Teresa Wilms Montt - Lost In TranslationSunday, January 22, 2012
|Teresa Wilms Montt
For some years I could not figure out the Spanish fact that Charles V preceded Charles II. It is only a bit later in my life that I figured it out. Charles I of Spain became Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor.
There is an apocryphal story about the multi-lingual Charles (the emperor Charles). The version that I heard came from my Spanish grandmother. Charles V was asked which of all the languages he spoke, was his favourite. His answer was, “It depends. In matters of diplomacy I use French, for business I like English, for making love it’s Italian. I pray and talk to God in Spanish. I shout at my horse in German.”
Shortly after the Beatles became popular I found that the German versions of Beatles songs, and German rock’ roll off-putting. I felt the same about Mexican Cesar Costa singing roquenrol. But rock’ roll in French and Italian seemed fine to me.
Last week I went to the Pacific Cinematheque to see a Chilean film.
Some years ago there was a venerable rosarian in our Vancouver Rose Society. His name was Dennis Yeomans. He was an Englishman who had been born in Chile. He corrected my pronunciation. Chilean is to be pronounced Chílleean (with emphasis on the i). So you now know.
I was invited by that Red Riding Hood of a near past who also happens to hail from Chile. Her name is C Valparaiso. The Cinematheque was full of Chileans with a smattering of folks whose first language was English. I was careful with my wallet as we Argentines, when robbed in a bus, will immediately know that the offending thief has to be a Chilean. Strangely enough, Chileans in buses, back in their country, think thieves are all Argentines. But, "al fondo" we are friends!
We share a language and a similar way of life. While Jorge Luís Borges is famous around the world and to some degree so is Julio Cortázar, Chileans, to their credit, can cite poet Pablo Neruda and Isabel Allende. And now they can even boast of Roberto Bolaño. But it is still quite a shame as both countries have a rich literature that should be better known.
The film in question was Teresa (2008) directed by Tatiana Gaviola. It was an account of the life of Chilean poet Teresa Wilms Montt, 1893-1922.
As the film rolled I had many thoughts. One was that the film was a dramón ( a Spanish word for an over-the-top performance in such stuff as telenovelas).
Then there were the many quite erotic bed scenes. Such stuff is now quite a bit more explicit. The scenes in Teresa lacked that soft focus but had a look that was so much in vogue perhaps 20 years ago. I found them nostalgic in some way. I think I appreciated that lack of explicitness.
There was little in the film that really exploited the fact that Wilms Montt was an avant-garde proto-feminist languishing and suffering in a terribly conservative society. There is a moment in the film where she tells a Chilean politician, “We women should be allowed to vote.”
It seemed to me that Wilms Montt, the protagonist of the film, had one big flaw which was her ability to quickly remove her underwear at the least provocation.
Some facts were sort of twisted. She fled to New York and the film’s version of the story is that her jealous and extremely vindictive husband reported her to the authorities so that she was accused of being a German spy and deported to Spain. Other accounts have her going to New York to volunteer as a nurse for the trenches of WW-I.
What is absolutely true, and the film shows it well, is that after her first infidelity (with her husband’s brother) she is banished to a nunnery which was more like an insane asylum/prison. She was helped to escape by a famous poet Vicente Huidobro (my grandmother would say, “Only his family knows who he is,” and this is patently unfair a statement in connection to the poet). But Wilms Montt was prevented from ever seeing her two daughters. She managed to see them later in Paris shortly before she committed suicide.
A dramón? Yes!
But there is something else that I thought about as I watched Teresa. The language of the film was poetic, the landscapes of Chile sublime. In a sense many a word in Spanish is a poem just as is. Consider ojalá (I hope, and its origin is Arab) or alcaucil for artichoke. Or susurrar for whisper.
When the actors were not speaking there was a beautiful voiceover. I soon caught on that these words were Wilms Montt poems. There was no way that the subtitles could possibly convey the richness of her passion and love of language. I felt sorry for the Anglos in the audience.
The most wonderful moment happens when her lover a young Spanish doctor, whom Wilms Montt calls Anuarí, proposes marriage and she rejects him. He comes close to her with a knife, holds on to her and stabs himself and dies on the spot. The voiceover (I will not translate it!) is like this:
Apareciste Anuarí, cuando yo con mis ojos ciegos y las manos tendidas te buscaba.
Apareciste, y hubo en mi alma un estallido de vida. Se abrieron todas mis flores interiores,
y cantó el ave de los días festivos.
Me amaste, Anuarí, y alcanzé la Gloria suspendida en tus brazos. Desapareciste, y quedé sola, los ojos naúfragos en noche de lágrimas. Bondadosa ha vuelto tu sombra, entre ella y el sepulcro espera una hora mi alma.
My only consolation to any who might be reading this is that Shakespeare in Spanish, as good as translations can be, cannot match the original ring of the language, English. Those Anglos in the audience of the Cinematheque need not have been jealous. As for me I see lots of Chilean literature in my future.
As I left the Cinematheque, in a hurry to look up all I could find on Teresa Wilms Montt, I understood, more than ever the limitations of only speaking one language.