Thursday, November 10, 2005

Nerds and nard

"Nardo" is a word that I just never see outside of Spanish or Latin American poetry. It gets translated as "nard" or "spikenard". What the heck is nard? I've been wondering for over 20 years. From context, it's obviously a white flower, heavily scented. I read in the Wikipedia that it is a variety of valerian, a soporific. But it also sometimes appears to be a sort of smelly lotion; unguent, oil, or balm, scented with that flower's scent. It's mentioned in the Bible in the Songs of Solomon, and again when Mary Magdalene gave Jesus a fancy perfumed footrub.

In poems, it often has erotic and religious undertones. But I've also wondered if it is associated with death as well as sleep; if it is in flower or is used in perfume form in wakes and funerals. The context is of a sexy, morbid, funereal splendor and perhaps of a heavy overpowering incense. In fact I think it might be a common flavor of incense. It's the sort of thing that a hero of an H. Rider Haggard novel would be drugged by as he goes into Ayesha's secret temple. García Lorca seemed fond of it; it's all over his poems.

The US English-speaking reader isn't going to have the faintest clue what nard is. Here is a perfect place to choose domesticizing over foreignization. I've translated it differently in different poems. "Scented lily?" "Costly balm?" I've translated it as "myrrh" but am not entirely happy with that. "Fragrant valerian?" "Holy patchouli"? (That's a joke.)

For example, here in "Insomnia" by Juana de Ibarbourou, we run into some nard:

En un zumo de lirios morados
Se anegan mis ojos sombríos y largos
Y en un zumo amarillo de cera
O de vara de nardo marchita,
Se han ahogado las llamas rosadas
Que coloran la piel de mis labios.

What are those varas de nardo? I thought they could be withered stalks of the flower, but also they might be crumbling sticks of incense. Maybe it is obvious to a Catholic Spanish-American. If so, I'd love to know!

My point is really that I've seen a lot of translators interpret it by a dictionary definition without thinking about it or digging deeper, and without trying to make the meaning of the flower/unguent/incense apparent to their readers.

Untranslated and unexplained, I think "nard" in a poem makes that poem fall flat in English.


nora said...

I have always been under the impression that nardos are "Tuber roses". Their perfume is so strong that it is still used at wakes!But you probably have already heard about this...

Anonymous said...

One should exercise caution about references to valerian. At your local herbalist's, you will likely find valerian root, which smells powerfully of feces. Remedies using valerian often call for rose petals, presumably to mask the stench.

Sinto Carlos said...

I was very interested to read your thoughts on 'nardos'. Round about the time you posted I was getting one together on nardos in Lorca.

Liz said...

Sinto Carlos, I just read your post "nardos en Lorca" this morning! It was great. I agree that tuberoses are an okay translation for nard in some cases because of their sweet, heavy, overpowering smell - but I don't think they convey the biblical reference. I come across the word often especially in poems by women to Mary Magdalene, who anointed the feet of Jesus with nard! So in that case translating it as a flower wouldn't make sense - more like a flower-scented oil or lotion.

I really wonder about the recipe for Nardo con pimienta. Maybe tuberoses grow from an edible bulb?

Anonymous said...

Hi, I think that's interesting but I thought spikenard was sometimes purple or blue coloured. And in some of Lorca's poems, for example Romance de la Luna, Luna, it seems that it is the appearance of the flowers which is important. I visualise the "polisón de nardos" as being like a skirt of patchy cloud over the lower half of the moon, glowing with a kind of reddish blue colour. Seán.