Found in translation

Pablo Neruda’s work leads a local man back to his own poetry

William O’Daly at Easter Island, the inspiration for some of Pablo Neruda’s poems.

William O’Daly at Easter Island, the inspiration for some of Pablo Neruda’s poems.

Photo By Jill Engel-Cox

William O’Daly didn’t set out to translate the complete works of famed Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.

He set out to be an economist.

O’Daly was in school at the UC Santa Barbara, studying economics, but “the most involving and engaging thing I did there was write poetry.”

Then, while en route to an econ class one day—“Statistics, which I hated”—O’Daly passed an open auditorium door and heard a woman reciting poetry. He blew off econ and ducked inside to find noted poet Kenneth Rexroth, a faculty member at UCSB, “orchestrating a reading of four women poets. I never went back to economics.”

Well, he did take the final. And earned a D-plus.

But O’Daly took up the study of poetry, and under Rexroth’s tutelage, began to translate. “He told us, ‘You young poets, if you want to learn your craft, translate, translate, translate!’” said O’Daly. So he undertook a Neruda poem from Residence on Earth.

“My translation didn’t turn out very well,” he said, “but I kept returning to Neruda.”

In graduate school at CSU Fresno, O’Daly found that noted poet Philip Levine agreed with Rexroth on the importance of translation. That led O’Daly to begin translating Neruda’s book Aún, which was, at that time, not available in English.

Along the way, he discovered that the act of translation “gets you out of yourself. It gets you deeply involved with great poets.” And, O’Daly, noted, “It’s a collaborative act in what is so often a solitary work.”

After years working on his translation of Aún, which he translated as Still Another Day, O’Daly contacted Neruda’s agent. Eventually, the translation was published by Copper Canyon Press.

And that might have been the end of it. But the publisher felt that O’Daly ought to translate the rest of Neruda’s work. Not only are O’Daly’s translations lovely, but Neruda’s place in the canon is, as O’Daly acknowledged, “at the top.” Neruda continues to generate incredible interest and excitement around the world almost 40 years after his death.

To explain it, O’Daly pointed to Neruda’s poetry as a natural response to the world. For Neruda, naturally, “If you love something, a poem evolves from it. If there’s injustice, a poem evolves from it.”

The “I” in Neruda’s poems, O’Daly said, “is a keyhole” for readers. “He uses natural language and a simple surface, which makes the poems accessible. But even his surrealistic leaps of perspective are still accessible, which is unusual for surrealism.”

It’s all about connection. “To Neruda, there’s no difference between being a person and being a poet.” And there’s nothing for a human to do that is not worthy of the poet’s attention.

And now that he’s translated Neruda’s entire body of work, O’Daly is free to return to his own poetry. “I had put my work on the back burner,” he said. But, with the patience that comes from translation, he’s got his own poems moving again.

“There’s a more natural progression.”