The Miss Translated Poems

Elisa Chavez, poet in residence at the Seattle Review of Books, is creating an amazing series with her “Miss Translated” poems:

The main conceit behind this work is that to accurately portray my relationship with Spanish, I have to explore the pain and ambiguity of not speaking the language of my grandparents and ancestors. As a result, these poems are bilingual … sort of. Each one is translated into English incorrectly.

The poems I produced have secrets, horrific twists, emotional rants, and confessions hiding in the Spanish. It’s my hope that people can appreciate them regardless of their level of Spanish proficiency.

As an example, her poem “La sirena y pescador / The mermaid and the fisherman”:

A more faithful translation of the Spanish, provided by featherquillpen on Tumblr, would be:

The mermaid rose from the sea
To see the dry world.
She found a fisherman on the beach
This beautiful fish without a net.
She had a gleaming tail; scales
that covered her breasts, arms, and face
and a wake of lacy waves.

The fisherman caught her by the tail
and cut it in half.
“Now,” he said to her, “you have legs.
Why don’t you walk?”

The mermaid began to sing to the sea
for aid, her blood transforming
the sand of the beach into rainbows.

She sang to the fisherman, “I forgive you,
I forgive you, I forgive you.”

The translator notes: “The reason this mistranslation is so brilliant is that it takes a story about a mermaid trying to forgive a man who’s committed senseless violence against her, and turns it into a story about a man who uplifts a woman to a better life out of the kindness of his heart. And the thing is, that’s exactly what happens to so many stories from colonized cultures when they’re adapted by the oppressor. Translation into English, and further the cultural language of the oppressor, can be an act of violence and erasure rather than one of respect.”

Another mistranslated poem is “El vampiro / ICE”:

Translated by signed-me-again on Tumblr:

The vampire twists the law.
Like rice, it is bleached
of compassion. It does not arrive
when promised,
and enters without permission.

Which predator
is announced? The bloodthirsty
gentleman does the honors;
identifies himself as officer,
neighbor, friend. He steals
your parents, and they become
criminals on paper.

It is not possible to reason
with the vampire. The only solution
for him is to drive the stake
into his heart.

3 Responses to “The Miss Translated Poems”

  • sheri Says:

    Nice these translations.

  • Somes J Says:

    El Vampiro/ICE looks like each poem is describing a different way powerful people can screw you over: “the powerful never need to break the law; they write the laws and everything they do is perfectly legally correct according to the laws they write” vs. “the powerful are protected by the law but not bound by it, the powerless are bound by the law but not protected by it.”

    I guess the first thing tends to be the way it’s experienced by people with a little more power (but not much), because with them the powerful have more need to keep on the mask. So I guess that fits. Though you could reverse the argument and say a measure of democracy is the powerful need to break the law to screw over the little guy.

    I’m random-thought-depository on Tumblr, I just wrote a response to another of these poems there, btw.

    • Shannon Phillips Says:

      I am so sorry for the delay in approving this excellent comment! I must have missed the notification that there WAS a comment on this post. You should be auto-approved for any future comments btw!

      I agree with what you’ve written here. I also love the devastation of those last lines. Where the English poem is fairly approving of the “sanguine gentleman,” suggesting that he is reasonable and concluding that he can be dealt with through moderate compromise, the Spanish knows that the thing is monstrous and must be destroyed.

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