Latina Heritage

Is true translation possible? Let’s try it!

photo credit of top image Hello’s:

A typical scene at my house as a kid in the 1970’s and 80’s: Dad picks up the guitar and he and Mom start crooning a Spanish love song, harmonizing and smiling into each other’s eyes. I sit cross-legged on the floor, enjoying the tune, the rhythm, the guitar strums. But one major element is lost on me: the lyrics.

My parents, 2013

“What do the words mean?” I asked.

The answer could take anywhere from one second to one week, depending on how accurate they wanted to be. Mom often gave a quick approximation. Then Dad would re-word every phrase. Then Mom tweaked shades of meaning. Then Dad would add nuance to that with whole new phrases. The translation for a single line in Spanish turned into a paragraph in English.

The good news: language is rich. The bad news: Straight definitions fall short.

Around each word poofs a cloud of connotations and cultural contexts. These extend the meaning of each word. Translators, then, have a tough job. How to transmit meaning in new words, and pull in as much of the connotation cloud as possible?

Let’s try it for ourselves. Here’s a short poem by Gustavo Adolfo Becquer:becquerga300x300

¿Qué es poesía?, dices mientras clavas
en mi pupila tu pupila azul.
¿Qué es poesía? ¿Y tú me lo preguntas?
Poesía… eres tú.

A clunky, but useful starting translation into English might be:

What is poetry? you ask while you hammer
onto my pupil your blue pupil.
What is poetry? And you ask me?
Poetry . . . is you.

This “translation” stays close to the dictionary meanings of the words, but it doesn’t sing as poetry, and most crucially, is doesn’t sound romantic. And romance is the point of this poem! ♥


Poet Jane Hirshfield has translated for decades. She advises, “convey each poem’s particular strengths” in her book Nine Gates. To find out what this poem’s strengths really are, I went to Dad.

First, he said “poetry” is more than just a genre of writing when a Spanish speaker says it. Poesía can mean . . .

  • the sublimity of life
  • the music of existence
  • the marriage of wisdom and beauty

And of course, poems. Secondly, he pointed out that our poet, Becquer had a thing for blue eyes. Most importantly, he emphasized that this poem is about the couple drowning in each other’s eyes. The word “hammer” is not going to work very well!

Giving ourselves permission to make a version of this poem that stays true to the heart, but not the letter, we could create a version like this:

What is the sublimity of poetry? you question
as you pour your blue ocean eyes into mine.
What is this poetry? Do you not know?
You, my love, are poetry.

Purists may balk at the liberties I took here. Others will say it’s not great writing. True! I can imagine ten different versions, none of which are “best.” Go ahead and try one yourself. Paste it into the comments!

So. Is translation possible? The short answer is no. But are we willing to deprive ourselves of all the literature and speech of the world outside of English? No way!

Foundational texts such as the Bible and Homer’s Iliad? Gotta have them. What about Jung and Kafka? Li Po and Shikibu? Gotta, gotta, gotta. Even if true translation is impossible, we must do it anyway. We can read multiple translations and learn a second language to broaden our sense of a text, but we’re going to be relying on translators a lot. Growing up with bi-lingual parents showed me the complexities translators face. Given the service they render, what can I say but THANK YOU, TRANSLATORS!

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Latina Heritage

Tri-lingual Moment in Italy

Before I traveled to Italy some years ago, I learned a little Italian. Ciao! Mi chiamo Rebecca. Building on my basic (I repeat, basic!) knowledge of Spanish, I felt I could pronounce phrases pretty well and make myself understood at restaurants (Sono vegetariano) and museums (Un adult per favore). By the middle of the trip, I could have a small conversation of say, three or four sentences. A hike between the villages of the Cinqueterre gave me a chance to do exactly that. I smiled and pulled out my stock phrases as soon as I saw a friendly-looking woman coming the opposite direction on the trail. The conversation quickly opened up in a way I didn’t expect.

map of Italy with Cinque Terre marked
Italy map, Cinque Terre villages marked

Let me set the scene. Connecting five tiny Mediterranean villages is a scenic trail. It winds through forest, then emerges onto coastal views. The towns made the UNESCO Heritage List. Easy to see why. They’re downright edible! (I took that top photo from the trail.) There’s nothing much to DO in these towns, which is why a visit here can be a vacation from your vacation, as travel guru Rick Steves says. For me, it was a sip of seashore between chewy bites of cities like Florence and Rome.

I started the hike with a spring in my step, but parts of it get rugged and the wide sidewalk turns into a narrow dirt rut every time the trail swings away from the ocean and into the woods along the inlets. My camera was smoking as I snapped shots of every beautiful leaf and vista. By the time I reached an ocean overlook near the end of my hike, I was happy, but sweaty and hot, my glasses sliding down. As shown below!

author in front of Mediterranean
Me on the Cinque Terre hike

When a smiling woman with two scampering children appeared around the bend, I envied their energy. I also liked them immediately. We exchanged smiles and traded some “intro info” in Italian. How long are you in Italy? Where are you from? My Italian was running out when I heard her say a phrase in what sounded like Spanish to one of the children. It might have been about not running head first into a tree.

“?Hablas español?” I asked if she spoke Spanish.

“!Si! Mi esposo es de” — I can’t recall the Spanish-speaking country she said her husband was from, but it set off fireworks in my head.

“Mi papá es de Guatemala!” I told her my father’s Central American origin. This launched us into a wide-ranging conversation. Suddenly Spanish felt like a large lake compared to my puddle of Italian.

Woman I met on the Cinque Terre trail

We sailed along in Spanish for several minutes. I confined my comments to present tense, which let me keep up. I showed her photos of my kids, and she told me about meeting her husband. Then she mentioned living in Canada.

“Canada?” I asked. “Do you speak English?”

“Yes! It’s my first language!”

“Mine too!” How we laughed! Now my lake expanded to an ocean. We talked on until her kids couldn’t wait any longer to get hiking and I couldn’t linger without missing my return train. It was a beautiful linguistic experience and one of my favorite moments in all of Italy.

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