Under the Sky Born After the Rain, by Jorge Teillier

I think Chile in the 20th century produced more great poets per capita than any other country on earth. Jorge Teillier (1935-1996) grew up in the rainy south, and is best known for his poems of nostalgia and melancholy. But perhaps it takes a poet steeped in melancholy to write a convincing poem about happiness. Here’s my attempt to translate “Bajo el cielo nacido tras la lluvia,” the Spanish text of which may be found on his Wikipedia page.

Under the sky born after the rain,
I hear the quiet slap of oars against the water
and I’m thinking: happiness is nothing
but the quiet slap of oars against the water.
Or maybe it’s nothing but the light
on a small boat, appearing and disappearing
on the dark swell of years
slow as a funeral supper.

Or the light of a house discovered behind the hill
when we’d thought nothing remained but to walk and walk.
Or the gulf of silence
between my voice and the voice of someone
revealing to me the true names of things
simply by calling them up: poplars, roofs.
The distance between the clinking of a bell
on a sheep’s neck at dawn
and the thud of a door closing after a party.
The space between the cry of a wounded bird out on the marsh
and the folded wings of a butterfly
just over the crest of a wind-swept ridge.

That was happiness:
drawing random figures in the frost,
fully aware they’d hardly last at all,
breaking off a pine bough on the spur of the moment
to write our names in the damp ground,
catching a piece of thistledown
to try and stop the flight of a whole season.

That’s what happiness was like:
brief as the dream of a felled sweet acacia tree
or the dance of a crazy old woman in front of a broken mirror.
Happy days pass as quickly as the journey
of a star cut loose from the sky, but it doesn’t matter.
We can always reconstruct them from memory,
just as the boy sent out to the courtyard for punishment
collects pebbles to form resplendent armies.
We can always be in the day that’s neither yesterday nor tomorrow,
gazing up at a sky born after the rain
and listening from afar
to a quiet slap of oars against the water.

***

Thanks to everyone who helped out on Facebook with the line about the solterona loca. I’ll have to make a habit of “friend-sourcing” translation problems from now on. Further critiques are of course welcome, too. This was somewhat freer than my usual attempts at translation.

11 Comments


  1. that’s beautiful — love the bit about the oars.
    and crazy old woman is perfect.

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      1. thanks, dave.

        it’s a combo of too many wordpress themes and too much time on my hands!

        Reply

  2. I was just thinking (alas briefly) of the sky after rain. This is wonderful. Makes me think I should have contemplated that concept longer and harder!

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    1. Of course, it rains a lot where Teillier is from — it’s pretty much like the Pacific Northwest, a temperate rainforest climate. So no doubt the locals are given to enraptured gazing at clearing skies.

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  3. Hmph. You actually induced me to go on Facebook to see the discussion I was frustrated to have missed. Lovely poem and lovely translation. But I completely disagree about the translation of solterona loca. I’m not a native Spanish speaker either, of course, but I hear solterona as quite as dismissive, quite as sexist, as old maid. ‘The dance of a mad old maid before a broken mirror’ is how I’d translate it.

    I went to a workshop on Saturday with a Congolese novelist and two of the leading UK literary translators from French to English. They had both independently translated a specially commissioned short story by the novelist. The French text was of no great difficulty or complexity. Of the 2 1/2 pages, the two translators had only translated one sentence the same. Riveting stuff.

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    1. You might not be a native speaker, but you’re a professional translator, for cryin’ out loud! So your opinion carries a lot of weight with me. Maybe I will go with “old maid,” then. I’m not sure about “mad” though — basically, it comes down to whether m-alliteration or long-a-assonance is more desirable there.

      That’s amazing that there was so much difference between those two translations! I think prose allows the translator a bit more freedom than poetry, no? There are a few lines in this Teillier poem I’m not sure could be rendered any other way.

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  4. I like how you’ve arranged this poem. I haven’t read the original yet in Spanish, because I wanted to first read it as a stand alone poem. It flows well. You chose a fine poem to translate.

    I’m a stickler for remaining as true to the original as possible. If the author uses a word, even if we think it demeaning, then the original meaning needs to be rendered. It’s an art, though, not a science.

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    1. Well, that’s how I feel, too. The difficulty with that phrase stems in part from how to deal with the extra adjectives and syllables needed to convey the full meaning in English. If solterona were as value-neutral as I’d originally thought, then something like “crazy unmarried older woman” would capture it best. But if it’s as dismissive and sexist as Jean says, that’s actually a bit of a relief, because “crazy old maid” is much less of a mouthful.

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  5. Soltera would be much more value neutral (except that I guess to use the word at all, rather than just ‘vieja’ is to make a point). The on in solterona adds emphasis and archetypalness, and therefore, unmarriedness being generally viewed as a negative quality in a woman, adds negativity.

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