Magnificent Obsession

Tulane University professor Henry Sullivan has spent a lifetime translating the love poems of Spain's Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer.



It was a match made in Middlesex. Henry Sullivan was a sixth-form student at Enfield Grammar School in the north London suburb, studying a national curriculum that happened to include an anthology of Spanish poetry. The words of one poet -- Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer -- stood out. "Like so many people do," Sullivan says, "I fell in love with him at first sight."

Little did the 17-year-old know that the late-19th-century love poet would become the longest relationship of his life. He translated his first of Bécquer's rimas that year; nearly four decades later, Sullivan -- now a professor of Spanish literature at Tulane University -- has just published The Poems of Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer: A Metrical, Linear Translation (Spanish Literature Publications Company). In all that time, Sullivan and Bécquer have been together for better or worse, in sickness and in health. Sitting in his narrow, book-lined office, Sullivan, who studied at Oxford and Harvard, recalls the details of an extraordinary literary love affair that began coyly enough.

Sullivan translated his first poem (see "XIX" in sidebar) while still in school. Later, taking a page from young lovers who would pass off Bécquer poems as their own to woo young women in the restrictive, nearly Puritanical society of early 20th century Spain, the young Sullivan used the poet's words to charm a female companion. "She was dotty about Bécquer, you know," the soft-spoken 60-year-old says, "and I would sort of translate off the cuff. She would say, 'Ah, so wonderful. Do them all.'"

It wasn't until that particular relationship ended that he got lost in translation. Shortly after the break-up, Sullivan found himself in the hospital with, of all things, a condition of the heart. "I was in an intensive care unit with an attack of atrial fibrillation, and suddenly I maniacally started translating one after the other," he says. "I'd get up at night and sit there in the loo, translating Bécquer into English."

Once he returned to his regular rhythm, the translations lay undisturbed for quite some time. At the urging of his wife, Gillian, and the interest of a publisher, Sullivan picked them up two years ago and reworked them for publication. "I don't think I perhaps took it seriously in middle life," Sullivan admits. "Obviously, this is related to my field -- Spanish literature -- but it's not what I would call hard academic scholarship. You're essentially writing poetry in English."

The Spaniard's life had a tragic poetry all its own. Bécquer was born in 1836 in Seville. His parents died when he was quite young, and he was raised by his older brother, Valeriano, and a young woman thought to be a former pupil of his painter father. "He worked in grinding poverty, doing translating or journalism or whatever he could to make money," Sullivan says. "And then, when the famous Elisa Guillén jilted him, it broke his heart and he never recovered. He went off on the rebound and married this Casta -- which ironically means 'chaste' in Spanish. She bore him two children and was continually unfaithful to him. Valeriano, in the meanwhile, had separated from his wife, and so they ended up living together with all these kids on a shoestring. It was a disaster."

A disaster that drove the budding poet's literary sensibilities. Like all good poets, Bécquer spent much time at play in the fields of love and death, two constantly recurring subjects in his work. "The glory of these poems is that, even when he's talking about poetry itself, he's constantly sort of speaking about eternal love, the pain of love, the pain of loss, of parting, lovers' passion," Sullivan says. "It's as if he just tortured himself about this relationship, and now he's angry or he's brokenhearted, painfully sighing and dying for her." At one point late in his life, a manuscript of poems known as Book of Sparrows was destroyed, a casualty of the political upheavals of the time; Becquer was forced to rewrite all 76 poems from memory. The poet died at age 34 after contracting pneumonia.

Sullivan likens Bécquer's approach -- and appeal -- to that of an appraiser. "He's a little like someone who holds up a Chinese Ming vase," he says, "and then looks at it carefully, turns it up one way and then another and another. He takes this catastrophic experience and worries himself to death again and again and again. So I'd say it's the shading, the variegation, the constant intensity."

Sullivan's translations are unique in that his book includes a complete set of Bécquer's 90-odd poems with an eye (and an ear) to both the poet's distinctive simplicity and the particular flavor of mid-Victorian English. "Come on, a modern poet wouldn't put the verb at the end like that. That sounds 19th century," Sullivan says of some of his translations. "Right. That's the point -- sort of a period atmosphere, a period flavor. If it sounds romantic in a Victorian way, that's because that's what I intended."

Sullivan went to even greater lengths to capture both the letter and the spirit of Bécquer, closely parroting the poet's original meters and developing a strategy for confronting the unusual rhythms of Spanish poetry. "Anyone can sit down and hack out a version that actually says what the original poem says," Sullivan says, "but the thing is each poetry has its own conventions and long traditions around it. Standard long-line in English poetry, going back to Chaucer, is iambic pentameter. It kind of has a subliminal effect, not just the words but these familiar rhythms and rhyme. Spanish has a peculiarity of rhyming on two vowel sounds. That's called assonantal rhyme. Now the question there is it's not as audible as a true full rhyme, what do you do with that?

"I think you really have to dominate the foreign language completely," he continues. "If you can't make it work the first time, you can come back to it. I did a lot of revisions, by the way; it took me two years to get the edition out because I submitted the whole thing to a drastic [revision] -- the man of 60 correcting the young man of 32."

Sullivan, who is now translating the Mexican poet Amado Nervo, stops just short of saying that only poets can translate poetry. "I can only speak for myself in this particular case: I did translate them in a kind of raptness of passion," he says. "They slipped into English very easily."

More easily, perhaps, than Bécquer has slipped into the English consciousness. The poet is considered by many to be the greatest Spanish poet of his time; in Spain and throughout Latin America, his verses are known to many by heart. Still, despite several translation efforts of varying quality, he remains largely unknown outside the Hispanic tradition. "This is the tragedy of it," says Sullivan. "The English-speaking world is much more conscious of Italian, French and German culture than it is of Spanish. It's very hard to change things, but the reason I've gone to such vast trouble is for his sake, not mine."

As he speaks, Sullivan slides his chair over to the table where the slim volume sits. Holding it lightly in one hand, he flips the parchment-colored pages, searching until he finds exactly the words he's looking for. "It's a lovely poem," he says, absentmindedly tugging on his graying beard. Then he smiles slyly. "Shall I read it?"

Henry Sullivan at a recent poetry reading at Octavia Books - TRACIE MORRIS/YOUNG STUDIO

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