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Trilce: A Phenomenological Journey from Peru to Venezuela and Beyond

Published on 
September 14, 2020

César Vallejo’s Trilce is one of the most astonishing works of poetry in the Vanguardista[1] canon and of modernism worldwide. Published in the annus mirabilis 1922, Trilce reconciles formal complexity, intense emotion, humor, and the warm unassumingness of the quotidian. It takes considerable hubris to begin a journey in literary translation with three of its poems. In my defense, the decision to render in English “III,” “VII,” and “IX” stemmed from the shock of discovering the volume a year or so ago and from a desire to understand unlike any other felt before in the face of difficult poetry. Someone once said that no one knows a poem better than a translator. I agree. But it is also true that merely putting words into another language is not enough for knowledge to dawn.

Translation could be described as a case of knowledge by comparison. This version of Trilce required meditation about my native language: not the Spanish from Santiago de Chuco, Peru, circa 1920; but that from Caracas, Venezuela, spoken roughly from the 1990s to the early 2000s. Temporal and spatial distance pose a singular challenge for the translation of Trilce. Vallejo has a knack for threading together technical language, archaic idioms, neologisms, and the simplest—the emptiest—formulas of everyday language. Despite their hermeticism, Vallejo’s poems often resonate with a characteristic voice; for instance, and quite obviously, the voice of a child in “III.” Vallejo achieves idiolectic precision by strategically inserting an interjection or colloquialism that immediately puts the reader in a situation—a place such as a yard, a street, a bedroom—and a circumstance where the words of the poem can be uttered with plausibility and conviction. This strongly phenomenological aspect of Trilce is a challenge indeed, for in a situation of perfect translatability, it would require that we share the world with Vallejo.

I will give an example that is not from Trilce. One of Vallejo’s best-known poems, “Los heraldos negros,” begins with the verse “Hay golpes en la vida tan fuertes … ¡Yo no sé!” (There are blows in life, so powerful … I don’t know!). As someone who reads from within the linguistic circumscription of turn-of-the-millennium Venezuela, I hear in “no sé” and “yo no sé” (both equivalent to “I don’t know” in English) two different expressions. While “no sé” evokes little more than an avowal of ignorance, “yo no sé” can convey doubt, frustration, impotence, suspicion, complicity, or mischief. Used in the right context, these three words can even intimate a threat. “Yo no sé” is usually accompanied by certain gestures: a raised hand—more often two—a tilt or a shake of the head, a sideways glance, two raised eyebrows, a curled lip, an ironic smile. The subtle difference between “no sé” and “yo no sé” gives rise to two possible endings for “Los heraldos negros,” which concludes by repeating the first verse. On the one hand, a monotonous recognition of ignorance and perhaps, by extension, of human limitation (trite?); on the other, a wide range of affects and familiar gestures, some in direct opposition to the poem’s heavy complaints.

We will never know what affective and gestural associations were available to Vallejo when he wrote “¡Yo no sé!” Hence, even with the help of the Real Academia dictionary and of the annotated Cátedra edition, I do not compare two states of the Spanish language when translating the poems in Trilce, but rather, I confront my corner of linguistic truth with a regulative horizon of plausibility, based on Vallejo’s writing, other texts, and secondhand interpretive hypotheses. The knowledge gained is not a string of facts about the Spanish language—about the “real” significance of this or that unusual word. Rather, it is a sharp awareness of translation as a balancing act that includes English in this case (a language I have read more than lived) and, of course, other translations of Trilce.

Indeed—there is already a bilingual edition of Vallejo’s complete poetry. Why, then, translate these three poems again? As a reader and an amateur translator, I can only admire Clayton Eshleman’s work, which transposes with great clarity Vallejo’s images into perfectly groomed English verses. This translation revises his, but only in that it tries to restitute the syntactic awkwardness of Trilce and the incongruities of the poems’ lyric voice, especially in regard to the poems’ conflicting registers. Vallejo’s poems are less polished gems than marbled raw stones, layered in fascinating ways and full of captivating details that do not necessarily coalesce into a perfect whole. Running the risk of proposing ugly, ungrammatical verses, I decided to push the limits of English ever so slightly to emphasize those plays with meaning and sound that I thought were underplayed in Eshleman’s version. Conversely, I reproduced his translation whenever I thought his choice was the best.

I have not said much about this balancing act that translation is supposed to be. In the past, I have mentally sided with the advocates of translational fidelity. I feel old-fashionedly indebted to whoever gives me the chance to exert vicarious creativity through translation. Therefore, I can’t help but want to respect “authorial intention,” even if we see intention as a well-informed, nonarbitrary construct. In the case of Trilce, however, fidelity still requires a great deal of invention. In his poems, Vallejo plays with all the parameters of poetic meaning: layout, typography, orthography, sound, and image. Given the impossibility of finding each time an equivalent in English that coherently replicates every effect, the translator must choose, verse by verse, what to preserve and what to sacrifice. This choice is not an easy one and felt capricious more than once. This is why translation requires that we balance not only our different lived languages and the partial reconstitution of the author’s own but also the visual, aural, and semiotic phenomena at play in the original text. Once again, this balancing act forces us to experience language and its mechanisms in the most concrete and urgent ways. This practical knowledge outshines any theoretical statement about our use of words. That is, I think, translation’s greatest gift.



[1] The term “Vanguardia” encompasses a series of literary movements that bloomed across Spanish America (Ultraísmo, Estidentismo, Creacionismo) in the first two decades of the twentieth century as a result of a dialogue with European Dada and Surrealism.