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Translator's Note: Coal Deliveryman



This prose poem is taken from Botella papel (Paper bottle), Cote's paean to Bogotá, a suite of portraits and prayers addressed to its lowliest inhabitants, plying their arcane trades: coal deliveryman, necktie salesman, knife sharpener. What grabbed me, when I first heard the poet recite it, were the repeated phrases, tan imposible como todo esto, tan melancólico y solitario a la vez, so nakedly incantatory, like formulas in a fairy tale. What really made my heart stutter was the snail simile: to hit upon such an image requires an intimate acquaintance with all the flavors of pain and persistence and hopelessness—here, I thought, was a conscience to reckon with.

Translators of Spanish face a question of diction: the registers of Spanish sound more formal or elevated to Anglophones than they do to native listeners. English is post-colonial, born between a Norman French aristocracy and an Anglo-Saxon peasantry. Recall the old adage about "swine" and "pork": the pig was swin to the people who raised it, porc to the people who enjoyed its flesh at the high table. The resonances persist: when we want to sound salt-of-the-earth, concrete and unpretentious, we fall back on Germanic monosyllables, but when we want to pull rank, we go Latin. Spanish codes its own class registers, but overall the language is closer to Latin, without the heavy-handedness that an English-speaker might infer. So a translator sometimes trades a cognate, closer to the mouthfeel of the original, for a word that doesn't alert that interior Anglo-Saxon subaltern. In Spanish perdón and perdonar are everyday terms, what you'd say to the person you've bumped into on the subway. But our "pardon" is slightly legalistic, a breath of air from the courtroom (where English swine-thieves were once tried by Norman justices). "Pardon" is what we beg when we're being polite; otherwise, we're "sorry," we ask "forgiveness."

The Spanish root is perdón, where English makes the substantive from the verb "forgive," though one might imagine a Joycean coinage like forgift. Is forgiveness a thing in Spanish, an act in English? According to Steven Pinker, language reveals how we perceive the world as thing or quality or action, and it's these untranslatable ontologies that make the work of poetry so appealing. Languages, after all, can learn from each other just as people can.—CA


This poem originally appeared in the April 2009 issue of Poetry magazine

April 2009

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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