And what about when authors do math? Translator Gregary Racz was recently interviewed about his translation of the poem “Profecia alfabético-numeral” (“Alphabetical-Numerical Prophecy”) by 19th century Uruguayan poet Francisco Acuña de Figueroa, for which Racz was awarded the Alicia Gordon Award for Word Artistry in Translation by the American Translators Association. Acuña de Figueroa’s rhymed poem assigns each letter a numerical value and tallies them up to arrive at the grand sum of 1847, a significant date in the poem.
Here are the first lines in Spanish:
12. 1. 21. 12. 5. 22. 20. 1. 21. 4. 5. 5. 21.
L a s l e t r a s d e e s
22. 5. 1. 12. 6. 1. 2. 5. 22. 17.
t e a l f a b e t o…………….243
And in Racz's English:
12. 15. 20. 8. 5. 1. 12. 16. 8. 1.
L o t h e a l p h a
2. 5. 20. 19. 12. 5. 20. 20. 5. 18. 19.
b e t’ s l e t t e r s………243
The underlying line "Las letras de este alfabeto” becomes, cleverly, “Lo, the alphabet’s letters.”
It looks simple enough if you ignore the constraint. But constraints are interesting: they force the brain to apply its cognitive powers to something other than narrative and "meaning" - which turns out to be a good strategy for the production of literature. If you don't believe me, just think about the success of all those crazy artificial verse forms poets are always forcing their imaginations to conform to: the sonnet, the terza rima, the villanelle and - my personal favorite - the sestina.