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Translating Hernández

Que me aconseje el mar
lo que tengo que hacer:
si matar, si querer.

Small poems, like small dogs, are often the ones that give you the biggest headache. Take this short poem – fourteen words – by Spanish poet Miguel Hernández: looks easy at first glance, but it contains many of the key problems involved in ‘literary’ translations. The subjunctive in the first line, for example; now, English does have a sort of vestigial subjunctive (as in, for example, ‘God save the king!’) but to try and reproduce it would give the poem an archaic touch totally alien to the fresh, unadorned Spanish of the original. We thought about using some sort of vocative construction – ‘Oh sea! Advise me…’ – but this is only slightly less archaic. In the end, we hit on ‘I wish the sea would tell me’, which reproduces the sense of longing or hoping which the Spanish subjunctive conveys, but changes the semantic order of the sentence, shifting attention away from the sea to the poem’s narrator.

Then there is the subtle series of rhymes – mar/matar, hacer/querer – which form the tiny backbone of the poem. Spanish is an easier language to rhyme in than English, in part because it has a smaller number of possible word endings. So was this pattern deliberate? Or was it simply that the words that Hernández wanted to use only happened to rhyme? If matar isn’t at the end of a line, should it still be treated as a rhyme, even if the rhythm of the poem makes it feel like one? And – the big one – how important is it to translate rhyme schemes? Douglas Hofstadter devoted an entire book to precisely this question and, as far as this reader could tell, even he failed to come up with a truly definitive answer.

The problem is that, in order to impose a believable rhyme scheme on the English translation of this sparse, delicate poem, one would have to distort the meaning quite significantly, as well as grapple with the vexed question of rhymes for ‘love’. We thought about something like ‘I wish the sea would tell me what it wills’ as a rhyme for ‘kill’, but to follow on from this first line would involve changing the message of the poem so greatly as to make it all but unrecognisable. In the end we took the path of least resistance and opted to ignore the rhyme scheme.

The second line was just as tricky. A more or less direct rendering would be ‘that which I have to do’, which sounds extremely formal in English; we would say instead ‘what I have to do’. The problem in this case is that ‘what I have to do’ sounds like a list of outstanding domestic chores rather than the resolution to an existential question. Our slightly scrappy solution was to go for ‘what it is I have to do’, which lends more weight to the line but introduces an element (‘it is’) which is not there in the original. On the other hand, this line has a rhythmic quality which reflects the unobtrusive flow of the Spanish.

And finally: ‘si matar, si querer‘. The key thing is the repetition of si, which here means ‘if’. But the problem is that the construction ‘sisi…’ is hard to reproduce in English, as we would probably say something more like ‘either…or…’ We were quite happy with our solution: ‘whether kill, whether love’. It isn’t exactly idiomatic English, but equally you wouldn’t be surprised to come across this construction in a poem.

So, having spent a fruitful but inconclusive half hour on this poem, we put it on the QuickSilver Facebook to see what people came up with…So far, we have had an Italian, Catalan and French version, all of which reflect a different set of translation problems. Do have a go at translating it,  we’d love to hear your versions!


I wish the sea would tell me
what it is I have to do:
whether kill, whether love.


Si la mer pouvait me conseiller
sur ce que je dois faire :
tuer ou aimer.


Che il mare mi consigli
quello che devo fare
se uccidere o amare.


Que m’aconselli el mar
el que haig de fer
si matar, si estimar.

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