January 3, 2009

A poem by Antonio Machado

The poetry gods will smite me for this: 1) for having the damn-fool nerve to translate as best I can [which is to say, badly] something by one of the greatest poets that ever lived, and 2) for the suggestion, however unintended, that a dog's death is in any way comparable to the death of a person; but what the heck - this is a great, great poem and I like translating things. Plus, you know, death.

The Spanish poet Antonio Machado wrote this poem in the spring of 1912. His wife Leonor had been diagnosed with advanced tuberculosis — she died in August of that year.
A un olmo seco

  Al olmo viejo, hendido por el rayo
y en su mitad podrido,
con las lluvias de abril y el sol de mayo,
algunas hojas verdes le han salido.
  ¡El olmo centenario en la colina
que lame el Duero! Un musgo amarillento
le mancha la corteza blanquecina
al tronco carcomido y polvoriento.
  No será, cual los álamos cantores
que guardan el camino y la ribera,
habitado de pardos ruiseñores.
  Ejército de hormigas en hilera
va trepando por él, y en sus entrañas
urden sus telas grises las arañas.
  Antes que te derribe, olmo del Duero,
con su hacha el leñador, y el carpintero
te convierta en melena de campana,
lanza de carro o yugo de carreta;
antes que rojo en el hogar, mañana,
ardas en alguna mísera caseta,
al borde de un camino;
antes que te descuaje un torbellino
y tronche el soplo de las sierras blancas;
antes que el río hasta la mar te empuje
por valles y barrancas,
olmo, quiero anotar en mi cartera
la gracia de tu rama verdecida.
Mi corazón espera
también, hacia la luz y hacia la vida,
otro milagro de la primavera.

  The old elm, split by lightning
and rotted inside,
with the rains in April and the sun in May
has sprouted a few green leaves.
  The hundred-year-old elm on the hill
lapped by the Duero! Yellow moss
mottles the pale bark
of its trunk, worm-eaten and dusty.
  It won't be like the singing cottonwoods
along the road and the riverbank,
the home of brown nightingales.
  An army of ants in single file
goes climbing through it, and in its hollows
spiders weave their grey webs.
  Before he chops you down, Duero elm,
with his woodcutter's axe,
and the carpenter makes a bell's beam of you,
or a cart tongue or a wagon yoke;
before you redden the hearth of some poor shelter, tomorrow,
at the road's edge;
before a dust storm uproots you
and winds from the white mountains tear you apart;
before the river carries you to the sea
through valleys and canyons,
elm, I long to put into words
the grace of your green bough.
And my heart also
yearns, towards light and towards life,
for another miracle of spring.

The Duero. Photo by Denis Doyle for the New York Times.


Bob Schechter said...

This is a very nice translation. I've also translated this poem (in a version that attempts to preserve the rhyme and meter) and I then started looking for other translations to see what other people had done. One of the remarkable things about translations is that you can have several very good ones that are of the same poem but are quite different from one another. Yours strikes the right tone and conveys much of the dignity and emotion of the original. I would share my own but it is unpublished as yet and I don't want to post it on the internet. I couldn't find an email address to send it privately. Oh, and thanks for the biographical information about the poem. I hadn't known that. I read the poem as Machado speaking of his own advanced age, likening himself to the elm tree, and hoping, like the elm, and like all of us, for the miracle of one more spring.

Luisa said...

Bob, thanks for the kind words. If you'd like to share your translation [and I'd love to see it!] you can send it to chulas1848 with the arroba and the hotmail and the dot and the com.

Un saludo,

Juan said...

Thanks for the translation of this beatiful poem from one of my loved poets. I was looking for a translation to send to a English speaking friend and so I found yours, which I liked most. Thanks for your work!.
By the way I'd bet you know the sang version of this poem by the Spanish singer & song writer Joan Manuel Serrat. If it isn't the case you can find out at YouTube looking for its title.

As I said, thank you for the work and sharing it!.
All the best for you and the dogs

Luisa said...

Juan, thank you so much for your thoughtful comment!! I appreciate it more than you can imagine!