While living in Paris in 1949, Octavio Paz (1914-1998) was offered the opportunity to select and publish an anthology of Mexican poetry sponsored by UNESCO. Paz had little enthusiasm for the idea. As translator, Samuel Beckett (1906-1998) was chosen although he had only a limited knowledge of Spanish. Both authors accepted because they needed the money.
In his 1996 essay “Beckett/Paz,” Eliot Weinberger (Paz’s American translator) comments on the project. “Paz, an anti-nationalist, would have preferred to consider Spanish American poetry as a whole. … Beckett called the work an alimentary chore and said the poems were execrable for the most part.” The work was completed in 1950 but not published until 1958.
“Yet Beckett’s Mexican anthology is one of the liveliest English translations of the century,” Weinberger continues. “Its greatest achievement is its recreation of the sense of reading old texts, the distance between us and them. … Beckett accomplishes this through a subtle mimicking…of the English poetry contemporary to whatever period he is translating.”
In 1994, the project was revived for the first livre d’artiste produced by Yolla Bolly Press, under the direction of Carolyn and James Robertson. Twelve multicolor etchings were created especially for the edition by the Mexican American artist Enrique Chagoya and Paz contributed biographical notes on each of the eleven poets. Weinberger wrote an introduction and a transcription of a conversation between Paz and Weinberger discussing the Paz-Beckett collaboration was included as an afterword.
Octavio Paz (1914-1998), Anthology of Mexican Poetry. Translated by Samuel Beckett (Bloomington: Indiana University Press ) Firestone Library (F) 3180.704