translation of “Alta traición” by José Emilio Pacheco
I don’t love my country. Her abstract glory
But (this may sound bad) I would give my life
for ten of her places, for certain people,
ports, pine forests, fortresses,
for a ruined city, gray and monstrous,
for several of her historical figures,
—and three or four rivers.
* * *
José Emilio Pacheco is one of Mexico’s leading contemporary poets. I had posted the Spanish original of this poem, along with somebody else’s translation, to Facebook back in 2009. I forgot all about it until I switched to Facebook’s new Timeline view a couple days ago, which for the first time gave me access to older posts and updates there. After re-acquainting myself with the poem and the substantive comments it elicited from Alison Kent, Miguel Arboleda and Ray Templeton, I decided to post this new translation — in part because I’m fascinated by what the process of translation does to a poem like this.
Already on Facebook there was disagreement over how best to translate “una ciudad deshecha, gris, monstruosa.” The English translation I’d posted put it as “a run-down city, gray, grotesque,” but Alison objected that, in the poet’s native Mexico, this most likely referred to a pre-Columbian ruin. Ray, by contrast, felt it might equally apply to a run-down industrial city in his native U.K. To me, as a country dweller, most cities seem gray, monstrous and dilapidated, though I’m not sure I’d give my life for any of them. At any rate, the point is that our reception of the poem depends very much on whether we read it as a specifically Mexican poem or a more general statement about love of country.
And even the general proposition will strike people differently depending on where they’re from. Here in the U.S., where it’s quite common for ordinary citizens to display the national flag year-round, saying that you don’t love your country is guaranteed to shock and dismay people from across the political spectrum, with the exception of segments of the far left. Even strongly libertarian types will say things like, “I love my country, but I hate my government.” (It’s nearly always O.K. to express contempt for the government here, despite the reverence paid to the Constitution, which famously equates the government with the people.) In many other countries, I gather, displays of the national flag by private citizens are extremely rare.
To me, love of an abstraction is a dangerous thing, and I react to it with I think much the same loathing which the ancient Hebrews reserved for idol-worship. A worshipped fatherland demands blood sacrifice and gives little in return but the sort of “protection” one purchases from gangsters at gunpoint. I find it telling that the kind of super-patriots who treat any questioning of the war machine or the surveillance state as tantamount to treason all too often do not hesitate to condone the despoiling of their country’s land, air and water. “Drill, baby, drill!” they chant at political rallies, and without irony advocate the construction of a massive pipeline across the country’s midsection, to bring Canadian tar sands to Texan refineries, as necessary to reduce our dependence on “foreign oil.” Here in Pennsylvania, we’re in the early stages of a hydrofracturing shale-gas boom that threatens to poison groundwater across the state and destroy some of our last remaining wild places, but those who object on environmental grounds are derided as effeminate tree-huggers at best and anti-American troublemakers at worst. I could go on. But the point is that in this case, as in so many others, destruction of the actual, literal country is licensed by lip-service to the abstract Country.
Translating Pacheco’s poem into English, I recall that there are in fact people who put their lives on the line for mountains and pine forests: the brave souls who chain themselves to cranes at mountaintop removal sites or sit in old-growth trees threatened by clearcutting. This makes me think of the Occupy movement, and then the far longer struggle of those whose country — or countries — my ancestors came to occupy. And having lived in one place for most of the past 40 years myself, I can tell you that becoming attached to any one mountain, river or forest is nearly always a recipe for heartbreak, as you witness the cumulative effects of ecological degradation. No doubt the residents of cities like Detroit or New Orleans feel much the same kind of helpless sorrow these days. The life of a drifter — that quintessential American individualist — becomes more attractive with each passing year.