On Whales and Whales/ Baleas e Baleas by Luisa Castro, translated from Galician by Keith Payne

On Whales and Whales/ Baleas e Baleas by Luisa Castro, translated from Galician by Keith Payne
December 23, 2023 Castro Luisa

Translation Portfolio: On Whales and Whales/ Baleas e Baleas by Luisa Castro, translated from Galician by Keith Payne


First published to immediate and critical acclaim in 1988, Luisa Castro’s Baleas e Baleas (Colección Esquío de poesía, 1988 / Dombate, 2018), is considered one of the most pivotal collections in contemporary Galician poetry for how it broke with the tradition of its time and challenged what was permissible in poetry. A 30th anniversary edition appeared with Galaxia in 2018. Whales and Whales will be appearing in Keith Payne’s translation with Skein Press in April, 2024.


Keith Payne in conversation with Mihaela Moscaliuc

Mihaela Moscaliuc: Your translation of Luisa Castro’s Baleas e Baleas/ Whales and Whales is forthcoming from Skein Press in April 2024. Would you share a few comments on the structure of this collection, its thematic threads and the way various poems or sections speak to one another?

 Keith Payne: Whales and Whales is an urgent collection; a playful and often irreverent odyssey of the young protagonist casting through her genealogy, her homeplace, her surroundings as poem by poem, the world of books and cinema come to populate her imagination. Throughout, the romantic clichés of work, love, girlhood and rural living are all thrown overboard. Castro manages that swift and subtle sleight of hand of casting lines and images that appear to be stock phrases, but are of her own making, yet immediately belong to the language.

The collection is divided into four sections: “Last Bike Ride from Nevermore,” “The Belly of the Whale,”  “Seven Poems about Lions,” and “Isolde Insistently Asks,” employing at points a surrealism and at others a fabulist narrative to embody the tingling excitement and anxiety of a pre-teen girl in her becoming. Daughter of a sailor working far away at sea in the icy Atlantic waters (“Last Bike Ride from Nevermore”), and a mother who works at a canning factory, where ‘love is a work of art in a can,’ the young girl is a wildling from a coastal fishing village, covered in mud and with crystals on her tongue (“The Belly of the Whale”).  She is sent away to school, where the world of the nuns blends fantastically with the world of fiction and cinema, which she manipulates to create a space for herself in this world (“Isolde Insistently Asks”).

Like the workings of memory, her world is built on repetition, on fugue images washing over us  in tidal movements. Lions, swordfish and tears; cold showers, the sand and lies; drinking, savagery and never having lain under a man.

Dreamy, often lovelorn, fantastical yet utterly recognizable, she creates a space in the world for herself to inhabit, and by doing so, affirms her place in that world.

Mihaela Moscaliuc: Were there any particular aspects of Baleas e Baleas/ Whales and Whales that resonated with you as poet and /or translator and determined you to translate it?

 Keith Payne : The Galician poet Elvira Ribeiro accompanied me to Ireland as part of the La Malinche readings I curated, and presented Unha Docena de Galegas, (A Dozen Galician Women), her timely response to the all-male anthology Doce Galegos, which had highlighted a dozen ‘great’ Galicians in 1979 and was due to be reissued. I’ve since translated many of the poets Elvira presented that day in the Galician Centre in UCC. One of the poems she read was Luisa’s ‘My mother works in a canning factory,’ which I drafted a translation of later that day in the cafeteria. By the time we reached Dublin on our reading tour, I had a version ready which I read at our next stop, in Books Upstairs. Everyone in the room immediately got it, and I believe this poem could be postered in evert port and fishing city across the world; in fact, in every factory town and working-class city, this poem will resonate. And so with this as my introduction to Luisa Castro and Whales and Whales, there was never any question that I wouldn’t translate the collection in its entirely.

My mother works in a canning factory.
One day she said to me:
love is a can of sardines. Do you know
how they prep the sardines
for the cans?
One day my mother said to me: love is a work of art
in a can.
do you know where you come from?
You’re from the cannery on a mussel farm
from in behind the factory wall, where the shells
and the fish crates stink.
An awful smell, a hopeless blue.
That’s where you’re from.


Ah! I said, so I’m a daughter of the sea.


You’re a daughter of the day off.


Oh, I said,
I’m a daughter of the lunch break.


Yes, from in behind the wall with all the dross.


Mihaela Moscaliuc: This is such a powerful poem. Thank you, Luisa, and thank you, Keith, for transplanting it into English. You mentioned that this particular translation you completed fairly quickly. As you moved on to translating the rest of the collection, did you come across any challenges? Could you talk about one such instance? Did you consult with Luisa Castro on any issues while translating?


Keith Payne: As a translator I need to know where everyone is, what they’re doing and what they’re looking at while they do it. I have to build a scene from the poem, wander around inside and get up close to the actors to see what they’re doing, which way their eyes are pointing, and is there a window open behind them and what does it look upon. Oftentimes, with Galician poetry, or poetry written under the influence of European surrealism, this concrete certainty isn’t available.

In the opening poem to the collection, in the voice of the hapless anti-hero fisherman, who is far away at sea and pining for his love, his heart is in the boat’s fridge ‘na neveira do barco,’ hidden in the main mast, ‘esquecido/ no pau macho.’ And of course, brought up on the well-made poem of the Anglo tradition, I ask myself ‘where exactly is his heart, in the fridge or in the mast?’ Then where is the fridge ––surely it can’t be embedded in the mast? Is this some old Galician fishing tradition of carving space in the main mast for a fridge? But no, Luisa tells me via email that “The fridge is always found in the bottom of the boat. The main mast is in the centre. His heart is in one place and also in another, it’s everywhere, it’s in every single piece of the boat all at once.” Which makes perfect sense, and frees up the poem, giving it a much lighter note of possibility to float away on.

There is also the challenge of rendering Luisa’s very particular dialogue for the fisherman and the young girl. Both speak informally, directly, and are very much of their region ––Foz, on the northern coast of Galicia–– these are voices that must be alive, be recognizable and believable as a dreamy, often tipsy, put-upon fisherman far away at sea, or as a young girl urgent, playful, irreverent yet still innocent. Thanks to listening back to recorded conversations with Luisa in her office in Dublin, and from continuing correspondence, I have managed to put flesh onto the people who populate her poems, managed to put English into their mouths and have it fit.


Mihaela Moscaliuc: The characters that emerge in this selection are memorable, their voice crisp and quirky. I look forward to inhabiting their spaces and to getting to know them more fully when the collection is out this coming spring. What a treat that will be! And speaking of voices that need listening to: The number of translations from Galician into English has increased in the last decade or so, but not nearly enough. Who are some other poets writing in Galician –both translated and untranslated–with whose work we should be familiar?


Keith Payne: As with any national or indeed topical literature, the best place to start are the anthologies. The enlightening and light-casting Breogan’s Lighthouse from Francis Boutle Publishers; Jonathan Dunne’s comprehensive two-volume Anthology of Galician Literature; A Different Eden, a recent anthology of Eco-Poetry from Galicia and Ireland, edited by myself, Lorna Shaughnessy and Martín Veiga and, for a translator-focused selection, the recent two-volume online edition of contemporary Galician poetry hosted by The High Window:
The most revealing guides to what’s worth reading in translation are very often the translators and their publishers, of which there are several of note translating from the Galician. In poetry there’s Erin Moure, Laura Cesarco Eglin, Jonathan Dunne, Jacob Rogers and Kathleen March, and in prose also Rogers, March, and Dunne, whose Small Stations Press, www.smallstations.com/ has published over 60 of the last 100 books brought from Galician into English.
There are so many individual names I could mention, but the list will run on too long and I’ll inevitably forget some names. So, best keep an eye on and subscribe to presses who specialize in literature in translation. Seagull Press, Charco, And Other Stories, Fitzcarraldo, Archipelago Books, Ugly Duckling Press, Dalkey Archive, Skein Press and many more. And of course, the leading work done by literary journals such as plumepoetry.com



Selection from Whales and Whales/ Baleas e Baleas by Luisa Castro, translated from Galician by Keith Payne


From Part II,  Belly of the Whale


Subdued like rabbits under a cold shower of rain,
I’m like a drowned rat,
though I appear, it seems, to be good.


If they feed me,
I sleep
if they don’t, I howl.


Here on the table is Genevieve de Brabant,
I’m forever losing her dresses,
I stab holes in her nipples and rub in Vaseline.
Mam doesn’t worry about putting me to bed on time
or the mess of legless dolls.
I cry so she’ll tell me if they’re hurt,
I don’t want her hugs, I want to hear her say it again
they’re plastic, love
they’re made of plastic.




Pasiva coma os coellos da ducha fría
parezo un pito,
demostro ser amable.


Se me dan de comer
se non me dan de comer, berro.


Teño na mesiña a Genoveva de Brabante,
sempre lles perdo os vestidos,
fúrolles os pezóns e bótolles vaselina.
Mamá non se preocupa de deitarme á miña hora
nin desta desorde de bonecas sen pernas.
Chora para que me diga se lles doe,
non quero que me aperte, quero oíla dicir outra vez
son de plástico, amor,
son de plástico.


The sand is narrow and my favourite lion tells me lies
like my grandfather
and the bellies of those whales he said contained
stupendous continents,
fiendishly diabolical sperm whales shackled in castles.


I’ll never again believe my grandfather
off robbing swordfish along the Irish coast,
I’ll never again listen to his lies.
Of this I’m certain:
in the belly of the whale there’s only me
with scars all across my knees
from hitting the deck when the boats anchor.



A area é estreita e o meu león preferido cóntame mentiras
coma meu avó
e os ventres desas baleas que dicía que tiñan
continentes arrestados,
cachalotes malvados en castelos con cadeas.


Nunca maís darei creto a meu avó
roubando peixe espada nas costas irlandesas,
nunca maís escoitarei as súas mentiras.
Podo estar segura:
no ventre das baleas só resido eu
con moitas cicatrices nos xeonllos
de caer na cuberta cando amarran os barcos.



Sometimes I curse and they throw me out.
I spent the whole of third class in the corridors
watching Adela fly,
in fifth I got sick, read Lives of the Saints
and got fat,
though the lions never ate me in the arena.


It’s the corridors I’m afraid of
and being left alone with a nun in the sick bay.


I’ve never been under the cold showers, mam,
never raped by heretics like Genevieve de Brabant,
I don’t know what the bromide is they give to the children
in the camps,
I’ve never been under a man.



Ás veces xuro e bótanme fóra.
En terceiro pasei todo o ano nos corredores
vendo voar a Adela,
en quinto enfermei e lía vidas de santos
e púxenme gorda
pero nunca me comeron os leóns nos circos.


Só lle teño medo ós corredores
e a quedar soa coa monxa no cuarte do botiquín.

Nunca estiven debaixo das duchas frías, mamá,
nunca me violaron os herexes como a Genoveva de Brabante,
non sei o que é o bromuro que lles dan ós nenos
nos campamentos,
nunca estiven debaixo dun home.



from Part III,  Seven poems about Lions


The city kids were afraid of us.
They built astounding castles of sand
just so they could win some silly jigsaw from the Michelin Man,
spent hours blowing up balloons,
walked the pier, ate fish that tasted
of diesel.
The shy kisses of the city kids
tasted of diesel, chocolate eclairs
and fear.


When my big cousin arrived on the scene
the city kids threw on their raincoats
and ran for it,
hiding inside their enormous, high-walled castles.


We had no time for jigsaws or castles:
we had respect for the sand.




Os rapaces que vivían na cidade tíñannos medo.
Facían fermosos castelos na praia
por un minúsculo puzzle de Michelín,
inchaban globos durante horas,
paseaban o espigón, comían peixiños con sabor
a gasoil.
Os beixos temerosos dos rapaces da cidade
sabían a gasoil, napolitanas
e medo.


Cando meu primo ameazaba cua súa presenza
os rapaces da cidade poñían os chubasqueiros
e corrían a refuxiarse
en castelos outísimos de virtuosa construción.


Nós non tiñamos tempo para puzzles nin castelos:
respectabamos a area.



All poems from Luisa Castro, Baleas e Baleas, Colección Esquío de poesía, 1988 / Dombate, 2018.
Trans. Keith Payne, Whales and Whales forthcoming from Skein Press, April 2024.


photo cred: Javier Teniente

Keith Payne is a poet, translator and editor of over a dozen collections of poetry. He is curator of the Aodh Ruadh Ó Domhnaill Poetry Exchange Ireland-Galicia, and is Cork City Library Eco Poet in Residence 2022-23 where Building the Boat was recently published. Whales and Whales, from the Galician of Luisa Castro, is forthcoming from Skein Press, Dublin, April 2024.



Luisa Castro is the author of nine collections of poetry and six novels. She has been awarded the King Juan Carlos Prize, The Hiperion Prize and the Herralde Prize among others. She is currently Director of the Cervantes Institute in Dublin, is a regular contributor to the Spanish El País newspaper and celebrated as one of the most important voices in contemporary Galician poetry.



photo cred: Lisbeth Salas