Sustainability in Translation: Review of Earth, Water and Sky: An Anthology of Environmental Poetry

Reviewed by Kayla Rodriguez

Tierra, cielo y agua: Antología de poesia medio ambiental / Earth, Water and Sky: An Anthology of Environmental Poetry, edited by Jesse Lee Kercheval.

This anthology is composed of poets who responded to a call sent out for the SARAS (South American Institute for Resilience and Sustainability Studies) Prizes in Poetry. The editor, Jesse Lee Kercheval, maintained the Spanish original for a compelling side by side bilingual anthology. SARAS is a transdisciplinary institute focused on analyzing and promoting a sustainable future. It is innovative in its desire to integrate social and natural sciences, mathematics and art. Each of the artists in this anthology imbue their art with natural elements in varying ways. Some artists use natural imagery to represent issues of the human condition or even to examine the act of writing itself. Others are more explicit in their plea for a more sustainable future like Luis Bravo (fifth place winner). Translated by Catherine Jagoe, his poem “here stood a tree now felled” is a direct critique on our exorbitant culture, it powerfully concludes with,

instead of the tree poem:
1 oak-tree generates the amount of oxygen
consumed by 10 people
1 automobile consumes
in 1 hour
the amount of oxygen that 800 people
use in 1 day
1 automobile consumes
in 1 hour
the oxygen that 200 oak-trees generate
in 1 day

Sir, have you polished your 4 x 4 weapon today?

Bravo is linguistically playful in his critique and Jagoe renders this quality in her translation. Jagoe also translates the second place winner, Sebastián Rivero. Presented with the difficult feat of translating Rivero’s rhythmic poetry that relies so much on its sonorous quality in the original, Jagoe effectively takes the artistic license to reproduce this rhythmic quality in her translation.

Virginia Lucas’ poems are likewise brilliantly and sonorously crafted. She creates a series of powerful images with a momentum that halts at one moment and flows in the next. Although the translator’s task was a tricky one, Jen Hofer creates an English counterpart that is just a powerful as the original – Hofer is one translator that stands out from the rest. Likewise, Jesse Lee Kercheval translates the formally and linguistically complex work of Tatiana Oroño. Although the task was undoubtedly tricky, Kercheval gives the English only reader an excellent opportunity to read Oroño’s work without compromising the power of the original.

Rather than providing an explicit critique as in Bravo’s case, Ignacio Fernandez de Palleja’s poems discuss the art of poetry using environmental language. Ron Salutsky successfully delivers the defeated tone in Fernandez de Palleja’s powerful works – particularly the poem entitled “Our Tsunami.” Another stand out poem in the anthology Elena Lafert’s, “Latest News, translated by Laura Cesarco Eglin. This poem discusses the human desire to “sink your hands in the earth” in a world governed by transience. Eglin also translates the works by María Sánchez however, in this project she was less successful. With titles like “Verbo” and lines like “Mi cuerpo se convirtío en retórica,” Sánchez makes words and rhetoric dynamic characters in her work in a way that would make any lover of words giddy. Unfortunately, Eglin’s English counterpart leaves the reader rather disenchanted.

Seth Michelson translates both, first place winner Natalia Romero and prize winner Mariela Laudecina. However, Michelson’s translations are less compelling and significantly less powerful than the Spanish originals. In both cases, the translations awkward and unable to reproduce the subtleties that give the original poems their force.

Mark Statman was faced with an exceedingly difficult challenge in his translation of Martín Barea Mattos’ works. Mattos’ work plays wonderfully with the Spanish language that creates quite a feat for the translator. Although all translators of poetry inevitably face many challenges, Statman had to make some particularly difficult decisions such as how to translate “vaca-ción” in a way that would maintain one of the focal points of the poem: the “vaca” or “cow” in English. Although Statman’s translation inevitability loses some of its original force, the bilingual translation helps to mitigate some of the loss.

Earth, Water and Sky: An Anthology of Environmental Poetry is an incredibly moving synthesis of art and the issues that beset environmental studies. The combination of contemporary artists with contemporary issues makes this issue exceptionally relevant. SARAS goal, using poetry to exhibit nature and the hopes for a sustainable future, is wonderfully executed in Kercheval’s arrangement of these award winning works and their translations.


Kayla Kayla RodriguezRodriguez currently lives in San Diego, California. She earned her BA in English from San Diego State University and her MA in Comparative Literature from University of Colorado Boulder. She has an insatiable fascination for language, pedagogy and art. Her research interests include language theory, translation theory and South American literature. She is curious about the space between languages and notion of the untranslatable. Her languages are Spanish, Portuguese and French. She is new to the translation scene but plans to start translating more contemporary South American literature.

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