between Neruda and Macleish, I was especially fascinated to learn about Fisher’s detective work in demonstrating the key role that Aguileraand by extension the Library of Congressplayed in getting Neruda’s poetry translated into English. Leading attendees through a series of images taken of items in the Library’s collections, his personal collections, and those of other collectors, Fisher provided evidence that Aguilera, who Neruda had previously met in Chile before his 1943 Library visit, was “directly responsible” for introducing Neruda’s poetry to Angel Flores. Flores translated the first two standalone books by Neruda in English, Selected Poems (1944) and Residence on Earth, and Other Poems (1946).

Selected Poems was published by Peter Pauper Press in 1944. The Library of Congress’s copy was donated by Francisco Aguilera, which, Fisher noted, is a bit surprising given that one would think Angel Flores, or Neruda himself, would have been the donor. About twenty years later Fisher located a copy of this edition formerly owned by the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore. The copy was signed by Flores and donated, again, by Aguilera. Why, Fisher wondered, was Aguilera donating a copy of this book to another library?

Fisher then pointed out an anomaly concerning the current availability of the 1944 edition of Selected Poems: based on a record for the edition in WorldCat, a database that lists libraries and other organizations known to hold copies of a specific book, of the one-hundred copies of the title that were printed, 16 copies are held by U.S. libraries, an unusually large number of holdings for a publication with such a small print run. How had so many copies wound up in libraries?

Fisher then provided two final pieces of evidence to the standing-room only audience. First, another copy of Selected Poems came to market last year that includes the following inscription by Aguilera: “This copy belongs to an edition of one-hundred copies that Angel Flores and I jealously guard” (note: translated from Spanish). Second, a copy of the edition held by another collector, Kurt Zimmerman, includes an inscription (in Spanish) by Flores that read: “For Peggy and Poncho, returning to them, in English, the book they gave me as a gift.” Who, exactly, is Poncho? Fisher later found out from Georgette Dorn, the current chief of the Library’s Hispanic Division, that Poncho was the nickname used by Aguilera, and his wife’s name was Peggy (Margaret).

Inscription by Angel Flores in copy of Neruda's "Selected Poems." Translation: "For Peggy and Poncho, returning to them, in English, the book they gave me as a gift." Copy owned by Kurt Zimmerman. Image courtesy of Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Inscription by Angel Flores in copy of Neruda’s Selected Poems (1944). Translation: “For Peggy and Poncho, returning to them, in English, the book they gave me as a gift.” Copy owned by Kurt Zimmerman. Image courtesy of Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Taking all of these pieces of information together, Fisher feels safe in concluding that “Francisco Aguilera . . . introduced Flores to Neruda’s poetry, if not to Neruda himself; inspired him to do the translation [of Selected Poems]; and helped distribute it.”

A video of Fisher’s entire talk will be made available on the Library’s website within the next several weeks, and I’ll embed it in this post when it becomes available. Among the details in the talk I haven’t covered are those concerning Neruda’s 1966 trip to the United States, where he first traveled to New York for a reading before driving to Washington, D.C., to visit the Library. The 92y website provides an audio recording for Neruda’s June 11, 1966 readinghis first in the United States. Neruda is introduced by Librarian of Congress Archibald Macleish.

Francisco Aguilera, who initiated the Library’s Archive of Hispanic Literature on Tape, was fortunate enough to record Neruda reading portions of his epic poem Alturas de Macchu Picchu several days after Neruda’s New York visit during his trip to the Library. This recording, I’m pleased to announce, will be made available on the Library’s website in September as part of the online launch of the Archive of Hispanic Literature on Tape.

And there’s more good news for Neruda fans: a group of poems written by Neruda was rediscovered last June by archivists in Pablo Neruda Foundation in Santiago, Chile. According to the New York Times ArtsBeat blog, these poems will soon be translated into English by Forrest Gander, a 2011 Library of Congress Witter Bynner Fellow.

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