In Translation

A page where I put up occasional translations from Spanish. These are mainly to force me to do some different homework for my Spanish teacher from time to time, but I hope they give you some enjoyment.

Comments on any technical or other errors welcome – my wonderful  teacher, Ana, has given me lots of help, but the mistakes are all my own. Be gentle with me though – remember I’m a writer first and a linguist a long way second, so it may be deliberately less than literal!

First up, Cortazar’s classic short story Axolotl, which I’ve translated from the Southern Cross Review version (but without cheating by looking at the English version first, honest!)

And below, my translation of Mar Adentro, by Ramón Sampedro.

And below that, two more poems: two by Mario Benedetti (one with two alternative versions) and one by Lorca.

I’ll stick up one or two articles over the next couple of months in Spanish, either my own, or translated from one of the English-speaking newspapers.

1. Axolotl

There was a time when I thought a lot about axolotls. I used to go to see them in the aquarium at the Jardin des Plantes, and stay watching them for hours, watching their immobility, and their uncertain movements. Now I am one.

Fate brought me to them, one Spring morning when Paris showed its peacock’s tail after a long, slow, winter. I went down Boulevard Port-Royal, took St Marcel and L’Hopital, saw the greens amongst all the grey, and remembered the lions. I was friend to the lions and panthers, but had never gone into the dark and dank aquarium building. I left my bicycle against the railings and went first to look at the tulips.

The lions were sad, and grumpy, and the panther was sleeping. I opted for the aquaria, glanced at the common fish, before arriving unexpectedly at the axolotls. I stayed an hour looking at them, and then left, incapable of doing anything else.

In the library at Sainte-Genevieve I consulted a dictionary, and learned that axolotls are the larval form, possessing gills, of a species of salamander of the genus Ambystoma. I already knew they were Mexican just by looking at them, by their little pink Aztec faces, and by the plaque above the aquarium.

I read that species had been found in Africa capable of living on land during periods of drought, continuing their amphibious life when the rainy season came. I found their Spanish name, ajolote, that they were edible, and that their oil was previously used like cod liver oil, although not any more.

I didn’t want to consult the specialist works, but I went back to the Jardin des Plantes the next day. I began to go every morning, sometimes morning and afternoon. The aquarium keeper would smile, perplexed, as he took my ticket. I would lean against the iron rail that bordered the aquaria, and set myself to watching them.

There was nothing strange in this, because from the first moment, I had understood that something, infinitely distant and lost, still continued to draw us together. It had been enough to keep me there in front of the glass that first morning when some bubbles appeared. The axolotls foregathered on the mean and narrow (I, alone, know how narrow and mean) floor of moss and stone in the aquarium.

There were nine specimens, and most of them put their head to the glass, watching anyone who came close with golden eyes. Disturbed, embarrassed almost, it felt like a shameless thing to appear before these silent, immobile figures collected together at the foot of the tank.

I mentally singled out one on the right, a little apart from the others, for greater study. I saw a small pink body, almost translucent (I was reminded of the small Chinese figurines made of milky glass) similar to a small lizard of 15 cm, ending with a fish-like tail of extraordinary delicacy, the most sensitive part of our body. Along its back ran a transparent fin, which fused with the tail, but what obsessed me most were the feet, of the most subtle quality, finishing with minute toes, and nails which were human in every detail.

And then I discovered its eyes, its face. An inexpressive face, featureless, other than those eyes, like pinheads of transparent gold, devoid of all life, letting my gaze penetrate through a golden point to lose myself in a crystal-clear, yet mysterious, interior.

A very thin bright black line surrounded the eye and etched itself on the pink flesh, on the pink stone of the vaguely triangular head with curved, irregular sides, which gave the likeness of a statuette, weathered by time.

The mouth was hidden by the triangular shape of the face: its size was only evident in profile; from the front, it was just a crack in lifeless stone. On both sides of the head, where the ears should have been, three little pink branches like coral grew, a vegetable-like outgrowth; the gills, I supposed. The one sign of life was that every ten or fifteen seconds, the branches went rigid, then lowered again.

At times, a foot would move minutely, and I would see the tiny toes softly placing themselves on the moss. The thing is, we don’t like to move much, and the aquarium is so tight; we can scarcely budge without touching the head or tail of one of the others: difficulties arise, quarrels, fatigue sets in. Time weighs on us less if we stay still.

It was the axolotls’ stillness that fascinated me first. Somehow I seemed to understand their secret desire, to make time and space disappear with a diffident stillness. After I knew them better, their gills’ contractions, the delicate probing of their feet on the stone, their sudden, unexpected swimming (some of them swam with a simple undulation of their body) satisfied me that they were capable of escaping the stony somnolence with which they passed whole hours.

Above all else, their eyes obsessed me. Beside them, in the other aquaria, various fish showed me their simple stupidity with their beautiful, human-like eys. The axolotls’ eyes told me of the presence of a different life, of a different way of watching. Sticking my face to the glass (sometimes the keeper would cough, anxiously) I sought out the tiny golden points, entry points to the infinitely slow and remote world of the pink creatures. It was a waste of time to tap a finger on the glass in their faces: I never saw the slightest reaction. The golden eyes went on blazing with their sweet, terrible light; gazing out of an unknowable depth which made me dizzy.

And yet, they were also close to me. I knew it before this moment, before being an axolotl. I knew it the day I came up to them for the first time. The anthropomorphic features of a monkey show, contrary to what the majority of people think, the distance between them and us. The absolute lack of similarity between axolotls and humans proved to me that my understanding wasn’t based on simple analogies. Only the little hands … but a wall lizard has hands like that as well, and doesn’t resemble us in any way.

I think that it was the axolotl’s head, the triangular pink shape with little golden eyes. It watched, and it knew. It laid claim. They weren’t just animals.

It seemed easy, almost the obvious thing, to fall into myth-making about them. I began seeing in the axolotls a metamorphosis which was not cancelling out their mysterious humanity. I imagined them to be conscious, trapped in their body, condemned forever to an endless silence, a hopeless reflection. Their gaze blinded, the tiny golden disc inexpressive and yet dreadfully lucid, piercing me with a message: “Save us, save us.”

I found myself muttering consoling words, transmitting futile hopes. They would go on gazing at me, perfectly still: the little pink branch-gills would suddenly stiffen. At that moment I felt something like a dull pain; each time they saw me, they took my strength, to penetrate the impenetrable depths of their lives. They were not human souls, but I had never found such a deep connection with any other animal.

The axolotls were like witnesses to something, and at times like dreadful judges. I felt unworthy before them: there was such a terrifying purity in those transparent eyes. They were larvae, but larvae that were at the same time ghosts, and masques. Behind those Aztec faces, inexpressive and yet implacably cruel, what image waited for its time?

I feared them. I think, had I not felt the closeness of other visitors and of the keeper, I wouldn’t have dared stay alone with them. “You’re eating them up with your eyes,” the keeper said to me, laughing. He must have thought I was a little unbalanced. He didn’t understand that they were eating me, slowly, with their eyes, in a kind of golden cannibalism.

Far from the aquarium, I did nothing else but think of them; it was as if they controlled me at a distance. I began going all day every day, and at night I imagined them, unmoving in the dark, advancing one hand slowly until it suddenly encountered another’s. Perhaps they could see in the dead of night, so that the day went on for them without end. The axolotls’ eyes have no lids.

Now I knew, there was nothing strange in this, that this had to happen. Each morning, leaning towards the aquarium, the recognition was greater. They suffered. Every fibre of my body reached out to this stifling torment, this rigid torture at the bottom of the water. They were lying in wait for something, a remote ruined mansion, a time of liberty when axolotls ruled the world. It wasn’t possible that such a terrible expression which was beginning to conquer the strained inexpressiveness of their stony faces wouldn’t carry a message of pain, the proof of this eternal sentence, of this liquid hell they suffered.

Helplessly, I wanted to prove to myself that my own sensibility was projecting a non-existent consciousness on the axolotl. They, and I, knew. For that reason, there was nothing strange in what happened next. My faced was glued to the aquarium glass, my eyes trying, once more, to solve the mystery of those golden eyes with no irises or pupils. Close up, I saw an axolotl’s face, immobile, next to the glass.

Without a transition, without any suprise,

I saw my face against the glass;

I saw it outside the aquarium;

I saw it on the other side of the glass.

Then my face moved away, and I understood.

Only one thing was strange: to go on thinking as before, to know. I realised this in the first moment, like the horror of one who wakes, to his fate, buried alive. Beyond, my face came close to the glass again, I saw my mouth, lips pressed together with the strain of understanding the axolotl.

I was an axolotl, and I now knew that understanding was impossible. He was outside the aquarium, his thoughts were outside the aquarium. Knowing this, being him as well as him, I was an axolotl, and I was in my world. The horror came – I knew it in the same moment – to think I was a prisoner in an axolotl’s body, transmuted into it with my human consciousness buried alive in an axolotl, condemned to move, lucidly aware, among unaware creatures.

But such thoughts ended when a foot came to rub my face, and, moving slightly to one side, I saw an axolotl next to me, watching me, and I knew that he also knew, without any possibility of communicating, but clearly, all the same. Either I was also in it, or we were all thinking like a man, incapable of expression, limited to the golden brilliance of our eyes, that watched a man’s face, stuck to the aquarium.

He came back many times, but he comes less now. Weeks pass without him showing up. Yesterday, I saw him: he watched me for a long while, and then left briskly. It seemed to me he wasn’t so interested in us, that he came out of habit. As the one thing I can do is think, I could think of him a lot. It occurs to me that, at the beginning, we went on communicating, that he felt more than ever at one with the mystery that so obsessed him.

But the bridges are burned between he and I, because what was his obsession is now an axolotl, a stranger to his life as a man. I think that, at first, I was able to return in a certain way to being him – ah, only in a certain way – and keep alive his desire to know us better.

Now I am, definitively, an axolotl, and if I think like a man, it is only because every axolotl thinks like a man, inside their pink stone image. It seems to me that I managed to communicate something to him in those first days, when I was still him. And in this final solitude, in which he never returns, I console myself by thinking that, perhaps, he has gone to write about us, thinking of him imagining a story he has gone to write, all about the axolotl.

2. Mar Adentro (by Ramón Sampedro)

Out at sea,

the sea inside.

And in the weightless depths,

where dreams resolve,

two wills combine

with one wish.

A kiss sets life on fire,

Lightning, then thunder,

and in a metamorphosis,

my body no longer is my body,

like diving to the universe’s core.

A childish embrace,

the purest kiss,

till we see ourselves reduced

to a single desire.

We gaze at each other,

an echo repeating, with no words

‘further inside,’ ‘further inside,’

beyond everything

through our bones and our blood.

But always I wake,

wishing for a state of death

that would mean going on being

with your hair tangled in my mouth.


Mario Benedetti


3. Message in a Bottle (Botella al Mar)


I’m putting these six lines in my bottle,

with the secret design that, one day,

it washes up on a near-empty beach, and a child finds it,

opens it, and instead of lines pulls out

warnings and assistance,

and pebbles and snails.


4. The Eleventh Commandment (Once)


No holy man of the church

has known how to explain

why there is no

eleventh commandment:

that orders women

not to covet their neighbour’s husband.


5. Commandment XI (alternative version)


We feel that the priest

should explain, at the least,

why no eleventh commandment’s been passed.

Women can’t get to heaven,

says commandment eleven,

coveting neighbouring pieces of ass.


Federico Garcia Lorca


6. The Silence


Listen, my son, to the silence.

It’s a silence with undulations:

a silence, where valleys and echoes slide,

a silence that forces you, listening,

to bow your head to the ground.

7. Blink

…and by way of contrast, a translation of my short story, Blink, into Spanish. I’d really appreciate any feedback on this. Thanks to my Spanish teacher, Ana, for her help with this. Incidentally, you can listen to an English version of this.

No había nada de malo, pensaba sentándose en la cama. Pequeña, pero no puede esperar más en la media de la ciudad. Fue las paredes de su cráneo que eran la cárcel.

Arrojó su chaqueta y se aflojó la corbata, pateando sus zapatos en una esquina. Uno de ellos golpeó el zócalo y entonces se cayó, dejando una mancha sobre la pintura.

La habitación olía a fresco; el tráfico retumbaba a la distancia. Caminó de puntillas a lo largo del cuarto en sus calcetines, la cola de su camisa se balanceaba en su caminata.

Al este extremo, la cama. Al otro, un bloque negro, la televisión, sobre un estante.

Si usara servicio de habitación, no tendría que salir por días. Oculto, desconocido, bajo otro nombre. Cuando dijo que pagaría en efectivo, insistieron en que cobrarían las primeras tres noches por adelantado.

No habría un problema: ha agotado las cuentas. Ha perdido sus tarjetas de crédito, le dijó a la recepcionista. Fueron robadas, en realidad.

Le miró, juzgándole como adultero. Pensando de este ahora, él rió en alta. Si solamente ella supiera.

No quería encender la tele, aunque sabía que no estaría en los titulares. Una tragedia más en esta ciudad de sirenas chillidos. Nada nuevo.

Todo lo mismo, encontró el mando a distancia cómodo en su palma, el suave botón rojo bajo de su pulgar. Se instaló sobre sus codos, esperando la salva de sonidos, de colores.

Entonces se incorporó.

Al principio, pensó que la forma fue un tipo de icono, una imagen que usado el hotel cuando la encendió. Le tomó unos momentos resolverse en el dorso de la cabeza de un hombre.

El hombre se sentaba sobre el borde de una cama, en una habitación de hotel, mirando la televisión. Se podía ver uno de sus zapatos cerca del zócalo, donde una mancha parecía creciendo.

Escudriñó más allá de la cabeza del hombre en la pantalla de la tele. Allí, el mismo miraba una tele, con el dorso de la cabeza próxima apenas visible sobre la pantalla próxima en la distancia desapareciendo.

Entonces percibió sobre su cuello la respiración de viento de la pestaňa, y cometió el error de darse la vuelta.

8. Articulos en Espanol (1):

La posición extraña de Escocia

¿Que constitue un país, y como debe ser gobernado? Estas preguntas brillan al mismo de un cataclismo (según muchos comentarios) siguiendo el resulto del referéndum británico de 23 junio 2016.

Por un lado, la gente de Inglaterra y Gales votó cortar los vínculos con el resto de Europa. Al otro lado, Escocia e Irlanda del Norte quieren quedarse parte del  UE. Y, especialmente en el caso de los escoceses, esta diferencia produce mas preguntas que soluciones de momento. Aumentando a la instabilidad de la unión entre los países del reino unido, el gobierno británico conservativo anunció que su plan consiste de un ‘Brexit duro,’ en otras palabras quitar todos los beneficios y obligaciones del UE, sin acuerdos especiales sobre el movimiento libre de trabajadores entre reino unido y el resto de Europa.

Esta posición manda los gobiernos de Londres y Edimburgo hasta conflicto. Según Nicola Sturgeon, la primera ministra de la administración en Holyrood, seria posible negociar una posición diferente con Europea para los escoceses – una ‘Brexit suave,’ ya que el movimiento de trabajadores entre Escocia y Europea puede ser diferente que en el resto del reino unido. No es claro que piensa los lideres europeanos de esta sugerencia: pero, gracias al gobierno británico, no va a ser un punto para negociar cuando se invoque el Articulo 50.

Que hace un país? Claro que, en la mayoría de sentidos legales u administrativos, reino unido es un país único, con devolución de poderes hasta algunos de sus regiones (claro que son diferentes sabores de devolución en todo caso) pero con un gobierno nacional en Londres, una armada, una reina, un sistema económico.

Pero ahora no es tan sencillo contestar esta pregunta por cierto, al cabo y al fondo. Siguiendo el referéndum sobre independencia escocesa en 2014, Londres ha donado mas poderes a Edimburgo, incluso el de poner impuestos. No esta una solución que puede decir federalismo (la solución que, según algunos partidarios laboristas, es la dirección propia) pero, paso a paso, el gobierno escoces (u, utilizando sus palabras, la gente escocesa) agrega más poderes, más oportunidades de seguir una ruta diferente de sus vecinos ingleses.

Y ahora, los ingleses han decidido quitar el UE, al mismo tiempo que cada las 32 regiones de Escocia votaron quedarse.

Que va a pasar? La verdad es que nadie sabe: parece que el futuro para Escocia, los otros partes del reino unido, mismo el resto de Europa, queda totalmente oculto, bajo nubes oscuras de inseguridad, crisis económicas, y consecuencias políticas imprevistos.



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