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Poet of the Week: William Carlos Williams the Translator

Due to popular demand, and as a concession to common sense, we’ve decided to put poems here on our website — one poet per week. 

As we are wont to do, we begin the Poet of the Week series with a post that bends the rules a bit. Rather than showcasing poetry by the inimitable (and, some would argue, quintessentially American) poet William Carlos Williams, we’re going to share some of his translations of poetry from the Spanish. Williams grew up in a Spanish-speaking household (his mother was Puerto Rican) and considered himself half-Spanish. Beginning in the second decade of the 20th century, he began translating poetry from Spain and Latin America, and saw these translations as a way of presenting unknown Spanish poets to an American audience (sound familiar?). He also believed that they helped extend the range of American poetry, a mission that was ever-present in his own poetry.

Below are four translations from By Word of Mouth: Poems from the Spanish, 1916-1959. The collection was compiled and edited by Jonathan Cohen, who had this to say about the book and the poems here:

It expands his established canon in a really big way, adding previously unknown work and also work that hasn’t yet been properly recognized as his. More than that, in bringing these translations together, it shows in full force his many Hispanic personae, which collectively span his entire poetic life. These translations are dramatic masks that he wore in the performance of poetry, to render Spanish-speaking voices in his beloved American idiom, with the stamp of his own personality. Here are four of them just right for this time of the year in New York, where from New Directions’s office you can see out across the Hudson River to the rooftops of Rutherford, New Jersey, where Williams lived and composed them.

"Cancion"
by Lupercio de Argensola

The tired workman
Takes his ease
When his stiff beard’s all frosted over
Thinking of blazing
August’s corn
And the brimming wine-cribs of October.

 

"Ode to My Socks"
by Pablo Neruda

Maru Mori brought me
a pair
of socks
that she knitted with her own hands
of a shepherdess,
two soft socks
you’d say they were rabbits.
In them
I stuck my feet
as in
two
jewel cases
woven
with threads of
twilight
and lamb skins.

Violent socks,
my feet were
two fish
made of wool,
two long sharks
of ultramarine blue
shot
with a tress of gold
two gigantic blackbirds,
two cannons:
my feet
were honored
in this manner
by
these
celestial
socks.
They were
so beautiful
that for the first time
my feet seemed to me
unacceptable
like two decrepit
firemen, firemen
unworthy
of that embroidered
fire,
those luminous
socks.

Nevertheless
I resisted
the acute temptation
to keep them
as schoolboys
keep
fireflies,
or the erudite
collect
sacred documents,
I resisted
the furious impulse
to put them
in a cage
of gold
and to feed them
every day
bird seed
and the pulp of rosey
melon.
Like discoverers
who in the forest
yield the very rare
green deer
to the spit
and with regret
eat it,
I stretched out
my feet
and pulled over them
the
beautiful 
socks
and
then my shoes.

And this is
the moral of my ode:
twice beautiful
is beauty
and what is good is twice
good
when it is two socks
made of wool
in winter.

 

"Naked"
by Álvaro Figuerdo

The azure yielder
of the skylark’s way or the foam
ceaselessly re-created
made into ultimate marble
there where the mediterranean
navel imposes
its majesty and casts
precious strokes of gold upon cheeks
advanced by Sirius between
two breasts that give
hard commands to the wind
asleep in the blue shepherding
slowness between her thighs
now that I part them a siesta to see her
strictly disciplined horizontals
crowds forges vineyard country
instant shadows glaciers
blueblue cocks
of weather vanes when
their noble bellies isolate
the flow of the ocean as
the young huntress sleeps
and a birch tree quickens upon her knees.

 

"Conversation with My Father"
by Eugenio Florit

Clearly you already know it
you already know it all
know it all clearly.
Because of this you know too
how I wish to tell it,
for while I speak I am recalling
as I sit here beside you:
I writing
and you silent beside me.

…Well, since you left
many things have happened…
Men have died and been born,
grown ill and recovered,
felt well, taken their
sup of soup, piece of fish,
got up, gone into the sun
like cats to the window.
Others do not get up
but remain stretched out
and die.
Die like you,
and others, men and women,
and all that you love
and all those who follow you.
Although many still live.
They keep living, despite weeping and mourning.
And one day they want to go
for a walk, to go to the movies,
to play the piano much as you do.
Not that in this way I bury you deeper;
but that, more living, they remember you more.
Because they live with you, with what you enjoyed
in your books. (Though I still
have in its grey covers, Peñas arriba,
which you left open
that day…)
And we all continue living
and you see, remembering you daily.
And we say: he liked this dessert,
and used to walk here, always in a hurry,
and once shaved off his moustache
and at once let it grow again.
…………………………….


More than once I thought
how much you enjoyed
walking in these parts, to go to the museum
and there tell me about Las Meninas
and then gazing side by side at La Duquesa de Alba,
that Doña Cayetana de Silva
that your brother Pepe once brought
from the other side.
Yes, it would be fine
to wander again through so many rooms—except
the little French things of the 18th century, so silly,
and the English women with their buttery flesh.
And then go into the park
and sit down to talk at our ease
observing how at sunset the air
moves rippling the lighted waters of the pool.

You already know how the war came about
and how in it people died;
and how the war ended
and how the people’s mania followed it
bent on destruction, killing
as if all the maceration of the flesh were not enough.
And we learn nothing.
And it is sad to think that all this agony
could simply disappear
if man could learn to wipe the grin from his face,
and to say one good word, truly,
and wish, in fact, to make life noble.
But he does not want it, as you see.
What he wants is to follow
this overwhelming dance of death
which is not your death nor mine
—that is to say, death as it may happen
about the house, one that is met in slippers
or at most in the open country
or in clear water,
without the other, heaped up mountainous
in stinking fields and foul waters,
death which drops from the air
and comes from hiding
to crush bodies as if they were nuts
reap them as if they were heads of wheat.

Then there are other things:
the case of the atomic bomb,
to me, among ourselves, leaves me neither hot nor cold
—to the day it leaves me in eternity cold.
And that which would be the last of my worries.
That which worries me most is to be blinded or maimed
unable to see a day full of sunlight
nor hold a rose in my fingers
for the eyes have fallen into a pit of darkness
the fingers remain dried up like burlap.
I say, that if we are to see, it means nothing to me.
But the inquisition of having to be seated
in those metal chairs or made of I don’t know what,
with glass mirrors where you may not sit
which are not on the walls and the window,
but mirrors where plates and cups are set
and glassware on the tables instead of wood,
so that you have to keep looking at the skirts of the ladies,
that yes, is more inquisition than the bomb.
When you left, all of this had hardly begun,
but now…
I tell you I yearn to go into an old curtained house
with rugs on the floors
(but real ones, not those made of wood-fiber and synthetic silk)
and wide comfortable chairs
(so as not to be seated as if out of courtesy
on hollow metal stuck into our hams)
and lamps like those which thank God
I have at home
(and like those others
found in funeral parlors
or hotel lobbies, lamps, yes, which give light
but cast no shadow).
And the worst is that is pleases people to have it
this way, and there are those
who tear up a whole marble fireplace in their homes
to replace it with an idiotic artifact
embodying a thermostat and air control and
I don’t know what else,
but which, since there is no visible flame,
gives off heat without light
and since there is no light there are no shadows
shadows for the half closing of the eyes
to quit reading and turning the page,
to quit reading with half vision
shadows to redirect the wavering eyes
and refocus them on the word
which awaits us at the end of the strophe.
(With all this, father,
you will say that I am growing old;
and you’ll be right.
At my years I prefer
to go home and hang up my overcoat and hat,
and to take a cup of tea with lemon in it
or chocolate beside the window.
Since thank God I am not cold,
I tranquilly allow the cat
to do whatever he pleases.
And if the question of a cat hot or cold
is beside the point,
the question for us, you and me, and whoever else
is to pass the time reading.)

Let us turn to other things,
in my opinion, you are well off up there.
Did you finally go to your own Castilian land
as I thought you would?
You must have enjoyed meeting
so many friends
and stopped to talk with  them
on some Cuban threshing floor at midday.
(There will be those who will think this an error
for they do not know of the little town that you loved;
where, as soon as I can, will go to ashes.)
But to change the subject,
you would be amused
to see how your son
the poet has turned painter
—of course only to put down mere nonsense.
Because, as you well know
—now I recall those little green mountains
and those blue skies that you painted in tempera
for the Nativity scenes you made for us at Port-Bou—
I say, as you know,
it is something very amusing
to daub a canvas with paint
without knowing whether it is going to be flowers or a gorilla.
With me it is mostly monsters
but I hope some day…

And with this hope I leave you for the time being.
It is late. You know I never leave you;
that to stop talking is not to quit you,
I take myself off, but still listening,
I am with you when I leave you…
I mean…that I do not go, leaving;
but let me finish this letter
though I am seated beside you forever.
For when I stop talking to you, I continue to talk.
Well, I am making a botch of it, but you understand.