Pablo Neruda: New Translations

Pablo Neruda: New Translations
July 24, 2017 Plume

Sarah Green, Tomás Q. Morín, and David Young


“Soul Arborist”: Two Translations of Pablo Neruda’s

David Young (Stephen F. Austin University Press, 2015)
Tomás Q. Morín (Copper Canyon, 2014)

Interviewed by Sarah Green

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When I heard that both David Young and Tomas Morin had Macchu Picchu translations coming out within a year of one another, I was determined to get these two poets in the same place. Young—whose website links to the thirteen books he’s translated with a bodega-like heading of ITALIAN CHINESE GERMAN CZECH SPANISH— was my creative writing professor at Oberlin College and has been a long-time mentor. Morin—who, speaking of mentors, once convinced Phil Levine to mentor him by sending him a letter—became a friend when we were both readers for the Incredible Sestina Anthology.

I was intrigued by the choice to translate Heights of Macchu Picchu, one of the less “sexy” Neruda titles. This is not Full Woman, Fleshly Apple, Hot Moon. In his translation’s introduction, Tomas shares a rollicking genesis story: “…my ex-wife…kept mentioning a new friend she had made who was from Peru. Because I could never remember his name, I…gave him a nickname: Macchu Picchu. After a couple of weeks I had said “Macchu Picchu” so often, I decided I should reread the poem.”

Tomas goes on to say that the heart of this work lies in Neruda’s articulation of the solidarity of human suffering. David’s introduction from 1986 (his version was reissued in 2015) agrees: “[Neruda] knows that the dead are dead, and he acknowledges that the city was founded on slave labor and probably beset from time to time by famine. But these recognitions are the very ones that confirm his sense of kinship…”.

This interview began in late fall 2016, during a time of post-election depression, rage, and for some of our colleagues/community members, acute fear. I appreciate the chance to feel, through these translators’ renderings, Neruda’s reminder that there is always a path by which we can connect to the experiences of others, and in so doing have our own humanity recognized. – SG


EXCERPTS from Heights of Macchu Picchu:


Stone upon stone, but man, where was he?
Air upon air, but man, where was he?
Time upon time, but man, where was he?
Were you also the shattered piece
of the incomplete man, of the unfinished eagle,
who through your streets today, over your trails,
above the leaves from your dead autumn,
keeps crushing the soul all the way to its tomb?
The poor hand, the foot, the pitiful life…
Did the days of frayed light
in you, like the rain
on the decorated darts of a bullfight,
feed their dark food, petal by petal,
into the empty mouth?

Hunger, man’s coral reef,
hunger, hidden plant, root of the lumberjacks,
hunger, did your rough road climb
even to these high secluded towers?

I question you, salt of the roads,
show me the spoon, allow me, architecture,
to poke with a stick the petrified stamens,
to climb every step of air up to the emptiness,
to scrape your heart until I touch a man.

Macchu Picchu, did you place
stone upon stone, and at the base, tattered clouds?
Coal upon coal, and at the bottom, tears?
Fire to gold, and within it, trembling, the red
large drop of blood?
Give me back the slave you buried!
Release from the ground the stale bread
of the beggar, show me the clothes
for the servant and his window.
Tell me how he slept when he was alive.
Tell me whether his sleep was
raucous, agape, like a black hole
made by fatigue on the wall.
The wall, the wall! Whether over his sleep
loomed every stone layer, and whether he fell under it
as if beneath a moon, due to his sleepiness!
Ancient America, buried bride,
your fingers also,
upon leaving the jungle for the empty height of the gods,
under the nuptial banners of light and decorum,
blending with the thunder of drums and spears,
likewise, your fingers also,
the ones that the abstract rose and the edge of cold, those
that the bloodstained slope of the new crop transferred
to the radiant cloth, to the hardened cavities,
likewise, also, buried America, did you stow hunger
in the deepest place, in your bitter gut, like an eagle?

Pablo Neruda
Trans. Tomás Q. Morín


Rise up, brother, be born with me.

Give me your hand from the deep
territory seeded with your griefs.
You won’t come back from the depths of the rock.
You won’t come back from the underground time.
No coming back for your roughened voice.
No coming back for your drilled eyes.
Look at me from the depths of the earth,
farmer, weaver, quiet shepherd;
trainer of sacred llamas;
mason on a risky scaffold:
water-bearer of Andean tears:
farmer trembling among seedlings:
potter among spilled clay:
bring to the cup of this new life
your ancient buried sorrows.
Show me your blood and your furrows,
say to me: Here I was whipped
because a jewel didn’t shine or the earth
hadn’t yielded its grain or stone on time.

Pick out the stone on which you stumbled
and the wood on which they crucified you,
kindle the old flints for me,
the old lamps, the whips
that stuck to the wounds through the centuries,
and the bright axes stained with blood.
I come to speak for your dead mouth.
You silent scattered lips,
come join throughout the earth
and speak to me from the depths of this long night
as if we were anchored here together,
tell me everything, chain by chain,
link by link and step by step,
sharpen the knives you hid,
plunge them into my chest and into my hand
like a river of yellow lightning,
like a river of buried jaguars,
and let me cry, hours, days, years,
blind ages, stellar centuries.


Give me silence, water, hope.

Give me struggle, iron, volcanoes.

Fasten your bodies to mine like magnets.

Come into my veins and into my mouth.

Speak through my words and my blood.


-Pablo Neruda
Trans. David Young




SG: What might this book mean for American readers on the brink of a politically dark 2017?

DY: It might shed some genuine light in our current darkness, through historical perspective and realistic pessimism about human suffering. Neruda never gives up.

TQM: I agree, David, about the importance of Neruda’s realistic pessimism. It’s so easy these days, isn’t it, for our pessimism to become wild and boundless. Neruda’s speaker in Alturas, while feeling disconnected from the world, never stops searching for the light that his life is missing.

SG: How do you see (any aspect of) the book differently in this moment than you did when you first translated it? (David, this may be especially relevant for you since your newly reissued translation first ran in 1986.)

DY: I’m currently in the process of writing a review of Mariela Griffor’s new translation of Canto General, of which Alturas forms Book Two. I did not have that larger context when I worked on the poem thirty years ago.

TQM: I had read Canto General before but in my mind Alturas always stood apart. Even though it’s been only a few years since I finished my translation of the book, the way it resonates with the darkness of our times now is inescapable to me. Especially in certain sections, like Part III where Neruda creates a version of hell on earth that is every bit as terrifying as anything Dante imagined. The ending where each day is described as “a black cup from which they drank trembling.” and its allusion to Isaiah 51:22 is chilling:

 Thus saith thy Lord the Lord, and thy God that pleadeth the cause of his people, Behold, I
have taken out of thine hand the cup of trembling, even the dregs of the cup of my fury; thou
shalt no more drink it again:

At the end of Part III, Neruda leaves the world and its people in this eternal misery before God steps in and says, “You’ve drank from my cup of suffering long enough, I’ll take it away now.”

SG: What was the most challenging section or moment for you to translate? Why? How did you negotiate it?

DY: I think the first section was hardest. Getting inside the poem and inside Neruda’s unique imagination. After that, one can move forward.

TQM: I’m with you David, part I was a challenge. That first line gave me fits. In fact, the last change I made to the manuscript was that first line when I saw the final proofs for the book and had the epiphany that I could use a double verb (Cast and cast) instead of a double noun (Del aire al aire) like in the original.

Aside from the opening, line 3 of part III was incredibly tricky for me. For the longest time I labored under the false assumption that “del uno al siete, al ocho” was an idiomatic expression. It wasn’t until a friend helped me realize that this was “Neruda Spanish” that I finally realized I could stray from the original a bit here and try and choose the words that Neruda might have chosen if he had been composing this poem in English.

SG: Where (in which section, or what stanza) do you think Neruda’s text most hits what you imagine to be his mark for this project?

DY: Hard question. Maybe Section Ten?


Stone upon stone, and man, where was he?
Air upon air, and man, where was he?
Time upon time, and man, where was he?
Were you also the battered fragment
of unfinished man, hollow eagle
that through the daily streets, through footsteps,
through the leaves of ruined autumn
goes crushing the soul down into the grave?



Ancient America, sunken bridge,
your fingers too,
coming up from the jungles
toward the vacant peaks of the gods
under nuptial banners of light and honor
blending with thunder from the drums and lances,
your fingers, yours too
that carried the abstract rose
and the line of the cold
and the bloody breast of the new grain
up to a web of shining matter, did you too keep,
you too, buried America,
in the depths of your bitter gut,
famine, like an eagle?

 (trans. David Young)


TQM:  I’d venture to say Part XI because in this section the world is acknowledged as still beating down on us at times but now the speaker is filled with a hope and a light that was not present before, a strength that comes from the brotherhood he has found with the anonymous people who worked to build the structures on the top of Macchu Picchu. That ending with the triple invocation always hits my heart hard:

Juan Stonecutter, son of Wiracocha,
Juan Coldeater, son of a green star,
Juan Barefeet, grandson of turquoise,
rise to be born with me, brother.

(trans. Tomas Q. Morin)





Spotlight on Section Twelve, Heights of Macchu Picchu:

Tomas Q. Morin:

Rise to be born with me, brother
Give me your hand out of the deepest
field your sorrows have sown.
You will not return from under the rocks.
You will not return from subterranean time.
You will not regain your hardened voice.
You will not recover your drilled eyes.


David Young:

Rise up, brother, be born with me.
Give me your hand from the deep
territory seeded with your griefs.
You won’t come back from the depths of the rock.
You won’t come back from the underground time.
No coming back for your roughened voice.


SG:  Tomas’ “the deepest field” vs. David’s “the deep territory”…. “Field” sounds more knowable, more approachable, than territory, yet “deepest” is more alarming than “deep.” Interesting that David’s “territory” is followed immediately by the visceral “seeded”, while Tomas’ concrete “field” gains some space for the abstract “sorrows.”

I’m quite moved by both of your translations of this section, particularly you will not return” / “you won’t come back.” Tomas, I can see the bleak power of your Neruda’s authoritative lack of contraction here, but David, your human, softer, “won’t come back” –that touches me. Also: The losses/the tragedies as I see them here are different. There’s one tragedy of the “you” not, himself, being fully restored after trauma—you will never recover. You won’t come back. Then there’s the tragedy of these violently fragmented parts of the self (voice, eyes) somehow bereft or apart, abandoned—it’s as if we’re meant to mourn the death of those parts even as we also mourn the previous wholeness of the self.

This is my favorite section of the book in both of your translations. Can you comment on the differences you notice between your two versions of Section Twelve, in general? What are you thinking as you read these two excerpts?

DY: Twelve is such a wonderful section. I love both versions. I notice my own tendency to purge the Latinate/Romance diction that inheres in the Spanish, e.g. choosing “underground” instead of “subterranean” and “come back” instead of “return.” As if Neruda was in love with Anglo-Saxon. This is mostly a matter of taste, but I also feel that immediacy of the speaking voice may be enhanced by this preference. For some readers, though, it may take us too far from the Romance language family.

TQM: I love Part XII. The speaker makes an accounting of the lost, and most importantly, the ways in which those lives were lost. Because these people not only worked but were their work, I leaned toward more physical nouns like “field” versus “territory,” etc. As for the lack of contractions, my hope was that the sad finality of those “You will nots” would set up the reader for the reversal at the end where salvation is offered by the speaker.



Spotlight on Section Four, Heights of Macchu Picchu:

Tomas Q. Morin:

I couldn’t love the tree in every soul
shouldering its own tiny autumn (a thousand leaves dying),
all of these false deaths and resurrections
without graves, without oblivion:
I wanted to swim in the fullest lives,
in the widest estuaries,
and when little by little men renounced me
and closed their doors and paths so the fountains
of my hands wouldn’t touch their wounded existence,
I then went street by street and river by river,
city by city and bed by bed,
I doubled over, dying of my own death.

David Young:

I couldn’t love that tree in every soul
bearing its little autumn on its back
(death of a thousand leaves), all
the false deaths and resurrections
without earth, without abysses:
I wanted to swim in the largest lives,
the widest estuaries,
and when little by little men denied me,
blocking off doors and paths
to keep my streaming hands from touching
their wounds of nonexistence
then I went from street to street, river to river,
city to city and bed to bed….
I rolled around, dying of my own death.


SG: What do we have here, exactly? Something like Yeats’ “love the pilgrim soul in you,” but beyond that, a tree INSIDE that soul, its leaves withered? That’s a complicated image—a soul with ambience, furnished by fauna, the fauna not even exempt from seasons and decay. And then all this lack of relief—death without graves or certainty. It might seem like a small thing but I’m interested in the difference between “fullest” lives and “largest” lives—these dimensions are measured using different formulas, after all. How did you choose your personal/idiosyncratic superlative?

And in perhaps a more striking contrast: Tomas, you wrote “wounded existence” while David wrote “wounds of nonexistence”. The two are syntactically at odds—one describes presence, one absence— but somehow the psychology feels aligned. Can you discuss how you see your particular turn of phrase getting at the emotional truth that Neruda’s describing? 

DY: Section Four baffles me a little now. So long since I worked on it close up, getting help from interested speakers (my Spanish is pretty sketchy). I like Tomas’s version a lot.  I’ve just been reading Griffor’s  and like it too. She has “wounds of absence” and “I plunged ahead” and “broadest lives,” all good too. Here I feel like deferring to those with stronger Spanish, though I suspect Tomas’ “graves” is a liberty he felt like taking rather than a sharper focus.

As for “largest” versus “fullest” it’s a question of the imagery and the companion superlative of the next line. I thought “largest” went well with “widest.”

Griffor has “broadest lives” and “most extravagant deltas.” Hmmm.

Felstiner has “broadest lives” and “openest river mouths.” Hmmm; openest? Felstiner, by the way, also has “wound of emptiness,” a pretty good solution, and “roamed around,” also pretty good.

 Over the years I think I’ve learned there’s no such thing as a definitive translation. They are always relative to the time and place, plus the sensibilities of the two poets involved.  So the more the better, is my basic motto.

TQM: When I began translation Part IV, I remember thinking, “Oh, a side journey!” By the end of it I realized the section was really an origin story for our speaker. Now that his disillusionment and sadness were firmly established in the first three parts of the book, Neruda takes a moment to tell us how this speaker came to be so world weary and despondent. The opening of the fourth stanza is key:

I couldn’t love the tree in every soul
Shouldering its own tiny autumn (a thousand leaves dying),

This man is an arborist—a soul arborist! In the end he becomes overwhelmed and can’t keep up with the autumn of our species. I think it’d be easy to say, “mid-life crisis!” And maybe it has some truth to it even if the loss here feels deeper. In addition to the Yeats poem you mentioned Sarah, I think there’s also something of Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium” in here. Surely, the land Neruda’s speaker crosses is “no country for old men,” either. Just as the sea = death in this section of Macchu Picchu, so, too, in the Yeats poem does death gather at “The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas”.

When it came to “fullest” versus “largest”, the colon was key for me. I chose “fullest” because I was still thinking of trees full of leaves sitting in our souls that he tries to love but can’t. The speaker loves by turning into water and then swimming in these autumnal lives, speaks of how his hands are fountains, how he wears a salty mask.

I chose “existence” over “inexistence” with the task of trying to communicate the hopelessness of it all in the texture of the section that the prefix “in” is meant to imply. “Inexistencia” could be the nothingness or inexistence or even oblivion. Since I felt that the abstract, nihilistic tones of the phrase were already pretty well communicated in the rest of the section, I decided it would be better to anchor down in the physical “existence” of those soul trees whose branches are emptying by the second. So this was a moment where I tried to support a certain narrative through line without undoing the emotional fabric of the section.

As you so wisely pointed out David, “the more the better.” In order to free them to go their own ways, I always tell my students they can’t break the original.

I love the illustrations that accompany your translation, David. They’re just wonderful.




Sarah Green is the author of Earth Science (421 Atlanta, 2016.) She is currently compiling a new anthology of poems, essays, and stories called Welcome To The Neighborhood. She teaches at Hamline University.


Tomás Q. Morín is the author of Patient Zero and A Larger Country. He translated Pablo Neruda’s The Heights of Macchu Picchu and with Mari L’Esperance co-edited Coming Close: Forty Essays on Philip Levine. He teaches at Texas State University and in the low residency MFA program of Vermont College of Fine Arts.


David Young is the author of Field of Light and Shadow, Selected and New Poems (Knopf, 2010). His new study of Shakespeare’s epilogues, The King’s a Beggar, is forthcoming from Archway later this year. His current translation project is Su Dongpo. He helps edit FIELD and Oberlin College Press.