Listening for the Echo: Translating Alí Calderón’s “Democracia Mexicana”

Jeremy Paden, Spalding School of Writing Translation Faculty

A popular internet list in recent years is the top 10 most beautiful but untranslatable words. 侘寂, wabi-sabi, beautiful imperfection in Japanese. Tartle, Scottish for the hesitation caused by forgetting someone’s name when in the middle of introducing them. The German word Verschlimmbessern, making something worse while trying to fix it. These lists go on and on.

Some languages, like German, are particularly adept at coining new untranslatable words. Some words, like saudade in Portuguese, have close synonyms in other languages: hiraeth in Welsh, morriña in Gallego-Portuguese, toska in Russian, tizita in Ethiopian, all mean a variant of longing, homesickness, missing something or someone or someplace deeply. Speakers of these languages quickly point out that though hiraeth and saudade might share a similarity of meaning or use in one sense, they don’t in one or another sense or situation. And while French and Spanish might only have recently begun to accept loan words rather than find some Romance equivalent, the very nature of English has been one of accepting untranslatables for use in everyday parlance: Schadenfreude, frisson, prima donna, klutz, spiel, hurricane, barbecue, alcohol, etc.

While lovers of words thrill to these lists, translators wrestle with the untranslatability of language as their task. This problem isn’t just how poorly words in one language map onto words in another, how denotation and connotation, even of words that might share the same root, differ because of history and culture, but also how syntax and grammar differ and allow for or inhibit nuance. Different languages have developed different ways of saying things, and these are tightly bound to history and culture. We hear a glimpse of this in our own language when we encounter dialects different from our own.

Alí Calderón

This August, Valparaíso USA published my translation of The Correspondences by the Mexican poet Alí Calderón. The collection establishes a connection with the history of lyrical poetry in a number of ways that, at the same time, clearly mark the modernity of the poems. One poem, set in Florence at the grave of Beatrice, Dante’s muse, tells of the end of a romantic relationship being communicated via email and ends with Vespas and cursing in Italian; another, set in contemporary Buenos Aires, makes multiple references to Petrarch’s Laura. Words from archaic Italian, Spanish, and Occitan are sprinkled throughout the collection. Homage to Góngora and Sor Juana, to Garcilaso and Neruda can be felt in the language and syntax of various poems.

The reader familiar with William Carlos Williams might even sense the tip of a hat in a poem like “Fullerton Ave. Chicago.” My translation reads:

A blonde crosses the street

Thighs firm

The wind rustles

her dress and commotion

Shrillness:

firemen race by

Of course, there are stark differences between Williams’s poem “The Great Figure” and “Fullerton Ave. Chicago.” For starters, Williams’s lines are shorter. Not only that, there are no blondes, thighs, or dresses in Williams’s poem. Both, though, are brief imagistic poems that bring together sight and sound for maximum effect. Both also are about how the hectic bustle of cities interrupt one’s day. I hope I’m not hearing things when I sense the echo of Williams in Calderón’s poem. He is a reader well aware of world poetry. If, however, it is the result of me hearing the ghosts of the poetic tradition I am translating into, this is part and parcel of the endeavor.

Yes, things are lost in translation. And things are also gained. Translators wonder and argue with questions like: What constitutes fidelity? Are equivalents to be sought, or avoided? When translating an older poem, does one modernize or use diction from the same time period? When translating turns of phrase, does one translate literally or find an equivalent phrase? For example, in Spanish we say “En casa de herrero, chuchillo de palo,” or “In the blacksmith’s house, wooden knives.” Its equivalent phrase in English is, “The cobbler’s children have no shoes.”

The Correspondences is a collection that jumps between the diction and modes of different times and jumbles them together. The first section contains poems that are largely contemporary, though they occasionally insert an Occitan or an archaic Italian word. Section Two, which contains a handful of brief imagistic poems, opens with a suite of seven poems that use Baroque language and syntax peppered with contemporary medical terminology. While the English reader might not hear Garcislaso, Góngora, and Sor Juana, the translator can call on the language of John Donne, even Gerard Manly Hopkins, to create an analogue so that the English translation might also produce a linguistic shock in the reader.

As one should, I have sent out various and sundry of the translations from The Correspondences to a handful of places. I’ve not sent out, though, what is perhaps the most important poem in the collection, “Democracia mexicana.” The reasons for this are two. Though recently published, in 2015, the poem has already been translated two, if not three, times and has appeared in various online journals. While this doesn’t preclude a new translation and publication in another journal, there is a preference for previously unpublished poems. Yet, given the poem, I’m sure I could’ve found a home for it. The other reason I haven’t sent it out is that the poem is, frankly, untranslatable. I’ve wrestled with how to translate it, and part of me deeply doubts my choices.

“Democracia mexicana,” or “Mexican Democracy,” is the last poem in the collection. It is in two parts, a short sixteen-line section that employs language taken from the headlines of newspapers about cartel violence and international politics, and a long three-page poem whose language is principally taken from Colonial Mexican chronicles. The spelling, the syntax, and the words themselves all call up the accounts of explorers like Bernal Díaz del Castillo and Toribio de Benavente, 16th-century conquistadors and missionaries.

My first version, like those versions by the other translators, made no distinction in the language. The reader of English would move from Section One to Section Two and not realize that the Spanish had changed. They would note the reference to Huichilobos (Huitzilopocthli), the temple, the description of human sacrifice, and realize, maybe, that the setting was Colonial Mexico right after contact. The reader of my first version, as with those by the other translators, would move from Section One, with its ripped-from-the-headlines diction, to Section Two and never feel the difference. The Spanish reader, on the other hand, notes the difference from the first word, as the first line employs mid-16th century language.

In my second and subsequent versions of the poem, I chose to play with the diction of Sir Walter Raleigh’s Discovery of Guiana and William Bradford’s Of Plimoth Plantation. Extra es and ls are used, along with ampersands, and a handful of archaic turns of phrase.

E subimos las ciento y catorce gradas longas de aquel cú

Sus piedras ennegrecidas nos quemaron las manos de tan ásperas

Now reads,

AND we climed the hundred & fourteen longe Stepes to that House of Worship

Its black Stones so scabrous our Hands burned


Jeremy Paden teaches translation at Spalding MFA and is the recipient of a 2019 Al Smith Artist Fellowship.