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 his 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 Pancho, returning to them, in English, the book they gave me as a gift.” Who, exactly, is Pancho? Fisher later found out from Georgette Dorn, the current chief of the Library’s Hispanic Division, that Pancho 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 Pancho, 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. [Update: the video is now available online and is embedded at the bottom of this post.]  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.

Update: Fisher’s talk, “Pablo Neruda in the Heart of the Library of Congress,” can be viewed below.

9 Comments

  1. Patricia Gray
    August 1, 2015 at 12:07 pm

    Wow, Peter! What a fantastically impressive story, both for the light it sheds on Neruda’s early entry into literary life in the U.S. but also the role played by the Library of Congress and then poet-Librarian Archibald MacLeish. How lucky for literature that the two poets crossed paths at that particular time.

  2. Eliot Weinberger
    August 3, 2015 at 2:27 pm

    It is inconceivable that Flores was unaware of Neruda’s work until Aguilera “introduced” him to it in the early 1940s. Neruda had been one of the best-known poets in the Spanish-speaking world since the publication of his best-seller “20 Poems of Love and a Song of Despair” in 1924. In Europe, he was prominent at the Writers’ Congresses in the 1930s supporting the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War. In Latin America he gave readings in stadiums. Although the Flores books are the first single-author translations of Neruda, he had already appeared in English in anthologies by G. Dundas Craig in the early 1930s and by Dudley Fitts and (more extensively) HR Hays in the early 1940s, as well as in many magazines.

    • Peter Armenti
      August 4, 2015 at 10:59 am

      Dear Mr. Weinberger,

      We have passed along your comment to Mr. Fisher.

      Best,

      Peter Armenti

  3. Bill Fisher
    August 5, 2015 at 2:18 pm

    Mr. Weinberger makes excellent points, and even though they cause me to retract an overstatement I am happy to engage in a conversation about Neruda and his relationship with LC. First, the mea culpa: it was incorrect to claim that Aguilera introduced Flores to Neruda’s poetry in general. Yes, Neruda became famous in the Spanish-speaking world upon the 1924 publication of Veinte poemas… And in the next decade Flores likely heard direct reports of Neruda from their mutual friends Garcia Lorca and Alberti (whose Un fantasma recorre Europa was co-translated by Flores and published in 1936).

    The most I can claim based on the pictured inscription by Flores (if one accepts my circumstantial argument that the recipients were in fact Francisco and Margaret Aguilera) is that Aguilera introduced Flores to Neruda’s Residencia en la tierra by giving him a copy of the book. Aguilera could have done so well before Neruda’s 1943 visit to LC. The collection was first printed in 1933 and reissued in expanded form in 1935; Aguilera and Flores were colleagues at the Pan American Union at least by the late 1930s.

    Would I like to connect more dots? Certainly. But neither Flores nor Aguilera left much of an archival trail, at least that I have found so far. I would appreciate any leads to archival resources and/or the remnants of Flores’ library, especially his copy of Residencia en la tierra, which might be the smoking gun!

    As to the history of Neruda in English, it is quite true that Neruda had been translated and published in English as early as the 1934 Dundas Craig anthology. In fact, Flores himself contributed a (single) translation to the Neruda section of the 1942 New Directions Anthology of Contemporary Latin American Poetry.

    I did not assert/intend to assert that LC played a role in first bringing Neruda into English. Instead, I made the more modest claim that LC staff (read Aguilera) played a direct role in raising Neruda’s profile in the English-speaking world by encouraging Flores with his translating task, including through the distribution of the 1944 chap, Selected Poems, Neruda’s first solo publication in English and the precursor to the expanded (and more impactful) 1946 volume Residence on Earth and Other Poems.

    On a final note, as described in the talk there is much more hard evidence regarding the unexpected and significant role that Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish played at various points in Neruda’s life. And I continue to learn more, including this nugget recently unearthed in the LC archives: in 1941 MacLeish enthusiastically supported a project by Oxford University Press to publish Residencia en la tierra in a bilingual Spanish/English edition. No answer yet as to whether OUP had a particular translator in mind before the project stalled.

    PS For an excellent look at the history of Neruda in English, largely from a literary perspective, I recommend this article by Jonathan Cohen:

    http://www.uhmc.sunysb.edu/surgery/neruda-in-english-controversy-over-translation-poetics.pdf

  4. Jonathan Cohen
    August 11, 2015 at 10:29 am

    Eliot Weinberger is absolutely correct. Flores was a brilliant scholar-critic, and specialized in Latin American literature. He was very well connected in the literary world, too. He surely would have known Neruda’s poetry since (most likely) the 1920s. That was the decade Flores began to publish his translations of Latin American authors. Prior to Neruda’s first visit to the Library of Congress in 1943, Flores was already translating his poetry into English. He contributed four of the eight translations of Neruda that appear in New Directions’ 1942 Anthology of Contemporary Latin-American Poetry. So, yes, as Bill Fisher admits, his original claim was indeed an overstatement. His inference that Aguilera introduced Flores to Neruda’s Residencia en la tierra, based on his interpretation of the inscription in his Neruda chapbook, is compelling but hardly conclusive. Flores may, though, have actually first acquired the book from Aguilera, maybe even in the late 1930s when they were colleagues at the Pan American Union, and prior to any connection with the Library of Congress (Aguilera started working there in ’43). Flores must have known many of the Residencia poems from a variety of sources. The history of Neruda in English dates back to Muna Lee’s mention of him and “his unequivocal pictures of youth tortured by desire” in 1925 in Harriet Monroe’s Poetry. It’s true that Flores’s translations contributed in a big way to introducing Neruda’s poetry to a U.S. audience, along with the translations made by others before and after him.

  5. Jonathan Cohen
    August 11, 2015 at 12:25 pm

    Correction: New Directions’ 1942 Anthology of Contemporary Latin-American Poetry included four poems by Neruda, one of which was translated by Flores. All were from Neruda’s Residencia. The Neruda section in the 1947 edition of the ND anthology included eight poems, four of which were translated by Flores. His translation in the first edition supports my point above.

  6. Georgette Dorn
    August 31, 2015 at 3:25 pm

    Francisco Aguilera’s nickname was Pancho (not Poncho). Peggy was his wife (real name Margaret).
    Aguilera was especially fond of his fellow Chileans: Neruda, Gabriela Mistral, and Pablo and Winett de Rokha. But was also fond of many other luminaries like Juan Ramon Jimenez, Pedro Salinas, Octavio Paz, Rafael Alberti, and Borges.

  7. Peggy
    September 25, 2015 at 8:36 pm

    Gracias Peter,
    Peggy

  8. Victor Rojas Mella
    September 26, 2015 at 9:06 am

    Es increible saber que Pablo Neruda visitara Estados Unidos en plena Segunda Guerra Mundial, y posteriormente lo hiciera en dos ocasiones dejando traducido sus escritos para el lector norteameriano de habla inglesa.

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