Octavio Paz: Paths Towards the Untranslatable


Octavio Paz with Herminio Martínez in Mazatlán, March 29, 1985, CC BY-SA 3.0.

As a thinker on translation, Octavio Paz would have agreed with the title of Rebecca L. Walkowitz’s book, Born Translated.  To the Mexican poet, translation is always possible. In this regard, one might recall his comparison between translation and the instrumental solos of an orchestra. Paz describes how solos start playing and, suddenly, other sounds rise in response. A constant movement is thus produced, in which French writers, for instance, influence Latin American poetry through translation. Paz believed in the power of translation to produce these encounters. We must, nonetheless, make a distinction between thinking about translation and its actual practice. We often feel seduced by translators who reflect upon their work. We become engrossed in Gregory Rabassa or Edith Grossman’s testimonies, to give a few examples. Nevertheless, it is necessary to study the decisions and formal provisions of such translations and compare them to the original texts.

This analysis might help us understand the manipulations, strategies, silencing, and ideology of each translator. In this way, we will be able to appreciate Paz’s contradictions. On the one hand, he firmly believes in the possibility of translating every single language. On the other, regarding his practice of translation, we will notice that some of his choices prove that it is impossible to translate certain words and worldviews. In this respect, I would like to pay special attention to his translations of Fernando Pessoa, William Carlos Williams, and John Donne. In them, we find not only the difficulty of translating words’ meanings, but also certain spiritual, cultural, and ideological frictions. 

One of the merits of Paz’s essays and notes on the art of translation was to defy the clichés of the truthful or literal translator. The reader might be amazed to discover Paz’s ability to recreate poems without any knowledge or mastery of the original languages. His aesthetic efforts and his need to translate reveal frictions between cultural systems that translation cannot resolve. 

Still, Paz’s translations highlight the fact that we can neither avoid nor reject the untranslatable. The presence of the untranslatable does not mean that we need to think in terms of “pure” cultures that must not become intertwined. The shadow of the untranslatable will always be there to remind us that in every equivalence there is also a divergence. Comparing Paz’s translations to their originals will allow us to perceive the paths of the untranslatable.

In 1961, Paz wrote an essay on Fernando Pessoa, titled A Stranger to Himself, perhaps his most profound interpretation of a poet’s work. He later included that text in his anthology on Pessoa (1962) and Cuadrivio (1965). While Paz translated only a few poems by Breton or Ezra Pound, his translations of Pessoa were plentiful, and he tried to include a variety of his heteronyms. Paz’s translations don’t only reflect his admiration for Pessoa, nor are they mere literary exercises. The translator wants to spread the work of a lesser-known author amongst Hispanic audiences. We discover Pessoa through the Mexican writer’s perspective; the translator thus recreates a foreign author. 

In his essay, A Stranger to Himself, Paz praises the Portuguese author, but also points out their differences. These can be noted on the pages dedicated to Alberto Caeiro, one of Pessoa’s heteronyms. According to Paz, Caeiro is an innocent poet, one who lives in a place where words and things are irrevocably intertwined. Paz identifies himself as a Modern poet, who longed to recover the lost “unity” of words and things. Indeed, to Paz, translation proved a path by which to return to that harmonic state. Nevertheless, when we compare these translations to their originals, they reveal more tensions than homogeneities. Paz tried to imitate Caeiro’s voice in his translations, at least when it comes to rhythm and worldview. He preserved Caeiro’s reflexive tone, his long verses, and his everydayness. Still, in many cases, Caeiro’s Spanish is more melodic, with an increasing use of rhyme, and some of his pedestrian imagery is coated with lyrical undertones that are not present in the original Portuguese. These changes let us perceive the style of Paz, whose poetry was always characterized by its erudite use of rhyme, its pompous adjectives. There are two scenes where this is most evident. Caeiro tells us:

Tras mucho divagar mi pensamiento cruza a nado el río:
Porque Ihe pesa o fato que os homens o fizeram usar.
[my thoughts swims very slowly across the river,
weighed down by the heavy suit humankind made it wear]1

In Paz’s translation, we read:

Le pesan los vestidos impuestos por los hombres.

“O fato” and “los vestidos” mark this contrast. In Portuguese, this is an ironic image, but it also emphasizes the coercion of ideas. “Fato,” or suit, becomes a disciplinary instrument. Likewise, in these verses, Caeiro mocks himself and his oppressors: a thought is forced to wear a suit and struggles to swim across a river. The word “suit” conveys a pedestrian, bureaucratic meaning. As a translator, Paz chose the word “vestidos” (garments), giving the verses a softer, more rhythmic sound. The oppressive dimension is lost in favor of a more delicate tone. Later, Pessoa’s repetitions are suppressed to avoid heavy, monotone sounds. Paz modifies not only sound but also perspectives that differ from his aesthetic vantage. We become witnesses to Paz’s attempt to transform Pessoa into a melodic writer. Nonetheless, after comparing the original texts to their translations, one might note that, even if linguistic forms are transmitted, Pessoa’s worlds remain untranslatable. Paz, aware of this impossibility, has tried to hide it behind a more simple style. Álvaro de Campos-Pessoa writes in “The Tobacco Shop”:

Em todos os manicômios há doidos malucos com tantas certezas!
[Insane asylums are full of lunatics with certainties!]2

Paz transforms this verse, using a different tone:

¡En tantos manicomios hay tantos locos con tantas certezas!

Paz probably imagined the expression “doidos malucos” to be redundant, maybe even a typographical mistake. “Doidos” and “malucos” might look like synonyms, but by using these words, Pessoa intended to emphasize the subjects’—and maybe even his own—painful condition: that of madness, mental illness, of the pathological state of being. But Paz replaces that repetition with another. His use of “tantos”/“tantas” (so many) tries to give the poem a more cohesive rhythm—a coherence that, precisely, Pessoa wanted to break midverse. He changes not only Pessoa’s words but also his worldview. Paz’s madmen are more lucid, more reasonable; for the Portuguese poet, madness is full of contradiction and tension. 

The notion of “distraction” can shed more light on these differences, as seen in the following verses:

Sentir é estar distraído 
[to feel is to be distracted]

Sentir es distraerse 

Here Caeiro-Pessoa speaks about a distracted subject who can only perceive reality when he distances himself from protocols and social norms, as he can only feel when he is not thinking. Paz understands distraction as a relaxing activity that minimizes one’s problems. On the one hand is Caeiro’s resistance to following coercive policies. On the other, we observe Paz’s hedonism, the pleasure to be found in distraction. While to Pessoa the distracted person may be compared to a wise mystic, Paz’s sense of the word is more pedestrian, perhaps related to his notion of eroticism. 

William Carlos Williams was another of Paz’s most translated poets. Williams and Pessoa were some of the few poets Paz translated with the intention of publishing, as he did with Matsuo Basho’s “The Narrow Road to the Interior” in 1957. In the twenty poems selected by Paz in 1973, there are certain recurring themes: landscapes, geography, and local fauna. Paz translates them with a specific goal—to transfer Williams’ scenery to Latin America. Let us compare the texts: 

Let the snake wait under his weed
Que la culebra aguarde bajo el yerbal 
(“A Sort Of A Song”)

Miscellaneous weed
Yerbas y yerbajos
(“The Cod Head”)

In these examples, the word “weed” is constantly Mexicanized. It is important to note that Paz was aware that these changes bring both cultures together, but could also drive them apart. For example, “yerbajos” highlights the fact that we are now treading on foreign territory while preserving some of Williams’ rawness. On another occasion, Paz translates an idiom into a Spanish onomatopoeia in a ludic—and maybe even childlike—manner, allowing us to perceive the actual trickling of water. Let us observe these variations:

(where water 
is trickling)

(glu-glu de agua 
que escurre)

Paz knows that “escurrir” is the Spanish equivalent of trickling, but considers this translation to be incomplete. So, he introduces the sound “glu-glu” to emphasize materiality. While Williams seems content with a sparse description of trickling water, Paz wants it to come to life. In this case, mere translation seems lacking, and Paz decides to employ different techniques, to transcreate the poem, as Haroldo de Campos would say. The translator wants to remind us that equivalence is not always enough and that, sometimes, differences simply must stand out in order to fully explore a poem’s potential. “Glu-glu” becomes an invitation to feel—trickling, a meager reference.

Paz also wants his readers to perceive the poem’s full meaning, especially when it comes to its political aspects. “Young Sycamore” talks about a young, fertile, strong-growing tree. To Paz, the tree represents the liberalism that Williams so ardently defended. In this vein, he introduces the adjective “liberal” in a didactic manner. The addition becomes evident in the following verses: 

I must tell you 
this young tree 
whose round and firm trunk

Tengo que decírtelo 
el tronco firme y liberal 
de este joven árbol

Williams plays around with the various definitions of the word “round”: circular shape, conclusion, fullness, amplitude. To Paz, it simply summarizes what liberalism is about. The growing tree represents a doctrine that Paz firmly believes in. Translation turns the poem’s symbol into a political manifesto. 

This is not the only time Paz’s ideology has played an important role in his translations. In this regard, we might mention his 1971 translation of John Donne’s “Elegy.” Paz admires the English author, mainly because of his eroticism. But these encounters also generate disagreements. Paz offers us what might be one of Donne’s best translations into Spanish, by recreating and capturing his passionate universe. Nonetheless, in its final section, Paz makes some conspicuous changes that modify the poem’s meaning. Let us read the following verses:

To teach thee, I am naked first; why then 
What need’st thou have more covering than a man?

Mírame, ven, ¿qué mejor manta 
Para tu desnudez, que yo, desnudo?

In Donne’s version, the lyrical speaker shows his patriarchal dominance and demands the woman’s body through an authoritarian question. It is a scene of sexual domination, where the female body has no autonomy and where the man becomes an authoritarian figure. It is possible that Paz, who believed in gender equality, thought this scene contradicted his convictions. As a translator, Paz decides to recreate that moment. He reduces the verses’ sexual violence, giving way to a courteous or gallant tone. The question adopts a softer, even shy, tone. The hierarchy between master and pupil gives way to an equal encounter between two human bodies. In this sense, his translation of “Elegy” follows his ideas from The Double Flame, Paz’s book on love and eroticism. 

In her translation of Katherine Mansfield’s “Bliss,” Brazilian writer Ana Cristian Cesar adds numerous notes, in which she explains the differences and gaps produced by translation between English and Portuguese. Her notes state that, although one can find linguistic convergence, there are still many unsolvable differences in translation. Paz, as a thinker on translation, did not fixate on those differences. He looked for possible approximations instead. Sometimes he would manipulate or hide differences by following his poetic principles. In other moments, he would highlight these contrasts; the breach between his ideas and those of the authors he translated. Following the wise Alberto Caeiro’s advice, I think that we should not only heed the thoughts and theories proposed by translations like Paz’s. We should also direct our attention towards their practice of translation, their choices, their manipulations, and rewritings. Only in this way will we be able to understand each translator’s aesthetics and political views.

Translated by Antonia Alvarado

1 Vid. The Complete Works of Alberto Caeiro. Translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Patricio Ferrari (2020).

2 Vid. “The Tobacco Shop.” Translated by Richard Zenith. The Iowa Review 31.3 (2001): 75-80. Web.


Antonia Alvarado is a Spanish MA student at the University of Oklahoma. She holds degrees in Literature (Universidad de los Andes, Chile) and Education (Universidad del Desarrollo) and has worked as a secondary education teacher and language instructor in Chile and Spain.  


LALT No. 17
Number 17

In our seventeenth issue, we highlight the work of groundbreaking Colombian writer Albalucía Ángel, alongside Octavio Paz, a towering figure of Mexican letters and the second Latin American winner of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. We also feature Peruvian poet Eduardo Chirinos, a series of photo portraits of writers in the pandemic, a selection of new translations seeking publisher, plus writing in the Murui, Quechua, and Tseltal lenguages in our ongoing Indigenous Literature section.

Table of Contents

Editor's Note

Featured Author: Albalucía Ángel

Dossier: Octavio Paz

Dispatches from the Republic of Letters






Pandemic Postcards

Indigenous Literature

Translation Previews and New Releases

On Translation: Seeking Publisher

Dossier: Eduardo Chirinos

Nota Bene