Translating the unspeakable: On the fragments of Visión de los hijos del mal by Miguel Ángel Bustos


Memorial plaque placed by Barrios x Memoria y Justicia on August 31, 2013 (Bustos's birthday) outside the apartment from which he was sequestered on May 30, 1976 (visited by Lucina Schell in April 2019).

Escribe condenado. Escribe infinito.

Miguel Ángel Bustos
Fragmentos fantásticos

As a reader and translator, I find fragments endlessly fascinating because they are endless, their potential infinite. The circular logic of the fragment creates ripples like a drop on a pool of water. My fascination with fragments was part of what drew me to want to translate Miguel Ángel Bustos, a master of the form whose books Fragmentos fantásticos (1965) and Visión de los hijos del mal (1967) include long series of numbered fragments. Last year, co•im•press published my translations of these books in a dual, bilingual edition as Vision of the Children of Evil. That which has no end can also have no beginning, as Donald Revell states in his analysis of poetic fragments “Better Unsaid”: “Only what cannot begin remains innocent of anticipation, retaining the necessity and thus the privilege of incompleteness.” Nevertheless, the poet begins —and begins, and begins again. A series of fragments might be called a series of false starts, an essay, an attempt.

There are several reasons why a poet might express himself in fragments, according to Revell. These include the impossibility of encompassing the subject in form; extremes of human experience, such as grief; and astonishment by awe —piety before the subject is a condition of fragmentary writing: “In each instance, the insuperable entirety of experience-in-time insists upon the incompleteness of the written work. Otherwise, the poet would be guilty of an impious rivalry with the source of what he writes and is. Under such conditions, completeness is plagiarism.” I have experienced all three states of mind while translating the fragments of Bustos—certainly an awareness of my limitations, as I have been overtaken by empathy with his suffering and reverence for his brilliance. Perhaps I admire both the activity of translation and the fragment form because both attempt while knowing that on some level they will fall short. To rewrite Bustos with literal fidelity in English would be plagiarism—and like plagiarism, it would lack the force of the original. To succeed my attempt must be incomplete, the tension between my English and the Spanish creating sparks just like the tension contained in the nucleus of the fragment itself.

Across these two books, Bustos as poet and prophet initiates a literary descent into hell, aligning himself with the maudit/maldito or cursed poets. One source of Bustos’s fragmentism is his physical and mental instability—he suffered from epilepsy, and described his condition in a 1970 interview with Alicia Dujovne Ortíz for La Nación:

El estado previo al ataque es un momento de aura y advenimiento, una exaltación de la lucidez y la euforia. Es como si se gozara de todo el cosmos a la vez. Imposible transferir ese sentimiento a la gente porque no es que la gente no contemple, sino que usa una mínima parte de sus posibilidades para no quedar anonadada. El horror de mi situación es, precisamente, un continuo, un insoportable estado de lucidez.

Such an overwhelming experience could only be encompassed—and only partially—in fragments. Bustos wrote the bulk of Fragmentos fantásticos in the Borda psychiatric hospital, where he was interned in 1964 following a brief marriage, nervous breakdown, and suicide attempt. Those 87 fragments are uncontainable, ecstatic, full of broken sounds, exploding with linguistic invention. Revell echoes these sentiments:

At extremes of human experience, the habitual reflective syntax of language breaks, just as reflective consciousness breaks, opening to the catastrophe of a present that recalls no precedent and anticipates no aftermath…Poetic form is acquitted of intention when destroyed by life, by extremes of passion or grief that compel poetry towards the speech of speechlessness which, struggling to survive at those extremes, must encode the unnameable truth of catastrophe known not even to itself.  

The 127 fragments of Visión de los hijos del mal continue the same project, but achieve a level of refinement, the conflict less personal and more metaphysical, the aphorism honed to piercing effect. I adore both series, but will focus on the fragments of Visión here.

Instability lies at the core of the aphorism; its currency is inversion. It is a sort of equation with a mirror at the center that refracts, doubling back on itself. Revell compares fragments to windows, whose very nature is to disappear into their own substance, to be transparent: “[The fragment] is transparent because it cannot be read, in the usual manner of meaning received, even once. Its illegibility is an inexhaustible necessity.” Some consider a good translation to be one that is transparent or invisible, yet I have made choices as a translator to heighten the potency of these equations that are evident when one compares the Spanish and English. Consider fragment 3: “La única verdad que poseo es mi muerte. La única mentira es mi vida.” No two concepts are more fiercely opposed in the human mind than life and death, and here they are coupled with truth and lies, yet not in the pairing we expect. I have compressed the two sentences into one with a comma splice (creating grammatical fragments), relying on the ability in English to avoid repeating the verb in the dependent clause: “My death is the only truth I possess, my life the only lie.”

Using the same strategy for fragment 115, “Las casas tienen puertas para que puedan entrar los niños, para que salgan los muertos,” I omitted the second “para que” (so that), as well as the comma, making the sentence read more bluntly in English: “Houses have doors so that children can enter and the dead can leave.” This fragment beautifully illustrates the way fragments work: what goes in comes out transformed. Sometimes the fragment’s power lies in the irony of what is juxtaposed, while at others it is in simply stating truths that often go unsaid, without obfuscation. Nothing is more cliché than “life is short,” yet the proximity of “children” and “dead,” without so much as a comma to separate them, is painful.

Sometimes reducing the space between the two conflictive elements in the fragments produces the most charge, while at others, it’s necessary to set the two clauses off from one another. I’ve used colons in place of commas in the Spanish for an address, as in fragment 28, “Attention, roses of future springs: I’m taking the sun” (“Rosas de futuras primaveras, atención que me llevo el sol”); or, for apostrophe, as in fragment 86: “Hell: that rib we’re missing” (“El infierno, aquella costilla que nos falta”). In both cases, the colons create a harder stop that heightens the irony of the phrases. In other cases, I have used em dashes —the preferred punctuation mark of the great English-language fragmentist Emily Dickinson—to emphasize the connection of the juxtaposed elements across the fragment’s caesura, as in fragment 71: “Don’t greet me by doffing your hat—your freed forehead might run away” (“No me saludes sacándote el sombrero pues tu frente liberada puede echar a correr”). Or, in fragment 94: “I don’t see—I eat radiance” (“Yo no veo. Yo como resplandores”). Humor is derived from the unexpected, and in 71, the em dash visually mimics the dash of running, while in 94, it brings the verbs into closer contact, heightening the sense of surprise. I’ve also used em dashes for emphasis, as in 112: “Write celestial poetry with demonic words or better yet speak of Hell with the high purity of a god. Or hang yourself—make both poetries!” (“Escribe poesía celestial con verbo demoníaco o lo que es mejor todavía habla del Infierno con la alta pureza de un dios. O ahórcate, cumple las dos poesías.”). The em dash and exclamation point in the final line bring out the humor and irony of the original in English.

Sometimes I have sought to establish a sense of equivalency across the smallest fragments through word choice, as in fragment 76: “Face in profile, fleeing bone.” (“Rostro de perfil hueso que se va.”) Like a window, the Spanish appears in the act of turning away, almost disappearing into itself. Rather than translating literally “bone that goes away,” I chose “fleeing” to give the phrase a bit more agency and suspense, while the alliteration connects the two phrases across the caesura. I’ve also inserted a comma to add a pause, a punctuation mark that also extends visually from the line like a chin in profile.

Often, the inversion of the fragment is accomplished through wordplay, the simple transformation from verb to noun. And, as with all wordplay, this poses challenges for the translator. In fragment 82, “Am I a verb that makes sense or just a senseless verb?” I had to invert the order of the elements in the Spanish, “¿Cumplo el sentido de un verbo, o sólo soy un verbo sin sentido?” since in English, sense is something you make, while in Spanish, sense is something you complete. Yet, in order to maintain the rhetorical balance of the fragment, it was important to maintain the symmetry of the elements. Thus, in the English, verbs are on the outside and sense in the center, while in Spanish it is the opposite: sentido-verbo-verbo-sentido. Similarly, in fragment 89, “Temo el sueño, temo la vigilia. Temo vigilar el sueño, soñar la vigilia,” which gains its rhetorical force from the repetition of the same noun/verb, I was challenged by the fact that insomnia is only a noun in English, not a verb, while “vigilar” in Spanish also means to watch, as in the English “to keep vigil.” In my translation, “I fear dreams, I fear insomnia. I fear insomniac dreams, dreaming insomnia,” the latter meaning was lost, as I privileged the juxtaposition of dream/insomnia, yet that is unfortunate. The increasing political repression and violence in Argentina at the time Bustos was writing lend added significance to this sense of being monitored.  

Fragmentary writing is an art that often emerges from periods of extreme violence as a form of bearing witness. Experiences as shattering as torture are nearly impossible to write about in straightforward prose. It is estimated that at least 30,000 people were disappeared between 1976 and 1983 during Argentina’s last military dictatorship. When Bustos was disappeared within its first months, he was one of the best known and acclaimed poets of his generation. Yet, his physical disappearance was quickly followed by the symbolic disappearance of his body of work that has only recently begun to be reversed, with the publication of his collected poetry edited by his son, the poet Emiliano Bustos, in 2008; an anthology translated into French by Stéphane Chaumet in 2015; a biography by Jorge Hardmeier in 2018; and my own translations into English of two of his complete books. “La desaparición es un fantasma tan grande que no hay nada que quede por fuera de su marco; aparece todo el tiempo y encierra cualquier pregunta, cualquier interrogante, cualquier hipótesis,” Emiliano Bustos says of living with the reality of his father’s disappearance since the age of four. Yet fragments traffic in absences, hinting toward what is missing outside the text. They are the perfect witness to an aborted life, a creative talent that was extinguished before completing its arc. When I began this translation project, the fate of Bustos after May 30, 1976 was still unknown. Only in 2014 were his remains identified by forensic anthropologists and it is now known that he was executed by firing squad on June 20, 1976. “A fragment can be the testimony of what did not escape to tell, but chose instead to remain at the site of the unspeakable and to speak there,” writes Revell. Bustos’s fragments continue to speak the unspeakable from out of the void of his absence—now, in another broken tongue.



Ida Vitale in LALT
Number 12

In our twelfth issue, we pay homage to two giants of Latin American letters: Ida Vitale of Uruguay, winner of the 2018 Miguel de Cervantes Prize, and Julio Ramón Ribeyro of Peru, whose work we celebrate on the ninetieth anniversary of his birth. We also feature poetry, interviews, and stories that range from the Caribbean to the Andes and from Central American to Brazil, exclusive book previews and reflections from translators, and a special section dedicated to the work of Edwin Lucero Rinza, a young poet who recently published the first ever verse collection in Kañaris Quechua.

Table of Contents

Editor's Note

Featured Author: Ida Vitale

Dossier: Julio Ramón Ribeyro





Brazilian Literature


Indigenous Literature

On Translation: Seeking Publisher

Translation Previews and New Releases

Nota Bene