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Title: "Poets to Come": An Introduction to the Spanish Translations

Author(s): Matt Cohen, Nicole Gray, and Rey Rocha

Publication information: Written for the Walt Whitman Archive. First published on the Archive in 2012.

Whitman Archive ID: anc.02029

"Poets to Come": An Introduction to the Spanish Translations

"Poets to Come" is among the poems most frequently included in book-length Spanish translations of Whitman's poetry, though work still to be done on periodical and anthology publications may reveal the importance of other poems within the print cultures of Hispanophone countries. The sampling provided here suggests the contours of linguistic choices made by translators of the poem and offers a glimpse into the role it has played in various historical contexts. Although editions have appeared in many Hispanophone countries, the major publishing contexts for Whitman editions in Spanish have been Barcelona, Madrid, Mexico City, and Buenos Aires, each with its own region-specific dominant registers and phrasing choices. Key to understanding the history of the translation of Whitman into Spanish is that linguistic choices are only one factor, and not always the most important one, in the cultural transmission of the work. National, regional, and political contexts, as well as the specific changing historical circumstances of each, profoundly shape translations at the level of individual poems, the editions as selections, and even the morphologies of the volumes themselves as objects.

This introduction has three parts: a brief comment about the importance of the physical properties of the texts in which the translations originally appeared; a short introduction to the four most important translators featured here (strikingly, Jorge Luis Borges did not include "Poets to Come" in his famous edition); and an analysis of the translations.

Material Texts

Adorned with stenciled butterflies on its fore edges, the copy of Concha Zardoya's translation of Whitman, held at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, speaks to the graphic diversity of the volumes of Whitman in Spanish. As much art object as codex, the Zardoya edition's colorful edges frame the reader's encounter of "¡Poetas del Porvenir!," combining with the red leather and blind and gilt stamping of the binding to lend a touch of luxury to the reading experience.

Figure 1. Obras escogidas: Ensayo biográficocrítico, versión, notas y bibliografia de Concha Zardoya. Madrid: M. Aguilar, 1946. Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin.

This edition is pocket-sized, with pages made of Bible paper, reminiscent of Whitman's 1856 edition of Leaves of Grass. It is therefore in harmony with Whitman's desire that his poems be read in the open air and as a religious text.

The visual rhetoric of editions of Whitman in Spanish translation shares some of the complexities of the translated poems themselves. Both reflect the status of an object situated at the interstices of two cultures. Like the translated poems, many of the images speak to the fact that the edition of a translation is a dialogue, taking place on shared ground rather than a cultural borderline. The dynamic interrelation of text, image, and binding in editions of Whitman in Spanish translation often makes the books themselves appear to be products of this dialogue as well as a deep engagement with Whitman's poetry.

Perhaps the quintessential instance of this is the portrait of Whitman that accompanies Uruguayan painter Pablo Mañé Garzón's 1978 translation, published in Barcelona.

Figure 2. Mañé's drawing of Whitman, from Hojas de hierba: poemas elegidos de la edicion "del lecho de muerte." Biblioteca Nacional de España.

Drawn by the artist-translator, the rough lines of the sketch transmute early images of Whitman as a roughneck into a would-be Spanish don. The angled hat and the collared shirt connote, even as they revise, the image of Whitman on the frontispiece of the 1855 Leaves of Grass; the signature MAÑÉ in the corner of the image points to the artist-translator's multimedia engagement with the poet. Where the text of this edition is a translation in Spanish language, stemming from a vision, so to speak, of Whitman's poetry, Mañé Garzón's drawing is a translation in illustration, resulting from the merge of Whitman's and Garzón's vision of the poet in 1855. The drawing not only brings Garzón's background in the visual arts into the text, but gives the translator an authorial agency he might not have otherwise. If he can only be listed as "translator" for the role he has taken in relation to Whitman's verse (a creative role that has perhaps some unremarked claim to authorship), Mañé Garzón has achieved a more unequivocal authorship for a similar process simply by changing his medium and introducing his hand to the design of the book object. The imprint of Garzón's creative claim on the text, apparent in his signature on Whitman's left breast, joins (or challenges) Whitman's status as the sole artistic force behind his translation. Mañé Garzón not only translates Whitman's words into Spanish; he translates Whitman's image as well: his verbal and artistic skills combine to underscore the extent of the transformation.

Even in translations that emphasize their morphological fidelity to one or another of Whitman's original editions of Leaves, contemporary illustrations, often commissioned for the translation, carry the grain of the time, place, or politics of their editors or translators. As translators struggle to merge the cadence of Whitman's poetry into the rhythms and rivulets of the Spanish language, so publishers, translators, designers, and editors often depend on images to add to these works a flair that tailors the content to imagined national and regional audiences. The result speaks to and modifies the sometimes vexed dynamics of possession, authorship, nationality, and geography at work in a number of the translators' introductions.

The Translators

The nationalities of four of the translators and the contexts in which they translated "Poets to Come" influenced their translations and the potential meanings their texts had for contemporary readers. Regarding the study of the production and reception of Spanish translations of "Poets to Come," what follows may be considered the tip of the iceberg, for the socio-political contexts of each of these translations are as important as the linguistic particularities of English to Spanish translation. For more on the Hispanophone contexts into which Whitman was translated, see the introduction to the Walt Whitman Archive's digital version of the first edition of Álvaro Armando Vasseur's translation.1

Álvaro Armando Vasseur (1878–1969) is the first Latin American known to have translated Walt Whitman's poetry into Spanish. Born in Montevideo, Uruguay, to two French diplomats, Vasseur was proud of his Latin Americanness, and over time became a declared Socialist. Vasseur saw the beginning of the twentieth century as the moment to bring modernity—in the form, as he saw it, of a cosmopolitan embrace of social and political equality—to his home country. In his work, Vasseur appeals to the pride of his fellow Latin Americans by asserting Latin America's superiority, citing as evidence Uruguay's prosperity at the beginning of the twentieth century. As a result of his political beliefs and nationalistic vision, Vasseur would use his translation of Whitman's poetry to attempt to further both his Socialist ideals and his visions for the hemispheric Americas.

Like Vasseur, the influential translator Concha Zardoya (1914–2004) was born to European parents on Latin American soil, in Chile. And, like Vasseur, she was an author in her own right as well as a translator. Zardoya, however, eventually returned to the continent of her parents. At the age of seventeen, Zardoya's family immigrated back to Spain. There, she started her literary and teaching career. It was not until 1946 that her Whitman translation came out, a career choice that opened many doors for her in the United States. It would prove fortunate because, prior to the publication of her translation, Zardoya had been living through and deeply affected by the Spanish Civil War. In contrast with Vasseur's translations, Zardoya's refraction of Whitman less visibly vectors her opinions about her immediate political climate; this may be a result of the fascist regime's widespread censorship and oppression. These two approaches, then, begin to suggest the complex ways in which both a translator's ideas about the role of literature in politics—often inflected by class and gender—and the national contexts of a given translation's publication crucially shape Spanish translations of Whitman's work.

Leandro Wolfson, an Argentine translator and translation theorist, titled his version of "Poets to Come," "Poetas del futuro." He published it in 1976, one of the most remarkable years in Argentina's history. In that year, right-wing elements took charge of the country by means of a coup d'état, removing President Isabel Perón from power. Years of political oppression and fear of the government would follow, under a regime famous for the number of citizens who "disappeared" during its reign. It is interesting, then, that Wolfson would use the word raza for "brood" in "Poetas del futuro" in this socio-political context. Wolfson finds himself in a position much like Zardoya's, but as a translator he reacts more like Vasseur.

Among the more influential recent translators of Whitman is Pablo Mañé Garzón (1921–2004). Like Zardoya, Mañé Garzón published his translation in Spain. The political circumstances under which he published his version, in 1977, could not have been more different, however. If it can be said that Zardoya published her translation at a time of great censorship, it can also be said that Mañé Garzón published his translation at a time of celebration and positivity. 1977 marked the year of the first general election since the death of the Spanish dictator Generalissimo Francisco Franco. Compared with the other translations, there is a more hopeful feeling in Garzón's version of the poem. Seen in this light, the line that is in the place of line three in the original (one examined more closely below), takes on new meaning. Mañé Garzón's translation of lines three and four reads, Pero vosotros, nueva camada nativa, atlética, continental, mas grande / que todo lo conocido hasta ahora. The "new brood," according to Garzón, would not be "greater than before known"; rather, they would be mas grande / que todo lo conocido hasta ahora, which literally translates back into English as, "greater than anything known until now." Given the boldness of this statement, Garzón's prophetic speaker is both confident and demanding, reflecting the great hope—and not just for poets—of Spain in 1977.

Garzón's translation, titled "Poetas del porvenir," features an important textual oddity. Garzón's translation lacks the line that would equate with the second line of Whitman's "Poets to Come." The poem skips from the end of line one, músicos del porvenir!, to the beginning of the line that would be line three: "but you," or pero vosotros. This dropping of a line, which looks like a typesetting error of some kind, ruins the cohesion of the first part of the poem. In the many reprintings—often unauthorized and unattributed—of this translation, the absence of the line is retained, resulting in a peculiar aberration, and also a productive one for the textual geneticist.

The Translations

There are few agreements among Hispanophone translators about how to render "Poets to Come" in Spanish. The poem dramatizes its speaker's conception of his poetry's relationship to an imagined future; temporality, then, is at once the theme of the poem and a grammatical concern. For some translators, Whitman was not modern, but was the herald of the modern. For others, he was the first modern U.S. poet, and ahead of his time. For others, he was the forefather of modernism, and modernists inherited traits from him. For still others, he was not modern but a representation of a timeless creative force taking "modern" form in rebellious poetry, a view reflecting a sense of literary history in which certain writers are vectors of a timeless mystical revelation. To Ángel Guerra and Rubén Darío, Whitman was (already) the poet of the future. "To Darío," Enrique Gómez Carrillo countered, "Whitman is a singer of the future, but to me he is the singer of a glorious past." Jaime Brossa agreed, insisting that "Whitman is the apocalyptic poet, who rejuvenates with the pure air of the virgin forests the wisdom of the ancient civilizations." The conflict between the critical view of U.S. imperial ambitions and the embrace of the New World aesthetic revolution is traceable in the decisions translators have to make in order to communicate their vision of Whitman's poetry. In addition to the choices translators must make at the lexical level, they are also faced with the problem of adjusting the grammar of Whitman's poem for Spanish-language readers. In "Poets to Come," the use of the subjunctive, infinitive, and future subjunctive in English must be transmuted into the conventions of its Hispanophone destination language. Conceptions of time, which are built into the grammar of the Spanish language, do not quite match up with those familiar to English readers and consequently pose challenges to the translator.

Even in the title (and first words) of the poem, translators make choices that bifurcate potential interpretations. Espinós titles his poem "Poetas de mañana," or "Poets of Tomorrow." "Tomorrow," even taken as a metaphor for the future, provides a hint of incipience not found in other translations, or in the original Whitman poem. The day on which Whitman's poets will come is nearer and more certain for Espinós than for other translators. Wolfson, on the other hand, translates the title as "Poets of the Future," which conveys more conservative expectations by suggesting that the poets to come will appear at a time unknown, but in the future. There seems to be a middle ground, though; another popular choice is "Poetas del porvenir." In many ways this is the translation that comes closest to "Poets to Come," even though the English back-translation would most likely still be "Poets of the future." The prefix por and the root verb venir literally translate into "to" (or "for") and "come"; combined as a noun, they represent a time-of-coming, or "the time to come." This title does not imply that the future is near, as Espinós's does, yet it does not feel as distant as "Poetas del futuro."

Translating "brood" and "native"

Many of the choices made by translators are impacted by the time and place of the translation, the imagined audience for it, or the translator's level of desire to be innovative or to startle readers. Others, such as the choice of how to render "brood" or "native," link notions of race, citizenship, and nationality (since Hispanophone countries are joined by a colonial past) to the particular politics of the place and time of the translation. These choices may also vary in significance based upon how much knowledge the translators or their readers have of the history of the United States; in this instance, the translators' introductions can be useful for establishing the importance of United States history in the framing of Whitman and his poetry.

Vasseur's "Poetas Venideros," from his modestly titled Poemas, stands out from the other translations examined in this introduction, because Vasseur's selection of words demonstrates his desire to inspire and highlight Latin America and its people. In the fifth line of "Poetas Venideros," which corresponds to the third line of the 1891 version of Whitman's "Poets to Come"—"But you, a new brood, native, athletic, continental, greater than before known"—Vasseur writes:

Sois vosotros los de la raza nueva, autóctona, atlética,
del continente más grande que los de todas las razas conocidas
hasta la fecha.

When translated back into English, Vasseur's translation reads something like this: "You are those of the new race, autochthonous, athletic, of the continent that is bigger than the continents of all the other known races up until this date." Here, Vasseur introduces the concept of race and of competition among continents. He takes the word "continental," from Whitman's original, and transforms it and manipulates it for his agenda by making it, instead of raza, or "race," the noun continente, modified by más grande. In his translation, the concept of the continental signifies race through geographic difference, suggesting to Latin American readers that they are from the better, because larger, continent, and that they are a "race," rather than Whitman's "brood." Whereas Whitman hints that being a poet is the organizing logic of his subject, Vasseur's version specifically defines them as subjects born in the "New World." This choice supports Vasseur's larger goal in his volume to promote Whitman as a poet of the Americas, not just of North America, and not just of the cosmopolitan.

Perhaps in part as a result of fascist censorship, Concha Zardoya eliminates the Latin American bias of the first Spanish version and instead performs a more literal translation. Zardoya avoids the problematic word raza and instead opts for generación, doing away with the racial implications of Vasseur's translation and substituting it with a term connoting temporal delimitation that is often used to describe literary movements or cohorts in Spanish literature (such as the famed Generación de '98, made up of authors like Antonio Machado and Miguel de Unamuno).

In Vasseur, then, "brood" is racialized within a competitive geographic frame; in Zardoya, the word is generationalized, to resonate with previous literary movements. In Pablo Mañé Garzón's translation, however, the depth of comparison is much grander. Here, the camada is not only greater than those of other continents or of generations past but greater than todo lo conocido hasta ahora—"greater than anything known up until now." Also noteworthy is the mere fact that the word camada, a more or less direct translation, is used for the word "brood." Camada is used to refer to a group of animals that were born at the same time and of the same mother; it is a general term for "litter." With this word, Garzón also includes in his poem that natural, primitive, animalistic sense found in the original.

Leandro Wolfson, in "Poetas del futuro," returns to the concept of race, describing his poets of the future as being la nueva raza…mayor que todas las conocidas, which translates back into English as "the new race…greater than all known races." Because Wolfson's translation was made during the Guerra Sucia (Argentina's "Dirty War" of state terrorism, 1976–1983), it is difficult to parse: a claim to racial pride might be a claim for superiority, even under pressure from an oppressive government, or it could be a more subtle attempt, through the voice of one of the more radical poets of the United States, to galvanize the literary community in a country ruled by fear and militancy. There's evidence to support the latter interpretation: Wolfson's translation of Leaves of Grass was originally published in 1976 in Buenos Aires, Argentina's capital, as part of the Serie Inspiración. And Wolfson's later work demonstrates an interest in politics and political ideologies, as he is the translator of Planificación y Bienestar: estudio comparativo de los sistemas capitalista y socialista [Planning and Well-being: A Comparative study of the Capitalist and Socialist Systems]; Estado nacional y ciudadanía [The National State and Citizenry]; La democracia y sus críticos [Democracy and Its Critics], and, perhaps the most telling title, Transiciones desde un gobierno autoritario [Transitions from an Authoritarian Government].

Translating Whitman's Pronouns

In the poem's penultimate line, Spanish-language translators have to make another key choice: how to render Whitman's second "it."

I am a man who, sauntering along without fully stopping, turns a casual look upon you and then averts his face,
Leaving it to you to prove and define it.

Does the "it" refer to the "look," or does the "it" refer to some broader concept, a relation between Whitman as a poetical forebear and we poets to come as his successors? Or are we potential forebears ourselves? In English, the poem not only oscillates between temporalities—intervening in the dimly visible future, yet always returning to the "dark" past of writing in the present. The present moments of reading and writing become, through this illusion, simultaneous and of the utmost importance—an effect Whitman holds out to his future readers as something they have inherited from him and to which they must respond with, one gets the impression, as much craftiness and openness to the creation of the possibility for more innovation as the poet brings to this song.

The confusion in carrying this ensemble of potential meanings into Spanish turns on the uncertain referent of the final "it." In Spanish, a gendered suffix will indicate a grammatically precedent target, so translators have a multivariate choice to make here. Perhaps "it" could be linked to the "casual look" that Whitman gives the onlookers. Then again, "it" might be made to refer to the "face" that has been averted, or to the entire passing interaction. Vasseur and Zardoya both refer to the "casual look" in their versions. Vasseur writes, Dejandoos el cometido de explicarla y definirla, and Zardoya writes, dejándoos el cuidado de examinarla y definirla. In both cases the pronoun la clearly signals the feminine noun mirada, or "look." Mañé Garzón's interpretation, unlike Vasseur's and Zardoya's, is open-ended. Mañé Garzón translates this section of "Poets to Come" as Os dirige una mirada indiferente para luego volver la cara / Y dejaros la prueba y la definición. Translated back into English, Mañé Garzón's line reads, "Gives an indifferent look only to later turn the face / and leave you the proof and the definition." The lack of a pronoun such as la makes for an ambiguous line; the reader is left to ask what the proof and definition are for. But this line could be translated back into English in two different ways. One might read, "Gives an indifferent look only to later turn the face / and leaves you the proof and definition." The second back-translation would read the same way, with one exception: "Gives an indifferent look only to later turn the face/ and leaves you the test and definition." Prueba here induces ambiguity. In the first possible reading of this line, what Mañé Garzón suggests is that a proof and definition have already been provided for future poets, thereby making their task easy. In the second possible reading, in keeping with the rest of the translations and Whitman's original, Mañé Garzón issues a challenge to future writers and readers.

The 1995 Editorial Barcelona translation is also ambiguous, but in a different way. In this version, the translator writes: Dejando que vosotros demostréis y defináis. Again, the lack of pronoun makes the line ambiguous, but, unlike Mañé Garzón's translation, those left to "demonstrate and define" the "it" are clearly identified as poets, even if the "it" is not. And finally, the 1953 Espinós translation assigns a task and object clearly. It differs, however, in the breadth of the demand: Dejándoos la tarea de explicar y definir todo esto. The key words in this translation are the last two, todo esto, or "all of this": "Leaving you the task of explaining and defining all of this." Whether the "all of this" refers to everything that happens in the poem or to an "everything" external to the poem is unclear.

Something should be said about Spanish's differentiation of the personal and impersonal singular "you." Since this poem does not refer to one individual, it is not necessary to point out the differences between tu, the personal "you," and usted, the more formal "you." This differentiation occurs only in some dialects of Spanish, particularly in the plural use of usted. Of all the versions republished on the Walt Whitman Archive, only the Montemayor translation uses the plural formal address ustedes to refer to the poets to come. All of the other versions use the more familiar vosotros. Both are plural forms of the "you" pronouns, vos and tu/usted, depending on where one is in the Spanish-speaking world. The difference in choice here may be due to geography or intended audience. Vos and vosotros are the preferred pronouns in Spain, as well as in some parts of South America, especially the Southern Cone region. It is no surprise, then, that the Uruguayan Vasseur, the Argentinian Wolfson, and the several Spaniards who translated "Poets to Come" would opt to use this form. Vos and vosotros may also have been chosen to appeal to a transatlantic readership.

Whitman's "Arouse!"

Whitman's poem has, in English, some hints of eroticism that fade a bit in most of the Spanish translations. In English, "arouse" works in at least two ways. For one, it is a command; Whitman's speaker asks his fellow poets to get up and go justify him (which would likely take a reflexive grammatical form). Yet the word also works on another level; the poet-speaker may rather be asking his fellow poets to "arouse" others, with the sensual connotations (among others) that term bears. The erotics of the "look" that provokes (or does not provoke) a reaction—the embodied metaphor that anchors the final stanza—is preserved in some translations, but the command in the fifth line of "Poets to Come," "Arouse!" (admittedly strange in English in imperative form), loses some of its potential sexual charge in the choices made by these translators. The command's erotic synthesis of domination and arousal does not have an equivalent in Spanish, thus presenting the translators with a challenge. A comparison of Spanish translators' renditions of line five consequently reveals a variety of responses to Whitman's "Arouse!" Vasseur and Zardoya both choose Levantaos!, which translates back into "Rise up!" Espinós, on the other hand, writes En pie!, or "On your feet!" Wolfson opts for Arriba!, an energetic command to "Get up!," while Montemayor uses the more metaphorical phrase, Despierta a justificarme!, literally meaning "Wake up to justify me!"

The rest of the translations presented on the Walt Whitman Archive do catch on somewhat to the second potential meaning of "Arouse!" by using the word Despertad! Meaning "wake up" or "awaken," despertad is the only translation that works in the same way linguistically as Whitman's "Arouse!" It commands poets to awaken, and it intimates that they must carry on the work of awakening others. The earliest use of Despertad! occurs in 1975 in the Cross translation and, with the exception of Wolfson in 1976 and Montemayor in 1997, it is the (perhaps anticlimactic) word of choice in modern translations.


1. This introduction is available here. [back]


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