Nitpicking at Langston

So, I keep vaguely talking about Hughes’ editorial choices – what, of Mistral, he chose to translate and present to a U.S. English-speaking audience. Selecting poems to represent a poet’s work is a hard job! I respect what he did, and yet have many critiques of it. And how it was read – as critics and other poets and editors praised him for capturing the essence of Mistral’s womanliness. Leaving aside the problem of Mistral’s mystical womanliness – for someone so complexly genderfucked – I want to look at some of Hughes’ choices as a translator. Specifically, I want to nitpick a translation and in fact, I would go so far as to call it a complete misreading. A gendered misreading. (I have more to say about Mistral and race, and Hughes’ biography, and how here, Hughes wanted to see and believe in that nurturing mixed-race populist world-mother that in fact, Mistral represented herself as, and bought into. But this poem in particular struck me as Hughes’ mistaking of Mistral’s coolness and her radical position as a woman writing women.

Here is the poem in Spanish:


Esta era una rosa
que abaja el rociò:
este era mi pecho
con el hijo mío.

Junta sus hojitas
para sostenerlo
y esquiva los vientos
por no desprenderlo.

Porque él ha bajado
desde el cielo inmenso
será que ella tiene
su aliento suspenso.

De dicha se queda
callada, callada:
no hay rosa entre rosas
tan maravillada.

Esta era una rosa
que abaja el rocío:
este era mi pecho
con el hijo mío.

What is this poem *about*? Dew… But Hughes makes it about a son. He sees a Virgin Mary worshipping her son. Sentimentally and rather tritely. In my opinion, he misses something crucial in the poem’s voice and italics; it is written in two different voices! The mother (older) contemplating her own breasts and what they have done – in the bracketing stanzas in italics. And the middle 3 stanzas where her marvel at the act of nursing is described.

Here is Hughes’ translation:


This was a rose
kissed by the dew:
This was the breast
my son knew.

Little leaves meet,
soft not to harm him,
and the wind makes a detour
not to alarm him.

he came down one night
from the great sky;
for him she holds her breath
so he won’t cry.

Happily quiet,
not a sound ever;
rose among roses
more marvellous never.

This was a rose
kissed by the dew;
this was my breast
my son knew.

To nitpick further. The winds are not making a detour; if they were, they’d be “esquivan” not “esquiva”. So the winds are not the subject. I’m just saying. Rather: the rose and her petals avoid the wind, to protect *the dew*.

Here is my translation:


This was a rose
covered in dew
This was my breast
and my nursing baby.

She pulls in her petals
to hold the dewdrops,
and shies away from the wind
lest they loosen and fall.

Since the dew has descended
from infinite heaven,
she’ll have to
hold her breath.

At her great luck, she remains
hushed, hushed:
out of all roses, this rose
is so amazing.

This was a rose
covered in dew
this was my breast
and my nursing baby.

(disclaimer… I could improve on this if I fiddled with it for a while longer. That’s actually a first pass effort.)

Yes, she is marvelling at her baby. But first of all she is marvelling at her breastmilk! That’s the point! She’s stunned, quiet, amazed, holding her breath at the amazingness of the milk – not only at the fact of the baby itself! It’s way more like Inanna applauding her wondrous vulva than it is like a Hallmark card about a mom cooing over her babe that came down from heaven.

Yes, I do think I can grok a poem about breastfeeding better than some dude, no matter how cool he is. (And he is cool – I totally love him. But I do not really love his translations of Mistral! Oh, Langston! )

Just a little translatory rant to liven things up. I could pick apart quite a lot of that little Hughes book, in totally insane detail.

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4 thoughts on “Nitpicking at Langston

  1. OK my spanish is bad – and I like yours better. It feels like you’ve both taken liberties – Langston because as awesome as he was, he didn’t get femaleness quite right and you because you feel it too much.

    Isn’t “el hijo mío” my son and not my baby? It’s very clearly a male child. Ack I’m late for a meeting – this is interesting, even with my bad spanish.

  2. Well… and if it were meant to be “child” not male or female what would one say then? I think my gender-neutral interpretation is valid!

  3. The word for infant or baby? Granted, the rhythm and flow wouldn’t be right but… I don’t know. I thought about this quite a bit while driving around town yesterday.

    This is a really good example of a poem I could have my 16 year old play with, even with her also limited Spanish (she is a Hughes fan too).

    Thanks Liz. Still thinking and still wishing there were more hours in the day.

  4. If anyone’s looking.. you’re going to *love* this. Nedra Bickham kindly gave me this incredibly amazingly hilariously bad translation by someone whose last name is Cristopher:

    This was a rose, a rose
    Ripe with dew, the wet, soft, kiss of the morn,
    This was my breast, my breast
    With my child, my gift, my son newly born;

    She foldes up all of her petals,
    Draws it near, so safely held tight,
    Turns away from the wind,
    Lest something so dear be allowed
    To slip from her might;

    For ’twas granted to her from above,
    From the infinite, holy domain;
    The task is now hers, to her does it fall,
    From breathing must she now refrain.

    Her good fortune requires this of her,
    remain still, as still as can be,
    Among all the roses, there are certainly non
    So completely fulfilled as is she.

    I love Hughes’ translation again with mad passion when I compare it to this… Bad translations really are good for something.

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