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CONTACT: John Sanford, News Service: (650) 736-2151,

COMMENT: Mark Eisner, visiting scholar, Center for Latin American Studies: (415) 550-1217,

John Felstiner, professor of English: (650) 723-4722,

Michael Predmore, professor of Spanish:


As Pablo Neruda centennial approaches, projects take shape

Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of the late Chilean poet and Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda, and Stanford graduate Mark Eisner is planning an ambitious celebration.

A visiting scholar at the Center for Latin American Studies, Eisner is organizing a series of centennial projects in collaboration with more than a dozen writers, poets, documentary filmmakers and scholars from around the world, including Stanford Professors Michael Predmore and John Felstiner.

"One Hundred Years of Pablo Neruda: The Pablo Neruda Centennial Project" will include a volume of some 80 new English-language translations of Neruda's poems and the first full-length, English-language documentary about him, Eisner said. An international Neruda conference also may be planned to take place on campus, he added.

Neruda, who died in 1973, is widely considered the preeminent Latin American poet of the 20th century, but his popularity crosses many borders.

"There was a time in the '50s and '60s when he was really the most famous poet in the word, but we tend to forget that in the U.S.," said Felstiner, an English professor and project adviser whose Translating Neruda: The Way to Macchu Picchu (1980) won the Commonwealth Club Gold Medal for Nonfiction. "In the Soviet bloc and Eastern Europe, he was far better known than T. S. Eliot. He was kind of the Picasso of poetry."

Neruda, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1971, produced several-thousand pages of poetry, translations and verse drama, and his work has been translated into dozens of languages "from Yiddish to Chinese," as Eisner likes to say.

While his first published collection of poetry fit roughly into the tradition of French Symbolism or more precisely, the Hispanic Modernismo movement and his second book consisted of love poems, what came next stood in sharp contrast.

As an impoverished "honorary consul" to several South Asian countries, including stints in Rangoon in Burma (now Myanmar) and Colombo in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), he wrote a collection of esoteric, surrealist poems that were dark in tone and reflected a sense social decay, death and isolation.

After taking an appointment as a consul to Barcelona and then to Madrid, Spain, he began to align himself with communism. His poetry became more extroverted, communicating concerns about political and social matters. In later years, Neruda wrote poems about everyday things and human experiences the Odas elementales.

"Neruda has an extraordinary command over words, and a talent for a powerful and expressive use of language," said Predmore, a professor of Spanish who currently is teaching at the Stanford Overseas Studies campus in Santiago, Chile. "His poetry covers a wide range of topics love, introspection, nature, history, society, politics and exhibits a wide range of different modes of composition."

But it's the breathless, exhortative quality of his early love poetry, published when he was only 20, as well as the rebellious and somewhat romantic trajectory of his life exile, love affairs, political struggle that accounts for much of his popular following. The 1994 film Il Postino, which tells the story of a lonely postman who befriends a Neruda-in-exile (played by the great French actor Philippe Noiret), also did a lot to bolster the poet's popularity. (In the film, Noiret is a dead ringer for the aging Neruda, even though the poet was in fact much younger when he lived in Italy.)

Eisner said he first fell in love with Neruda's poetry as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, but his relationship with the poetry grew more intimate during various treks through Latin America.

"I had been backpacking through llama dreams and peyote adventures through Latin America, from Cuba to Chile, and found myself in Chile working on a rustic ranch with horses and everything, and I was reading Neruda every day," Eisner recalled. "He was one of my favorite poets, and this time I was really able to read him in Spanish completely, without using translations, which opened up a whole new world for me. Next I happened to fall in love, when I moved to Santiago, with a young Chilena who was getting her doctoral degree in Latin American studies."

By virtue of mindset, the Neruda centennial appears to be in good hands. Discussing the poet, Eisner, who earned a master's degree in Latin American studies from Stanford in 2001, sometimes slips the bounds of description into a kind of rhapsodic verse: "The tones of Pablo Neruda's poems are a river of red poppies, the earth, red wine, horses' breaths, rain, and the silver stones of Macchu Picchu," he writes on the website


New translations

"There's been a lot of talk by critics about how the existing translations of Neruda are not as worthy as they could be," Eisner said. "I'm not saying that there aren't great translations out there; I fell in love with Neruda through the existing translations. We just decided there was a definite need and definite room for a new edition."

That edition, to be published by City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, will feature about 80 new translations resulting from collaborative efforts, Eisner said. "Instead of one translator working by himself in his office at a university, we thought it would become a much more dynamic, breathing operation to have translators collaborate among themselves to get more definitive translations," he explained. "There is no such thing as a perfect translation, but we just hope that we're taking it one step closer and making it that more accurate and that more beautiful."

Translators involved in the book project include such distinguished poets and scholars as Robert Hass, Stephen Kessler, Stephen Mitchell, John Felstiner, Forest Gander and Alastair Reid, who was a friend of Neruda's, Eisner said.

The book will appear roughly a year after a more comprehensive, 800-page volume of Neruda translations is published this spring by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Eisner said, adding that he believes there will be a market for both books. "Someone who wants an introduction or a new translation of Neruda will go for the smaller book, which will be absolutely a complement to it," Eisner said. (Translations by Eisner and Felstiner are set to be included in the larger volume, which is being edited by Amherst College Professor Ilan Stavans.)


Film documentary

The biggest and most organizationally complex facet of the centennial projects is a documentary film that will be narrated by renowned Chilean writer Isabel Allende, who fled Chile when the military junta led by Augusto Pinochet overthrew the socialist government of President Salvador Allende, her uncle.

The film will feature many of the country's most prominent intellectuals and artists, as well as rare footage of the poet and commentary by surviving friends.

Eisner said the documentary will be a "sensual" exploration of Neruda's life and work, and will include recitations of about a half-dozen poems. In one case, Mario Toral, a prominent Chilean artist, is going to paint an interpretation of a poem on film, Eisner said.

He said he hopes the documentary can be broadcast on public television and possibly released in art-film theaters.

However, the documentary project currently faces a major obstacle: money about $400,000, according to Eisner. He hopes members of Neruda's significant and stalwart fan base, which includes a number of celebrities, will help support the film. He also is pursuing grants.

Institutional sponsors of "One Hundred Years of Pablo Neruda" include the Stanford Center for Latin American Studies, the University of Chile, the Neruda Foundation and the Chilean government's Presidential Commission on the Neruda Centennial. In addition, the Overseas Studies Program provided Eisner with funding to spend Winter Quarter 2002 at the campus in Santiago.

To learn more about supporting the documentary, visit the website or send e-mail to Eisner at


By John Sanford

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