In 2012, in my poetry-writing seminar with Laura Kasischke, I was assigned the task of bringing in a poem that I felt was “perfect.” I chose “Lo Fatal” by Ruben Dário.

I first read the Spanish version out loud, and then the translation. The English translation was not mine. However, there wasn’t a single person in the class who didn’t prefer the Spanish to the translation. Why was that—if they’d never studied the language in depth?

If you have been in Spanish 101 or 201 or whatever you will have almost certainly read the poem I have translated. If you are like anything like me you will have had this poem stuck in your head for a very long time. I have recited this poem to myself over and over—I’ve memorized it out of sheer exposure. I could never quite figure out why it has stuck with me.

So I translated it.

If you can’t read Spanish, just glance briefly at the original. There are many translations of this poem available, and I made it a point of discipline to not look at any of them while forming the translation. I’m trying to take this poem at face value: beyond poetic meter, and a more traditional analysis. Here is the original poem in Spanish—my own translation follows:

Lo fatal
Dichoso el árbol que es apenas sensitivo,
y más la piedra dura porque esa ya no siente,
pues no hay dolor más grande que el dolor de ser vivo,
ni mayor pesadumbre que la vida consciente.
Ser y no saber nada, y ser sin rumbo cierto,
y el temor de haber sido y un futuro terror…
Y el espanto seguro de estar mañana muerto,
y sufrir por la vida y por la sombra y por
lo que no conocemos y apenas sospechamos,
y la carne que tienta con sus frescos racimos,
y la tumba que aguarda con sus fúnebres ramos,
¡y no saber adónde vamos,
ni de dónde venimos![1]

Happy is the tree because it does not feel
and more so the hard rock because no longer does it feel
since there is no greater pain than that of being
nor greater hardship than conscious living.
To be, to know nothing, and be without certain course,
and the dread of “have beens” and a future terror…
And the certain horror of death tomorrow,
and to suffer for life, for the shadow, and for
that which we don’t know, and hardly suspect
and the flesh that tempts with fresh abundance,
and the tomb that waits with funeral bouquets
and to not know from where we’ll go
nor from where we came!

This dark and foreboding verse marks Dário, the poet, as the semi-fatalistic guy, as the father (as he is tentatively claimed) of Hispanic modernismo. The poem renders this semi-impressionistic sentiment of organic beauty, delighting in the banal, and the sordid reality that we’re definitely going to die sometime in the future. And somehow, I get from this poem that this reality isn’t such a big deal.

But why is it that I find this simple poem so beautiful, when the context is so dark, and why, in a more complicated manner, does it seem to frivolously object to this stark existence that the narrative voice presents in the first place?

Following the characteristics of Hispanic modernism, Dário uses a great deal of strange auditory techniques that punctuate the sentiment. Phrases like, “el espanto seguro de estar mañana muerto.”

The line resonates its own reality with the repetition of these vowel sounds. Notice that almost every word carries emphasis on the second syllable. And in translation? “The certain horror of death tomorrow.” This sentence sounds stark as a newspaper headline, I think. We’ve lost some of the verbal cud—effectively, the same effect that has had these lines rolling around in my head for years—the delicious sense of fullness highlighted in the echoes of vowels; in assonance.

Maintaining this kind of verbality, of course, is the greatest difficulty for the (amateur, in my case) translator. Here’s just one example where I’ve attempted to introduce the kind of poeticism that the Spanish version contains:

lo que no conocemos y apenas sospechamos,
y la carne que tienta con sus frescos racimos
that which we don’t know, and hardly suspect
and the flesh that tempts with fresh abundance

“[F]lesh“…”tempts“…”fresh…” “suspect“…”a-bun-dance.” There is a vaguer connection of vowels, the echo of consonants.

I don’t think I’m incorrect in speculating that this does not give the same weight to the words as “lo que no conocemos y apenas sospechamos/y la carne que tienta con sus frescos racimos.”

The point of this post isn’t to argue for one language or another. But in all honesty, I can’t help but prefer “lo fatal” to “fatality.”

[1]Darío, Rubén. “Lo fatal.” Momentos cumbres de las literaturas hispánicas. Ed. Rodney T. Rodríguez. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education, Inc., 2004. 542. Print.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s