Tour Through a Minefield:

Translating César Vallejo’s Trilce

Translation is an oscillatory process: a swaying back & forth between multiple possibilities; an ongoing deliberation over decisions wrought with contingencies. It’s also an illuminating process, since the translator, like a grip-hand who mans the spotlight for a drama big or small, can & must decide which elements of the poem deserve the best lighting. But translation starts out in darkness, in strangeness. It’s not uncommon for an initial sensation of untranslatability to appear, like the feeling one gets upon entering a tunnel whose end is not immediately in view. That being said, since the goal of this piece is to guide you through the process of translating a poem from Trilce by César Vallejo, let’s begin by reading the original poem in the Spanish:

XXV

Alfan afiles a adherirse
a las junturas, al fondo, a los testuces,
al sobrelecho de los numeradores a pie.
Alfiles y cadillos de lupinas parvas.

Al rebufar el socaire de cada caravela
dehilada sin ameracanizar,
ceden la estevas en espasmo de infortunio,
con pulso párvulo mal habituado
a sonarse en el dorso de la muñeca.
Y la más aguda tiplisonancia
se tonsura y apeálase, y largamente
se ennazala hacia carámbanos
de lástima infinita.

Soberbios lomos resoplan
al portar, pendientes de mustios petrales
las escarapelas con sus siete colores
bajo cero, desde las islas guaneras
hasta las islas guaneras.
Tal los escarzos a la intemperie de pobre
fe.
Tal el tiempo de las rondas. Tal el del rodeo
para los planos futuros,
cuando innánima grifalda relata sólo
fallidas callandas cruzadas.

Vienen entonces alfiles a adherirse
hasta en la puertas falsas y en los borradores.

Clearly, a great deal can be said about this poem, without even entering a discussion on its translation; however, for our purpose, at this time, we’d like to present our English translation & then continue our tour after.

XXV

Chess bishops upthrust to stick
to lute, down deep, to napes,
to upright numerators’ undersides.
From lupine corn heaps bishops and grain.

As the lee of each unraveled
carabel snorts, without amerecanizing,
blighting ploughtails in spasm slacken,
with the scanty pulse improperly prone
to blowing its nose on the back of its wrist.
And the sharpest sopranancy
is tonsured, ensnared, and at length
imnazaled near icicles
of infinite pity.

Biggity haunches huff hard
to bear, pendent on musty breast plates
rosettes with their seven colors
under zero, from guano islands
to guano islands.
Such are the honey harvests in the wide open of bad
faith.
Such the time of the rounds. Such is he of the back
roads onward to future planes,
when innanimate grifalconage only recounts
of fraudulent silencedue crusades.

So then bishops come even to stick
to trapdoors and to rough drafts.

If there are moments in this translation that seem suspicious, that give you the urge to interrupt, to reference the Spanish version, to compare this translation to other translations, to blow the dust off a bilingual wordlist & look up a word or two, then it has served its purpose. The reason for this is twofold. On one hand, a translation of Trilce XXV should be suspicious, debatable, controversial & complex, precisely because the Spanish version is very much suspicious, debatable, controversial & complex. With a poem like this, it’s the translator’s responsibility to preserve this level of complexity; not water it down & make it more digestible than the source text is. On the other hand, this translation has endeavored to highlight the problematic moments of the text. By calling your attention, it also invites  you to direct your gaze back to the Spanish version, & like this, show you a way into this oscillatory process, this swaying back & forth.

Due to its degree of complexity, several critics have determined this poem “incomprehensible”. With regards to this debate, Eduardo Neale-Silva has explained “that Trilce XXI is difficult to access, because it contains a constant unmaking of men & things, lexical irregularities & a pronounced Imagist flare”, & as a result of this, we must “abandon, once & for all, the idea that Trilce XXV lacks meaning or coherence”1. To this we can add that our understanding of meaning is likely to widen, as we uncover the nuances of the poem, but to claim that the poem is “incomprehensible” in all reality speaks more to critical practices than it does to the poem itself. Complex, difficult, unorthodox? By all means! Incomprehensible? Ni tanto.

So then, how are we going to address this issue of complexity? Here, we’re going to explore it by focusing on the problems that arise in the translation process, by paying closest attention to what’s most difficult. To put it another way, the goal is to think for a moment like a translator & experience the numerous “crises” or obligatory decisions that must be faced in order to shed light on the most obscure & meaningful moments & movements of this poem.

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To begin, let’s have a bit of background info on this very peculiar book of poems. Trilce was published in 1922––a year crowded with groundbreaking literature. 1922 saw the publication of Joyce’s Ulysses, Eliot’s The Waste Land, Cummings’ The Enromous Room, Girondo’s 20 Poems to be Read on the Tram, Tzara’s Lecture on Dada, among others. This means that Vallejo’s second collection of poetry was a flagship of High Modernism. It proclaimed to the world that Modern poetry would no longer concern itself with the exaltations of nature-worship or saccharine testimonials of love which the Romantics had championed in the 19th century. The world was no longer a place in which the poet could look upon Nature as a mirror. Modern poetry turned its gaze to the things themselves. It is not longer a mirror that reflects, but a mirror on the wall, & eyes that look into it. Vallejo in Trilce is quite representative of this. His work shows a distinctive break with the tradition he emerges from, yet it’s not a clean break, as we’ll see in the following analysis, since there are well defined maneuvers that show a fusion of the tradition with a new experimental poetics. which makes it hard to tell whether the poem is ancient or modern.

Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to think of Vallejo as a Latin American counterpart to Andre Bretón, say, who was surrounded by younger writers eager to replicate his aesthetic, & by a public intent on making a spectacle out of the whole thing.  Vallejo’s case was quite different. The initial publication of Trilce in Lima was a complete flop. The Peruvian poet had taken the better part of 4 years to complete the manuscript. He wrote about a third of the poems while imprisoned in Trujillo, after being accused & found guilty of “intellectual instigation”; a crime he did not commit & was pardoned of only after 8 years. Aside from this, during the composition of Trilce, Vallejo lost his brother & his mother, not to mention that he suffered a nasty breakup with Otilia Villanueva, all of which in the poems are transformed into emblems of orphanhood & exile. These events, coupled with the poor reception of Trilce, were undoubtedly driving forces which motivated the 28-year-old Peruvian to expatriate to France, never to return to Peru.

The Vallejo of Trilce, however, is Vallejo in the purely Peruvian context. It’s Vallejo of Los heraldos negros (The Black Heralds)––a fiercely Indigenist collection––entering the apogee of his poetic mastery. He is not concerned with the literary conventions Europeans were proclaiming in loud manifestos. He sees Pound & Doolittle’s Imagism as an offshoot of Dada & is really only interested in those North American poets who were following the Whitmanian strain, such as Hart Crane(!), odd as it may seem.

While it’s tempting to label Trilce an “avant-garde” book of poems, it seems wrong to use a term borrowed from the French to describe poetry that is essentially autochthonous. The term vanguardista is unhappy too, but a bit more palatable. It’s precisely this autochthonous element that makes the collection so challenging & interesting to read as well as translate. Poem XXV, in particular, shows Vallejo at his best. It’s one of the most difficult poems of the collection & contains an exotic vocabulary, a powerful use of connotation & polysemy as well as an obsessive control of syntax. It’s for this very reason that this poem has been chosen for our tour; had we selected an easier poem, say Trilce II, the likelihood of shedding light on Vallejo’s poetics would have been quite slim. Again, we’re most interested in what’s most difficult.

–     |     –     |     –     |     –

Now that we have considered the poem within its historical & literary context, let’s put ourselves in the translator’s shoes & focus on the first stanza:

Alfan afiles a adherirse
a las junturas, al fondo, a los testuces,
al sobrelecho de los numeradores a pie.
Alfiles y cadillos de lupinas parvas.

The first line is of considerable difficulty. Let’s think about this stanza first with regards to its meaning. The word “alfan” comes from the verb “alfar” which refers to the action of the horse that raises the front quarters, without bending its hocks or lowering its haunches, while galloping or during other violent acts (R.A., 1939). In this sense, “alfar” means something like “to raise up”, but there is a certain equestrian connotation. The sense of “bucking” might come to mind as well. & the subjects which carry out this action are the “alfiles”, from the singular “alfil” which has several meanings.

In chess, an “alfil” is a “bishop”. As the critics Martos & Villanueva note, it’s “an Arabic word, composed of the article ‘al’ & the word ‘fil’, which means elephant […] It is also what is commonly called a proverb [&] an augur”. Neale-Silva, on the other hand, claims “alfil” is the result of a certain “euphonic play on the verb ‘alfar’: alfan alfiles. Like so it is a neologism, which might well have been suggested by the weeds of the Geraniaceae species, called ‘alfileres’ or ‘alfilerillos’ [which in English are ‘filarees’], the seeds of which also pop open like those of the ‘cadillos’… of line 4” (ibid).  So far, as the translator, we can choose one of these options that seems most appropriate in the context of the poem, or we can find a way to create a similar polysemy. Are they chess bishops? Augers? Filarees? Is the etymology from the Arabic significant enough to render “elephant” in our translation? Is the action “alfan” a “raising up”? Is it a “bucking”?  In all reality, we can’t simply make this decision & then move on; we need to leave this cluster of meanings temporarily & explore more of the poem before a decision can be made.

There are two other words in the first stanza that need to be explained: “cadillos” & “parvas”. Both of these are charged with polysemy. “Parva”, from the Latin “parvus” (small, minute, etc.), here can take on the meaning of “parvedad” (scarceness, meagerness); yet on the other hand, this noun refers to a small portion of food eaten in the morning on days of fasting. Added to this, “parva” also refers to corn that’s been gathered in fields for threshing, before the grain itself is separated. The word “cadillos”, we are told by González Vigil, refers to “common plants of crops, warts on the skin, & the first threads of the warp for a piece of cloth” (288). Again, the poem exudes meaning, & it’s not simply a matter of choosing one over the other, since that would mean to dilute the richness of the source text.

At this point, we’ve looked into the semantic side of the first stanza––that is, it’s meaning––but we have paid no attention whatsoever to the importance of its sound. The first line is riddled with assonance: “Alfan alfiles a adherirse”. Added to this is the repetition of the article “a” (4 times), in each instance introducing a new indirect object: “a las junturas, al fondo, a los testuces, al sobrelecho…” Julio Ortega stresses the importance of the phonetic quality in the first stanza, “where the vocalic play predominates in the ‘a’, which underscores the movement of these ‘alfiles’ & raises them up & moves them in alignment, perhaps cramped on the boats that carry them from the islands to port, likes the pups of the wolf” (140). With this in mind, it’s now clear that we have another parameter to work within: no matter which meanings we opt for, there must also be a deliberate phonetic play. Vallejo uses assonance with the vowel “a”. Do we need to replicate this? Can we translate the poetic function by creating assonance with a different vowel or by using consonance?

Now that we’ve looked closely at the first stanza, what’s happening? Let’s gamble an interpretation. The poor natives in this rural setting seem to be dehumanized––they’re simple “numeradores a pie”––whether this be a result of the “chess bishops”, as a symbol of the conquest, or of the “filarees”, as a symbol of the toilsome labor which they must endure in order to survive. Clearly, there are many options for the translation of this stanza. For our part, the “alfiles” as “chess bishops” are aligned with the plight of rural dweller in the face of the Spanish conquest, however, these “alfiles” are imagined as bothersome insects that stick to workers as much as to the “junturas”. Given the agricultural setting, the “parvas” are more likely to be “corn heaps” than they are “snacks”. Our translation of the first stanza reads:

Chess bishops upthrust to stick
to lute, down deep, to napes,
to upright numerators’ undersides.
From lupine corn heaps bishops and grain.

Now, let’s move on to lines 5-9 of the second stanza. Here we have the Spanish version:

Al rebufar el socaire de cada caravela
dehilada sin ameracanizar,
ceden la estevas en espasmo de infortunio,
con pulso párvulo mal habituado
a sonarse en el dorso de la muñeca.

Two words immediately catch our attention: “caravela” & “ameracanizar”. Why’s that? Well, the first oddity resides in the fact that Vallejo has replaced the “b” of “carabela” with a “v”. Now, in Spanish, the “b” & the “v” are pronounced identically. This means that the phonetic quality of the phrase will not be altered, but the textual quality will. As an aside, we should mention that this is one of Vallejo’s calling cards in the poetics of Trilce. The second peculiarity is found in the verb “ameracanizar”. Here, Vallejo has replaced the “i” of “americanizar” with an “e”: a-mera-canizar. While this may seem like a simple typo on the part of the printer, as critics have suggested, we can’t deny the fact that the adjective “mera”, here in the feminine singular form, is evoked, & this describes what is “pure, simple & does not contain a mixture with anything else”. Again, if we are taking this poem on the register of the conquest, then we would do well to consider this a neologism & not a simple typo.

Accordingly, to translate these words, the irregularities have to be accounted for. So, instead of “caravel”, with a “v”, as it’s traditionally spelled in English; this can be changed to “carabel”, with a “b”. Notice how this swap is exactly the opposite of what Vallejo does & that, by translating it this way, we end up preserving the “poetic function” instead of the text itself. The critic, Julio Ortega finds “implicit irony” in these “neologisms” or invented words: the ‘caravelas’ with ‘ameracanizar’ suggest a contradiction in these nameless & poor vessels; instruments, nonetheless, that ‘discover’ the wealth of guano. The workers are like children, whose amusement ends pitifully, in tears” (140-141).

The image of the rural Andean farmers slowly becomes an emblem. They are innocent, hard-working & soon to be preyed upon. Danger is imminent. The voraciousness of the Spanish caravels is intensified by their bestial action of “snorting”. At this point, let’s hear lines 5-9 in English translation:

As the lee of each unraveled
carabel snorts, without amerecanizing,
blighting ploughtails in spasm slacken,
with the scanty pulse improperly prone
to blowing its nose on the back of its wrist.

In lines 10-13, which finish out the second stanza, the dramatic quality of the poem reaches new heights. Like the producer of a good thriller, Vallejo makes sure that the acoustics for this scene contribute to this increase in intensity. These four lines read as follows:

Y la más aguda tiplisonancia
se tonsura y apeálase, y largamente
se ennazala hacia carámbanos
de lástima infinita.

We stop at two words here: “tiplosonancia” & “ennazala”, both of which are neologisms; however, there’s more to them than that. First, let’s think about “tiplosonancia”. The Diccionario de la real academia, probably the most authoritative dictionary of the Spanish language, doesn’t contain an entry for “tiplosonancia”. There’s an entry for the noun “tiple”, which means “trebe” or “soprano voice”. There’s an entry for the adjective “tiplosonante”, which describes something that has a soprano voice or tone. But, the abstract noun––“tiplisonancia”––is not recognized.

We can consider it a neologism. However––& this is very important––we have to recognize the logic of this development. It demonstrates the true power of Vallejo’s poetic intuition as well as his command of the language; & by command, I don’t just mean the facility with which he uses language, but rather the ease with which he creates it, extends its functionality, renews its richness & redefines it as something disinherited. Following this, it’s the job of the translator to create an abstract noun based on “soprano”, which is generally not recognized in the English language.

As for the second neologism, “ennazala”, there have been two disparate interpretations of this verb. On one hand, it’s been thought to derive from “nasa”, which in English is “creel”: a type of basket usually used to store newly caught fish. On the other hand, we have a more convincing interpretation put forth by the Italian linguist, Giovanni Meo Zilio, who believes it comes from the adjective “nasal” (nasal), turned into a verb. But to fully understand the meaning of the construction, we have to listen to its sound: “la más aguda tiplisonancia / se tonsura y apeálase, y largamente / se ennazala hacia carámbanos . . .” The transformation of the word here endows it with a performative element. It now sounds nasally, & this, again, must be taken into account as we gamble a translation. Here’s one possibility:

And the sharpest sopranancy
is tonsured, ensnared, and at length
imnazaled near icicles
of infinite pity.

The third stanza seems to corroborate the interpretation of the “alfíles” as chess bishops, who become emblematic of a colonial past. The beasts are merely “lomos” (haunches) & are comically weighed down & exhausted by lugging around the symbols of their own prestige: they “huff hard” because the “escarapelas” (rosettes) are so heavy. The stanza opens up:

Soberbios lomos resoplan
al portar, pendientes de mustios petrales
las escarapelas con sus siete colores
bajo cero, desde las islas guaneras
hasta las islas guaneras.

The third stanza portrays the life of the worker on the coast, always with animal characteristics. The word “petrales”, can mean belts or straps that, when attached to the saddle, tighten the breast of the mount. This brings us to the following line: “las escarapelas con sus siete colores”. On one hand we could interpret “una escarapela” as an adornment proper to animals: a banner of sorts, if we think that this has to do with the colonial context. On the other hand, even though the “seven colors” represent a totality & are at once symbols of authority, it’s an authority the rural worker doesn’t exercise, but endures. The phrase “bajo zero” (under zero) would seem to support this. Their luck has run out. The rural workers are marginalized to a laborious existence––likely a chief motivation of the deep Marxist commitment which Vallejo made in the 1930’s.

Moving right along, it now falls to us to look closely at “las islas guaneras”, a fundamental image in the poem & in the collection at large. Guano is the excrement of seabirds or bats. It makes for an excellent fertilizer in the cultivation of crops, & during the turn of the century, northern Peru experienced a boom in guano exportation headed by North American businesses. The rural dwellers who ended up working for these companies received miserable wages & endured a life of servitude.

By orienting the poem to the coast, as Martos & Villaneuva argue, they are “symbols of the fetid & perpetual suffering of the rural dweller, who, in the following line, is compared to wounds on animals’ feet (‘escarzos’). On the other hand, if we take ‘escarzos’ as the bending of poles with ropes to form arches, this arch would be related to the closed circle of suffering that goes ‘desde las islas guaneras / hasta las islas guaneras’” (156). But are “escarzos” really “foot abscesses”? Ortega does not think so. He claims that “the term ‘escarzos’, the potato harvest, suggests the use of guano as fertilizer, although a parallelism is also postulated (‘desde las islas guaneras / hasta las islas guaneras’) between two environments of the same ‘bad faith’, between the countryside crops & the islands of the gathering [of guano]” (141). We’ll look deeper into the meaning of “escarzos” in just a moment, but for now, here’s a translation of these lines:

Biggity haunches huff hard
to bear, pendent on musty breast plates
rosettes with their seven colors
under zero, from guano islands
to guano islands.

The “escarzos” must be understood in the context of the “islas guaneras”. The second half of the third stanza gives the thesis of the poem:

Tal los escarzos a la intemperie de pobre
fe.
Tal el tiempo de las rondas. Tal el del rodeo
para los planos futuros,
cuando innánima grifalda relata sólo
fallidas callandas cruzadas.

Now then, what are “escarzos”? On one hand, this masculine noun may derive from the verb “escarzar”, to bend a pole with a rope so that it forms an arch; or the feminine noun “escarza” (hoof-abscess). However, there is a third possibility as well, one that is hard to ignore. The Diccionario de la Real Academia from 1922 registers it as “the harvest of honeycombs from the hive”. Could these ‘honey-harvests’ somehow be related to the commodification of guano?

Either way, it’s in the last two lines of the stanza that the complexity of the poems is most pronounced: “cuando innánima grifalda relata sólo / fallidas callandas cruzadas”. Let’s hear that again: “cuando innánima grifalda relata sólo / fallidas callandas cruzadas.” Three neologisms in two lines. Meo Zilio has produced a very convincing interpretation of these three. Let’s look at the first: “inánima”. On one hand, it can be considered a phonetic neologism, derived from “inánime” (innanimate). This gives us “in- + anima”; based on an analogical pattern with “magnánima” (magnanimous) & “inánime” (innanimate). On the other hand, it has been thought that the motivation for this invention was propelled by the psychological impulse from the Latin medical expression “in anima vili” (on a subject of little worth)––keep in mind Vallejo studied medicine. Note too that the substitution of the final vowel here is added to the duplication of the ‘n’ at the beginning of ‘innata’ [innate], which also functions as an analogy (in this case, a double analogy)” (252).

Now we have the second neologism: “grifalda” as in “cuando innánima grifalda relata sólo / fallidas callandas cruzadas”. Meo Zilio suggests that “grifalda” is a “lexical neologism”, from “grifa” (cursive), plus the ending “-alda”, which could be based on an analogical pattern with “giralda” (weathercock, weathervane), & this coupled with a psychological impulse of ‘grifalto’ (gerfalcon, gyrfalcon, the largest of the falcons). He believes that semantically the lines mean this: “when the inanimate printed word recounts crusades that deserve to be silenced’” (Meo Zilio, 267).

For their part, Martos & Villanueva point to the Diccionario de la real academia from 1925, where they find an entry for “Grifalda”: Griffon, a fabulous animal, the upper half of the body, an eagle, & the lower half, a lion (R.A., 1925)” (154). This would go along with the psychological impulse that Meo Zilio had described, but it would also mean that the word is not a neologism, since they register a dictionary definition. On the other hand, the fact that “grifalda” is no longer found in the Real academia leads us to think that it’s likely to have been well on its way out of usage at the time Vallejo chose it, & therefore, it would be as unfamiliar as a neologism to readers of today.

Convinced of this, we now have to create a neologism based on “grifa” (italics, or cursive, or handwriting). In English, we see the root in “griffonage”, which refers to careless handwriting (i.e. hen-scratching). The psychological impulse of “grifalto” (gerfalcon, the largest of the falcons) seems to be more in play than the the analogical pattern with “giralda” (weathercock, weathervane). That being said, we incorporate the word “gryfalcon”, as a translation of “grifalto”– taxonomically Falco rusticolus –with “griffonage” in order to get “grifalconage”.

The third neologism here is “callandas”. Meo Zilio claims it’s formed lexically & derived from the verb “callar” (to be quiet), plus the ending “-anda”, as in the phrase “a las calladas” (without making a peep) (267). Finally, he offers a prose version of the word to show its semantic value:  “callandas” what ought to be silenced (ibid). To translate this semantic meaning is tempting, since it would seem coherent with the Andean landscape in which the “cruzadas”––now, “crusades” instead of “crossings”––should be silenced. So, we start with the idea implicit in “should”, which is similar to “ought”, in the sense of “deber”. They are due to be silenced. They are “silencedue”. & with that, these lines read:

Such are the honey harvests in the wide open of bad
faith.
Such the time of the rounds. Such is he of the back
roads onward to future planes,
when innanimate gerffonage only recounts
of fraudulent silencedue crusades.

The final stanza, made up of only two lines, is not difficult, but it’s odd & noteworthy. Ortega thinks it makes the marginal conditions of the workers more dramatic & that these lack their own discourse, that they’re bereft of an account––a history––that will represent them as they really are (141). Along other lines, Martos & Villanueva identify the reappearance of “elements of attack” in the “alfiles”, which don’t only stick to the rural dweller, but to the writer himself, to his “borradores” (rough drafts). Here is the final stanza:

Vienen entonces alfiles a adherirse
hasta en la puertas falsas y en los borradores.

The “puertas falsas” of the last line might literally be “false doors”, but the image attains a falling action with “trap doors”. The final two lines of the translation read:

So then bishops come even to stick
to trapdoors and to rough drafts.

The “bishops”––which are at once “filarees”, the flower & perhaps insects from these––are sticking to trap doors & to the rough drafts, the first drafts, the incomplete edition. Here we have a work in progress, a book whose end remains unwritten.

–     |     –     |     –     |     –

It should now be clear that this translation is incomplete, that there are disputes still to be settled, & that attempting to settle them, even if one fails, helps us learn more about the poetics of the poem. Now, added to this, we can see that the translator reads to write. He enters an oscillatory process; a going-back-&-forth, a sway, etc. In the case of poetry, which we’ve addressed here, the translator-as-poet is charged with the task of translating figurative language: of transfiguring it. & this is where things get hairy, since figures promote the growth of language. This is what’s so nice about Walter Benjamin’s metaphor to represent the translation process, where one is tasked to tactfully break a beautiful vase & try one’s best to piece it back together without anyone’s knowing: Destruction & construction as complimentary elements of the same process.

Over all, Trilce is an excellent text to study with regards to the translation of modern poetics. Aside from the endless cases of untranslatability, which can be analyzed from multiple perspectives, the collection gives rise to other more general & theoretical questions, for example, where does untranslatability go, when I accept an imperfect resolution to a translation problem? Or again, what does it mean to be the reader of a translation whose translator admits failure? These unanswered questions, this unfinished pursuit of the meaning of untranslatability, will be the guiding thread of another work.

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