Seminar 3 Notes — Cien Sonetos and Translation

Neruda Seminar 3   Neruda’s “100 Sonnets of Love” was written in the 1950’s to his third wife, Matilde.  He married her in the mid-1950s after an affair while he was still married to Delia del Carill, the wife of his days in Europe and a woman twenty years his senior. However, Neruda delayed the publication of these personal love poems until Delia’s death out of respect for her.

Veinte Poemas de Amor (1924) and Cien Sonetos de Amor (1960) have long been the favorites among Latin American readers as opposed to the popularity of his political poetry in the US (Neruda became popular during the anti-war years in the US for his Marxist and insurrectionary poetry). In Cien Sonetos Neruda adopts the traditional 14-line sonnet form. However, he is not bound by its traditional logic (the octave setting the problem; the sestet providing an answer). As usual, Neruda’s approach is less contained by rules than responsive to the force of feeling and the unwinding of metaphor.

While considering five of his sonnets, we also talked about the challenges of translation. Sometimes Neruda employs language within the idiom of his Chilean Spanish; word-for-word often misses the point (e.g., if the words say he misses her aroma, does that mean her perfume, or the perfume of her?); if we take the most general dictionary meaning, we may miss a network of metaphor (as in the network of nautical metaphors in Sonnet 58) that depend upon secondary meanings – also, you wouldn’t want to downplay that puma in “Tengo hambre”, whose deadly prowl sharpens that understanding of “hambre”; sometimes English makes available a more vivid meaning (as in the translation of “angles” for “esquinas”, literally corners, but better in the gambling phrase of “knowing the angles”); finally, there is the matter of Neruda’s habits – when he uses “entre tus columnas” (sonnet 12) he means “between your thighs”, which he does in several other poems. A good translator must be alert to all these matters and more, translation being an art of its own.

We began by talking about Neruda’s reliance on the South of Chile, which is already the south of Latin America, and his strong memories of Temuco, his little town, and the forests he loved. Mathilde, unlike the more sophisticated Delia, came from southern Chile and from the poverty Neruda knew and trusted, and “Vienes de la pobreza de las casas del sur” (Sonnet 29) evokes this world they share. Here the Araucanian  gods have perished and have not been replaced by the conqueror’s God but instead by the recognition of the force of nature the lovers share. Neruda recalls their poverty. The piggy bank of tears, her mouth that did not always enjoy bread or sweets, and the hard work of their mothers, both imaged as doing the wash “en su cielo” together. “Cielo” is one of those words that move in several directions of meaning (sky, heaven, but also that heavenly sky of that particular Chilean world). The poem ends with two stunners: the simplicity of his choosing her, and the warmth of the term “campañera”, best left untranslated into English that could never evoke its tone of meaning.

“Entre los espadones” (sonnet 58) also yields good results from a biographical reading.  Here Neruda comments on himself as an outsider in the highly competitive world of European art circles. Critics snap at his heels; he pays them no mind. In the octave Neruda has some fun with nautical references, some of them explicit and others recondite. The references grow from his homeland, that South past which there is nothing but archipelagoes, small islands, and the wild arctic sea. To figure how out of keeping he felt with the vicious world of European literary criticism, he sees himself as a foreign sailor in a strange city. He does not have a map, but worse, he does not know how the city works, the angles. He has brought with him a wheezy accordion, a relic of his wild sea-side world of poverty and rough song. The accordion, with some holes in its wind-box from long wear, is depicted as a low-pressure, or stormy instrument. Things come at him in waves “rachas” (storm systems) of crazy rain, the rain of the tropics. He inherits, too, the slow ways of the South; and all these things “set the course” (determinaron) for his ragged and wonderful life, his “corazon silvestre”. The English translator cleverly keeps the network of nautical metaphor going by figuring “almacenes” (warehouses) as “dockyards” of his childhood, as he traces his way back to a world of comforting memories, including “donde mi vida se llenó con tu aroma”, where my heart was filled with the perfume of you. The closing line, so often a strategy of these sonnets, introduces a surprise. Matilde has not been mentioned, yet everything about this experience, his muse, his motivation as a poet that allows him to disregard his fashionable critics, is her.

In “tengo hambre por la boca” (sonnet 11) Neruda creates a portrait of savage love. In the first quatrain we might for a moment think we have a quite conventional love complaint. The lover wanders the streets in the night, starved and hungering for his beloved. However, there are disturbing ripples here. Is this hunger the usual love’s madness or is there something more. Is this hungering for her mouth and her hair picturesque or something more sinister? The translator opts for “prowl” “por las calles”; the lover is disquieted by the breaking of dawn, even as he listened intently for her footsteps through the day. Into the second quatrain the lover hungers to eat her skin, like cracking into an almond still intact. The image is peculiar and calls up a memory of breaking the almond in two with our incisors; it seems a bit too tactile for a lover’s soft imaginings. The emphasis on “wanting to eat” his beloved, his prey, continues into the sestet in growing specificity. Now it is the sunlight flaring from her beautiful body; and then the fleeting shadow of her eyes as her looks flicker uncertainly. The hunter has an uncanny precision in sensing his prey. And in the last lines we understand the full force of these suggestions. He is sniffing the air for her scent and hungering to devour her hot heart (a Valentine?) “como un puma en la soledad de Quitratúe”, like a puma prowling the desert waste of the jungle of his wild South.

Some fans of poetry do not like this kind of intense close reading where we pay complete homage to the writer and his craft. Some prefer using the poem as a Rorschach, a springboard to their own imaginings, free from the poet’s craftiness. I prefer tracking the artistry of Neruda rather than drawing upon my own meager bank of imaginings. I assume he has something to teach me I don’t already know.


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