Village Voice: A Lesson in Poetry Translation

by | Sep 1, 2020 | Radio

On the latest episode of the Village Voice, I spoke about the joys and challenges of translating poetry into different languages.

“[Translation] is an art. There are whole conferences, associations and societies, …In some cases you have a ghost translator. What that means is that someone will take the text and translate it word-by-word, pretty much. And then you have the poet, who doesn’t even know the original language, and works with that language, so that in a way the poem becomes a reflection of the poet who was working with the building blocks of language. I’ve heard that those are the most successful translations because they’re not just trying to be literal…There are some things that cannot be translated…”

Tune in to hear the poems listed below in English and Spanish!

Caminante, No Hay Caminoby by Antonio Machado

Caminante, son tus huellas
el camino y nada más;
Caminante, no hay camino,
se hace camino al andar.
Al andar se hace el camino,
y al volver la vista atrás
se ve la senda que nunca
se ha de volver a pisar.
Caminante no hay camino
sino estelas en la mar.

Traveler, your footprints

Traveler, your footprints
are the only road, nothing else.
Traveler, there is no road;
you make your own path as you walk.
As you walk, you make your own road,
and when you look back
you see the path
you will never travel again.
Traveler, there is no road;
only a ship’s wake on the sea.

Manana XVII by Pablo Neruda

(Original Spanish)
No te amo como si fueras rosa de sal, topacio
o flecha de chaveles que propagan el fuego:
te amo como se aman ciertas cosas oscuras,
secretamente, entre la sombra y el alma.

Te amo como la planta que no florece y lleva
dentro de si, escondida, la luz de aquellas flores,
y gracias a tu amor vive oscuro en mi cuerpo
el apretado aroma que acendio de la tierra.

Te amo sin saber como, ni cuando, ni de donde,
te amo directamente sin problemas ni orgullo:
asi te amo porque no se amar de otra manera,

sino asi de este modo en que no soy ni eres,
tan cerca que tu mano sobre mi pecho es mia,
tan cerca que se cierran tus ojos con mi sueno.

100 Love Sonnets

I don’t love you as if you were a rose of salt, topaz,
or arrow of carnations that propagate fire:
I love you as one loves certain obscure things,
secretly, between the shadow and the soul.

I love you as the plant that doesn’t bloom but carries
the light of those flowers, hidden, within itself,
and thanks to your love the tight aroma that arose
from the earth lives dimly in my body.

I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where,
I love you directly without problems or pride:
I love you like this because I don’t know any other way to love,
except in this form in which I am not nor are you,
so close that your hand upon my chest is mine,
so close that your eyes close with my dreams.

Varadero en Alba by Richard Blanco


tus olas roncas murmuran entre ellas
las luciérnagas se han cansado
las gaviotas esperan como ansiosas reinas
We gypsy through the island’s north ridge
ripe with villages cradled in cane and palms,
the raw harmony of fireflies circling about
amber faces like dewed fruit in the dawn;
the sun belongs here, it returns like a soldier
loyal to the land, the leaves turn to its victory,
a palomino rustles its mane in blooming light.
I have no other vision of this tapestry.

tus palmas viudas quieren su danzón
y las nubes se mueven inquietas como gitanas,
adivina la magia encerrada del caracol
The morning pallor blurs these lines:
horizon with shore, mountain with road;
the shells conceal their chalky magic,
the dunes’ shadows lengthen and grow;
I too belong here, sun, and my father
who always spoke paradise of the same sand
I now impress barefoot on a shore I’ve known
only as a voice held like water in my hands.

las estrellas pestañosas tienen sueño
en la arena, he grabado tu nombre,
en la orilla, he clavado mi remo
There are names chiseled in the ivory sand,
striped fish that slip through my fingers
like wet and cool ghosts among the coral,
a warm rising light, a vertigo that lingers;
I wade in the salt and timed waves,
facing the losses I must understand,
staked oars crucifixed on the shore.
Why are we nothing without this land?

Learn more about Poetry Translation

This episode first aired on Boston Public Radio | August 24th, 2020.