The 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.
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.
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.
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.