Sunday, August 05, 2007

On Clayton Eshleman's Translations of Cesar Vallejo

My exposure to the work of the Peruvian poet Cesar Vallejo has been (sadly) limited. I have seen his work in anthologies of South American poets, and have a translation of The Black Heralds,* Vallejo's first book of poetry, originally published in Spanish in 1918. I also do not speak Spanish, and therefore my ability to judge the efficacy of a translation is quite limited. With those caveats, let me say that I very much enjoyed and recommend The Complete Poetry of Cesar Vallejo (University of California Press, 2007), edited and translated by Clayton Eshleman.

Eshleman has made the translation of Vallejo a lifelong labor of love--or perhaps, an obsession, given the many roadblocks set in his path during the years he worked on this project. That story, told by Eshleman in the "Afterward: A Translation Memoir," is itself a fascinating account of those years and of the difficulty of negotiating for the translation rights with Vallejo's widow and estate.

Still, we can be grateful that Eshleman saw this project through to completion, and that the work of Vallejo, so essential to the canon of South American literature, is now available to us in English: complete, in face-on-face translations and thoroughly annotated.

This is a wonderful and very important book.

Here's Eshleman's translation** of one of Vallejo's poems from The Black Heralds:


What would she be doing now, my sweet Andean Rita
of rush and tawny berry;
now when Byzantium asphyxiates me; and my blood
dozes, like thin cognac, inside of me.

Where would her hands, that showed contrition
ironed in the afternoon whiteness yet to come,
be now, in this rain that deprives me of
my desire to live.

What has become of her flannel skirt; of her
toil; of her walk;
of her taste of homemade May rum.

She must be at the door watching some cloudscape,
and at length she'll say, trembling: "'s cold!"
And on the roof tiles a wild bird will cry.


*The Black Heralds by Cesar Vallejo, Translated by Richard Schaaf and Kathleen Ross, Latin American Literary Review Press Series (2nd. ed., 2003).

**NOTE: Vallejo (and Eshleman) indent the first line of each stanza by several key strokes. I am unable to replicate this in Blogger. My apologies.


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