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Monday, March 16, 2020

The Bard of Santiago de Chuco

First, a writing update. I am pleased to report I am nearly at the end of Chapter 23 in my first draft of the sequel to Lautaro’s Spear. I still do not have a title, but I have a pretty clear idea of the ending, so at least that’s something. The latest adventures of Dallas Green, my own personal Candide, are taking him to three continents where he meets new characters and runs into, sometimes unexpectedly, familiar ones. And he still keeps getting himself into trouble, with the stakes increasingly high.

I am about to plunge back into the writing after a break brought about by the opportunity to attend some events of historical significance in Dublin. The good news, if you can call it that, is that I will probably get more writing time than I had expected this week since St. Patrick’s Day has effectively been canceled. Quite apart from the tragic toll Covid‑19 is taking on so many people around the world, being told by the government and health experts to stay at home and avoid people is actually music to the ears of a writer.

In case you are wondering, I do have other literary projects going on besides my slowly growing list of novels and the blogs. For some time I have been translating poetry from Spanish to English. This has been at the behest of my longtime dear friend Manuel Moreno Salvador. He and I met by chance forty-two years ago in Lima when I happened to spend a few hours in his family’s home. He and I hit it off, and the two of us have been corresponding regularly—sometimes at length—ever since, as well as meeting up in person a couple of times in Lima and in Paris, where he has lived for many years. He is an incredibly multi-talented artist, whose accomplishments include ballet dancing, acting, directing, music, illustration, and fashion design. He and his brother Ántero are founders of the Paris-based Franco-Peruvian cultural association Capulí.

In addition to all of the above, Manuel is a poet. His verses are strange, surreal, hallucinatory, passionate, and I have to say, often highly erotic. He sometimes sends them to me to translate into English so that they can be published in journals in the two languages. Such work is a challenge. Poetry is notoriously difficult to translate because you not only have to convey the literal meaning of the words but you also have to be mindful of things like the mood, the rhythm, and additional layers of meanings. Nuance is critical if you are going to be as faithful as possible to the poet’s vision and intent. It’s not something I would ever have thought myself capable of, and maybe I’m not—in a general sense. When it comes to working with Manuel, though, it somehow does work. It is as if there is a telepathic link between us—aided of course by constant consultations with multiple dictionaries—so that I feel confident I am getting the intended meaning of his words.

Vallejo in Berlin in 1929
Lately Manuel has been on to me to write something about the Peruvian poet César Vallejo. While I studied Vallejo at university many years ago, I am by no means an expert on him. Still his work resides in my mind sufficiently that I recognize the profound influence he has on my friend’s poetry.

Vallejo was born in 1892 in a remote Andean village. He wrote his first (of only three in his lifetime) book of poetry Los heraldos negros in his mid-20s in Lima where he was a university student and then a teacher. In 1920 he returned to his birthplace where he became involved in a political insurrection, which resulted in him being jailed for three months. He later moved to Paris where he managed to have a rather interesting romantic life even while enduring dire poverty during his early years there. He also spent time in Spain and the Soviet Union. In Madrid he wrote his only novel, El tungsteno. In 1934 he married the French writer and poet Georgette Philippart, who was sixteen years his junior. As a journliast, he was a frequent contributor to Latin American pubications, and he wrote theatrical works, which were performed only after his death. In his forties he produced his final two books of poetry, Poemas humanos and España, aparta de mí este cáliz, which were published posthumously. He died in 1938 at the age of 46 from a recurrence of malaria, a disease he had had as a child. Consumed with the tragedy of the Spanish Civil War, his last words were, “I am going to Spain! I want to go to Spain!” Since 1970 his remains have rested in the cemetery in Montparnasse.

Let us now take time to wish César Abraham Vallejo Mendoza ¡Feliz cumpleaños! Today he would have been 128 years old.

It is hard to believe that it is only a few years shy of the half-century mark since I first read Vallejo’s poetry. Yet the first verse of his best known poem “Los heraldos negros” is etched in my memory forever:

Hay golpes en la vida, tan fuertes… ¡Yo no sé!
Golpes como del odio de Dios; como si ante ellos,
la resaca de todo lo sufrido
se empozara en el alma… ¡Yo no sé!


A straightforward English translation of “The Black Heralds” does not feel as if it does the Castilian words justice:

There are blows in life, so powerful… I don’t know!
Blows as from God’s hatred; as if before them,
the backlash of everything suffered
were to dam up in the soul… I don’t know!


The anguish and desperation certainly come through in the English words, yet the effect is not precisely the same. When I read the Spanish words, I hear them in the voice of my old Spanish literature professor and with the raw emotion of his voice. In English, there is quite a different feel. I hear them in my own voice and without the full power of the Spanish version. Therein lies the dilemma of the translator. You are creating an echo of a work, and while hearing an echo is better than not hearing the work at all, it does not really compare to the original. Hence the old Italian saying, Traduttore, traditore (Translator, betrayer).

You could argue that a translation is actually a work of art in its own right, albeit a derivative one. That is what Manuel implies when he tells me, “You too are a poet.” Personally, I’m doubtful.

Perhaps that is also what was reflected in a response he got upon submitting one of his more florid pieces, along with my translation, to a journal in Chicago. The reply—I am still not certain whether it was an acceptance or a rejection—was as follows: “This poem is pornographic, and your translator is even more pornographic than you are!”