Category Archives: Translations

Volver a los 17. A translation.

One of my favorite songs of all time was written by the late Chilean poet Violeta Parra and made famous by the now-also-late belovèd Argentine folk singer Mercedes Sosa, who was affectionately known as “la negra”. This song makes me incredibly homesick: homesick for Chile, homesick for Latin America, and homesick for smells and sounds I can only, maybe, find in dreams. It even makes me homesick for places I’ve never actually been. (Honey, I think we call that last one “longing.”)

Over the years, I’ve played “Volver a los 17” a few times for people —usually lovers at that point in the relationship when they show you theirs and you show them yours (I’m talking music, people, music!) — who don’t speak Spanish. Invariably I end up feeling tongue-tied and rather inept at the prospect of simultaneously translating its rapidly flowing metaphors, and certainly not without detracting from the melody and the kick-your-heels-up Chilean folk-dance (“la cueca”) rhythm, which the song springs into every time the chorus comes around.

So usually I just end up mumbling something about how it’s about going back to being 17, and then I sigh and drift off to a nebulous place of homesickness and longing for the length of the song.

But, back to now…

Finally and actually having given its translation a whirl, if you were my lover today and it was my turn to show you mine I’d tell you that yes, it’s a song about going back for yourself at 17. But also it’s about the moment —so fragile and powerful at once— and about how an instant can change everything. Also I’d tell you that while the whole thing is about love, it’s not about the shiny and brand spanking new ‘oooh baby I’m so in love with you’ kind of love that seems to get all the airwaves’ coverage, but rather the giant and gnarly kind that we actually end up living, the kind that includes the shiny bits, sure, but no less of the heartache-y dark stretches between the shine. Also? I’d tell you that there are many words and turns of phrase whose beauty get lost in translation, if they can be translated at all.

I tried to translate the poem in a way that allows you to read in English to the meter of the Spanish verse, so you can, if roughly, actually sing along. A few times I favored that kind of flow and meaning over literal accuracy. I press “publish” with a bow of apology to Violeta Parra for what is lost in translation.

One last thing… I chose this YouTube version of the song not for its recording quality but because of the gorgeous energy of these five belovèd Latin American singers: Mercedes Sosa, Chico Buarque, Caetano Veloso, Milton Nascimento and Gal Costaand. There are many heart-melty moments –many!– but my favorite might be when Caetano softly reaches for a high notes (at about minute 1:35 or so).

Volver a los 17 (Violeta Parra)

Returning to seventeen
after having lived through a century
is like deciphering signs
without benefit of wisdom
to be suddenly once again
as fragile as one second
to feel things as intensely
as a child in front of God,
that’s what it is like for me
in this very fertile instant

Gathering moss so the stone rolls
like a thick ivy on the wall
sprouting and sprouting so it grows
like tender moss covering a stone
like tender moss on a stone ay sí sí sí.

The steps I take all go backwards
while theirs continue advancing
the arch of our connections
has penetrated my nest
in all its colorful swagger
it’s taken a walk down my veins
and even the hardest of chains
that destiny uses to bind us
is like the finest of diamonds
that lights up my calm soul

What feeling can bring about
knowledge never could,
nor the clearest course of action
nor the grandest of all our thoughts.
Everything is changed by a moment
like an affable magician,
it sweetly steers us away
from bitterness and from violence
only love with its science
will turn us so innocent.

Love is a swirling whirlwind
of primal purity
even the wildest of beasts
will whisper and trill its sweetness,
it stops pilgrims in their travels,
it liberates those imprisoned,
love, with the tenderest of touches,
turns the old (wo)man into a child
and only the most loving care
turns bad into pure and sincere.

Eventually the window
was flung open as if by enchantment,
and love entered with its blanket
to give cover like a warm morning
to the sound of its lovely reveille
it made jasmine burst into bloom,
and taking flight like an angel
it hung earrings upon the heavens
and my years of 17
were transformed by the cherubim.

[Translation (c) Heidi Fischbach, 2014]

Breaking Bad + Homesick = Another Neruda Translation

Last week, while binge watching the last season of Breaking Bad, I heard a song I’d never heard that made my heart skip a beat and then pick up again more insistently.

The music choices in Breaking Bad don’t disappoint. First of all, rather than using music to cue the viewer’s next emotion like many (most?) shows do, Vince Gilligan, the show’s creator, seems to trust his viewers to feel, on their very own thankyouverymuch, what it is the scene is about. The music, then, reflects and highlights, rather than suggesting and manipulating. Also, he just plain old picks good music. His choices, spot-on, are not your everyday popular music, and he often plays, if not in full, then at least most of a song. Ah, respect not just for his viewers’ emotional intelligence but also for the artist. Refreshing, that!

But, back to hearing the song: the beat was of native drums (even though it is a remix, it has nothing even remotely resembling the sound of a drum kit). I could practically feel the pull of gravity on my body —down my center line, through my feet, and into the earth— as I listened. The language was Spanish and, um, could it be?! Mapuche? Yes. After a few verses it was unmistakeable. The beat was reminiscent of a Mapuche ritual dance called the “Lonkomeo.” A number of the words brought to mind the names of cities and towns and rivers and lakes of the Araucana region of Southern Chile, where I grew up, and Northwestern Argentina. It made me terribly homesick.

After downloading the song and listening to it at least as many times as the number of barrels of money that Walt White was burying in the desert in the scene that touched off my bout of homesick, I pulled out Neruda, who was from Southern Chile, of course, and tried my hand at another translation.

Here you go!

Know Ye Know Ye Know

(translation by Heidi Fischbach of
Sepan Lo Sepan Lo Sepan” by Pablo Neruda)

Oh but the lie we lived
was our daily bread.
People of the twenty first century,
it is necessary that you know,
what we did not know,
that the cons and the what fors be seen,
because we ourselves did not see,
so that no one else eat
the false food
that nourished us in our time.

It was the century of communication
held incommunicado:
the cables beneath the sea
were at times true
when the lie took on
more latitude
and longitudes than the ocean:
languages became accustomed
to straightening the devious,
to suggesting threats,
and the long tongues of wire
would coil around gossip central
like serpents
until we all shared in
the battle of the lie
and after lying we’d run away
lying to kill,
and we’d arrive lying to death.

We lied among friends
in sadness or in silence
and the enemy lied to us
with a mouth-full of hate.

It was the cold era of war.

The quiet era of hate.

A bomb from time to time
burned the soul of Vietnam.

And God tucked away in his hiding place
spied like a spider
upon remote provincials
who with drowsy passion
were falling in adultery.

[Pablo Neruda’s original, in Spanish, HERE]

Afterthought: Sadly, if Neruda saw us —the very twenty first century people to whom he wrote this poem— today, I imagine he’d shake his head and sigh. Apparently, we still haven’t gotten what he wanted us to know.

Now, go have a listen to Chancha Via Circuito’s remix of José Larralde singing “Quimey Neuquén,” as played in episode 10 of season 6 of Breaking Bad. The original song was written, as best I can tell, by Milton Aguilar y Marcelo Berbel.

Copyright © 2014, Heidi Fischbach. Don’t steal! But do feel free to share, with proper attribution and link.

Hide ‘n’ Seek! (Also, counting twelve and keeping quiet with Pablo Neruda)

Hide ‘n’ Seek. Remember the wordless buzz with which you would scatter about while someone counted to twelve, or to twenty, or to whatever number you and your friends would have determined with so much ease, using that superpower you had (still do! maybe just dormant) which instantly took whatever it needed into account and, voilá! Just like that:

“Twelve!” you’d say, “Let’s count to 12!”

Close your eyes now and there it is, right inside you, replete with receding whispers, breaking twigs, and excited waiting. No need for 3D glasses, no need for surround sound. Then is now!

Can you feel the roughness of that tree’s bark on your cheek? Can you feel the snugness of that crawl space you managed to —yup!— squeeze your whole goshdarnit body into? (High fives!)

How quietly and quickly, how without argument, it all happened. Just like that!

The best time for hide ‘n’ seek was dusk, of course. That magical time between light and night, between bright and shadow, between knowing and not knowing. A time when you’d switch from day vision, to that full-body, all-sensory, seeing that happens more easily when the world is dark.

Hide ‘n’ seek. Ahhh…

And then you grew up. You got busy. You started making yourself do things you didn’t want and not letting yourself do what you, truly, heart of hearts, wanted. Maybe you started telling yourself you were too big for crawl spaces, or too small, or old, or something for climbing places. Over the years, your thinking got crowded and, whereas before you’d have counted to 12 without a second thought, now you deliberate. And deliberate. And deliberate. And in between all that deliberation —hmmm… 12 or 20? Is 100 too much? Is 10 too little? Should we have a meeting? Make an agenda?— you bemoan the fact that you have no time, and that it’s so hard to make a decision, and and and…

Oof! Tired yet?

What if today looked like a game of hide ‘n’ seek?

What if instead of the deliberating you covered your eyes, counted to 12, and then just went ahead instead? Could it be that the next thing to do might be as obvious, if surprising, as the perfect crawl space which appears, magically, in the moment of hiding and not a moment sooner?

What if instead of pushing and pushing and pushing through that effing blah and blah and blah project you stopped and counted 12—?

What if instead of checking, once again, your smartphone, you went for a walk? Or gazed at your hands instead, maybe holding one in the other, or bringing them up to your dear face?

What if instead of yelling at the kids, or at yourself, or at Congress to stop with its bickering already you started twirling and twirling and twirling until your turning became a dance that they (or you!) couldn’t help but stop and stare at, all wide-eyed? (Who IS this marvelous, if dorky, creature? I’ll have what she is having!)

What if at the next red light you got all up close and intimate with your next breath as if it were your very first kiss?

You may not know this about me, but I share my hometown (Temuco, Chile) with belovéd Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda. Although Neruda died in 1973, when I was just a wee girl, still, I like to think that he and I drank of the same water, breathed the same air. In my dreams we walk down Temuco streets together: I am 8 and he is old and always we are walking. He has the kindest, sparkliest eyes, and we play a game which only allows us to speak in metaphor.

I like to translate my favorite Neruda poetry into English, my now-main language. Today I bring you one of my very favoritest poems of all, the one that always takes me back to Hide ‘n’ Seek:

Keeping Quiet (Pablo Neruda)
[translation (c) Heidi Fischbach, 2013]

Now we will count to twelve
and we’ll all keep still.

For once upon the earth
let’s not speak in any language,
for one second let us stop,
and not move our arms about so much.

It would be a fragrant minute,
without hurry, without locomotives,
we would all be together
in a sudden, strange unease.

Fishermen in the cold sea
would do no harm to whales
and the salt miner
would look at his torn hands.

Those who prepare green wars,
wars of gas, wars of fire,
victories without survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk alongside their brothers
in the shade, without doing a thing.

Don’t confuse what I want
with a total lack of action:
life is only what we do,
I want nothing to do with death.

If we weren’t all so complicit
about keeping our lives in such motion,
perhaps doing nothing for once,
perhaps a great silence would
interrupt this sadness,
this never understanding ourselves,
this threatening ourselves with death,
and perhaps the earth would teach us
as when everything appears to be dead
and then turns out to have been alive.

Now I will count to twelve
and you’ll be quiet and I will go.

[Hear Heidi read it in Spanish: HERE]


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