Sea of wood frogs

Direct link to video.

by Juan Ramón Jiménez

Siento que el barco mío
ha tropezado, allá en el fondo,
con algo grande.

¡Y nada
sucede! Nada…Quietud…Olas….
—¿Nada sucede; o es que la sucedido todo,
y estamos ya, tranquilos, en lo nuevo?—


I sense that my boat
has struck, deep down,
against some massive thing.

And nothing happens!
Nothing… silence… waves…
Nothing happens? Or has everything happened,
and we are already resting in the new life?


It may be a mistake to try and make a video for one of my favorite poems: I’ll never be satisfied with the results. In this case, my dissatisfaction is especially acute because one of the main things that made the footage so compelling to watch on my home computer — the complex patterns of waves — is excessively pixelated at anything but the highest of resolutions. Also, there’s some absurdity in visually equating the surface of a small, vernal pond with Jimenez’ “Seas.” Oh well.

For the translation, after much thought I decided to borrow from Robert Bly’s translation and render “lo nuevo” as “the new life,” instead of simply “the new,” because I think that is the gist of it. As always with my translations, I’d welcome suggestions of alternatives. I was trying to figure out some way to use “calm,” or a variation thereof, for “tranquilos,” but “becalmed” seemed over-reaching. It’s frustrating to have a clear idea of what the poem means and be unable to quite convey it.

21 Replies to “Sea of wood frogs”

    1. Oh good! Both that you share my enthusiasm for Jimenez, and that the video didn’t seem like a desecration.

      Did something get lost?
      Only my mind. That was a paragraph I abandoned and thought I’d removed. Thanks for calling my attention to it.

  1. Oh, you’ve got me thinking, thinking. Such a few simple, subtle words, so many ways they could be translated. I like yours a lot. The frogpond is weird and enchanting and the whole thing just lovely and haunting. But I think I’d translate the poem a bit differently and I think I’ll take this on my train journey tomorrow and play with it. A poet’s Rubic cube. Thank you.

    1. You’re welcome, and thanks for the good words! I’ll be interested to see what you come up with, if you feel like sharing. Feel free to leave it in a comment here, or post it on your own site and leave the link.

  2. Being on the water is indeed something else. I went out in my little boat yesterday in floodwaters, thudding my paddle against the limbs of drowned brush. I would go for the “everything” having happened.

  3. I might try my hand at this too, Dave, though I’m not sure I could render it much better.

    I’ve only recently come to enjoy Robert Bly… mainly his readings of Rumi… I’ll have to search out what he’s done with Jiménez.

    1. Hi Laura – I discovered this morning while I was sitting on the porch that I inadvertently memorized the Spanish text while laboring over the translation — not bad for a guy who’s only semi-literate in the language! I’m sure you could come up with something better if you put your mind to it. In addition to the last line, I also spent quite a bit of time trying to come up with a better way to translate “ha tropezado,” and of course “barco” is a key word, which might be better rendered as ship or vessel in this context, I don’t know.

      I have to say I am not a big fan of Bly’s translations from the Spanish: they are too often too interpretative for my taste. And regardless of the language and poet he’s translating, a Robert Bly translation always sounds like a Robert Bly poem. I don’t think he’s able to get out of the way of his own ego. I remember being especially disappointed with his Miguel Hernandez translations. W. S. Merwin is a much better model for how to translate, I think.

      Anyway, you can find examples of both men’s translations, and many more, in the wonderful bilingual anthology of 20th-century Spanish poetry Roots and Wings, if you can get ahold of a copy.

  4. A loose translation, which says “This is me in my boat.”

    I Feel my boat mired
    in deep mud.

    Nor breath nor motion
    has ever happened in this pond.
    Or, having happened,
    leaves me dumb, dead, perhaps reborn.

    1. Hi Phil – Loose indeed, but a fine poem in its own right, and one that is perhaps more froggish than Jimenez’. Thanks for sharing it.

  5. I’ve often wondered how you came to know Spanish, Dave… have you told that story somewhere?

    I have Roots and Wings around here someplace…

    I took a Spanish phonetics class as an undergrad and part of how my professor tortured us was by making us recite poetry in front of the class; first we had to transcribe the piece into the phonetic alphabet and then get up and labor over the correct pronunciation of every syllable, trying to get the tone and cadence right, too… one mistake and she made us start from the beginning! Horrible for someone like me who was so uncomfortable speaking in front of a group…

    That experience was my first introduction to Juan Ramón Jiménez via his story of Platero, part of which I still have memorized.

    “Platero es pequeño, peludo, suave; tan blando por fuera, que se diría todo de algodón, que no lleva huesos. Sólo los espejos de azabache de sus ojos son duros cual dos escarabajos de cristal negro…”

    Anyway… I think you have a fine accent and enjoyed your reading of “Mares”.

    1. Hi Laura – Wow, that sounds like a truly terrible teacher! Giving poetry recitation a bad name. Grrr.

      I read Platero and I but only in translation. A lovely book. My own Spanish came from three years in high school, refreshed by regular dips into Spanish-language poetry and visits, some of them extended, with my Honduran sister-in-law Luz and my brother Mark, who tend to speak Spanish more than English to each other (though Luz’ English is now quite good). They spent their second summer together here in Plummer’s Hollow, for example. (It’s my other brother, though, who’s the college-level Spanish teacher.)

      Thanks for your kind words about my accent. I thought about doing the “th” thing on cs and zs, Castillian-style, but didn’t think I could pull it off.

  6. I am not fluent in Spanish but your translation brings the poem home to me coupled with the off camera sounds of geese? ducks?
    as the poem ends – the new life literally. And frogs on a pond are often found in ponds near estuaries of the soutern Atlantic Ocean, though much of these vital ecosystems have been lost to development. (I lived on SC coast for a time and saw remnants of such.) I am unfamiliar with Juan Ramon Jimenez’ work and thank you for sharing his poem. Robert Bly is one of the few poets I have experienced in person who was able to literally transform himself while reading a poem – in this case a seal was prominent in the imagery. For a few seconds Bly became the seal. Or so it seemed to me. Being able to work that kind of magic is a heady experience. Ego driven, yes. May all our boats strike something deep down that brings us to a new life.

    1. That quacking sound is the wood frogs themselves.

      Bly is a fine poet and performer; I have no trouble admitting that, even if I don’t care for his translating (or his men’s movement woo).

      Glad you liked the poem, Christina. Thanks for commenting.

  7. Oh, wow! In concert they sounded just like the low gabble of geese on northern ponds to these old ears. I miss frogs very much How lucky you are.

    1. Yes, even some people who’ve lived in wood frog country all their lives mistake their calling for ducks. Their March orgies are an essential rite of spring.

  8. I am familiar with tree frogs and bull frogs but not wood frogs. There is nothing better than the rituals of amphibious love. That’s what I miss in the city: reptiles and amphibians, snakes too. All of those tribes are in such trouble, city or not. We have heard a tree frog a time or two early with the right kind of temperature a spring or two but just a single voice. Your selection of their accompaniment with Jimenez’ poem is a good fit at least for me. These frogs represent that dark cthonic mass deep down. Do people gig for these frogs? I hope not.

    1. No, I don’t think people go after any frogs other than bullfrogs (which are invasive in some parts of the country) — not enough meat to worry about. But they have plenty of other enemies: habitat fragmentation, roads, agricultural pesticides…

  9. herbicides. Don’t know how frogs survive in the Round-up drenched Mississippi delta, but they do.

    Twice now, this spring, the cruciform whiteness of upside-down leopard frogs has appeared in a pool of a small creek branch. The first one I thought maybe I’d harmed with a tractor wheel, but upon inspection saw that it was complete and pristine. Coming upon them, one several weeks before the other, my vision would founder on their stark outlines and fretwork of fingers and toes, After a second or third day, a translucent tissue had prolapsed from their open mouths like the prediction slip of a fortune cookie. As days passed their pearly bellies grew olive coats of algae, the same fur which covers the all the rocks in the pool, I notice later. Then, after ten days to a fortnight, they were no longer there. I guessed that they resurrected into the currents of the branch and were swept downstream. I once was a juror on a murder by water trial. An expert witness had said that after ten days to a fortnight in the water, bodies rise to the surface.

    1. Thanks for that comment and link, Bill. It certainly does sound dire. Forget “canary in a coal mine”; “amphibian anywhere in the world” is, sadly, a more sensitive indicator of environmental health and safety.

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