The Ofi Press Magazine

International Poetry and Literature from Mexico City

Poetry Review

Canto General: Song of the Americas by Pablo Neruda, Translated by Mariela Griffor

Tupelo Press:

ISBN: 978-1-936797-69-1 Published September 1, 2016 512 pagesPaperback

Price: $39.99

Review by Don Cellini (USA)

Published in The Ofi Press issue 50


Pablo Neruda created his masterpiece Canto General from 1938 until 1950.  It is more than five hundred pages in length and consists of fifteen sections and more than 200 individual poems.  It is Neruda’s attempt to chronicle the history of the Americas.  Perhaps the real surprise is that he has managed to squeeze it into only five hundred pages.  Some of the sections, Alturas de Macchu Picchu / The Heights of Macchu Picchu, for example have been widely translated into English.  Mariela Griffor’s translation, however, is only the second English translation of the entire Canto General.  (The first was in 1993 by Jack Schmitt.)  Given the prestige of the work and its sheer length, it’s no surprise that more translators have not taken on the task.  For this alone, Griffor is to be applauded.  It should also be noted here that this edition of the Canto appears only in English not in a bilingual edition and it’s easy to understand why since a Spanish-English version would have clocked in at over 1,000 pages. 

In a lengthy introduction, the translator explains her personal connection to the work.  She was born and raised in Chile and memorized and recited passages as a young woman.  Later, as an adult settled in the US, she returned to the work and found it even more meaningful than originally.  And so she set out to create a new translation for the 21st century.  This same introduction also includes a discussion of her approach to translation that she describes as “transcreation.”  She writes: “The translator’s task is to recreate an essentially symphonic structure and experience, preserving its particular and discernible characteristics” (xxix). Further, she describes the task of the transcreator as one of creating

an alternative to one-to-one lexical rendition that can be used for developing closer relationships between concepts and sensations embodied in words, phrases, and extended syntactical utterances from different languages.  Without a doubt, “logical” and “rational” approaches to translation continue to serve as aids and instruments, but transcreation also makes use of informal tools such as intuition along with perceptions of musical intonation, rhythm, and regional “accent” to discern personal and emotional experience (xxix).

As can already be seen, the introduction alone offers interesting reading.  But in the text itself, the translator also makes Neruda’s verses sing for the reader. Consider these few liens from the opening section “A Lamp on the Earth.”  In this opening, Neruda talks of plants and animals unique to the Americas, of its rivers and streams, mountains and even minerals. 

You were pure idea of stone,

rose educated by salt,

buried malignant tear,

sire of sleeping arteries,

belladonna, black serpent. (17)

Or consider the beauty of the single line in the same opening section: “All is silence made of water and wind” (21).  Though beautiful in Neruda’s Todo es silencio de agua y viento, the alliteration in English makes it even more wonderful.

In Book Five, “The Sand Betrayed” the translator offers us these stunning lines:

Everything sleeps with flowers

of rusted gold in the cornices.

the angels sleep suspended

on their sacramental perches,

everything sleeps like a  priest’s

vestments, everything suffers

beneath the membranous night. (192)

Griffor serves up her reader dozens and dozens of such gorgeous lines, stanzas, and poems “transcreated” from Neruda and her work is truly worth serious attention from the reader.

When considering such a huge task as the translation of Canto General, it’s not surprising to find some rough spots, spots that even a careful editor might have missed and these are numerous enough to cause the reader to pause and re-read.  They begin in the English introduction.  “In 1971, Neruda was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971” (xxii).   In the same paragraph a preposition is obviously missing from a sentence.  While I have certainly made such mistakes while editing in word-processing, they are unexpected in such a prestigious effort as Neruda’s Canto.

Such errors also occur in the translation itself.  In the book “The Liberators” we find: “To late, he hears hear scattered gunfire…” (149).  I can find nothing in the original to suggest the need for the repetition: “Es tarde ya, escucha disparosaislados”  Occasionally a questionable preposition appears.  For example, in Spanish the word en can be translated as “in” or “on” in English.  But in a line such as “And still in the prairies…” (7), clearly “on” is the preferred choice. 

The opening line of the book on Macchu Picchu begins: “From air to air, like a hollow net, /I was moving between streets and the air above…” (24).  Neruda’s original “Del aire al aire, como una red vacía, / iba yo entre las calles y la atmósfera, llegando y despidiendo…”uses the word “vacía” which generally means empty.  I can imagine an empty net but not a hollow net.  Finally, word order in the English translations sometimes seems to follow the original Spanish too closely.  “The people/let fly rocks in reply…” would read more smoothly as “let rocks fly.”

While not without difficulties, this new translation for the 21st century is a welcomed addition to the English library of translations of Neruda who has also been called the greatest poet of the 20th century in any language.