Saturday, July 21, 2007

Translation (Updated): Severo Sarduy

SarduyIt's been a while since I published any poetry translations, so here's a rough attempt one by the extraordinarily inventive and innovative critic, poet and fiction writer Severo Sarduy's (1937-1993). It's the last of six from his "Páginas en blanco" series, "Cuadros de Franz Kline." It refers, I believe, to the drawing below (1954, 12 7/16 x 9 7/8 in., at the Pierpont Morgan Library, from's site) and related paintings of this title by Kline, and entails considerable difficulty, because of its intricate linguistic shifts and wordplay. In it Sarduy writes in four different languages, English, French, Spanish, and Italian, and several of the words straddle two languages ("batello," "Salute"), while another, "monte," has two dissimilar meanings (mountain, woodland); yet another, "pájaro," has a particularly salient slang meaning for Sarduy, who was a gay man. (He was, fittingly, a member of the Tel Quel clique.) Let me not forget "pase," which functions as two different parts of speech--a verb and a noun, linked closely in etymology and connotation, or the French phrase "il fait beau," which is the usual statement one makes of good weather, "it's nice out," though here it takes on a somewhat different valence based on the source image. Then there is the title, which plays not only on Kline's painting, but on a persistent or fixed (fijo) theme of Sarduy's, which is difference, and in particular, racial difference; Sarduy was, among other things, an Afro-Cuban. Let me not even venture into the hurdles created by ekphrasis based on abstract work(s).... All of which make the poem untranslatable as such, and a reason for me to try.

Update: based on Kai's compelling argument about the valences of the Spanish verb "estar" versus "ser," both of which mean "to be," but the former of which connotes conditionality, impermanence, movement or spatial location, as opposed to the essentiality, permanence and transitive properties of the latter, I decided to add the "there," which also completes the music of the final stanza. Other thoughts?

Black and White


La raya negra y el batello,
el monte siamo tutti,
el barco blanco sobre el agua blanca
y la fijeza
de los pájaros sobre la Salute.
il fait beau del otro lado
del otro lado, digo,
del río.
Estamos todos


The black line and the little skiff
the mountain-woodlands we all are
the white boat on the white water
and the insistence
of the birds on the Salute.
Go on,
it's lovely from the other side
of the other side, I say,
of the river.
We all are there

Copyright © Severo Sarduy, 2007; translation by John Keene, 2007.


  1. Beautiful! Both versions. Some questions (because translations and the choices of translators, fascinate me:) Why do you translate it all into English and not simply the Spanish? Is it impossible, do you think, to translate the bits of languages other than Spanish, rather than to familiar English, to bits of archaic English, or familiar foreign words that would never the less be familiar/parseable to English speakers in the way phrases/words in one Romance language are to a speaker in another (in order to perserve some of the polygolt strangeness of the original)? (Most of us know what "bonito" means, for example)????

    Kai in NYC

  2. On other quick note: they over lap only a little on the level of denotation, but spritually, if you will, "the bush" and "el monte" have much in common, with a similiar nature-mystique, with a waft of shamanism/santeria walkabout with the spirits feeling to them. Just a thought.

    Kai in NYC

  3. Kai, thanks for your comments. I thought about leaving the Italian and French phrases as they were, but I felt that something would be lost if they weren't translated, so I chose the italics. But it would probably be truer to Sarduy's original to leave them as is, with the understanding that he might assume a polyglot would grasp the meanings. I like your reading of the valences of "monte"; I also think that visually the poem suggests both, the mountain surging forth and the thicket, like woods, of blackness, through the lines....

  4. Another question occurs (maybe you're over this, in which case, sorry!): That "estamos todos" in the last line-- what a problematic translation that presents, given Spanish's two verbs "to be"! The poem itself seems very concerned with places, movement, here and there, boats and mountains, etc., so that the last line, reading "estamos" as opposed to "somos" almost suggests more "Where we're all...": an emphasis on location as opposed to ontology, as it were. What do you think? I'm a geek, right?

    Kai in NYC

  5. Kai, I'm never "over" responses, especially when they're like yours. As I always say with these posted translations, they're rough, and since I don't have a translation workshop to tackle them in, I love to hear what you have to say. The last line's verb, "estar," is problematic; I thought about "We are all here," or "we all are there," or something that conveyed the sitedness and impermanence of "estar" versus "ser," which conveys permanence.... I also didn't want to add extra words, but I think I'm going to revise it and add the "there," so that the locational aspect of the Spanish verb to be remains, but also so that it plays off of the Italian, which I believe, like French and Romanian (and Latin)--and English, of course--has only one verb "to be."