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Translator’s Note: “Miguel” by César Vallejo

I've known Vallejo's "A mi hermano Miguel" for a while, or at least what ghost of it survives my wretched Spanish. It's a pretty well-known poem, and has often been translated into English; a song-version was even recorded by the Argentinean singer Mercedes Sosa. It came to mind again about a year ago, while I was at something of an impasse. I couldn't bring myself to start work on a poem of my own, an elegy for the poet Michael Donaghy. (Donaghy was born to Irish parents and raised in the Bronx; by the time of his death in 2004, he was one of the most highly-regarded poets in the UK. Few US readers know his name.) I began fiddling with this poem for no good reason I could think of, oblivious even to the big fat clue of the title.

Vallejo's original poem is no sonnet, but seems to me to have the soul of one. I've developed the habit of choosing different formal rules for the version than those followed by the original; it works as a sort of guarantee of process, so that line-for-line substitution isn't even a compositional option. The results are never very faithful to the poet, but can be true—in their weird and indefensible way—to the poem. (I confess that I find most "faithful" translated versions mere hommage; they really belong to a category of meta-poem. The free version probably belongs to a category of literary theft, if we're honest.) Still, there were uncomfortable decisions to make: there is no patio in the original poem, but a stone bench or poyo. I couldn't sit on it. "Y tu gemelo corazón de estas tardes extintas" is the loveliest single phrase in the original poem, but I found I couldn't use it, not least because it died in English every way I turned it.

The loss of those we have known since youth is often impossible to bear. There's never any closure; the torn roots can just remain within us, rotting and inoperably deep. All the trouble you go to as a toddler to get the whole object permanence trick together, to learn not to grieve your mother for dead every time she leaves the room, and for what? One day folk really do disappear, and for good. But our first dumb instinct is to go look for them; our second, perhaps even dumber, to dream up a place to which they have been inconveniently translated. Vallejo's refusal to give up on Miguel, his insistence on couching his grief within the rules of a childhood game he can't or won't resign, articulates a terrible emotional truth.

Whether anything of that feeling comes across, only you'll know. Antonio Porchia's "I know what I have given you; I do not know what you have received" seems tragically appropriate to poetry, but maybe even more so to the business of its translation. For my own part, Vallejo's poem gave me the stomach to start work on another poem for my own brother; this had to begin with an acceptance that he was neither hiding, nor trading poems and reels in some heavenly seisiún with Yeats and Séamus Ennis, but that he was plain dead.

Originally Published: March 27th, 2008

Originally from Dundee, Scotland, Don Paterson left school at 16 and moved to London to pursue music and join a band. He found success with the jazz-folk ensemble Lammas, but was captivated by poetry upon encountering poet Tony Harrison. A self-taught poet influenced by Coleridge, Paul Muldoon, Derek Mahon, and...

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