New Translation of Pablo Neruda’s poem The Dead Woman

La Muerta, or The Dead Woman, was written by Pablo Neruda. I was reading a bilingual edition of this book at El Cafe de Otraparte and didn’t like the translation so have transcribed my own below on the right side, linked to where other translations are below and then explained why I think my translation is preferable to theirs.

Si de pronto no existes,
si de pronto no vives,
yo seguiré viviendo.No me atrevo,
no me atrevo a escribirlo,
si te mueres.Yo seguiré viviendo.Porque donde no tiene voz un hombre
allí, mi voz.

Donde los negros sean apaleados,
yo no puedo estar muerto.
Cuando entren en la cárcel mis hermanos
entraré yo con ellos.

Cuando la victoria,
no mi victoria,
sino la gran Victoria
llegue,
aunque esté mudo debo hablar:
yo la veré llegar aunque esté ciego.

No, perdóname.
Si tú no vives,
si tú, querida, amor mío, si tú
te has muerto,
todas las hojas caerán en mi pecho,
lloverá sobre mi alma noche y día,
la nieve quemará mi corazón,
andaré con frío y fuego
y muerte y nieve,
mis pies querrán marchar hacia donde tú duermes, pero seguiré vivo,
porque tú me quisiste sobre
todas las cosas indomable,
y, amor, porque tú sabes que soy no sólo un hombre
sino todos los hombres.

If suddenly you do not exist,
if suddenly you no longer live,
I shall live on.I do not dare,
I do not dare to write it,
if you die.I’ll keep living.For where a man has no voice,
there, my voice.

Where blacks are beaten,
I cannot be without energy.
When into prison my brothers go,
I am with them.

When victory,
not my victory,
but the great victory
comes,
even though I am mute I must speak;
I shall see it come
though I am blind.

No, forgive me.
If you don’t live,
if you, beloved, my love,
if you have died,
all the leaves will fall on my chest,
it will rain on my soul night and day,
the snow will burn my heart,
I shall walk with cold and fire and death and snow,
my feet will want to march to where you sleep, but
I’ll stay alive,
because you wanted me above all things indomitable,
and, my love, because you know that I am not only a man
but all humankind.

Why My Translation is Better

Where my translation differs from the other versions is as follows.

In the third stanza seguiré should read as a statement of commitment to life rather a phrase that a book with some sort of platitudinous title on coping with grief would tell you to repeat over and over again in a mirror until you start to feel that you are “back amongst the land of the living” and thus no longer “trapped in the past/in death”.

The fifth stanza I’ve changed for the following reasons. First, the other translators incorrectly attributed the Castilian meaning of the word rather than the Chilean. While generally sensible, any Spanish speaker that’s travelled know that there is a wide variety regional dialects and meanings. Here’s an screenshot of a Chilean Spanish Slang Dictionary:

If that’s not enough to convince you why my iteration is better, consider this – while “not being dead” may sounds poetic, it doesn’t imply the same sort of implication of commitment to ameliorating racial oppression that was a major component of Neruda’s politics. Pablo Neruda was an ardent Marxist, a member of the Communist Party and was a politician and diplomat under President Salvador Allende. The lines as they were slightly obfuscated something that Pablo Neruda would have been highly attuned.

As it was worded,
it suggested that the “I” of the poem – which is later on characterized as indomitable – respond to racial oppression merely by oneself not succumbing to death. Using a dictionary definition rather than an informal one thus loses the implied need for material commitment to oppressed peoples liberation evidenced in my rendition of “I cannot be without energy”. People in perilous situations that require great physical endurance to survive are able to exert themselves past the point they would normally collapse because of the importance of their actions. My rendition captures this, and for similar reasons the next two lines of the stanza is also lacking verisimilitude to what I believe to be Neruda’s intent.
Embed from Getty Images

As it was,  the “I” of the poem implied a commitment to revenge seeking or some kind of adventurism. That’s not, however, the case as Neruda would be very familiar with the concept of solidarity. Now I understand and even appreciate why it’s rendered that way, for the sake of sound, but I also think it’s important not to declaw the meaning behind the words of a poet who was assassinated by the government of General Pinochet with the assistance of the C.I.A.

Marchar en Chile

In the eight stanza I changed “breast” for “chest” as pecho is both and. Following that I think the translation is again playing fast and loose for the sake of sound. Neruda uses the word marchar, to march, and in the translation it’s replaced with walk, or caminar. While one certainly walks in a march, the collective sense implied in the Spanish word is lost in the old translation.

Lastly, I changed the last line from “all men” to “all humankind” as the gender specificity within Spanish nouns need not apply to the English rendition given the alternative which more accurately symbolizes socialism’s aspiration for universal solidarity.

“Don’t do with love, what a child does his balloon, that having ignored it, then loses it crying.”

Buy yourself a copy of Neruda.

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