A translator’s preliminary questions. Part one: The why of it

Detall de la portada de l’edició crítica (2002)

Jacint Verdaguer’s epic L’Atlàntida (1878) revives the tale of the lost legendary city
of Atlantis. Well and good, but how can a nineteenth-century romantic poem
possibly connect with twenty-first century English-language readers? Bringing
Verdaguer’s work to the surface of today’s literary seascape would be tantamount,
some might say, to the madness of attempting to retrieve the sunken city
itself—and for what?

To begin with, we ask: What does any work say or do that strikes us as important?
This question can be partly answered by looking into the work’s place in its own
literary tradition. L’Atlàntida, our case in point, enters the scene after a hiatus of
some three centuries with scarcely any remarkable Catalan-language literary
production, putting Catalan literature squarely back on the radar. Its appearance,
in turn, acts as a catalyst for the emergence of subsequent Catalan writers and
works, jump-starting Catalan as a fully-fledged literary language.

Of course, there is also the work itself. Surprisingly—or perhaps not
so—L’Atlàntida is a celebration of Spain, or more precisely, of the Iberian
Peninsula. Verdaguer spins a legendary foundational tale from the variegated
natural and human geographies, blending into the mix powerful symbolism drawn
from elements of Christendom and classical Greek myth. We ask: What is a Greek
superhero, Hercules, doing on Verdaguer’s foundational Iberian Peninsula? True,
traditional sources locate more than one of Hercules’ labors on the Peninsula.
However, Verdaguer carries the hero’s Iberian feats much further, grafting
classical grandeur onto the Peninsula’s role in spearheading the next world-
changing event: Europe’s encounter with the New World. Verdaguer embellishes
and refocuses the role of the Greek hero to enhance the role of Spain as heir to the
glory of Atlantis, while superseding Atlantis in laying ideological and moral foundations for the new global adventure. The most outstanding of ancient Greek
and Christian virtues are enlisted to ensure the success of the Encounter. Hercules
is depicted not only as courageous, but also compassionate. He weds Hesperis, the
disconsolate widow of Atlas, and by their union the founders of the Iberian nations
are born. In a word, the poem is a monument to a plurilingual and plurinational
Spain. It is this Spain—conceived in an act of love that gives birth to a rainbow of
Iberian nations—that, once equipped with Christian and ancient classical purpose
and resolve, will be charged with spearheading the Encounter.

So what does L’Atlàntida say about the world and our understanding of it then and
now? In Verdaguer’s account, the story of the sinking of Atlantis is revealed by a
venerable and wise hermit to a young shipwrecked sailor who turns out to be
Columbus. Verdaguer’s vision, though noble and well meaning, is nevertheless
ideologically colored by European colonialism. The ensuing “civilizing mission” of
delivering Christianity to the New World, though it may have seen itself as
benevolent, unleashed a most un-Christian worldwide subjugation. That said, this
same global context of nineteenth-century colonialism also colors our own reading
of L’Atlàntida; we may be quick to dismiss the work as a product of, or an apology
for, colonialism. However, a careful reading of the poem suggests that it may have
more to say about Spain than about the European incursion into the New World.
Verdaguer’s L’Atlàntida is a monumental red flag, confronting us with the uncanny
fact that Spain’s glorious rebirth was penned in a language that is not Spanish.
Hercules’ foundational act of love is renewed in Verdaguer and his masterful
celebration in the collective imaginary of Spain reborn as a rainbow of Iberian

Part Two: The how of it

Ronald Puppo

About Ronald Puppo

Ronald Puppo, senior lecturer in the Department of Translation, Interpreting and Applied Linguistics (UVic-UCC), has taught English studies and translation since 1994. His articles and reviews have appeared in Babel, Catalan Review, Translation Review, Anuari Verdaguer and others, including book chapters for Reichenberger and Routledge. Translator of several Catalan poets, his annotated translation, Mount Canigó: A tale of Catalonia (Barcino/Tamesis, 2015), was awarded the 2016 “Serra d’Or” Critics Prize for Research in Catalan Studies, and his extensively annotated anthology of poetry and prose by Joan Maragall, One Day of Life is Life (Fum d’Estampa Press, 2020) won the 2021 Ramon Llull International Translation Prize.
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