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Even the denial of a true idea creates a space which vibrates with possibility.

James Hamilton-Paterson

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Saturday, January second, 2010

🦋 Imagery

The old men lead their sins to pasture,
this is their only job.
They release them during the daytime, and pass the day forgetting,
and in the evening go out to rope them
to sleep with them, warming up.

-- from "The Old Indians"

For a few days I have been reading some poetry from the collection Poets of Nicaragua: a bilingual anthology 1918 - 1979; today I think I found a poet I really dig. Every poem I have read by Joaquín Pasos contains images that transfix me with their concreteness and clarity and originality -- "The old men lead their sins to pasture"! "Let us seek out a corner in the air,/ that we might lie down"! 14 of Pasos' poems are online at, including his magnum opus, "Song of the war of things".

posted evening of January second, 2010: Respond
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Monday, April 26th, 2010

🦋 Odiseo en Nicaragua

Pablo Antonio Cuadra's poem "El barco negro" (in Poets of Nicaragua) inspired me to buy the book Songs of Cifar and the Sweet Sea, which is Grace Schulman's selections and translations from Cuadra's Cantos de Cifar, because I was so dissatisfied with White's translation. A really powerful poem, but the translation is nothing at all...

Well: the book arrived in the mail today; I'm looking at it and enjoying Schulman's translations by and large. But her selections not so much: she did not include "The black boat." Rats... Ok, so here is my first attempt at a translation of a poem.*

El barco negro

Cifar, entre su sueño oyó los gritos
y el ululante caracol en la neblina
del alba. Miró el barco
    fijo entre las olas.

    —Si oyes
    en la oscura
    mitad de la noche
    —en aguas altas—
    gritos que preguntan
    por el puerto:
        dobla el timón
            y huye

Recortado en la espuma
el casco oscuro y carcomido,
(—¡Marinero!, gritaban—)
las jarcias rotas
meciéndose y las velas
negras y podridas
Puesto de pie, Cifar, abrazó el mástil

    —Si la luna
    ilumina los rostros
    cenizos y barbudos
    si te dicen
    —Marinero ¿dónde vamos?
    Si te imploran:
    —¡Marinero enséñanos
    el puerto!
    ¡dobla el timón
    y huye!

Hace tiempo zarparon
Hace siglos navegan en el sueño

    Son tus propias preguntas
    perdidas en el tiempo.

The Black Boat

Cifar, inside his dream he heard the cries,
the ululating conch out in the mist
of dawn. He saw the boat
    fixed among the waves.

    —If you hear
    from the darkness,
    the middle of the night
    —on high seas—
    cries, cries that beg you
    for the port:
        turn your tiller back
            and flee

Outlined in the raging surf
the boat's hull dark and eaten away,
(crying, —O Seafarer!—)
the broken rigging
swaying and the sails
black and rotting
            (—O Seafarer!—)
He held his ground, Cifar, he clung to the mast

    —If the moon
    lights up their faces
    ashy, bearded, jinxed
    if they ask you
    —Seafarer, where you going?
    If they implore you:
    —Seafarer, show us the way
    to the port!—
    turn your tiller back
    and flee!

They set sail long ago
They're sailing for ages, in the dream

    The questions are your own
    forgotten in the ages.

...A different selection of Cuadra's "Cifar" poems (an objectively better selection since it includes "El barco negro") is on offer at Pelele's blog, Muchacha Recostada. Also the whole book is online at

* Wait no, that's wrong. So, the next attempt in an extremely infrequent series of poetry translations by Jeremy.

posted evening of April 26th, 2010: 4 responses
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Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

🦋 Publication!

(Well not until next summer, but still...) I got word today from Words Without Borders that they love my translation of Réquiem and are going to publish it in their "Homages" issue next July. I'm tremendously excited about this! I remember a line of Edith Grossman's to the effect that the way to be a translator is to assert that you are a translator, to just go ahead and do it; and now I feel like I am a translator, like I am going ahead and doing it. I also heard from John Carvill of the brand-new site oomska that he wants to publish my translation of Pablo Antonio Cuadra's "Black Boat". This is great... I think I will look around for a new story to start working on, maybe something by Soledad Puértolas.

posted evening of September 23rd, 2010: 8 responses
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Saturday, June 4th, 2011

🦋 Fratres:

For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time [are] not worthy [to be compared] with the glory which shall be revealed in us. For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God. For the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him who hath subjected [the same] in hope, Because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now.

-- The letter of St. Paul to the Romans
Chapter Ⅷ: 18-22
King James version

For a long time I have been wondering how a translation of Joachín Pasos' Battle-song: The War of Things might best preserve the voice of the poet. Throughout the poem he is addressing vosotros, the explicitly familiar, explicitly plural second person which does not exist in English. Turns out the key is the epigraph to the poem.

For an epigraph, Pasos quotes from the Vulgate version of the above verses of Romans; but he prefaces the quotation with "Fratres:" -- "Brethren:", which is not part of these verses. Paul's letter is addressed to his brethren the Roman Christians, so this insertion makes good sense. And if you read Pasos' poem as a continuation of Paul's address to his brethren, then the familiar second-person plural is clear from context.

This morning I had what seems to me like a good idea for a non-literal translation of the poem's third stanza:

Give me a motor, a motor stronger than man's heart.
Give me a robot's brain, let me be murdered painlessly.
Give me a body, metal body without and within another metal body,
just like the leaden soldier's who never dies,
never begs oh Lord, your grace, let me not be disgraced among your works
like the soldier of mere flesh, our feeble pride,
who will offer, for your day, the light of his eyes,
who will take, for your metal, take a bullet in his chest,
who will give, for your water, give back his blood.
Who wants to be like a knife, like one no other knife can ever wound.
(With liberal borrowings from Steven F. White's more literal translation.) This poem reminds me strongly of León Ferrari's paintings of armaments. Remember that the poet is addressing his brethren: He is asking for these cybernetic enhancements not from his God but from his peers.

posted morning of June 4th, 2011: Respond
➳ More posts about Epigraphs

Sunday, June 5th, 2011

🦋 Un poema largo: imágenes dentro de las imágenes, imágenes construidas a partir de las imágenes

¿Cómo puedo entender el «Canto de guerra de las cosas»? Joachín Pasos me parece periodista incrustado en el ejército de la existencia...

Es un poema largo, 19 estrofas, 150 líneas, cada línea (casí cada línea) dibujando su propia imagen y cada estrofa surgiendo de estas imágenes en un cuadro complejo y múltiple. Todo junto es demasiado (para mí) para mantener...

Me parece que el mejor camino de entender el poema entero y también de traducirlo, es bien entender cada línea y cada estrofa, trabajar desde las raíces del árbol más bien que intentar todo en una vez comprender.

posted morning of June 5th, 2011: Respond

Sunday, June 26th, 2011

🦋 El poeta licantrópico

I find myself fascinated by Steven White's statement about Alfonso Cortés, Nicaragua's "poeta loco," that he "was prone to fits of violence that coincided with the full moon" -- I am finding in Cortés' poetry some beautiful fragments without its yet coming together for me as a whole. Inscribed on Cortés' tomb in León (adjacent to the tomb of Rubén Dario) is his poem "Supplication."

Time is hunger, space is cold
pray, pray: only supplication
can satisfy the longings of the void.

Dreaming is a lonely rock
where the eagle of the soul can build his nest:
dream, dream, dream the whole day long.

(I see a couple of references, in the few of Cortés' poems that White includes, to ether -- I wonder if he was a recreational user and if so, whether that had anything to do with his reputation for insanity.)

posted evening of June 26th, 2011: 2 responses
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Monday, July 4th, 2011

🦋 Brandished back against the lances of the sun

Source material for a poem I posted today in comments at Dave Bonta's Morning Porch -- this is from Pablo Antonio Cuadra's Songs of Cifar and of the Sweet Sea (which, happy day, I discover Tony Bigras of has uploaded in full). Translation is my own, with reference to that of Grace Schulman and Ann McCarthy de Zavala.

Caballos en el Lago

Los caballos bajan al amanecer.

Entran al lago de oro y avanzan
-- ola contra ola
el enarcado cuello y crines --
a la cegadora claridad.
Muchachos desnudos
bañan sus ancas
y ellos yerguen
ebrios de luz
su estampa antigua.
-- la oreja atenta --
el sutil clarín de la mañana
y miran
el vasto campo de batalla.
Entonces sueñan
-- bulle
la remota osadía --
se remontan
a los días heroicos,
cuando el hierro
devolvía al sol sus lanzas
potros blancos
escuadrones de plata
el grito
lejanísimo de los pájaros
y el viento.

Pero vuelven

es el tiempo)

Al golpe
enfilan hacia tierra
-- bajan la frente --
y uncido
al carro
el sueño
el viento.

Horses in the Lake

The horses come down at daybreak.

They enter into the golden lake, and on
-- wave after wave
the long arched necks, the manes --
into the blinding clearness.
And naked boys
are bathing their haunches
drunk with light
they're lifting up
their ancient image.
They listen
-- ears perked up --
to the morning's subtle trumpet
and they gaze
on the enormous field of battle.
And then they dream
-- and glimpse
remote effrontery --
rising back up
to the days of glory,
when steel met
the sun's proud lances
stallions white
and squadrons silver
the cries
of distant birds and
of the wind.

But they return

the whip of time)

And struck
move slowly back to land
-- they bow their heads --
they're yoked to
the wagon
the dream
the wind.

posted afternoon of July 4th, 2011: Respond

Saturday, July 9th, 2011

🦋 La Alegradora

Scattered throughout Cuadra's Songs of Cifar and of the Sweet Sea are eleven short (even "koanic") poems titled "El maestro de Tarca" -- these seem different from the rest of the text. They are printed in italics, and they all begin with the phrase "El maestro de Tarca was telling us" or "was telling me" or similar. I think these poems might be the framework around which the rest of the book is built... Not sure, but that is anyway an interesting idea. Tarca is not known to Google Maps; other Internet sources suggest it is on the island of El Carmen, off the western shore of Lake Nicaragua. Schulman translates "maestro" as "master"; it could also be translated "teacher". My impulse is to leave the phrase "el maestro de Tarca" untranslated.

I'm interested this morning in the ninth poem of this series, one which Schulman and Zavala do not include in their edition. It presents a few challenges for the translator; key among them is the term "La Alegradora". "Alegrar" is "gladden", so "alegradora" would be "someone who makes you happy" -- span¡shd! gives it as an archaic term for "jester". This is pretty clearly not the meaning intended in the poem; a little digging around with Google* turns up a blog entry from No-Nan-Tzin [you will get an adult content warning when clicking this link, you can safely ignore it], who tells us that "alegradora" is the Spanish rendering of the Nahuatl term "tlatlamiani", a prostitute in pre-Columbian Mexico.

Well: "prostitute" works semantically in the poem; but why did Cuadra not use "La Prostituta"? Was "alegradora" still idiomatic in 20th-Century Nicaragua? Is the usage intentionally archaic, hearkening back to ancient times (this seems likely)? I believe the Aztec empire included Nicaragua; so this is my working assumption, and I am going to leave "La Alegradora" untranslated. But if a Nicaraguan reader would recognize it immediately as meaning "prostitute", this may be a poor choice.


El maestro de Tarca
me decía:

La Alegradora
con su cuerpo da placer,
no con su recuerdo.
Con la mano hace señas
con los ojos llama,
no con su recuerdo.

La Alegradora
es el puerto
la tierra
que sólo es del pobre
en la noche.


El maestro de Tarca
was telling me:

La Alegradora
gives you pleasure with her body,
not with her remembrance.
With her hand she beckons
with her eyes she calls you hence,
not with her remembrance.

La Alegradora
is the port
is the land
which the poor man only knows
by night.

* The same round of searches also brought to my attention this ode by Aztec prince Tlaltecatzin, who praises his love as a "precious toasted huitlacoche". The original Nahuatl is here.

posted morning of July 9th, 2011: 3 responses

🦋 Lo desconocido

In the third "teachings of el maestro de Tarca" poem, the customary introduction is reversed: here Cifar is speaking to the teacher. This suggests to me that the other poems in this series, where el maestro is speaking "to me" or "to us", are told from the POV of Cifar.

The two main difficulties for me in translating this poem were the conditional tense of "juraría" and the parallelism in the final two lines. I'm not really sure what conditional tense does -- from its name it sounds like it has a similar function to subjunctive. Schulman translates "juraría" as "I would swear", which sounds ok, but makes me ask what the condition is. I am going with "I could swear" which sounds a little more natural to my ears. (As a weak bonus, "I could swear it" scans the same as "juraría" -- though in the rest of the poem, I am not doing much to preserve the metric pattern.)

The last two lines, el maestro's response to Cifar, are the koanic element of this poem. In the original there is a strong parallelism: "Lo conocido/ es lo desconocido." I am going with a literal rendering to preserve this parallelism even though I think it mangles the meaning of the words slightly. Schulman uses the wordy "That which is known/ is the unknown", which I think is slightly closer to Cuadra's meaning, but not nearly as pleasant to read.


Maestro, dijo Cifar,
seguí tu consejo
y crucé el Lago
buscando la isla desconocida.
Fui con viento benévolo
a la más lejana, virgen y perdida
que yo conocí esa isla
que su sonoro acantilado
devolvió mi canto un día
que era la misma mujer
la que allí me esperaba
casi lo juraría!
Sonrió el maestro y dijo:
Lo conocido
es lo desconocido.


Maestro, said Cifar,
I followed your counsel
and crossed the Lake
in search of the unknown island.
I sailed with a gentle wind
to its farthest point, untouched and lost
I knew this island
I could swear it!
her echoing cliffs
had once already returned my song
I could swear it!
it was the same woman
who was waiting there for me
I could almost swear it!
El maestro smiled and spoke:
The known
is the unknown.
The fourth poem in the series is a sweet little gem.


Dijo el maestro
de Tarca:

Coge la cigarra
del ala
Al menos
llevas en la mano
el canto.


Thus spoke el maestro
de Tarca:

Seize the locust
by its wing
At least
carry in your hand
its song.
(I am tampering with the voice of the verb "llevas" in the next-to-last line -- Schulman renders it as "you carry" which is true to the original; whereas "coge" is imperative, "llevas" is indicative.) (Update: here is a better idea.)

posted afternoon of July 9th, 2011: Respond
➳ More posts about Cicadas

🦋 The links of Tarca

Here are a few resources for the "el maestro de Tarca" poems and more broadly, Songs of Cifar and of the Sweet Sea. I will add to this list over the coming weeks if I find more that seem worth including.

  • Sergio Ramírez, a member of Nicaragua's Academia de la Lengua, delivered a paper on El maestro de Elqui: la narrativa de Pablo Antonio Cuadra when he entered the academy in 2003. It is online at Ramírez' home page. A shorter version of the same paper is at La Prensa Literaria. Ramírez also has a short piece in Ancora from 2002, in which he seems to indicate that el maestro de Tarca is Cuadra himself.
  • Folk musician Carlos Mejía Godoy recorded his album "Cantos de Cifar" in 1992. A few tracks are online at YouTube, and I found "El maestro de Tarca" (the first poem in the series) online at Radio La Primerísima.
  • The full text of the book is online at

posted afternoon of July 9th, 2011: Respond

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