A few years ago, as an exercise to test how my studies in the Spanish language were going, I translated the 52nd sonnet from Nobel Prize winner Pablo Neruda’s book 100 Sonnets of Love. One of his most popular works in Chile, this book is a declaration of intense, profound, and exceedingly sensuous love to Neruda’s wife Matilde Urrutia.
When I’d finished the translation, I congratulated myself, grandly pleased by what I had done. But of course most of the reason that the translation had so much going for it was that the sonnet itself is a work of a truly exceptional talent.
I continued on and translated them all. In Spanish, each of these sonnets is an unruly flame. They move everywhere, in the way the emotions so often do in the moments leading to lovemaking. I kept this in mind in all my translations of the poems, and hope that my English at least approaches the intensity and excitement of Neruda’s Spanish.
I believe I did fairly well. After reading the manuscript, Isabel Allende wrote to me in a letter that “the more I read your translation, the more I am moved by it.”
This first entry in the series “Pablo Neruda’s 100 Sonnets of Love” contains Neruda’s preface to Matilde, and Sonnet #1. The others will follow, one by one, upon occasion.
To Matilde Urrutia
My much loved wife, I suffered so, writing these inappropriately named sonnets to you. They gave me such pain… cost me so much. But the happiness of offering them to you is more than anything that can be found in a fine meadow. When I decided to do them, I knew very well that down one side of every sonnet, by chosen affection and elegance, poets from every age have arranged rhymes that have had the sound of silver or crystal or the firing of a cannon. With great humility I made these sonnets out of wood, and gave them the sound of that opaque and pure substance. And just so should they come to your ears. Walking through forests and on beaches, past lost lakes and through ashen latitudes, you and I gathered up fragments of purest timber, of wood subject to all the vagaries of water and bad weather. And from such extraordinarily softened ruins I made this woodyard of love, and built up small houses, each with fourteen boards, all with the help of just an axe, a knife, and a penknife. All for those eyes I adore and of which I sing. So now, the reasons for my love established, I deliver to you these one hundred: sonnets of wood that rose up only because you gave them life.
Matilde, a plant's name, the name of a stone or wine,
or whatever is born of the earth and lasts,
word in whose growth dawn grows,
in whose summer months bursts the lemon's light.
In that name run the wooden ships
whelmed about by crowded marine azure fire,
in those letters the river water
flowing to the burnt ruin of my heart.
Oh, name discovered beneath the vines,
like the unknown tunnel's door
from which communes the world's sweet smell!
Oh, invade me with your smoldering mouth.
If you wish, search me with your nocturne eyes.
Just let me, slumbering, navigate your name.
Translation: Terence Clarke