Five translators, one poem: dreaming about caimans with José Santos Chocano

This entry is part 6 of 34 in the series Poetry from the Other Americas

José Santos Chocano and his amazing mustacheThe Peruvian poet José Santos Chocano (1875-1934) is of some considerable historical importance, I gather, as the first Latin American modernist poet to turn away from French models and embrace native and mestizo themes. A badass who spent time in prison for killing another poet and died in a knife fight in Chile, he wrote poetry of place long before it was fashionable, and played a huge role in starting the tradition of Latin American writers embracing anti-imperialist politics. Today, however, he is mostly remembered for a poem about a caiman. A 2001 Mexican gangster film even took its title from the poem, El sueño del caimán.

Written in 1906, the poem conjures up an almost steam-punk leviathan, with language as lush and grandiloquent as anything of Darío’s—but there are enough true-to-life details to make me think that the poet had actually observed caimans in the wild, which is a lot more than I’d say about Darío and swans. The poem is difficult for someone with intermediate-level Spanish like me, using some fairly obscure vocabulary and being deliberately vague on a couple of points (such as: Whose dream is it, the poet’s or the caiman’s? And what exactly do the adjectives in line 11 modify?) so yesterday morning I turned to my friends for help, posting a tentative translation to Facebook along with the original. The resulting discussion was lively, with too many participants to name, but Luis Andrade was especially helpful, along with the poets who, much to my surprise and pleasure, each tried their hand at a translation and gave me permission to share them all here. It turned into a really fun exercise, and the results go to show — in case anyone needs convincing — that there’s no such thing as a definitive translation.

Since we all read and were influenced by each others’ translations and comments, I’ve decided to post these in the order of their last posted edit. This means that my own effort will bring up the rear, because this morning I had to have just one more go. I’m not going to post bios, but simply link names to blogs, websites, or Facebook pages. But first, the original poem:


El sueño del caimán

Enorme tronco que arrastró la ola,
yace el caimán varado en la ribera;
espinazo de abrupta cordillera,
fauces de abismo y formidable cola.

El sol lo envuelve en fúlgida aureola;
y parece lucir cota y cimera,
cual monstruo de metal que reverbera
y que al reverberar se tornasola.

Inmóvil como un ídolo sagrado,
ceñido en mallas de compacto acero,
está ante el agua estático y sombrío,

a manera de un príncipe encantado
que vive eternamente prisionero
en el palacio de cristal de un río.

(1906)

*

Dream of the Caiman
translated by Dale Favier

Enormous log dragged by the wave—
caiman beached on the river shore:
backbone a broken cordillera,
formidable tail, jaws an abyss.

The sun wraps him in a dazzling aureole—
a seeming mail-coat and heraldry,
a metal monster who shimmers
and whose shimmering lays a sheen.

Unmoving as a sacred idol
girt in a mesh of compact steel,
he lies against the still, dark water

like an enchanted prince
who lives an eternal prisoner
of the river’s palace of glass.

*

Caiman Dream
translated by Caitlin Gildrien

A great log, hurled by waves
ashore, the caiman lies stranded:
spine of jagged mountains,
an abyss in its jaws, the fearful tail.

The sun drapes it in brilliance,
shining like an armored knight,
this plated beast whose thrum
and glare shimmer the air.

Steady as a sacred idol,
girded tight in mail and chain,
he waits by the water, still and grim,

a prince, enchanted,
imprisoned now forever
in the limpid palace of the tide.

*

Cayman Dream
translated by Luisa A. Igloria

Trunk felled by an enormous wave,
the alligator lies stranded on the shore;
jagged cordillera for backbone and spoor,
jaws an abyss, formidable tail.

Bronzed by the sun’s resplendent aura;
and it is knighted, superior,
leviathan plated in metal that,
trembled, turns iridescent.

Unmoving as a sacred idol,
cinctured in a mesh of steel
against the water’s static umber,

enchanted prince disguised,
prisoner who dwells forever
in the river’s glass palace.

*

Dream of a Caiman
translated by Jean Morris

A great trunk dragged here by the current
The caiman lies beached on the river bank
Backbone like a rugged mountain range
Cavernous jaws and formidable tail

Haloed by the dazzling sun
How resplendently crested and armoured he seems
A reflective metal monster
Whose reflection casts an iridescent sheen

Unmoving as a venerated idol
Encased in dense links of steel
Outlined against the water, sombre and transfixed

Like some enchanted prince
Held prisoner for ever
In the river’s crystal palace

*

Dream of the Caiman
translated by Dave Bonta

Huge tree trunk dragged by a wave
and washed up on the bank, the caiman lies:
sudden spine of mountains,
chasm of a maw and formidable tail.

The sun envelops it in a replendent aura
until it seems to don armor and visor—
a beast of metal whose reflective glare
shimmers to a glossy sheen.

Motionless as a sacred idol,
swaddled in mesh of strong steel,
it faces the dark, unchanging waters

like an enchanted prince
who lives eternally captive
to the river’s palace of glass.

Series Navigation← Eternity for an inheritance: eight poems by Amado NervoContrary Moon: three poems by Cecília Meireles →

8 Comments


  1. Indeed it’s very interesting to see the different versions and the original all together. Co-operative translation is a new concept, isn’t it? I didn’t know about your FaceBook discussion on this poem or I might have joined in. The line that seems to me to need re-think is:

    “está ante el agua estático y sombrío”

    What occurs to me is something like:
    confronting (or facing?) the water he is ecstatic and somber.

    Apologies for butting in at this late stage!

    Reply

    1. Yes, except it’s estático and not extático.

      Sorry you missed out on the fun! I’ve thought about starting a Facebook group for this so people who aren’t on FB as often would get email notices of new activity; the question though is that if I did that, would other friends of mine who might be inclined to join in but who don’t happen to know about the group then miss out? Perhaps what I’ll do is keep just posting these from my personal account for now, but be a bit more forward about tagging you and other people with an expressed interest.

      Reply

      1. Of course, I didn’t notice the spelling! I’m a bit sorry it’s not ecstatic though.

        Don’t change anything, Dave, it’s fine as it is. It’s just that I’m not a big fan of FB but I do look in there now and then and I’ve begun cross-posting there from my blog. For sure FB now has more traffic than blogs do (at least mine!).

        Reply

        1. I miss the heyday of blogging ten years ago when all our comment threads buzzed with conversation, but for better or worse, we have to go where people hang out now, I guess, and I do like the way random friends saw the conversation and jumped in with their own suggestions.

          Reply

  2. Yes, Natalie, you’re absolutely right – I also took ‘estatico y sombrio’ as referring to the caiman and my version reflects that. But I have so much to learn from the others here who are perhaps less experienced translators, but vastly more experienced poets – a fruitful exchange and a lot of fun!

    Reply

  3. Can I please change ‘a metallic reflective monster’ (ow!) to ‘a reflective metal monster’? thanks!

    Reply

    1. Done. (Sorry it took so long. Via Negativa comments rarely make it past Yahoo Mail’s gauntlet, for some damn reason.)

      Reply

    2. Now that you’ve fixed that line, I think your translation is my favorite of the lot.

      Reply

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