from Poetry, November 2014: The Translation Issue
I first read César Vallejo in college, when a Peruvian friend presented me with several of his poems as if they were national treasures she had smuggled through customs. I was struck most forcefully by a strange sonnet called “Piedra negra sobre una piedra blanca,” and though I knew none of the existing translations, I was minoring in Spanish and could read the original well enough. Here is that original followed by my latest attempt at a translation of my own:
Me moriré en París con aguacero,
un día del cual tengo ya el recuerdo.
Me moriré en París — y no me corro —
talvez un jueves, como es hoy, de otoño.
Jueves será, porque hoy, jueves, que proso
estos versos, los húmeros me he puesto
a la mala y, jamás como hoy, me he vuelto,
con todo mi camino, a verme solo.
César Vallejo ha muerto, le pegaban
todos sin que él les haga nada;
le daban duro con un palo y duro
también con una soga; son testigos
los días jueves y los huesos húmeros,
la soledad, la lluvia, los caminos ...
— Piedra negra sobre una piedra blanca
I’ll die in Paris in the pouring rain,
a day I have a memory of already.
I’ll die in Paris — I won’t try to run —
a Thursday perhaps, in autumn, like today.
A Thursday, yes, because today, as I prose
these verses, I’ve put my upper arm bones on
poorly, and today, turning toward all my road,
I see myself, as never before, alone.
César Vallejo is dead. Everyone hit him,
though he’s not doing them the slightest harm.
They let him have it hard with rods
and hard with ropes. These are his witnesses:
Thursdays, and the bones of his upper arms,
and loneliness, and falling rain, and roads ...
— Black Stone on a White Stone
I recall my younger self being astonished by this: the arresting vatic opening, the disorienting shift of both perspective and tense at the turn, the cosmic trial implicit in the final tercet. But I was also puzzled by some parts (the title and the often mistranslated line about the humerus bones) and repelled by others: I thought I saw, particularly in the sestet, self-pity of a high order, and I felt a callow urge, not well received by my Peruvian friend, to mock poor, whiny César.
Not long afterward I spent a semester abroad in Italy and traded in my Spanish for Italian and put Vallejo’s poem aside. But I never forgot it, and when another poem led me back to it a decade later, I finally sought out some translations (including versions by Robert Bly, Eugenio Florit, and Clayton Eshleman) and even attempted one of my own, as a way of deepening my understanding of the original. By then the poem seemed, strangely, to have changed: I no longer felt the slightest urge to mock it. Vallejo’s speaker now put me in mind of the radical alienation of Josef K., whose futile struggle against the inexorable machinery of prosecution, always in Kafka indistinguishable from persecution, can lead only to death. What humor I now saw in the poem was closer to the gallows humor of The Trial: by turns, or even simultaneously, funny and horrifying. With a tilt of my head, the color shifted, as with shot silk.
* * *
Some say that in Vallejo’s hometown there is a tradition of placing a black stone on a white one to mark a grave; it is in any case traditional in some cultures to place rocks on gravestones as memorial gestures. In this light, the title seems to offer the poem itself as a kind of grave marker: black stone of ink on the white stone of the page. Two other ancient customs are worth bearing in mind. In Book 15 of The Metamorphoses, Ovid refers to the Roman custom whereby the guilt or innocence of an accused was decided by jurors who, after hearing the evidence, placed a stone — black for guilt, white for innocence — into an urn. And in his Natural History, Pliny refers to the Thracian custom of putting into an urn, at the end of each day, a white stone for a good day or a black one for a bad, so that at one’s death a tally could reveal the quality of one’s life. This latter custom is alluded to in various later works, including a Martial epigram and Don Quixote. (Quixote, for example, asks Sancho Panza: “¿Podré señalar este día con piedra blanca, o con negra?” — “Should I mark this day with a white stone, or a black one?”)
* * *
The poem that led me back to “Black Stone on a White Stone” was Donald Justice’s “Variations on a Text by Vallejo.” Justice’s poem is often called an “imitation,” a term that has been central, at least since Dryden, to understanding the freer end of the translation spectrum. Though Dryden names three points on this spectrum, only the first two correspond to what we typically think of as translation: metaphrase, which is the most literal sort of translation, almost a trot (“turning an author word by word, and line by line, from one language into another”), and paraphrase, which aims more at the spirit than the letter (or “translation with latitude, where the author is kept in view by the translator, so as never to be lost, but his words are not so strictly followed as his sense”). “The third way,” wrote Dryden,
is that of imitation, where the translator (if now he has not lost that name) assumes the liberty, not only to vary from the words and sense, but to forsake them both as he sees occasion; and taking only some general hints from the original, to run divisions on the groundwork, as he pleases.
This “third way,” which indeed is an apt description of what Justice has done, may be seen as the stretch of the spectrum where translation and original work bleed into each other. (Samuel Johnson considered imitation “a kind of middle composition between translation and original design.”) Famous modern examples include Yeats’s “When You Are Old,” an imitation of a Ronsard sonnet, and the poems in Robert Lowell’s 1961 collection Imitations. Justice also wrote many, though he tended to depart from his models more vigorously than Lowell, and the title of Justice’s 1973 volume Departures suggests an alternative term — and an even greater distance from translation proper. “Variations on a Text by Vallejo” is an ideal example of Justice’s approach, which one might think of as hinging on the translation not of the language of a text but of certain of its key gestures: “Me moriré en París con aguacero” becomes “I will die in Miami in the sun”; “César Vallejo ha muerto” becomes “Donald Justice is dead”; and so on.
For me as a young writer, poetry and translation remained distinct categories. But I was fascinated by the Justice piece and by other “imitations” and “departures” that seemed to blur the line between the two. I was already suspicious of what I saw as the fetishization of the idea of originality in the arts at large, a fetishization that seemed to drive a lot of trendy experimentation and yet seemed a hand-me-down from the Romantics, and so I liked this disruption of our categorical assumptions and the questions it raised.
* * *
In the forty years since the publication of Justice’s imitation of Vallejo’s poem, poets and poetry teachers have frequently used these two texts as models. There’s even an anthology, Homage to Vallejo (2006), that gathers dozens of imitations and tributes, half of which were inspired by “Black Stone on a White Stone.” The editor, Christopher Buckley, dedicated the volume to Justice and spoke for many, including me, when he wrote that he had often brought the pair to his workshops “to show a great original and a great variation.” There’s also a recent craft book — Wingbeats: Exercises and Practice in Poetry (2011) — that instructs poets to read several imitations of “Black Stone on a White Stone” and then to write their own. As Wingbeats and the Buckley anthology illustrate, Vallejo’s poem has become a kind of proverbial original, which several generations of poets have now chosen to imitate, adapt, or use as a point of departure for their own versions. And it is, indeed, enormously imitable: its key gestures provide an elastic, easily adaptable structure.
Yet despite the fact that the Vallejo poem has been imitated by everyone from Justice to my students’ students, I’d like to challenge its status as an “original,” because I now think that “Black Stone on a White Stone” was itself an imitation — a variation, a departure. Vallejo does not, as Justice does, acknowledge his model, which has been largely, but not completely, forgotten.
It was Justice himself who first led me to understand that Vallejo’s poem may not have been quite as sui generis as most of us had imagined. When “Variations on a Text by Vallejo” was republished in A Donald Justice Reader in 1991, he added this note:
The Greek poet Kostas Ouránis (1890–1953) deserves some credit for this motif. Though I did not come across it until years after my own version, Ouránis has a poem apparently dating from 1915, the first line of which, in Kimon Friar’s translation, reads: “I shall die one day on a mournful autumn twilight.”
But Justice’s note covers only half the motif story. What it doesn’t mention, and what I didn’t discover until recently, when I finally bothered to look up the Ouránis poem, is that not only does the Greek poem begin with a similar opening gesture, it also contains the self-naming phrase “Ouránis died abroad.” Taken together, these two gestures establish, in my view, a stronger link between the two poems than Justice’s casual note suggests, and they make what first seemed to me to be the two most strikingly original gestures of Vallejo’s poem (the opening of his octave and the opening of his sestet) seem like second-hand wares — though beautifully refurbished and repurposed.
* * *
Kostas Ouránis was, according to Kimon Friar, “perhaps the last of the Greek Romantics.” Steven Fowler called him “a Greek Baudelaire, without the energy for the bile.” (Ouránis’s second book was even called Spleen.) In Italy, he might have felt at home among the Crepuscular poets, who saw the world, even at the dawn of modernism, through backward-looking, twilight-tinted glasses. Here is the poem Justice mentioned — it is one of Ouránis’s best known poems — in a new translation by A.E. Stallings:
I shall die one gloomy autumn evening
In my cold room, just as I lived, alone.
In my last agony I’ll hear the street’s
Familiar racket, and the rain’s monotone.
I shall die one gloomy autumn evening
Among rented furniture, scattered books, debris.
I shall be found in bed by a policeman.
They’ll bury a man who had no history.
Among those friends who sometimes meet for cards
One will stop, “Has anybody spied
Ouránis lately? He’s not been seen for days.”
And another, playing, will answer, “But ... he’s died!”
They’ll pause a moment dumbstruck, holding their cards,
And shake their heads, sadly and slowly, saying
“What a thing is man! Just yesterday
He was still alive.” And then resume their playing.
Some colleague will write in the notices
“Ouránis died abroad, before his time,
Part of our circle, who at one point published
A promising collection of his rhyme.”
And this will be my only obituary.
In my village, only my aging parents will cry,
And hold a memorial with priests galore:
My friends will come, and my foes might pass by.
I shall die one gloomy autumn evening
In the roar of Paris, in a rented room,
And some “Kitty,” thinking I’ve left her for another,
Will write me a letter ... and find me in the tomb.
— I Shall Die One Gloomy Autumn Evening
The differences, clearly, are great. In Ouránis’s twenty-eight-line poem we learn that, despite the poet’s solitary, foreign living quarters, he has friends (if only casual ones), parents who, though distant, will mourn him, even a lover; the only “foes” mentioned are inconsequential. In the Vallejo sonnet, by contrast, there are no friendly presences at all; everyone is brutal, and the speaker’s solitude is absolute. Such differences do not, however, obscure the family resemblance. In addition to the vatic opening and the self-naming, both poems identify their authors as poets, and they share a constellation of charged images: autumn, solitude, rain, and, of course, Paris.
Yet I doubt that Vallejo knew the Ouránis poem at all. Because, as it turns out, there is one more turn of the screw: the Ouránis poem was also an imitation. And I suspect that the family resemblance between it and the Vallejo poem is that of siblings — that they shared, that is, a common progenitor.
* * *
The progenitor of the Ouránis poem, at least, is clear. In 1910, Ouránis, who was born in Istanbul and traveled widely throughout his life, went to Geneva on his parents’ dime, ostensibly to study (according to Friar) business and agriculture. But in the previous year he had published his first volume of poems, and he proved far more interested in travel and poetry than in agribusiness. It was likely during this visit that he learned of the work of Henry Spiess (1876–1940), a Genevan lawyer who was among the leading Francophone Swiss poets of his generation and whose third collection of poems came out the year Ouránis arrived in Geneva. But it was Spiess’s first book, Rimes d’audience (1903), that contained the poem (“Je mourrai ... ”) that Ouránis was to imitate. (When his imitation first appeared in the journal Noumas, in 1915, it included an epigraph, later dropped, from a different Spiess poem.) Here’s my version of “Je mourrai ... ”:
I will die on a peaceful, rainy day,
a day made gently sad by late September;
I’ll die on a day of mute ennui, on the way
to another session of the Fourth Chamber.
From the Tower, nine slow bells will tumble down,
and I’ll have left the Contamines forever.
The girls will go on strolling through Old Town,
showing their ankles, smirking, seeking cover.
The junior clerks will still bustle and prate,
scurrying toward their hearings, clutching files.
People will say: “The Court is running late.”
And then: “Let’s go and listen to the trials.”
Henri Martin, hunched over a brief, will say:
“Have you heard? Spiess is dead.” Then the small crowd
will take their seats, as small crowds do each day.
Rossel will enter, unhurried, his head bowed.
The scraping of the chairs will soon subside.
Someone will ask: “The experts — are they here?”
Airless, that room. Cold gusts of rain outside.
The grime on the windowpanes will slowly smear.
And I won’t be there, thumbing through the Journal,
pausing to light another cigarette
and ask what makes Coulin so radical ...
And De Morsier won’t say: “Bonjour poète!”
They’ll all say: “Spiess is dead; he’ll never again
walk in that door with a book; he roamed too far.”
Those who don’t love me will forgive me then.
Aubert will reckon when he will cross the bar.
Some verses, measured out one autumn day
to the rhythm of rain, will be all that remains of me.
They’ll say: “He’s dead.” And: “Winter’s on the way.”
And: “He did have a good insurance policy.”
And I, who think so often of death, will know,
perhaps, whether to believe in metempsychosis.
Oh I shall miss you, friends down here below,
from that high heaven of lawyers without cases ...
— I Will Die ...
I can’t prove it, but I’m confident that it was Spiess’s charming and witty poem, rather than Ouránis’s charming and witty poem, that inspired Vallejo’s bleak and bitter poem. Some of the evidence is circumstantial: when he wrote his sonnet, Vallejo lived in Paris, where several of Spiess’s poems, including this one, appeared in the seminal anthology, Poètes d’aujourd’hui (1908), which was reprinted dozens of times throughout Vallejo’s life and was influential well beyond the borders of France. (Eliot bought a copy around 1910; Pound in 1918 published “A Study in French Poets,” based largely on its contents; Montale read it in the early twenties as he was writing Ossi di seppia — and so on.) While we know little about the books on Vallejo’s shelves (according to his wife, nearly all of them were confiscated by police from his Paris apartment while he was in Spain in 1931) it’s hard to imagine that Vallejo didn’t know this anthology. Ouránis’s poem, on the other hand, was not, as far as I know, available in French or Spanish at all.
But it’s the textual evidence that I find most convincing. The opening three lines of the Vallejo and the Spiess are strikingly similar in structure: the first lines both begin with an “I will die” statement, the second lines then describe the day on which said death will occur, and the third lines offer variations on the first “I will die” statement. Further, the line “César Vallejo is dead” / “César Vallejo ha muerto” seems closer in shape and effect to “Spiess is dead” / “Spiess est mort” than to “Ouránis died abroad.” (But note how Vallejo’s poem, by releasing the declaration of the poet’s death from quotation marks, abruptly erases its own speaker, leaving only a disembodied voice — a brilliantly disconcerting gesture that seems to enact the very death it reports and that has no counterpart in either the Spiess or the Ouránis.) And, finally, Vallejo’s striking reference to “witnesses,” might possibly be seen, in this context, to have been inspired by Spiess’s courtroom setting.
* * *
My argument for Spiess as Vallejo’s model is admittedly not iron-clad. After all, in Spiess’s poem he dies in Geneva, while Ouránis, like Vallejo, dies in Paris. More intriguing, the Swiss poem lacks even the whiff of exile and solitude found in the Greek imitation of it; indeed it is a positively chummy piece whose speaker, in stark contrast to Vallejo’s, seems quite at home in the world. I would argue, however, that these and other differences between the Spiess and the Vallejo are best understood by reading Vallejo’s poem not simply as an imitation of the Spiess, but as an inversion of it. I imagine that the Peruvian poet, who wrote from a profound compassion for the suffering of others and who himself suffered from poverty and fear of persecution, must have disdained the cozy bourgeois world of Spiess’s poem, which stands in stark contrast to Vallejo’s view of the world as a terrifying, unjust, wounding place.
How better to express such disdain than by turning Spiess’s poem upside down? The weather, for example, may be rainy in both places, but it’s a hard rain (“aguacero”) in Paris while it’s peaceful in Geneva. One poem is full of friends, the other of faceless foes. In one, the speaker is a lawyer, part of an apparently extensive machinery of justice; in the other the speaker is an abject victim, the only “witnesses” are voiceless, and there is no prospect of justice. And finally, the speaker in one ascends, if ironically, to a lazy lawyer’s heaven, while everything about the other renders inconceivable the idea, even ironic, of heaven or any other haven. The worlds evoked by the two poems couldn’t be farther apart, and perhaps for Vallejo that was part of the point. If the Ouránis, in other words, seems slightly closer in spirit to the Vallejo, that suggests to me not that it may have been Vallejo’s source but rather that Ouránis — like Vallejo, if much less forcefully — also sought to subvert certain qualities of the Spiess. It’s not only the similarities, then, between the Vallejo and the Spiess that convince me that the Spiess was Vallejo’s model, but also the vigor of Vallejo’s departures from it, a vigor that feels almost violent. If we do see Vallejo’s poem as an antithesis, it is perhaps no wonder he did not acknowledge his source: it’s as if he were trying to blot it out.
Justice seems also to have proceeded by means of inversion. In his poem, though there is still a sense of melancholy and solitude, Vallejo’s hard rain is replaced by sun, and hostile foes are replaced by friends, cousins, wife, son — even a pet dog. The very gravediggers are respectful. Ironically, then, without knowing either the Spiess or the Ouránis, Justice seems to have turned Vallejo’s world back in the gentler direction of its source.
* * *
However charming the Spiess and the Ouránis poems are — and I’m fond of them both — they both seem quaint beside Vallejo’s brutal vision of his own absolute existential solitude. And part of the horror (and the glory) of that vision is that it may well cause us, his readers, to fear that his absolute solitude is ours as well, whether we have fathomed that yet or not. It is the poem’s ability to generate this fear in us that seems to me now to redeem what I once saw as self-pity, to transform it into a kind of universal pity for our human condition.
Reading Vallejo’s great poem as a link in a chain of imitations illustrates the frequently rhizomatic nature of poetic propagation. And seeing all the many imitations of it as descendants of a little-known original by a Swiss lawyer named Henry Spiess offers a good opportunity to dust off and remember Spiess’s poem. It should not, however — as I hope is clear by now — do anything to diminish our appreciation of Vallejo’s originality. On the contrary: it enlarges it and suggests that originality is fully available, even to imitators.
* * *
About the Author
Geoffrey Brock is the author of Voices Bright Flags (The Waywiser Press, 2014) and the editor of The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Italian Poetry (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012). He lives in Arkansas.
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