Translating Neruda (Agua Sexual)

I share my hometown (Temuco, Chile) with beloved Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda. Although Neruda died in 1973, when I was just a wee girl, still, I like to think that Neruda and I drank of the same water, breathed the same air. In my dreams we walk down Temuco streets together: I am 8 and he is old and always we are walking. He has the kindest, sparkliest eyes, and we play a game which only allows us to speak in metaphor.

Of late, I have been spending more and more time reading and wanting to translate his poems into English, which is now my main language. There are wonderful translations out there (Stephen Mitchell is a favorite), but invariably I find myself quibbling over some turn of phrase that’s not quite right, or some nuance that surely it helps to have come up in Chile to catch.

But mostly I like translating Neruda because it allows me to sink into his world and his words, and, what a world that is!

How do I pick which, among hundreds upon hundreds of fantastic poems, to translate? Hmm… It seems to come to this: The poem either, 1) lifts me off my feet and twirls me about, 2) chokes me up, or 3) makes me so horny I could fuck a tree. (And, by the way, “Agua Sexual” did all three.)

Sexual Water (Pablo Neruda)

Rolling in plump raindrops, alone,
in raindrops like teeth,
in thick raindrops of marmalade and blood,
rolling in fat raindrops
the water falls,
like a sword of drops,
like a tearing river of glass,
it falls biting,
knocking on the axis of symmetry, hitting on the seams of the soul,
breaking abandoned things, drenching what is dark.

It is only a whispered breath, moister than a cry,
liquid, sweat, some nameless oil,
a sharp movement,
forming itself, thickening,
the water falls
in slow big drops,
toward its sea, toward its dry ocean,
toward its waterless wave.

I see the vast summer, and a rasping breath as it leaves the barn,
warehouses, cicadas,
settlements, incentives,
bedrooms, girls
sleeping with hands on heart,
dreaming of bandits, of fires,
I see ships,
I see trees of marrow
bristling like enraged cats,
I see blood, daggers and women’s stockings,
and man’s hair,
I see beds, I see corridors where a virgin screams,
I see blankets and organs and hotels.

I see stealthy dreams,
I admit passage to the final days,
and also their origins, and also memories
like an eyelid forced open with dread
I am looking.

And then, this sound:
a red noise of bones,
a slapping of meat,
and yellow legs coming together like pegs.
I hear, between the firing of kisses,
I listen, tossed between breaths and sobs.

I am watching, listening,
with half my soul at sea and half my soul on land,
with both halves of my soul I look at the world.

And although I close my eyes and cover my heart entirely,
I watch deaf water fall,
in big, deaf raindrops.
It’s like a gelatinous hurricane,
like a waterfall of sperm and jellyfish.
I see a turbid rainbow run.
I see its waters flow across the bones.

Listen to me read Neruda’s “Agua Sexual” in Spanish:

Read Neruda’s original “Agua Sexual” here, in Spanish.

Translation copyright © 2013, Elisabeth Withaness. Don’t steal! But DO feel free to share, with attribution and link.

About elisabethwithaness

Writing out loud at Apropos of Nothing
This entry was posted in Poetry, Things that make me bow and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Translating Neruda (Agua Sexual)

  1. eizmarcos says:

    Great poema, great translation. If you haven’t read it, check out John Felstiner’s “Translating Neruda: The Way to Macchu Picchu”, in which he talks about translating Agua Sexual.

    editor of “The Essential Neruda: Selected Poems”

  2. Mark, mil gracias! I did a happy dance when I read your comment. I have not read John Felstiner’s piece, but look forward to it. I have been enjoying perusing your website and look forward to reading your collection of Neruda. Thank you for stopping by.

    • eizmarcos says:

      Thanks Elisabeth! You’ll also see in The Essential Neruda a translation of Poem 15 by US Poet Laureate emeritus Robert Hass where he actually keeps the rhyme scheme and the alexandrine form of Neruda’s original, though taking a little literary license as is necessary. I think you’ll enjoy looking at as you’ve translated it. I’ve read some of your blog and really appreciate it,


  3. Kris Mole says:

    Thank you for this. I’ve just started using Neruda poems to help me with my Spanish. Reading this post has made me more determined to master it. Beautiful. Peace.

  4. Pat says:

    Love your blog and your love of Neruda. I’m a student in Texas and just learned about Neruda for the first time. I love your visceral reaction to his poetry. Thank you!

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