From Selected Translations: Poems 2000-2020
We are happy to feature Stavans’ translations of ten poets from ten different Latin American countries in LALT.
Selected Translations: Poems 2000-2020 is now available from University of Pittsburgh Press.
Sor Juana Inés de La Cruz (Mexico, 1648-1695)
Stay, shadow of my elusive prize
image of enchantment I most want,
fair illusion for whom I joyfully die,
sweet fiction for whom I painfully live.
If to the magnet of your charm’s attraction
serves my breast of obedient steel,
why do you entice me with your flattery,
if you then will fool me with escape?
’Tis you can’t boast in satisfaction
that I fell victim to your tyranny;
though while you fooled the straight bond
that your fantastic form constrained,
it matters little to fool arms and breast
if my fantasy holds you prisoner.
Delmira Agustini (Uruguay, 1886-1914)
Fiera de amor
Beast of love, I suffer hunger for hearts.
Of pigeons, vultures, roe deer, or lions,
There is no more tempting prey, no more gratifying tastes,
It already strangulated my claws and instinct,
When erected in an almost ethereal plinth,
I was fascinated by a statue of antique emperor.
And I grew in enthusiasm; through the stone stem
My desire ascended like fulminous ivy,
Up to the chest, seemingly nurtured in snow;
And I clamored to the impossible heart… the statue,
A custodian of its glory, pure and serene,
With its forehead in Tomorrow and its feet in Yesterday.
My perennial desire, the stone stem
Has been suspended like bloody ivy;
And since then I bite my heart while dreaming
Of the statue, supreme prisoner of my beautiful claw;
It is neither flesh nor marble; a star paste
Bloodless, with neither warmth nor palpitation…
With the essence of a superhuman passion!
León de Grieff (Colombia, 1895-1976)
White moon… and cold…
and my sweet heart in bold
Your hand, eluded!
White moon, and cold
my sweet heart in bold
The vague piano notes…
From the forest an arcane aroma…
And a river, resounded…
My sweet heart in bold,
Enriqueta Arevalo Larriva (Venezuela, 1886-1962)
We Were Not the Whole Tree
We were not the whole tree. Only graceful
branches, moss-covered bark, humid flowers,
roots liberated from the abyss.
We were not always the tree.
We didn’t weather frosted, stubborn rain
or keep vigil in a night of ghosts.
And we were delightedly sheltered
in its own hollow, not its hollow.
If they burned the summer frowns,
with laughter we jumped into the well.
If ax arms were lifted,
woodcutting ballads would beat us.
If fire lines advanced,
rower and horse rhymed our fugue.
If devouring ants climbed,
we were only a mirror of disaster.
If the afternoon dragged it by shadows,
we would go to the heart of the west
to play with the sun, cooled and red.
And when the wind threatened like a giant,
foreboding the uncongealing, we saved ourselves.
We were not the whole tree.
We were not always the tree.
But the miracle fully perpetuates:
My branches are nurtured by your impulse,
my uneasiness evaporates in your resin.
Dulce María Loynáz (Cuba, 1902-1997)
The mirror hanging on the wall,
where I sometimes see myself in passing…
is a dead pond brought
into the house.
Corpse of a pond is the mirror:
still, rigid water containing
in itself remnants of color,
of the sun, of shadow…—movable
edges of the horizon burning, passing by
in circles, returning, never
reminiscence that coalesced in the glass
and cannot return to the distant
land from where the pond was torn up,
of moon and jasmine, still trembling
of rain and birds, its waters…
This is water tamed by death:
it’s a ghost
of a living water that shined one day,
free in the world, lukewarm, suntanned…
Open to the happy wind that
made her dance…! The water doesn’t dance
anymore; it will not reflect
the suns of each day. It is barely reached
by the withered ray filtered through
In what cold did they freeze you for so long,
vertical pond, no longer spilling
your stream over the carpet, no longer
emptying your remote landscapes
in the living room and your spectral
light? Gray, crystallized water,
my mirror, where I saw myself
sometimes, where I feared being kept
inside forever… Detached
from myself, lost in the mud
of ash made of limbering starts…
Carlos Drummond de Andrade (Brazil, 1902-1987)
International Congress of Fear
Provisionally we shall not sing to love,
which hides far below the underground.
We shall sing to fear, sterilizing embraces,
we shall not sing to hatred which exists barely,
fear barely exists, our father and companion,
the great fear of heartlands, of seas, of deserts
the fear of soldiers, the fear of mothers, the fear of churches,
we shall sing to the fear of dictators, the fear of democrats,
we shall sing to the fear of death and the fear of after death.
Then we will die of fear
and over our graves yellow, fearful flowers will rise.
Blanca Varela (Peru, 1926-2009)
let’s say that you won the race
and the prize
was another race
that you didn’t savor the wine of victory
but your own salt
that you never listened to hurrahs
but dog barks
and your shadow
your own shadow
was your only
and disloyal competitor
Juan Gelman (Argentina, 1930-2014)
Poetry isn’t a bird.
It isn’t a lung, air, my shirt,
no, nothing like that. And all of it.
I have broken a violent against the sunset
to see what happened,
I went to the stone and asked what happened.
But no. But no.
Did I perhaps forget that handkerchief
on which an old waltz circles in silence?
I didn’t forget it, look at my cheek
and you’ll see, no, I didn't forget it.
Did I forget the wooden horse?
Touch in me the child and you’ll say no.
And so what?
Poetry is a way of living.
Look at the people at your side.
Do they eat? Suffer? Sing? Cry?
Help them fight for their hands, their eyes, their mouth, for the kiss to kiss and the kiss to give away, for their table, their bread, their letter a and their letter h, for their past—were they not children?—for their present, for the piece of peace, of history and happiness that belongs to them, for the piece of love, big, small, sad, joy, that belongs to them and is taken away in the name of what, of what?
Your life will then be an innumerable river to be called pedro, juan, ana, maría, bird, lung, the air, my shirt, violin, sunset, stone, that handkerchief, old waltz, wooden horse.
Poetry is this.
Afterward, write it.
Jorge Teiller (Chile, 1935-1996)
A Poet of the Countryside
after a Marc Chagall painting
we could also be lying down
prominently in the painting
with the raincoat covered with grass
and from our dream
an indifferent horse would emerge
a slow-chewing cow
a helmet with a hay roof.
the point is
that things ought to dream with us,
and at the end no one ought to know
if it is us who are dreaming with the poet
that dreams this landscape
or it is the landscape that dreams with us
and the poet
and the painter.
Humberto Ak’Abal (Guatemala, b.1952)
All of us dance
on the edge of a coin.
The poor—because they are poor—
lose their step,
and everyone else
falls on top.
All translations by Ilan Stavans
Ilan Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities and Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College and the publisher of Restless Books. His latest books are The Seventh Heaven: Travels through Jewish Latin America (2019), How Yiddish Changed America and How America Changed Yiddish (2020), And We Came Outside and Saw the Stars Again (2020), Popol Vuh: A Retelling (2020), and Selected Translations: Poems 2000-2020 (2021). He has translated Sor Juana, Neruda, and Borges into English, Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Bishop into Spanish, Isaac Bashevis Singer from Yiddish, Yehuda Halevi from Hebrew, and Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Lewis Carroll into Spanglish. His work, translated into twenty languages, has been adapted into film, radio, TV, and theater.
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.