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An Exchange about Pablo Neruda

In my translation of Pablo Neruda’s Love Sonnet 36, there is a line that goes like this: “Corazón mío, reina del apio y de la artesa”. I translated the Spanish word “la artesa” as “the water trough”, so that my line in English went as follows: “Heart of mine, queen of celery and the water trough”. I received an Email from David Bro, from San Clemente, California, wondering about the accuracy of my “water trough” idea, and we had the following exchange. It features one of my favorite reasons for translating from one language to another: trying to determine the degree of precision that is possible – or maybe impossible – in any translation.

I have, by the way, changed the English of my translation. If you look at Love Sonnet 36 here on Red Room, you’ll see what I did. I’m still not entirely happy with the choice I made, and would like to get advice from anyone who can help.

What is “una artesa”, anyway?



Mr. Clarke,

In the Love Sonnet 36, I am curious about why you translated "la artesa" as "water trough" and not "wash board". The word “artesa” refers to the whole "unit" of wash bin and board, it's true, but it also could be a "water trough" in the common sense; not very descriptive when you look at the topic. To me the use of “trough” refers more to something for animals.

I glanced through briefly and I would be very interested in seeing your comments on Neruda's poetry; couldn't find it and so I am wondering if there is such an animal?

David Bro
San Clemente, California

Hello Mr. Bro:

Thank you for the E, and the very interesting question. I went into my dictionaries just now to check the word "artesa", and in most instances found only the word "trough". I expect that that was what I was going on when I translated the word in Neruda's poem as "water trough." But I also found, in one dictionary, a definition of "artesa" as a board or bowl for kneading, as in bread dough or some such. I also recall seeing in rural areas in various South American countries women kneading dough in a trough- like bowl with an elliptical shape. It looks like a tiny canoe or something. I think it's something like this that Neruda has in mind. The other details he mentions in that stanza in Sonnet 36 have to do with household things: wine, oil, onion, thread, etc. So I think that this bread trough or bowl is actually what he's describing, rather than the water trough that I was thinking about.

To my knowledge a "washboard" is a "tabla de lavar", so I'm not sure I'd agree with your suggestion for the word. But I do thank you for pointing out that my original choice, "water trough", doesn't really fit the bill. Now my task is to figure out what word to actually use for "artesa".

Thanks a lot. I enjoy these kinds of conversations.

Incidentally, I haven't written a great deal about Neruda's poetry per.se. But if you click on http://www.redroom.com/blog/terence-clarke?page=2 , you'll get to my blog page and an entry entitled "Pablo Neruda's One Hundred Sonnets of Love: A Translation" dated February 27, 2008. You'll find there a brief description of why I undertook the translation of these marvelous poems. Hope it makes sense.

Terry Clarke


Hey There and thanks for responding so soon,

First I wanted to say that your translation of Neruda is very good from what I have seen so far and close to being very true to what I believe would be what he would have written in English. After all, I think that should be at the core of any translation. I am always skeptical when I see a new translation of any Latin American writer, and so it is with you.

It may be odd to say, but I have learned to qualify in some way what I am to read in a translation so that I am not utterly destroyed by an off-balance gaffe or by words that come nowhere near to what the writer meant. Literature can have some leeway, but poetry, especially Neruda, can have hardly any.

I can't say for sure with other writers from Latin America in everything I read, but as I have experience in Chile, it is always emotional and deep and pinpoint specific to what a text means and what it doesn't. Your translation looks really good in this regard. I can't read Neruda in English too much at one time, but I will read yours.

I read through your blog a little to see your background and came across a commentary about Tango Argentino and where you quote "Max" as saying you can't speak Spanish until you know how to dance the tango....well, not something I agree with totally, as I am connected with the other side of the Cordillera, but I could definitely see that you could not speak Argentine Castilian completely without knowing tango...

In the same sense I would challenge you (meant in the encouraging, kind way) to really see what Neruda talks about by...leaving from Santiago on a June evening on the sleeper train to Temuco in the south where Neruda was born...arriving at 4:30 in the morning in Temuco it will still be June but its... 1950...stand there to the side and feel the immeasurable cold from the river and the flat mist that settles over the city...step off to the side and watch as the city wakes up and goes to work and gets on with its day...find a workers’ cafe and take your coffee and bread, listen as the poor coins scramble and find their way into the till, the door sings itself open, the room breathes the cold in deeply, scruffy shoes move outside and go to work. The smell of wet clothes and sad faces take away your own hunger. I'm not a Communist, but Neruda makes me want to be one...and that’s just a start. Try that and you won't wonder about words like “artesa” any more. You'll have to wait for the train to start up again though. A couple of years ago a co-ed, on vacation during Holy Week, fell in between the cars on her way from one to the other. She was held up by the couplers and cables, but the tracks ground her legs off and she bled to death, held there suspended. The tracks were too loose and they jammed, thus causing her to lose her footing; they shut the route but have no money to repair the tracks and will not run the risk that it will happen again, but then maybe soon....you see in Chile, it’s always something, if you read closely and know where to look. Neruda captures it...

I am looking forward to reading the rest of your translations.

David Bro


Hello David:

Many thanks. I really enjoyed your description of the sleeper train. And thanks for the observations about translation. It's a tough thing to do, translating someone like Neruda, because you really want to honor the precision and fire that he has in his originals. If I couldn't do that, I'd be doing him a disservice.

Would you mind if I consolidated our correspondence about "artesa" and posted it as a blog entry? Other readers might find it interesting. I'll do it only if you say it's OK.




Yes, go ahead and put in what you think... thanks for asking about it first.

I was just thinking that in Chilean Castellano, "artesa" has another meaning. It has a colloquial use that is at least 25 years old and may have been used when Neruda was still alive but I would not be sure about that. Neruda did not come anywhere close to using its meaning in "36" but its interesting just the same.

Chileans are extremely fond of using nicknames and they're usually very accurately based on some aspect of the person. La Chascona comes to mind immediately and I'm sure you recognize it. (Note: “una chascona” is a disheveled woman, and Neruda occasionally refers to Matilde in his poems, very affectionately, as such. Terry) Individuals usually get a sharper more well placed nickname than “chascona”. From the same tribe as “chascona” comes "artesa".

“Una artesa” is a girl from 14 to maybe 25 and is a combination of several qualities that North Americans would recognize as equal parts of the following:
Art Student
Garage band muse
Gentle activist/protestor...a kind idealist
street seller of handicraft-jewelry
savior of lost and abandoned small animals
temptress to older men of staid society

Anyway....look forward to your blog entry.


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I suspect..

From the tenor of the poem, it's code for "Queen of the Kitchen."



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Happy mis-translations

I find it fascinating that even some gross mistranslations can render some wonderful, unexpected new twists. This seems to happen frequently in the translation of Chinese poetry, where, for some mysterious reason, the poem still "works," despite departing widely from the author's original intent.

But, perhaps, it's not so mysterious at all. Almost every known language uses the same word for Right....meaning the direction opposite of left....and Right, meaning correct, good, fitting, etc. "Sus Derechas....la derecha....etc.

On the other hand, there are certain meanings which just CANNOT be translated from or to other languages, no matter how consciencious the translator. For example, Chinese has no tense or conjugation....trying to translate complex conjugations, which are so natural in Spanish and other Latin languages would be totally meaningless. Time, of course, is also so essential to Spanish poetry.

You have a tough job! But you will be rewarded!