Translating The Madrugada

In English, what do we call that time that occurs after midnight & before dawn, when the sky takes on those deep violet, indigo colors which somehow signal the imminence of daybreak? A knee-jerk reaction might lead one to say “late-night” or “early-morning”, or “the wee hours of the night. One literary translator has even translated it as “pre-dawn” in a rather literal attempt to capture that time. In Spanish, this moment in or transformation of time is expressed by the word “madrugada”.


It’s my sense that this semantic meaning is reinforced by the phonetic quality of the word. The deepness of the vowels and softness of the adjacent consonants together express those profound tones & that nail-biting imminence that one feels after staying up all night. One says it aloud– madrugada –& instantly the swirling images of the imagination take on those darker hues.

Naturally, translating the word “madrugada” from Spanish to English poses problems, & these are exacerbated by the fact that this noun– “madrugada” –is derived from the verb “madrugar”, which the DRAE defines as “to get up early”, “to arrive quickly”, but also “to anticipate the action of a rival or a competitor”. In this sense, if I say that “me madrugaste”, I mean that you did something before I had the chance to. So, this meaning of anticipation is tied in with that of imminence. The “madrugada” always comes before one is ready for it. It is like an alarm that you set at night. & despite waking up five minutes before it goes off, its sudden ringing still catches you by surprise & somehow seems early.

When we take this observation and put it in the context of literature, & more specifically the context of poetry, one is inclined to believe that the translation of “madrugada” would naturally lead to a “loss of meaning”, that the complete meaning of the word would never “come through” into the target language, or that the only way to express it would be to offer a lengthy explanation which would deprive the work of of its formal poetic quality. I for one have felt this way all too often.

But it occurs to me– now that midnight has passed & the dawn remains beyond the horizon –that, when faced with the horns of a dilemma such as this, the translator is not only “permitted”, but rather is “obligated” to play the role of the poet in order to render an adequate translation, & by this I mean that he or she must create. For we must not forget that “poem”, via the Latin “poema”, comes from the Greek “poiein”, which means “to create”. In this context, a translation problem inevitably leads to poetic translation. The translator-as-poet must test (&/or extend) the limits of language in an attempt to re-create the poetic function of the word, in the context of the verse, of the stanza, of the poem, of the collection & of language at large.

It’s my sense that far too often we fall into that popular rut of believing that translation problems always lead to untranslatability or, conversely, that the former are symptoms of the latter. Of course, such is possible; but to reduce all translation problems to that conclusion is not only to mistrust the power of language, it is also to blindfold oneself to the promise of poetry.

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One Response to Translating The Madrugada

  1. Patricia says:

    Excelente reflexion, mi amigo… como siempre. Viendo la foto y leyendo tus comentarios llego a la conclusion (muy personal) de que la madrugada es, mas que un momento del dia, una sensacion… cuando digo “madrugada” me vienen recuerdos, muchos, de distintas madrugadas de mi vida. Pero con lo que más asocio la palabra es con eso que se siente en la piel cuando el sol apenas empieza a salir, la pequeña brisa que se levanta que te pone, literalmente, la “piel de gallina”, y el calor de los primeros rayos de sol sobre el cuerpo, y el olor del aire a esa hora, y los sonidos de la vida cotidiana que, todavía amortiguados, comienzan a crecer a tu alrededor sin que apenas lo notes. Tenes razon… qué difícil es transmitir todo eso en una sola palabra! 🙂

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